Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Young Players Ready to Step Up for Injured Broncos

Scouting Report: Though the Broncos have lost a number of players to injury, including QB Drew Lock for now, they have an impressive group of young skill players…Plus, other key players and strengths and weaknesses for the Bucs' Week Three opponent

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Denver Broncos quarterback Jeff Driskel (9) throws a touchdown pass to running back Melvin Gordon (25) during the second half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

In Week Two, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers faced a Carolina team that had a significantly different look from the year before, with a new head coach and quarterback and 10 players in the starting lineup who weren't Panthers in 2019. In Week Two, the Buccaneers will face a Denver Broncos team that will look substantially different than it did at the start of this season.

Denver was one of the team's hit hard in the NFL's stunning rash of injuries in Week Two. That added to some already significant absences – most notably edge rusher extraordinaire Von Miller – to create a number of holes in the lineup, and a number of opportunities for young players to step up. That includes first-round pick Jerry Jeudy, who has 118 receiving yards through three games and may be the Broncos top receiver now with Courtland Sutton headed to injured reserve.

"I'm not going to insult anybody's intelligence that losing the type of players and the [number] of players that we've lost doesn't have some type of effect," said Broncos Head Coach Vic Fangio. "We have good players here in the building still. They're going to come in and rally and look at it as an opportunity for them to go out and play good and show what they've got. We're going to get them ready as a coaching staff to go out and compete and try to find a way to win these close games."

The Broncos were already playing without Miller and starting cornerback A.J. Bouye, who are both on injured reserve. In Week Two, they lost Sutton for the rest of the season and a number of others for at least a few weeks, including starting quarterback Drew Lock and defensive ends Dre'Mont Jones and Demarcus Walker. Running back Phillip Lindsay has also logged only seven carries due to a turf toe injury.

With Lock out, the Broncos will turn to fifth-year passer Jeff Driskel, a former Louisiana Tech standout who made five starts with Cincinnati in 2018 and three more in Detroit last year before signing with the Broncos in the offseason. Driskel came in for Lock early in Sunday's 26-21 loss to Pittsburgh and kept the Broncos in the game with 18 completions in 34 attempts for 256 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. One of the favorite targets so far for both Lock and Driskel has been second-year tight end Noah Fant, who looks like an emerging star after he was drafted 20th overall in 2019.

The injuries have played a part in Denver's 0-2 start but the Broncos have not been an easy out, losing their first game by just two points to the Titans before hanging tough with a strong Steelers squad in Pittsburgh. Even without Sutton and Lindsay, the Broncos have a lot of offensive weapons around Driskel, though most of them are young players still adjusting to the NFL. Without Miller, Denver's defense is led by star safety Justin Simmons, who got the franchise tag in the offseason and then signed a long-term deal over the summer, and outside linebacker Bradley Chubb. The fifth-overall pick in the 2018 draft, Chubb missed most of last season with a torn ACL but had 12.0 sacks as a rookie.

The Broncos are led by Head Coach Vic Fangio, who is in his second season at the helm after leading Denver to a 7-9 finish in 2019 after a 3-8 start. Denver appears to be in a very competitive division that features the defending-champion Chiefs, a Raiders team that is off to a 2-0 start after beating New Orleans on Monday night and a Chargers squad that took those Chiefs to overtime. After facing the Buccaneers, the Broncos have to make two straight trips to the East Coast (Jets and Patriots) and then they'll start diving into division play. All of that and the desire to prove they can overcome the many hurdles just placed in front of them should produce a very motivated Broncos team on Sunday. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will encounter in Denver when the take their second road trip of the 2020 season:

BRONCOS DIFFERENCE-MAKERS

As noted above, the Broncos have a host of difference-makers who are either on injured reserve or are likely not to play on Sunday against the Buccaneers. That includes the NFL's sack king of the last nine seasons, their leading rusher and receiver from last season, a play-making cornerback and, of course, their young starting quarterback. So who is going to step up for the Broncos as Fangio suggests? Here are four more Denver players who could make things difficult for the Buccaneers on Sunday;

1. OLB Bradley Chubb. Chubb, who missed the last 12 games last year due to a knee injury, doesn't have a sack yet in his return to action but does have two quarterback hits and a tackle for loss. The onus is on Chubb to lead the Broncos' usually-productive pass rush with Miller out of commission, and the fifth-overall pick in the 2018 draft has the talent to do it. Chubb was the first pass-rusher taken in that draft and was considered a blue-chip prospect on par with the likes of Joey Bosa and Myles Garrett, and he lived up to those comparisons with 12.0 sacks as a rookie. The 6-4, 275-pound edge rusher has an impressive wingspan and he's very good with his hands when engaging with blockers. Not only does he have that elite size-speed combination that makes for a star edge rusher, but he also plays with non-stop effort and can hold up against the run.

2. TE Noah Fant. Yet another elite tight end to come out of the University of Iowa, Fant showed a lot of promise as a rookie after being drafted 20th overall in 2019. That's particularly true in terms of his production with the ball in his hands. His average of 8.5 yards-after-the-catch was tied for first among all qualifying tight ends last year. This year, he's off to a fast start with a team-leading 138 receiving yards on nine catches, the fifth-most yards by a tight end so far in 2020. Often compared to the Bucs' O.J. Howard during his draft season, Fant has 4.5 speed to go with his 6-4, 249-pound frame, which is where all of that YAC is coming from. He can also hold his own as a blocker. And, as his two touchdowns suggest, Fant is one of the team's top weapons when it gets into the red zone.

3. S Justin Simmons. Largely underrated during his first two seasons as a full-time starter (2017-18), Simmons finally got the attention he deserved as one of the NFL's most all-around productive safeties in 2019. His lack of a Pro Bowl invitation suggests he's still a bit underappreciated, but not in Denver, as the Broncos made sure he didn't hit free agency in March by using the franchise tag, as noted earlier. On the one hand, Simmons' 10 interceptions since the start of 2017 – including the only pick for the Broncos so far this year – is tied for sixth among all NFL safeties in the span. On the other hand, Simmons is often in the vicinity of the football after it's been handed off or caught by an opposing player. He had 93 tackles last year after racking up 97 in 2018, and he already has 14 through two game sin 2020.

4. RB Melvin Gordon. As one would expect from a physical, thick-legged back out of the University of Wisconsin who ran for nearly 5,000 yards in college, Gordon is capable of pounding the ball between the tackles. However, he's also got a good amount of shiftiness in his game and can find cutback lanes. Where Gordon is probably most underrated is as a pass-catcher. In the three-year span from 2016-18, during which he went to two Pro Bowls, Gordon ranked seventh among all NFL running backs with 1,385 receiving yards, and tied for third with 10 touchdown catches. Following his second Pro Bowl visit at the end of 2018, Gordon was hoping for a new contract from the Chargers last year. That led to him missing four games and also to the emergence of Austin Ekeler as the key cog in the team's backfield, but Gordon still caught 42 passes while in that time-share with Ekeler. Through his first two games with the Broncos, he is averaging 4.4 yards per carry and has two of the team's four touchdowns, one each on the ground and through the air.

STRENGTHS

Last year's Broncos were near the bottom of the offensive rankings in most categories – including the 29th spot in scoring (17.6 points per game) – though they did improve during their 4-1 rush to the finish with Lock at the helm. Through two games in 2020 many of the offensive numbers are similarly low in the rankings, though the rushing attack has produced a decent 105.5 yards per game and 4.1 yards per game. On defense, Denver's strengths in 2019 were found in situation specifics – third downs (13th), red zone (1st) and goal-to-go (third). The Broncos are once again highly ranked in all three of those categories in 2020 and have the league's 14th-ranked rush defense. Here are some more specific areas in which the Broncos may excel as 2020 progress, based on the first couple games:

·    Let's look a little closer at those defensive numbers on third downs. Last year, Denver held opponents to a 37.4% conversion rate, which is above average in today's NFL. So far this year, the Broncos have gotten that number down to 32.1%, which is fourth-best in the league. The three teams that rank ahead of Denver Arizona, Baltimore, Chicago) are all off to 2-0 starts. The Bucs will need to avoid longer third downs in particular on Sunday. Denver has only allowed 12.5% of attempts of 7-10 yards against them to succeed, third-best in the NFL, and they've yet to allow a conversion on a try of more than 10 yards.

·    Even with a lot of young players in the mix, the Broncos have been a disciplined team through two games, drawing only nine penalties. That's tied for the sixth-lowest total in the NFL. The Denver offense has only been flagged four times in those two contests, for a total of just 31 yards.

·    The Broncos rushing attack has done best in 2020 when running the ball to the right. They have sent the back over right guard, over right tackle or around the right end 16 times and averaged 9.63 yards on those plays. Denver ranks first in yards per carry over right tackle, second over right guard (albeit on just one play) and 11th around right end.

·    Though the Broncos are only generating 5.99 yards per pass play so far (26th in the NFL), the early numbers suggest that their passing attack could be explosive as all of its young weapons get the ball in their hands more often. TE Noah Fant is averaging 15.3 yards per catch while wideouts Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler are at 14.8 and 16.0, respectively. The sample size through two games is not enough to give those numbers much weight yet, but all three were big-time playmakers in college and high draft picks.

WEAKNESSES

Denver's 35 points scored through two weeks is the third-lowest total in the NFL, and its average of 4.9 yards per play on offense is the sixth-lowest. On defense, the Broncos have produced just two sacks and two takeaways through two games and are allowing a 69.0% completion rate to opposing quarterbacks. In addition:

·    With Von Miller shelved and Bradley Chubb perhaps easing back to top form after last year's torn ACL, the Broncos pass rush hasn't been particularly threatening through the first two weeks. According to the NFL's Next Gen stats, the Broncos only got pressure on the quarterback on 20% of their non-blitz pass-rush snaps in Week One against Tennessee, and that dropped all the way to 9.1% in Pittsburgh. It's not much better with the blitz: 33.3% in Week One and 11.1% in Week Two.

·    A particularly good or bad record in one-score games can sometimes be an indication of a team that is better or worse than their overall win-loss record suggests. Denver could be close to turning things around early in Fangio's second year as head coach. Since the start of 2019, the Broncos are 4-7 in one-score games, including both of their contests in 2020.

·    As good as Denver's defense has been on third downs, the Broncos offense hasn't fared particularly well in the same category. Overall, Denver is tied for 29th in third-down conversion rate, having succeeded on one-third of their 24 tries so far. They've even allowed half of the attempts from seven to 10 yards to succeed, which is fifth-worst in the league.

·    In another contrast between its offense and defense, the Broncos have struggled so far when getting close to the goal line. They rank 29th in the league with a touchdown rate of 42.9% on drives that reach the red zone, and last in the NFL on goal-to-go drives, with a touchdown rate of 33.3%.

NEW FACES IN 2020

The Broncos traded for Jacksonville cornerback A.J. Bouye in March but for the most part their offseason seemed to be building up the offense around second-year starter Drew Lock, who had a strong five-start finish to his rookie campaign. That included receivers with their first two draft picks (K.J. Hamler in addition to the one noted below) and a center in the third round, as well as another O-Line starter, a proven NFL running back and another tight end (Nick Vannett).

1. RB Melvin Gordon. The Broncos had a running back coming off consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in Phillip Lindsay but still jumped at the chance to keep Gordon in the AFC West and make their backfield even stronger. That has proved to be a good move, as a turf toe injury took Lindsay out after just seven carries and Gordon has picked up the slack with 170 yards from scrimmage, two touchdowns and a 4.4-yard per-carry average.

2. C Lloyd Cushenberry/G Graham Glasgow. The Broncos replaced 40% of their offensive line over the offseason, drafting LSU's Cushenberry in the third round and bringing in Glasgow, a four-year starter in Detroit, in free agency. Cushenberry and Glasgow are starting next to each other at center and right guard, respectively, replacing the departed duo of Connor McGovern and Ronald Leary.

3. WR Jerry Jeudy. As noted above, Jeudy is one of the players the Broncos will need to step up with Courtland Sutton sidelined. Jeudy was the second receiver drafted in April, going to Denver with the 15th overall pick, and many scouts considered him the most NFL-ready wideout available. Jeudy is off to a quick start with eight catches for 118 yards.

ABSENCES/POTENTIAL ABSENCES

1. Drew Lock. Obviously, this issue was already discussed above, but the loss of Lock will likely have an impact on the Broncos' play-calling as they try to emphasize what Driskel does best. Denver's only backup is first-year player Brett Rypien, a former undrafted player who spent the first two weeks on the practice squad.

2. LB Von Miller. Since he entered the NFL in 2011 as the second-overall pick in the draft, Miller has led the NFL with 106.0 sacks and he also has 216 QB hits in that span. Miller started the season on injured reserve due to a significant tendon injury in his ankle, and while he's eligible to return to the active roster there's no guarantee he'll see any action in 2020. The Broncos have just two sacks through two games without Miller and 30th in sacks per pass play.

3. WR Courtland Sutton. Sutton's torn ACL, suffered in Week Two when he tried to make a tackle after an interception, is a big blow for the Denver offense, as Sutton was one of the NFL's top breakout players in 2019. In his second season, the former second-round pick out of SMU took over as the Broncos top receiver and produced 1,112 yards and six touchdowns. The Broncos figure to rely heavily on their two rookie wideouts and second-year tight end Noah Fant, the team's leading receiver so far.

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