In a matchup of a pair of the league's bottom dwellers, the 0-3 Denver Broncos head to MetLife Stadium to take on the 0-3 New York Jets on Thursday Night Football.
Featuring a couple of the worst rosters in the NFL right now, this has the makings of a sloppy football game. The Broncos have been absolutely decimated by injuries, seeing five starters placed on injured reserve as well as several other players missing time for various reasons. The Jets — well, let's just say they have a bad roster.
This could turn into a trap game for the Broncos, as they have a short week and typically struggle when heading to the East Coast. Jets head coach Adam Gase could be coaching in his last game for gang green, and might have something up his sleeve to give to his former team in what could be his career Super Bowl.
If Denver has any hopes of turning this season in the right direction, they must win this game. The Jets are a bad football team in just about every facet, and it sounds as if Gase has already lost his locker room.
Let's take a look at how Denver can knock off the Jets this week by breaking down the five key matchups to watch.
CB Essang Bassey vs. WR Jamison Crowder
Part of the reason the Jets offense has been the worst in the league is the fact that they also have a handful of injuries on the offensive side of the football. RB Le'Veon Bell is on injured reserve, and Crowder has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury.
But the Jets might catch a break this week as Crowder is expected to play on Thursday night, and he sees the majority of his time lined up in the slot.
With Broncos CB AJ Bouye still recovering from his dislocated shoulder, the Broncos have inserted Bassey —- an undrafted free agent from Wake Forest — into the slot, sliding Bryce Callahan to the boundary.
Results have been mixed so far for Bassey, and Crowder has a chance to exploit the undersized rookie with his quality route running over the middle of the field. Crowder caught seven passes for 115 yards, including a 69-yard touchdown, against the Bills in Week 1.
QB Sam Darnold targets Crowder early and often, so Bassey is going to have to come ready to play.
Broncos pass rush vs. QB Sam Darnold
If there's one thing that you can immediately notice while watching Darnold it's that he is seeing ghosts in the pocket, constantly running from pressure behind an absolutely dreadful offensive line.
Denver has a couple of key players missing from their defensive line, including Von Miller and Jurrell Casey, but there are still a handful of horses capable of getting after the quarterback on the Broncos roster.
While they haven't been able to get home in their pass rush schemes up to this point of the season, Denver has a chance to further rattle the embattled third-year signal-caller. Going against a pair of Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks that know how to get rid of the ball quickly as well as some stellar offensive line play upfront can significantly hamper a pass rush, especially when the coverage unity behind them can’t win their matchups on a regular basis.
But the Jets have neither of these things and to make it worse, Darnold appeared to be a broken player in his press conference following last week's loss to the 49ers. His confidence seems shattered, which is like blood in the water for the figurative sharks that are defensive coordinators.
Watch out for another big game from Shelby Harris here, as the interior of the Jets offensive line is absolutely horrendous in pass protection.
QB Brett Rypien vs. DC Gregg Williams
With the Broncos starting a formerly undrafted college free agent at QB in Rypien, there is an opportunity for Williams to dial up some pass pressure and help his defense finally turn things around. A veteran play-caller on the defensive side of the football, Williams will most certainly take note of how the Broncos struggled to protect the quarterback against five and six-man blitz packages.
However, Rypien possesses a very high football IQ and did well to diagnose the blitzers that Tampa Bay sent last week. It was only one drive, but you could easily see that Rypien was in control of the situation and understood not only where to go with the football, but also what his protection scheme needed to do upfront to keep the rhythm of the offense flowing.
Where this gets tricky is the physical limitations of Rypien and what Williams can do to force Rypien into bad plays.
Rypien doesn't have elite arm talent, velocity on his throws, or the touch necessary to make all of the throws necessary to be a starting-caliber quarterback at the professional level. He's also limited athletically, so there isn't much threat of him moving the football with his legs.
Williams would do well for his defense by clogging the middle of the field, taking away quick slants, crossing routes, and other inward-breaking route concepts, forcing Rypien to distribute the ball outside of the numbers and down the sidelines.
Should Williams force Rypien into throws he cannot make, the Jets defense could limit the Broncos passing attack to next to nothing.
C Lloyd Cushenberry vs. DL Quinnen Williams
Typically, this spot would be reserved for RT Elijah Wilkinson and whoever is lined up opposite of him. But with Wilkinson placed on IR with a fracture in his shin and the Jets lacking a premier pass rusher coming off of the edge, the next most critical matchup on the offensive line features a struggling rookie against a lethal interior defender.
Cushenberry has had major issues in the passing game going against the likes of Cameron Hayward, Stephon Tuitt, and Vita Vea over the last two weeks. Rightfully so, as one of the biggest developmental aspects Cushenberry needed to work on was his pass protection. Going against players of that caliber should have led to those issues rising to the surface.
Cushenberry gets no reprieve this week, as a former first-round draft pick Williams lines up against him this week.
Williams struggled to acclimate to the NFL in his rookie season, but has been one of the line bright spots for the Jets defense this year.
A quality run defender with heavy hands and an elite burst off of the line in the passing game, Williams may be the next interior defensive lineman to take advantage of Cushenberry's struggles to open the season.
RB Melvin Gordon vs. the Jets run defense
The biggest matchup the Broncos need to take advantage of this week also lies on the offensive side of the football, and it features a polarizing player that brought a lot of controversy to Broncos Country upon his arrival.
Though Rypien is a sharp-minded QB capable of diagnosing defenses and understanding where to distribute the football to, his limitations athletically and in his arm talent are going to require the Broncos to take the football out of his hands, placing it into the hands of their $16 million running back.
Gordon has yet to really take the reins as the premier back in Denver after signing his lucrative contract in April. That could lie at the feet of offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who only handed the ball to Gordon eight total times against the Buccaneers last week and has yet to give him the ball in critical short-yardage situations.
The easiest way to help out a young signal-caller, especially one making his first career start, is by shortening the game and leaning heavily upon the running attack. Having a quality running game can open up so many aspects to the offense by limiting long down-and-distance situations, getting linebackers to bite on play-action, as well as opening holes in the secondary in the passing game.
Denver has to get Gordon going this week, and they have a matchup that they can take advantage of.
The Jets have one of the worst rushing defenses in the league, allowing 133 yards per game on the ground at a gaudy 4.3 yard per attempt average. They have also allowed three runs over 20 yards this season.
However, Denver’s offensive line has struggled to gain traction and open holes in the running game averaging a meager 1.8 yards prior to contact on the ground coming into Week 4. Their offensive line is struggling upfront just as bad as the Jets defensive front, so something has to give.
Shurmur understands that he has to refocus his attention back to the running game, especially early in the game.
“I think the run game is important, and when we run the ball early, we have to get more out of the runs early in the game,” Shurmur said during Tuesday’s Zoom press conference. “We have to use the runs to help us get in the end zone. We have to do a better job of running the ball throughout the game, especially early in the game in my opinion."
Denver’s running game has been significantly hampered by opponents stacking the box defensively, daring the Broncos to beat defenses with the passing game. But with a quarterback as limited as Rypien is with his arm talent, the Broncos may not be able to rely solely on an aerial attack to get the job done.
Gordon is going to have some tough sledding this week, but the Broncos need him to have a big game. Their season may depend on it.