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Melvin Gordon #25 of the Los Angeles Chargers runs the ball as Kareem Jackson #22 and Alexander Johnson #45 of the Denver Broncos defend during the first half of a game at Dignity Health Sports Park on October 06, 2019 in Carson, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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Broncos vs. Chargers: Breaking down Denver’s game plan on Sunday

(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

The Broncos did not have a chance last week against the Bills. They did previous to the game, but once the contest started, it was clear that Denver did not match up well against what Buffalo wanted to do.

The Broncos lost last week by a score of 20-3. Now, they’re back home for a divisional game in a lost season – but there is reason for excitement.

On Sunday, the Broncos are home to take on the Chargers. Both teams are struggling this year and neither squad seems bound for much late-season success. However, while the Chargers have a quarterback who is struggling towards the end of his career, the Broncos have a rookie quarterback who should be making his first start in Week 13.

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

Earlier in the week, starting running back Phillip Lindsay summed up what the team needed to do in order to win the game. It’s a simple plan but one the Broncos need to follow to the letter of the law.

“Just like you guys know, we’ve got to run the ball. When we run the ball and we do well running the ball, we win games. There’s no secret to that. Royce (Freeman) and I got to get going. Getting more carries in the run game,” Lindsay said.

During the last two weeks, Lindsay has been the leading rusher for the team and out-touching Freeman while averaging 4.3 yards per carry. Teams are stacking the box to stuff the run since the Broncos have an inexperienced quarterback.

While Brandon Allen was the starter during the last two games, rookie second-round pick Drew Lock should be starting in Week 13. As you can see in the play below, running the ball sets up the play-action passing and bootleg game that Lock can execute at a high level.

The Chargers defense simply couldn’t stop the Broncos back in Week 5 when Denver running backs were able to combine for 175 rushing yards and a touchdown. They have been better in recent weeks, and the Chargers have allowed opposing running backs to average only 3.6 yards per carry during the last three games.

Expect the Chargers defense to have a bit more swagger this week with the return of star safety Derwin James. He had been missing in action since having foot surgery back in September. James has been working diligently to get back on the field and is expected to start on Sunday against the Broncos. During his fantastic rookie season in 2018, James showed how he could be a force against the run and his presence will give a boost to the Chargers in that department.

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When the Broncos Pass the Ball

The Broncos have yet to make a decision on who is starting at quarterback in Week 13 against the Chargers, but everyone under the sun expects them to name Lock as the starter before the game. Lock, a second-round pick out of Missouri, has a big arm and the athleticism to be dangerous as a scrambler. A thumb injury in the preseason knocked him out to start the regular season, but it was announced on Friday that the team was naming him their second (and final) designated to return player from the Injured Reserve list.

Lock cannot yet run the offense as designed, so offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello needs to utilize plays that play to Lock’s strengths. That means the team should be utilizing the shotgun formation more than they did with either Joe Flacco or Allen at quarterback.

Lock’s big arm means fitting passes into tight windows is not a problem. This can be especially helpful for the Broncos offense when they are in the red zone and near pay dirt. Lock should feature Courtland Sutton early and often in the passing game, and tight end Noah Fant could be an important relief-valve receiver for the young quarterback.

The Chargers are going to be without slot cornerback Michael Davis due to a two-game suspension that begins this week. However, they do have one of the best shutdown corners in the game in Casey Hayward. Even the corner opposite of Hayward, Desmond King, is a fine player in his own right. This cornerback duo is going to make things tough for Sutton and the other Broncos receivers.

Lock should also be under pressure from the edge quite often as the Chargers pass rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are two of the best in the game. Fortunately, the Chargers don’t get much push up the middle so Lock will be able to use his feet to climb the pocket and escape pressure from the edge if need be.

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When the Chargers Run the Ball

The Chargers had a bye last week, so their backfield is going to be well rested entering Week 13. Melvin Gordon is doing much better in the last few weeks than he did earlier in this year when he returned from his holdout. He’s got a touchdown in each of the last three games and is averaging around 85 rushing yards per game in those contests.

The last time the Chargers played the Broncos, Ken Whisenhunt was their offensive coordinator. He was fired about a month ago, and now former quarterbacks coach Shane Steichen is calling the shots on offense (with plenty of help from head coach Anthony Lynn). The Chargers offense overall looks better (minus the quarterback), largely because of their renewed commitment to running the football.

In addition to Gordon, running back Austin Ekeler is going to present problems for the Broncos defense. He’s capable of handling a starter’s workload but with Gordon’s return, Ekeler is working mostly as a change-of-pace back. Ekeler is lightning quick and capable of making defenders look silly in the open field.

The Broncos rush defense has really only had two bad games in the 2019 season. Unfortunately, one of those games was last week against the Bills, when they allowed Buffalo to rush for more than 240 yards as a team.

We’ll see if the Broncos run defense can have a bounce-back week at home against the Chargers. The last time these two teams played, L.A.’s offensive line struggled to block the Broncos run defense. They held the Chargers rushing offense in check back in Week 5 when they limited this duo of Gordon and Ekeler to just 38 rushing yards on 15 attempts.

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When the Chargers Pass the Ball

It’s sad to say, but Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is showing big signs of being nearly done with his NFL career. His skill set has massively declined during the last month of the season, as Rivers has turned into a turnover machine like never before seen in his pro career. His gunslinging mentality was commendable when his skills were still sharp, but just like that Rivers looks like an old man trying to hold on too long at quarterback.

Rivers has been inconsistent all season long and he now has four games with multiple interceptions and three games with zero touchdowns. Leading into the Week 12 bye, Rivers had thrown seven interceptions in just his last two games. Keenan Allen and Mike Williams give him a large and athletic duo outside at wide receiver and tight end Hunter Henry gives him a quality target for underneath routes. With Allen likely covered by Chris Harris Jr., we could see Williams have a big game on Sunday. He’s huge and makes a great red-zone threat as evidenced in the play below.

The Broncos pass defense is one of the best in the league. They should make things difficult on Rivers and company for most of the game, provided they can keep Williams in check. His size is going to be difficult to handle for anyone like Davontae Harris tasked with covering him.

While Williams is the receiver to watch, the player that could do the most damage against the Broncos pass defense is a running back. Watch for Ekeler in the flats against this Broncos defense. As evidenced last week against slot receiver Cole Beasley, linebacker Alexander Johnson struggles in coverage. He’s been great as a run defender but Johnson can get exposed when tasked with covering a back out of the backfield.

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Summary

The Broncos are not favored at home, and it’s difficult to project what they could do against the Chargers with a rookie quarterback leading the way for the Broncos offense. If they run the ball effectively, that would greatly help their cause – but the Chargers should jam the box and force the Broncos to go through the air.

The Chargers offense as it is designed is better than it was the last time these two teams played. Gordon is more in shape and more of a threat than he was when he first returned to the field earlier this year. While the Broncos defense should slow down Allen, guys like Williams and Ekeler could be receiving threats this team can’t handle. Rivers is not the player he used to be, but this Broncos pass rush is looking for someone to help out Von Miller when it comes to rushing the passer.

I’ve got the Chargers by a score of 23-14 on Sunday.

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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.

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