There’s no rest for the wicked.
The old adage couldn’t be truer for the Denver Broncos as the team hits the road for a second consecutive week to open the season. This week, the Broncos draw the Jacksonville Jaguars. Certainly, Denver has plenty of reasons for optimism after an impressive 27-13 pounding of the New York Giants in the season-opener.
But, just as the Broncos attempt to pull themselves up by their collective bootstraps after a half-decade of bad football, the Jaguars are planning to rebound as well.
Jaguars’ rookie sensation Trevor Lawrence suffered the first regular-season loss of his football career since pop warner last Sunday, falling to the Houston Texans 37-21. Jags’ head coach Urban Meyer — who’s coaching his second NFL career game vs. Denver — has been rumored to be a top candidate for the USC Trojans’ sudden vacancy, despite him publicly declaring his commitment to Jacksonville on Wednesday.
In the wake of the first season-opening loss of his coaching career, Meyer declined to make himself available to the Denver media this week, an NFL tradition that happens weekly via teleconference. Fueling the optics that the Jags are a mess.
With that being said, the Broncos-Jags Week 2 matchup is replete with unique storylines and jam-packed with narratives. So what should Denver’s game-plan be to emerge victorious from Jacksonville and win back-to-back games to open the season?
It’s time to review this week’s keys to a Broncos’ victory.
Key 1. Establish Ground-and-Pound Rushing Attack
Just as Broncos’ OC Pat Shurmur previewed in training camp, RBs Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams combined to be the two-headed monster on the ground against New York. Gordon, who’s in his second year with the team, finished the day with 11 rushes for 101 yards — including a 70-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
Nicknamed ‘Pookie,’ the Broncos’ second-round draft pick finished his NFL debut last week with 14 rushes for 45 yards averaging 3.2 yards per carry. In fact, both Gordon and Williams averaged approximately 3.0 yards per tote by halftime.
While neither back seemed to break off clean runs in the first half, each player made third downs manageable for QB Teddy Bridgewater and the passing attack. The running game also assisted the Broncos’ three fourth-down conversions as Giants defenders consistently bit on play-action fakes throughout the game.
After placing WR Jerry Jeudy on injured reserve earlier this week due to a gruesome ankle sprain, it’s imperative that Denver’s offense run the ball. Starting RG Graham Glasgow’s health is also being monitored after he experienced an irregular heartbeat during Week 1’s action, necessitating a rushed trip to the hospital and a two-night stay under the care of attending doctors.
Glasgow is back home in Denver but isn’t expected to play. So headed into their second straight road game minus two starters on offense, the best way for the Broncos to establish momentum is through old-school snot-rattling ground-and-pound.
In Week 1, the Jaguars allowed Houston RB Mark Ingram to rush the ball 26 times for 85 yards and a touchdown. Former Broncos’ RB Phillip Lindsay also scored with eight rushes for 25 yards. Both backs averaged approximately 3.0 yards per attempt combined, and as a team, the Texans rushed for 160 yards.
That’s five yards fewer than Denver’s total rushing yards against New York (165 yards), while the Broncos also had two more first downs (24) and nearly held the same time of possession (35:08) as Houston (35:04).
Be patient with the short gains on the ground in the first half, Broncos Country. Sooner or later, Gordon or Williams is bound to break a long run against a tired and beat-up Jags’ defense.
Reintroduce Sutton as the Alpha
Last Sunday, Broncos’ WR Courtland Sutton played his first NFL game since tearing his ACL in the second week of the 2020 season. The 25-year-old was targeted three times and only caught one pass for 14 yards. However, his only completion came on a fourth-down conversion at midfield where Sutton secured a low pass for the first down leading to teammate Tim Patrick’s two-yard touchdown reception.
But for most of the game, just like in training camp, Sutton appeared limited and for good reason. The fourth-year wideout has committed to playing with a knee brace to secure his surgically repaired ACL and has been on what I’m speculating to be a limited snap count. With Jeudy set to miss 4-6 weeks on IR, it’s time to get No. 14 the ball.
Naturally, Sutton should be listed as the Broncos’ No. 1 wideout, but it’s important to note that Bridgewater completed a pass to nine different receivers in the opener. Still, whether he draws Jags’ cornerback Shaquill Griffin or C.J. Henderson, Sutton should be able to exploit either matchup. Both DBs are significantly smaller than Sutton in both height and weight, which should give him the early advantage.
Jags’ DC Joe Cullen has also implemented a variety of defensive fronts but largely operates in a 3-4 scheme, in addition to four and five-man fronts for short-yardage scenarios. While I respect Cullen’s pedigree of defensive knowledge from his time in Baltimore, he’s no Ed Donatell. The expertise of Jacksonville’s defensive coordinator is coaching the D-line, something he’s done since he started in 1992. Whereas, Donatell’s specialty is the secondary.
After last week’s loss to the Texans, Pro Football Focus ranked Jacksonville’s defense in the NFL’s lowest tier. That said, I’m not advocating for Bridgewater to blindly throw up 50/50 balls to Sutton because the corners are small, and the coordinator is a defensive line guru.
Instead, I’m insisting that when Bridgewater recognizes the same significant mismatch that Sutton does, he must pull the trigger and reintroduce Courtland back among the NFL’s elite receivers.
Confuse & Frustrate Lawrence
Short of all the problems, rumors, and drama that the Jaguars are the subject of, Lawrence is trying to navigate through his first NFL season. Now’s the time to pounce for Denver’s defense.
Von Miller proved with his two-sack performance against the Giants that he’s back and ready to raise hell for opposing offenses. Look for him to get after the Jags’ rookie QB and push for a signature strip-sack.
In addition to having to worry about the Broncos’ pass rush from Miller, Malik Reed, and Bradley Chubb (if he’s available), Lawrence also has to reckon with the secondary — which is poised for a heyday vs. the former Clemson star. There should be at least one interception from Lawrence who tossed three picks in addition to a trio of scores last Sunday.
While Lawrence might have significant potential, Broncos’ ball-hawking safety Justin Simmons and veteran corners Bryce Callahan and Kyle Fuller should be able to outplay Jacksonville in coverage and mentally dismantle the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft.
Follow Luke on Twitter @LukePattersonLP.
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