Through three preseason games, the Broncos starting defense has looked stellar and their first-team offense has shown some promise. On those fronts, there are plenty of reasons for optimism heading into the 2019 campaign.
But in the third phase of the game, Denver has struggled mightily. Against Atlanta, Seattle and San Francisco, the Broncos have largely been a mess on special teams.
They’ve been ineffective in both coverage and returns, a double whammy that causes teams to eventually lose the field-position battle over the course of a game. The numbers in both departments have been brutal.
On kick returns, Denver is currently 24th in the NFL during the preseason, averaging 20.0 yards per attempt. Running back punts, they’ve been even more anemic, currently sitting 30th out of 32 teams in the league, managing a meager 3.3 yards per return.
In coverage, Denver has surrendered the second-most return yards in the league thus far during preseason, despite having less kickoffs to cover. On punts, the Broncos have been okay; that’s been the only ray of hope for the team’s special teams during the preseason.
The situation has become a big enough issue that Vic Fangio has addressed it multiple times with the media. Each time he talks about it, the head coach seems to be getting less and less patient with the ongoing problem.
“We have to get the guys that have been out there doing it better,” Fangio said earlier this week. “If need be, we’ll have to put some starters out there if it doesn’t improve, which a lot of teams have done.”
That’s throwing down the gauntlet, in more ways than one.
The obvious target for this comment is the players battling for a spot on the roster. Clearly, the head coach is letting the Broncos backups know that they need to excel on special teams if they are going to make the final 53.
But it’s also a message to the starters. Fangio is threatening to put them on the field in coverage and return situations, which most would like to avoid. He’s hoping that translates into the team’s star players trying to light a fire under the reserves.
It’s a solid strategy, as being pushed by a co-worker is often more effective than being challenged by the boss. Sometimes, peer pressure can be a very good thing.
On that front, the Broncos have the perfect player in their locker room to apply that influence. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem too interested in filling that role.
Chris Harris Jr. was an undrafted free agent in 2011, a long-shot to make Denver’s final roster. But by doing all of the little things that garner the attention of the coaching staff, including excelling on special teams, the cornerback was able to defy the odds and make the team.
That gives him a strong message to share. He can provide firsthand testimony as to how special teams play can lead to bigger and better things.
Harris knows it. But it doesn’t seem like he’s willing to share it with his teammates.
“I guess the kids don’t really understand this is how you make the team,” Harris said on Wednesday, with a chuckle. “It’s a 53-man roster. This is how you make the team, on special teams.”
This comment begs a lot of questions.
How on earth do young players not realize that playing well on special teams is a route to making the roster? This seems pretty self-evident.
Why is this a laughing matter to one of the team’s star players? Special teams can make or break a game or season. Harris knows this; he’s seen his team lose because of muffed punts and win because of big returns. So it seems odd that he’s dismissive of something that could derail things for the starters.
That said, Harris did have a suggestion for the young players.
“They might have to pull out my old clips, my old highlights from special teams my rookie year,” the cornerback added. “Then later on in their career, they might be able to play on offense or defense.”
It’s a good suggestion. But it doesn’t go far enough.
Why tell the media this? Why not deliver the message directly to the young players?
It would be extremely effective if Harris stood in front of his teammates, cued up the video and showed what he did during the 2011 preseason. More than likely, most of his new teammates don’t know the story; they were only 13 or 14 years old at the time. They just know Harris as a Pro Bowl cornerback.
So tell them the tale. Yes, he’s now a player making $12 million per year, pushing his career earnings to a whopping $50 million and setting him up to double that total when he signs his next contract this offseason. But he didn’t get there the easy way.
Von Miller was the second overall pick in the draft. He never had to play special teams.
Joe Flacco is a quarterback. He didn’t have to earn a roster spot.
Emmanuel Sanders didn’t become a star in Denver on special teams. If anything, he’s avoided being a party of them since signing with the Broncos.
None of the team’s other stars have had to take the route of making the team by covering punts and kicks or blocking in the return game. But one has that personal story to tell.
The Broncos special teams are struggling. Their young players don’t seem to grasp the importance of that phase of the game or how excelling on those units can translate into bigger and better things.
One of Denver’s best players can to deliver that message. Chris Harris Jr.’s moment to lead is upon us.
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