For the first time this year, the 2-0 Denver Broncos will play at home in front of a rowdy and excited sold-out crowd against the New York Jets. The Broncos are coming off a two-week East Coast road stint in which they earned consecutive victories.
In Week 3, the Broncos will need to get after another rookie quarterback in Zach Wilson after getting the best of Jacksonville's Trevor Lawrence. Head coach Vic Fangio has an impressive 19-9 record as a defensive coordinator or head coach against rookie quarterbacks.
Fangio’s defense is seething after logging two interceptions last week from safety Kareem Jackson and rookie cornerback Patrick Surtain II.
In back-to-back weeks, the Broncos draw a first-year head coach/rookie QB duo in Robert Saleh and Wilson — the latter of whom threw four picks in the Jets' abysmal 25-6 loss to the New England Patriots. New York is reeling from back-to-back losses while Denver is red-hot, making for a favorable matchup for the Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High.
Then again, this is the NFL and there’s no such thing as an easy win.
It’s time to reveal the crucial keys to victory for the Broncos when the Jets roll in on Sunday.
Key 1. Introduce ‘Pookie’ to Broncos Country at Mile High
Broncos’ rookie RB Javonte Williams has quietly been building momentum since the dog days of training camp. So much so, that he split playing time and carries with starter Melvin Gordon III against the New York Giants and Jaguars.
Through two games, Williams has rushed for 109 yards on 27 attempts, logging six first downs and averaging 4.0 yards per carry. He's averaging approximately 55 yards rushing per game.
This week, Williams will play in front of a packed Mile High Stadium for the first time in the Broncos' home-opener. Jets' rookie RB Michael Carter shared a backfield with Williams at North Carolina and the two backs will reunite for the first time since their college days this Sunday. But unlike his speedy and elusive former teammate, the back nicknamed ‘Pookie’ prefers to run through defenders, not around them.
On one of his first carries against Jacksonville last week, Williams bounced an outside carry for approximately five yards before running over team captain and LB Myles Jack. Williams has largely transformed three-yard runs into five-to-six-yard gains, carrying many defenders on his back.
The 21-year-old can also be seen as the frequent third-down back who’s not afraid to pass protect and take on defensive linemen, linebackers, or blitzing defensive backs. While Williams may never be a homerun burner, the man is a consistent grinder who wears defenses out.
The 5-foot-10, 220-pound bruiser only broke two runs over 40 yards in his college career. However, Williams’ patience and violent running style gained steam as he averaged approximately 9.0 yards per carry in the fourth quarter of ball games.
That means ‘Pookie’ gets better and hotter running the ball as the game stretches on when opposing defenses wear thin and tire. Williams was the first UNC running back to hear his name called on draft day (second round). Many, including myself, have predicted the rookie to be Denver's starter by season’s end. But the fact of the matter is, he's quietly inching up to the RB1 by the week.
'But Luke, look at the stats and Gordon and Williams are virtually equal.'
Sure, there’s an argument to be heard there and both backs complement each other. Coaches hesitate to trust rookies in general and when OC Pat Shurmur and Vic Fangio are signing off on Williams being the third-down back, it's obvious his stock is on the rise.
Look for Denver to utilize Williams’ special ability to break tackles against the Jets. The Broncos' offensive line hasn’t been able to establish a clear-cut running game just yet, but with a bruiser like Williams, it really doesn't have to.
The offense must continue to set up third-and-short scenarios for Teddy Bridgewater, who has yet to utilize Williams' dynamic ability as a pass-catcher to the fullest.
Key 2. Bruise & Batter Wilson
There’s more fresh meat for the Broncos defense to feast on this week. Von Miller logged his third sack of the season against Lawrence last week and was consistently after the Jaguars' No. 1 overall selection, making him set up on the run or scramble, and frustrating the rookie.
Unfortunately, Denver will be without the services of pass rusher Bradley Chubb, who exited last week with an ankle and now is on injured reserve. But enter Malik Reed, who was the team’s leading sack artist in 2020 in addition to rookie Jonathon Cooper, who showed flashes of potential in the preseason.
Jets' starting left tackle Mekhi Becton will not play this Sunday after the offensive line surrendered four sacks to the Patriots last week.
Those four sacks matched Wilson’s four interceptions which earned him a 37.0 QB rating and dropped the Jets to 0-2. While not every interception is created equal, and some occur due to tipped passes or incomplete catches, it certainly appears that the Jets are enduring some severe growing pains with their rookie QB. Expect to see Wilson utilize his wheels and largely operate outside of the pocket.
This could lead to potentially monster games from Denver’s defensive line that features the starting trio of Shelby Harris, Mike Purcell, and Dre’Mont Jones. The Broncos' interior must get a solid push against Jets' center Connor McGovern (the former Bronco).
Miller should be screaming off the edge, making for a miserable game for New York's offensive tackles as we’ve seen him rotate sides on occasion. Maybe Fangio can mix in some creative blitz packages that feature defensive backs and confuse the rookie QB. Either way, the Broncos' defense needs to hit Wilson and put him on his back.
If Denver achieves that, Broncos Country should expect multiple sacks and turnovers in addition to the team's first home victory of 2021.
Key 3. Special Teams – Don’t Choke, be Average
The Broncos have a familiar problem and I'm not talking about the quarterback or September slumps. Pro Football Focus ranked Denver's special teams dead last at 32 while the team's offense and defense rank No. 4 and No. 8, respectively.
Meaning, the Broncos essentially have a top-10 offense and defense while fielding the NFL's worst special team’s unit.
Against the Jaguars, coordinator Tom McMahon’s kickoff unit allowed a 102-yard kick return for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. While Broncos fans were screaming at their televisions as a result of the blown coverage, the team was thought to have addressed this issue after acquiring LB Jonas Griffith via trade from San Francisco last month.
Clearly, though, the unit’s problems run a lot deeper than that of one or two players. Starting ILB Josey Jewell tore a pectoral muscle on a punt return coverage which will sideline him for the season which means Fangio and McMahon are now turning to starters to tie up the loose ends on kick coverage unit.
This sparks plenty of debate from Broncos fans who have valid arguments on both sides of the issue. On one hand, Dallas Cowboys' starting WR CeeDee Lamb is fielding punts as the designated returner, while on the other, teams like the Broncos are playing with a mixed bunch of starters and backups.
While little boys playing Pop Warner football don’t have dreams of playing pro special teams, the fact is, many NFL players get their start on the crucial but unpopular unit. It wasn’t that long ago that an undrafted wideout named Tim Patrick made his bones on special teams before earning the chance to star on offense.
Then again there’s the infamous tackle by Hall-of-Famer Terrell Davis in a 1995 preseason game in Tokyo, Japan that springboarded the running back's success, including multiple Pro Bowl nods, a league MVP award, and back-to-back World Championships.
The only silver lining for Denver’s special teams’ unit has been kicker Brandon McManus, who has been money the last two weeks. McManus, one of two Super Bowl 50 holdovers left on the roster, is now a team captain. He has converted all five of his extra point attempts in addition to connecting on all five of his field goal tries, accounting for 20 points thus far.
Bizarre things happen in the NFL especially to weak units that have been exposed year after year. While others call for McMahon’s job because of the abysmal performance Broncos Country has been forced to endure, he’s not the man tasked with tackling players, nor is he responsible for staying in designated lanes with their respective assignments.
Still, how could one special teams unit be so bad?
Perhaps an as of now unforeseen player will spark a turnaround for the Broncos' third phase on Sunday against the Jets and earn more playing time on his respective side of the ball. However it shakes out, the Broncos don't have to be the best on special teams in order to complement their top-10 offense and defense; just be average against the Jets.
Follow Luke on Twitter @LukePattersonLP.
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