Broncos One Step Closer To Unlocking Key To Contending In AFC West Again
The Denver Broncos are undefeated in the second quarter of the regular season. After starting 0-4, Denver is now riding a winning streak for the first time in 2019… if one can call a single win a ‘streak’.
Still, emotions are always given a much needed shot in the arm after the good guys walk away with a win, no matter how it’s earned.
How did the Broncos win? There are a multitude of reasons of course. From winning the turnover battle, to jumping to an early lead due to a fast start, to the massive discrepancy in yards per play, to the run game showing out in a big way, to holding the L.A. Chargers to an 0-4 rate in the red zone, things ‘worked’ enough for Denver to clinch the 'W' this past Sunday, taking a small step towards climbing out of the ‘world of suck’.
The Broncos earned the victory over the MASH unit that is the Chargers, but this team still has a ways to go towards contending with the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West.
Despite their current juggernaut status and the constant platitudes surrounding Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs ended up losing at home against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday night.
Sure, there was some revenge factor involved as the Chiefs embarrassed the Colts in the playoffs last year at Arrowhead Stadium, but to go into Kansas City at night and walk out with a win is no small feat for a team transitioning from Andrew Luck.
What does this have to do with the Broncos? Well, given that the Patrick Mahomes-Andy Reid duo ware likely to lead the Chiefs for the next decade, the Broncos need to take any and all methods in developing a plan to supplant the powerhouse in the division.
Sure, the Chiefs haven’t even been to a Super Bowl since the Beatles announced their breakup in 1970, but to dismiss the notion that they are the team to beat and the standard in the AFC West going forward is simply denialism. As long as they have both Reid and Mahomes, that team is going to be a contender.
Controlling The Trenches
So how did the Colts control the Chiefs offense on Sunday Night? While simple thought would be the defense as being the key component in controlling a high power offense, the real answer may actually be on the offensive side of the ball.
Dominante at the line of scrimmage, control the time of possession, and limit the opposing high-powered offense to as few touches as possible. Drafting Quenton Nelson was a culture-changer for the Colts upfront, but he isn’t doing it alone.
Over the last few seasons, the Colts have been pouring resources into the offensive line. From already having a good first-round left tackle in Anthony Costanzo in place, to first-round pick Ryan Kelly playing good ball at center, to top of the second-round pick Braden Smith manning right tackle, along with great offensive mind with a focus on the O-line in Frank Reich as the head coach, the continual investment in the line is paying off for Indianapolis.
Unfortunately for Indianapolis, this investment may have occurred a bit too late. While Jacoby Brissett is playing fine ball, he is far from the dynamic talent that was Andrew Luck. After getting beat up to no end, Luck walked away from the game as the Colts’ O-line was beginning to bloom.
Unfortunate, but too little too late for the Colts in protecting their franchise. Still, the dominant O-line play helps protect the defense and allows Indianapolis to control the game, even against high-powered offenses such as Kansas City. Looking around the league as well, almost every division leader has one thing in place, a great offensive front.
The New England Patriots invest heavily in the O-line and brought back arguably the best offensive line coach in history in Dante Scarnecchia. The Baltimore Ravens continually have invested in their O-line, nabbing Ronnie Stanley in the top-10 in 2016, hitting on right tackle Orlando Brown, Jr., and having the future Hall-of-Famer in Marshal Yanda at guard.
When healthy, the Chiefs have a solid or better line. The Houston Texans (tied with the Colts), realized they could not only not compete but could lose their franchise quarterback in Deshaun Watson, panicked and went out and spend two first-round picks plus more to acquire Laremy Tunsil.
Same story in the NFC with the San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints, and Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles arguably having the best offensive lines in their respective divisions and no surprise, they're all leading through five weeks. Teams winning upfront are also winning on Sunday.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is a team like the much-hyped Cleveland Browns. The Browns have a young exciting franchise quarterback, and they went out and nabbed the likes of Odell Beckham, Jr. and Kareem Hunt to go with Jarvis Landry, Nick Chubb, and David Njoku.
Despite these fun weapons, the offense is struggling as Baker Mayfield looks to be regressing. There is blame to go around, but watching the Browns O-line get continually beaten despite the plethora of weapons makes the answer seems simple. The O-line isn’t good enough to feature the talent and help the QB feel safe and grow.
Steps In The Right Direction
The Broncos have taken steps to help turn around their O-line misfortunes this past offseason that are already starting to pay dividends. Bringing in Hall-of-Famer Mike Munchak to coach the O-line was probably the move of the offseason, even if the fruits of the hire won’t be felt immediately.
It also appears the Broncos absolutely nailed the selection of Dalton Risner, who is playing as well as any rookie offensive lineman in the NFL through five weeks. Bringing in Ja’Wuan James was risky given his injury history and considering he only played two drives before spraining his knee, this may have been a misjudgment. But given the youth and upside, it’s best to wait and see on the still-young tackle.
Connor McGovern and Garett Bolles appear to be improving but also need to be on a wait-and-see basis given McGovern’s contract status and the sheer hair pulling inconsistencies littered throughout Bolles’ career. There is ‘potential’ with this O-line, but is that enough?
Given the pass blocking struggles against the Chargers on Sunday, where Joe Flacco was pressured on 14 of his 23 dropbacks with a rate of 60.9%, even if there is potential the O-line isn’t close to being where it needs to be yet.
Despite the Broncos getting that losing streak monkey off their back, this team is still likely not a contender in 2019. New schemes, new leadership, new coaches, and a grueling schedule all go hand-in-hand with the Broncos likely finishing with a worse record than talent would indicate. That’s okay, it happens.
2019 Was Always Meant To Be A Transition Season
This is an opportunity as much as anything. The Broncos currently hold the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, in a class that has some very promising emerging young tackle talent in Georgia’s Andrew Thomas, Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, Alabama’s Alex Leatherwood as well as Oklahoma’s Creed Humphrey and Wisconsin’s Tyler Biadasz. Some others will likely rise during the course of the season, but Denver is in a prime position to continue fortifying the offensive line.
The Broncos could look at receiver, they could look at almost anywhere on the defensive line, but more and more it feels like GM John Elway should bite the bullet and fully invest in the offensive line. It will give whoever the quarterback of the future is in Denver the best shot at developing into a franchise quarterback.
It'll also open up the offense and allow Denver to dictate the game, control high-powered offenses, and utilize the keen eye and developer of talent in Munchak. Some want to give Munchak a lump of clay to mold but imagine him instead with a fresh block of marble instead.
The Broncos offensive line is still a work in progress with promising pieces. Risner appears to be an absolute stud and a lynchpin for the line going forward, but the rest is currently up in the air. Bolles has put together three solid weeks, but he did so last year before reverting back to bad habits once again.
Given the whispers surrounding Bolles' ‘lack of desire’ to be great coupled with Fangio straight-up coming out and saying that Bolles needs to become more 'football-oriented', there is cause for concern there. Even if he plays better, would it warrant a fifth-year option? Probably not.
James also could be here just short term, given his injury history, massive contract, and the structure of the deal which could have him (and Bolles as well) set to hit free agency after 2021. Tackle remains a roster ‘need’.
More present, the center and right guard position is an unknown. McGovern is showing enough to consider offering an extension as he is considered one of the hardest workers on the team, has been durable, has shown to handle all three interior positions, and is continually improving.
Ron Leary has flashed, but given his age, injury history, and how moving on from him can free up $8.5 million in cap space, this is likely his last season in Denver. The offensive line is improving, but at the same time is very much in flux going forward.
To keep pace with the Chiefs in the AFC West, the answer is multifaceted. Is Fangio the answer at head coach? Can Drew Lock emerge as ‘the guy’? Can Elway continue to stack solid draft classes while improving his recent trend in misses in free agency? Who knows.
However, one thing does seem to be obvious. Building an offensive line to hang with anyone will be imperative. Establishing a physical culture, controlling the pace of play, protecting the quarterback, and blasting open run lanes for any young plug-and-play running back are crucial.
It seems simple in theory, but harder in execution. Give Munchak the means to succeed, invest upfront, and Denver can finally put to bed the continuous struggles on the offensive line since Ryan Clady, Ryan Harris, and Chris Kuper manned the trenches and Mike Shanahan stalked the sideline. It’s time to invest in the hog mollies.