Matt Williamson is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns, and spent the last 10 years at ESPN as a scout and co-host of “The Football Today Podcast.”
Denver is a very good football team. The reigning champion began the season 4-0, has outscored opponents by 40 points over five games, and still clearly has one of the league’s best defenses, led by Von Miller, who’s playing even better than a year ago and very well could win Defensive MVP.
There’s obviously a lot to like here, but the Falcons came to town in Week 5 and rocked that boat by handing the Broncos a pretty stunning defeat. The Falcons exposed some weaknesses in that matchup, and Denver’s upcoming opponents will surely attempt to do the same. What are the three biggest problem areas for the Super Bowl champions right now?
Interior Defensive Triangle
The best way to attack Denver’s great defense is to keep it in its base personnel. By doing so, the Broncos are forced to keep some excellent players like Bradley Roby on the sidelines. It’s a pretty simple formula: Denver’s base personnel involves lesser players on the field than their sub-package defense.
In the Broncos’ base 3-4 scheme, Sylvester Williams mans the nose and Todd Davis has replaced Danny Trevathan at inside linebacker next to Brandon Marshall. Williams and Davis are Denver’s two weakest defensive starters. Williams isn’t a major liability, but the Broncos are susceptible to the interior run with this base personnel – he isn’t exactly Vince Wilfork in the middle of the line. Not having Malik Jackson hurts in that regard as well, but it was Trevathan they sorely missed against Atlanta.
Much like Pittsburgh and New England, two teams that could stand between Denver and a second straight Super Bowl appearance, Atlanta’s offense can attack its opponent just about any way it sees fit. If the Falcons face a great secondary like the one in Denver and Julio Jones can’t dominate, they find another weakness, which is exactly what they did in Week 5. Denver’s inside linebackers were at massive disadvantages in the passing game and Matt Ryan picked on them without mercy. If Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman were far too much for Marshall and Davis to handle, imagine what Le’Veon Bell or the Patriots’ tight ends might do to them.
Denver’s entire offense struggled against a subpar Falcons defense on Sunday, but one starting spot stuck out in a negative way much more than the others: right tackle. Vic Beasley has a lot of ability and could one day become a star pass-rusher, but at this point, he is very much a work in progress. Ty Sambrailo, though, made Beasley look like the next Lawrence Taylor.
When Sambrailo sees the field, he is a major liability, especially in pass protection. Denver’s offensive line collectively couldn’t get anything going in the run game against Atlanta, but Sambrailo’s performance in protection was truly worrisome. There were times when he hardly got his hands on his man. The good news is that Donald Stephenson should return very soon. Though Denver’s offensive line is much improved from a year ago, depth is a big concern, and Russell Okung has an extensive injury history at left tackle. Hopefully Sambrailo isn’t forced back into action.
Yes, we do have to go down this road. And yes, the Broncos did win Super Bowl 50 without even league-average quarterback play. But that’s still a hard recipe to win with in this league, and Denver is behind the other top teams in the AFC, New England and Pittsburgh, in a huge way at the NFL’s most important position. In reality, the Broncos are also the weakest team in the AFC West at the quarterback position right now.
Paxton Lynch’s future should be very bright, and he was under a lot of pressure by the Falcons. Still, he didn’t play well in that contest and might not be ready. It was only one game, and there’s no doubt he will eventually take hold of Denver’s starting quarterback position, but it’s safe to wonder whether his time under center won’t come until 2017.
That, of course, leaves Trevor Siemian. The young quarterback has exceeded expectations thus far before giving way to Lynch because of injury. He has a strong knowledge of Gary Kubiak’s quarterback-friendly system and showed against the Bengals in Week 3 that he will take chances and push the ball down the field. Hopefully that wasn’t an anomaly. But Siemian has the makeup of a lifetime backup quarterback who values the football and isn’t overly gifted or physically impressive. Can such a quarterback take this team to the promised land? Stranger things have happened, as we saw last year, but it is a difficult path to glory.