Broncos' Week 11 Performance Will Reveal if Wheels Have Fallen Off the Vic Fangio Bus
Early on this season, Vic Fangio's defense was the lone thread of optimism for fans who'd been completely disheartened by the veritable epidemic of injuries the Denver Broncos had suffered.
The Broncos' defense managed to keep itself together through the first quarter of the season, against all odds as star player after star player landed on injured reserve. However, those early returns were fool's gold.
In all honesty, what defense could withstand the loss of studs like Von Miller, Jurrell Casey, Mike Purcell, and A.J. Bouye (five games)? Especially with an erratic offense still lacking an identity more than halfway through the season?
Like the little Dutch boy, Fangio did a commendable job keeping his fingers in the dike. But heading into Week 11, it would seem the embattled head coach has run out of digits as the leaks keep springing.
Over the last four games, the 3-6 Broncos have given up 30-plus points in each, relinquishing 36 points per contest on average. Unless you've got Peyton Manning in his prime under center, no offense is going to be able to overcome such scoring deficits consistently.
The Broncos got lucky in Week 8, overcoming a 21-point hole to beat the Los Angeles Chargers 31-30. But it took a Tim Tebow-esque miracle to get across the finish line.
Heading into Week 11 with the surging Miami Dolphins in town, the Broncos' defense is now ranked 17th in total yards, 27th in points per game, and are in the bottom-third of most statistical categories. The only saving grace?
Fangio's defense has been excellent on third down (6th) and in the red zone (2nd). Even without Miller and Casey in the lineup, the Broncos still rank top-10 in sacks with 22 on the season (10th).
Where the Broncos have really struggled of late is against the run and in giving up big chunk plays through the air. That, again, can be laid at the feet of the injury bug, as the Broncos will enter Week 11 without even one of their day-one starters on the defensive line.
Valiance vs. Production (There is a Difference)
Shelby Harris is the only remaining day-one D-line starter still on the active roster but he's poised to miss his third straight game in the COVID-19 protocol. Dre'Mont Jones and DeMarcus Walker are interior pass rushers and simply lack the girth and experience to be consistent forces against the run.
DeShawn Williams has been one of the feel-good stories of the year in the NFL, but his run-stuffing prowess pales in comparison to that of Purcell. Sylvester Williams, a Super Bowl 50 reclamation project, has proven to be just a guy (JAG) at this point in his career.
What was the Broncos' defensive bastion in 2019 — the safety duo — hasn't been nearly as good this year. Justin Simmons is still earning high marks from Pro Football Focus but despite being an analytics darling, the film isn't lining up quite as accurately with those grades this time around.
Make no mistake; Simmons hasn't been bad. But he hasn't been that elite All-Pro-caliber difference-maker that he was last year. And Kareem Jackson, while still a physical force in the box, seems to have lost a step at 32 years old.
Bradley Chubb started slow this season as he recovered from the ACL tear that cost him most of 2019 but from Weeks 4-8, he seemed to have bounced back to form. Alas, he's disappeared over the past two weeks as Fangio's defense has only managed to post two sacks over that span.
Off-ball linebackers Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell, while playing admirably against the run, haven't been able to overcome the Broncos' losses on the D-line. Neither 'backer has managed to make the type of game-changing plays Denver has needed (one forced fumble between them and zero interceptions).
Bouye's inability to stay on the field consistently (shoulder/concussion) has forced Fangio to rely on two rookies at cornerback. Michael Ojemudia started off this season on good footing but has regressed in the last quarter of the year, and didn't receive even one defensive snap last week in Vegas.
Essang Bassey has been solid in the nickel, mostly as a tackler close to the line of scrimmage. In coverage, he's struggled, managing to break up just one pass when targeted.
Bryce Callahan has been the lone, consistent bright spot on Fangio's defense. But even he has dealt with injuries, missing Week 9 in Atlanta with an ankle, while his availability for Sunday's game vs. Miami is in question due to a non-COVID illness.
Each of these defensive players should be commended for how hard they've fought to step up in the absence of so many stars. But the NFL is a production-based business. It doesn't reward valiance. It rewards production.
Excuses are Like...
All things considered, Fangio has plenty of excuses for why the defense, and the Broncos as a squad, have failed to launch this year. Considering the epidemic of injuries and the way the pandemic affected the Broncos' schedule, robbing the team of a true bye week this year, it's possible the front office is willing to consider this entire year a 'Mulligan' for Fangio.
However, the Broncos have suffered from other concerning issues that glare under the eye of scrutiny and speak more to Fangio's wherewithal as a head coach (or lack thereof). From odd in-game coaching decisions that have affected the outcome of games (see: Week 1 vs. Tennessee), to the special teams unit consistent vulnerability and incompetency (see: every week, it's always something), to the offense's inability to capitalize on its wealth of young talent; none of it reflects well on Fangio.
One can argue that Fangio shouldn't be blamed for the offense's struggles, but remember, it was he who made the fateful decision to fire Rich Scangarello and hire Pat Shurmur as offensive coordinator last January. Scangarello, for whatever he may have lacked as a game-planner, proved to be an excellent teacher and developer of quarterback talent, especially as it related to Drew Lock (and Brett Rypien).
Fangio didn't have a crystal ball and couldn't have predicted that a pandemic would hit in March and result in the entire Offseason Training Program and the preseason being canceled, leading to the loss of 1,400 practice reps. However, the Broncos weren't the only team entering the pandemic-impacted 2020 campaign with a first-year coordinator and first-year or rookie QB.
Sunday's game against the Dolphins will go a long way towards answering if Fangio still has control of this Broncos squad. But if Week 11 sees more offensive ineptitude, special teams snafus, and prolific scoring against the Broncos' defense, it'll be evidence that the wheels truly have fallen off this bus.
As the man at the wheel, regardless of the pandemic, that wouldn't portend well for Fangio. In fairness, no one expects the Broncos to suddenly turn it around and make a miraculous push for the playoffs.
But getting blown out week in and week out is not acceptable, and could lead to the Broncos' front office having to look past any 'Mulligans' or benefits of the doubt. To land the head-coaching job in Denver, Fangio's swung John Elway by preaching a 'death by inches' philosophy.
Now is the time for that old-school mettle and detail-oriented ethos to come out in the wash. If Fangio is the right man to lead this Broncos squad into 2021 and beyond, he can prove it now by course-correcting, and perhaps being more hands-on and forceful with the other two phases of the team.
After all, he's the head coach of the Denver Broncos; not the head coach of the defense. If Fangio doesn't hold his coaches and players accountable for unacceptable performance, it won't save him from his masters up the chain of command doing just that with him.
In the end, Fangio could be saved by Elway's own sense of self-preservation. The GM hitched his wagon to the head coach and that could be what ultimately sees Fangio return for a third season as 2021 is the final year of Elway's contract.
Adapt or die. Darwin's inexorable law always sorts out the fittest. This season has officially become a matter of survival for Vic Fangio.
Do not take this to mean that Fangio could be fired in the event of a loss. We are not reporting that. Simply that another bad loss would signal that he's lost control of the 2020 Broncos, which, obviously, wouldn't portend well for his long-term job security.