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Broncos vs. Chargers: Breaking down Denver’s game plan in L.A.

(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

The Broncos are down but not out. Well, they’re out of the playoffs, but they are not done fighting for wins in the 2019 season. After beginning the year 0-4, the Broncos now travel to Los Angeles to take on their AFC West rival the Chargers.

While Denver isn’t fully healthy, and haven’t been all year, the Chargers have been in the same boat – mostly on the defensive side of the ball. That side was damaged worse with the hamstring injury to star pass-rusher Melvin Ingram last week. This Broncos team will face an opponent who is missing star players on defense, but the Chargers are getting a key asset back on offense this week.

Let’s take a look at how the Broncos will attack the Chargers on both sides of the ball.

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When the Broncos Run the Ball

This could be a bounce-back week for the Broncos rushing attack. It has to be if the Broncos want their best chance of winning the game. They have to control the time of possession and make sure their defense is not worn down like it was last week against the Jaguars. That’s why I think we’ll see more from Royce Freeman as a ball-carrier this week. Sure, I’d like Phillip Lindsay to get his work in too, but this has the feel of a Freeman game.

In the play below, you’ll see Freeman get the handoff from the shotgun formation. The Broncos get the Jaguars defense flowing opposite play side and it creates a nice rushing lane for Freeman on the left side of the offensive formation. Before the snap, wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton is motioned in and does a great job blocking his man. Left tackle Garett Bolles and tight end Noah Fant are combo-blocking their man, with Fant peeling off to go for the linebacker at the second level. Once Fant leaves, Bolles loses control of his man and that guy makes the tackle of Freeman for only a two-yard gain.

Fans are happy that Bolles isn’t getting showered with penalty flags anymore, but he still needs to be a better blocker – both passing and running. Had he been able to stick with his man, Freeman could’ve easily gotten to the second or maybe even third level of the defense. That would take this play from a minimal gain, to potentially a field-flipping play for the Broncos offense which so desperately needs to hit a big play. It seems like on this play and others that Bolles is so paranoid about getting a holding call that he will abandon his block too soon.

The play design is there, the talent is there at the running back position but the guys up front need to make sure to do a better job of clearing the way.

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When the Broncos Pass the Ball

Joe Flacco and the passing game haven’t been the problem for the Broncos in this winless season. However, it seems like he can only support one big receiver each week and he has two (Emmanuel Sanders, Courtland Sutton) that need to be featured as much as possible. Flacco needs to be faster when making decisions as a passer.

In the play below, you’ll see what I mean. The Broncos have a shotgun formation and two backs next to Flacco. Before the snap, Lindsay is motioned out wide right with Sutton inside of him. Lindsay runs a “go” route to clear out the defender and Sutton runs a nice out route at about five yards. Notice the big space of field those two defenders are trying to cover behind them. Lindsay’s man gives a big cushion, and Sutton already has a big cushion at the snap – then his man takes two more steps back before breaking on the play!

Had Flacco been on time with the ball, Sutton would have gotten it quicker and been able to turn upfield for what could have been a big touchdown. Instead, and for whatever reason, Flacco hesitates to throw the pass. Sutton actually stops a little on his route (not his fault, by the way), then Flacco zips in the pass. But by that time, the defender already sees where Sutton is going and abandons his deep coverage.

Flacco should have caught the snap then zipped it out to let his big playmaker gain huge yardage. Instead, this was a five-yard gain. He’s got the fifth-fastest Time before Pass in the league at 2.51 seconds (league average is 2.72 seconds), but there are times when Flacco needs to speed up his processor.

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When the Chargers Run the Ball

This is the first week we’re going to see Chargers running back Melvin Gordon as he ended his holdout last week but did not play against the Dolphins. We’re likely to see Austin Ekeler as their lead back as they ease Gordon back into action. However, when we see Gordon get some carries they should use some of his favorite plays.

The play below is from the last time Gordon had 100 yards (or more) rushing against the Broncos. In Week 8 of the 2016 season was the last time we saw Gordon hit the century mark, and he did it with this play over and over again.

Right as the ball as snapped, you’ll see the tight end motion back into the formation and line up next to the left tackle. The Chargers have fullback Derek Watt lined up in a “Power I” formation with Gordon seven yards deep. The tight end fakes like he’s going to block the outside linebacker, but instead moves to the second level of the defense. The Chargers pull the right guard over to the left side and he successfully blocks that linebacker. Watt then moves to the inside linebacker crashing to make the play. Meanwhile, Gordon is given two lanes to choose from outside or inside his fullback. He chooses inside and gains 11 yards, one of his longest carries that day.

Gordon is good at quickly choosing which lane to attack and the Broncos must play with great discipline because he does not hesitate and has the speed to get to the linebacker level quickly. There may be some rust with Gordon since he hasn’t played this year, but you don’t want him to easily shake that off by running his favorite plays. Watch for the tight end motion and guards to pull no matter if Gordon or Ekeler are running the rock.

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When the Chargers Pass the Ball

Broncos fans love to hate Philip Rivers. We’re going to see him running his mouth nearly the whole game and trying to get under the Broncos skin. Rivers is a great competitor and he has some great weapons at his disposal when passing the ball.

One of those weapons he should use frequently is Ekeler. Usually, when a team splits a running back out wide there isn’t much of a threat to the defense with that particular player. That’s not the case with Ekeler.

In the play below, you see a spread formation with an empty backfield and Ekeler split out wide right. He simply runs a couple of steps upfield to back of his defender and then comes back to his original spot. Rivers catches the ball, holds it for a second and then dumps it off to Ekeler for an easy pass. The three blockers to the right of the center just let their men go and barely get their hands on them. You’ll see the defenders charge hard at Rivers, but they don’t get close. Ekeler gets the ball and he has three blockers out in front. This was an 11-yard gain but could’ve been a “house call” had it not been for a shoestring tackle on the elusive back.

The Chargers passing game isn’t that complicated. They like to spread you out and use a lot of wide receiver Keenan Allen. When not throwing Allen’s direction, then running backs out of the backfield – also backs split out wide or from the slot – are a favorite play for Chargers when throwing the ball.

Rivers has the fifth-longest Time in Pocket after four games this year. On average, Rivers is in the pocket for 2.57 seconds, while the league average is 2.41 seconds. Rivers also patiently waits for receivers to come open and has tenth-slowest Time before Pass at 2.80 seconds. He can get rid of the ball quickly, but on average he waits and tries to strike with precision. Rivers is not going to get rid of the ball quickly against the Broncos and they will have opportunities to bring him down.

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Summary

The Broncos have never started a season 0-5, but records are made to be broken. The team seems broken at this time with injuries on both sides of the ball.

They shouldn’t have a tough environment on the road, as it may feel like a home game with so many Broncos fans showing up. However, this Chargers team is simply better and if they execute the way they can then Denver starts winless in five games for the first time in franchise history.

I hope I’m wrong, but I have the Chargers winning by a score of 24-16 on Sunday afternoon.

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All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos unless otherwise noted. Game screenshots from NFL Game Pass. Contract and salary-cap information provided by Spotrac.com. Transaction history provided by ProSportsTransactions.com.