Shurmur Confirms Intention to Use Albert Okwuegbunam in Offense When Noah Fant Returns
Albert Okwuegbunam went from being a healthy scratch for a month to suddenly making his NFL debut last week in the Denver Broncos' 18-12 upset win over the New England Patriots. With starting tight end Noah Fant ruled out with an ankle injury, the Broncos surprised many by not only dressing Okwuegbunam but involving him in the offense right out of the gates.
The rookie finished second on the team with six targets from Drew Lock, hauling in two receptions for 45 yards. The Broncos targeted Okwuegbunam in the red zone often; the only problem was, he couldn't secure the catch.
Trusting his old Missouri tight end, Lock dropped several dimes to Okwuegbunam with accuracy in the end zone but three times, the rookie was unable to haul them in. The Broncos were unable to score a touchdown all game, though the team did win by virtue of kicker Brandon McManus finishing off six drives with points.
Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur liked what he saw from Okwuegbunam but knows that that the rookie and the Broncos are only scratching the surface of his potential.
“There was a lot of good. He had a chance to make some plays," Shurmur said of Okwuegbunam's Broncos debut. "You can see that he’s got playmaking ability, he caught a nice short one on a shallow cross and ran for a total of I think 18 yards, which is good... So, you had some good plays and then I think he had some other plays that—he had a chance in my opinion with the ball in his hands in the end zone twice which changes the scope of that game if he does that.”
Shurmur points to two end-zone drops by Okwuegbunam and while that might be technically true, he had a third dropped in nicely by Lock where the Patriots' defensive back simply made a great play to knock the ball out at the penultimate moment.
With Fant trending towards playing this week at home vs. the Kansas City Chiefs, the question on the minds of fans and media alike is, will Shurmur utilize the playmaking talent of both Fant and Okwuegbunam in the offense?
Shurmur has been around long enough to know better than to telegraph his game-planning intentions to the coming opponent but the coach seems to recognize the formidable threat having both Fant and Okwuegbunam on the field can present.
“There’s a good chance if they’re both up—which it appears like they both will be—there’s a chance that they’ll both be on the field at some point together when we’re in tiger," Shurmur said. "When you have two guys that have a chance to make a play in the passing game... We like that. I think the more good players you put on the field or guys that have a chance to make plays, it doesn’t guarantee anything, but it gives you more chances.”
'Tiger' is Shurmur's verbiage for 12-personnel, or two-tight end sets, for what it's worth. The coordinator confirmed that both tight ends will be on the field at times when the Broncos run a 2-TE set.
In the red zone, the possibilities, especially with uniquely talented receivers like Tim Patrick and Jerry Jeudy to worry about, are endless. The Broncos would be remiss not to use both young tight ends on the field and would be in dereliction of duty to ignore the obvious bond and chemistry Lock has with Okwuegbunam, whom he played with for two years at Missouri.
Lock showed last week that he's unafraid to throw deep and outside the numbers, and even boldly proclaimed after the game that Denver's vertical passing attack is here to stay. But with Fant back in the fold, the Broncos would be wise to utilize the middle of the field with crossing routes to get the ball in the hands of these two talented tight ends — both of whom have 4.50-second speed, and let them go to work.
Fant has already proven how dynamic he can be in the open field with the ball in his hands and Okwuegbunam, in the few opportunities he's gotten as a Bronco, showcased his open-field play-making ability as well. Both are too fast and twitchy for a linebacker to keep up with and too big and strong for most defensive backs to easily tackle.
Shurmur and Lock should be licking their chops right now. The Broncos are getting as close to full-strength as they're likely to get this year at the most opportune time with the juggernaut Chiefs rolling into Denver this Sunday.
It'll be interesting to see just what sort of tight end strategery Shurmur has cooked up.