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Broncos' midseason ups, downs and unknowns

Denver's defense is legit. Offense? Not so much
Posted at 9:35 PM, Nov 07, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-08 00:28:09-05

DENVER — When?

It is the question that hangs over Empower Field at Mile High Stadium, crosses the minds of the 76,000 fans on home Sundays and the legions of followers across the country. When are the Broncos going to be good again? What is going to take for the Broncos, once the AFC's premier franchise, to snap out of its 3 1/2-year funk?

The answers are layered, involving more right decisions, better fits and some sprinkles of good luck. Denver arrives at the nine-game mark with the same record as a year ago. After the bye last season, the Broncos won three straight games -- against the Chargers, Steelers and Bengals -- and flirted with the postseason before a month-long free fall. As I said before the year, the Broncos could be better and finish with a similar record.

There are reasons for optimism in this rebuilding season -- let's be honest and frame it accordingly. The team is more disciplined and better coached. The defense ranks among the league's top five, new boss Vic Fangio delivering on his promise to help revive the group. As for the offense, it remains the .1 germ that the annual disinfectant cannot kill. The odoriferous unit continues preventing a return to prominence.

So, yes, the Broncos are 3-6. As Fangio told me on Monday, "Could we be better? Yes. Could we be worse? No." With that, my Denver7 good (three things), bad (three things) and unknown of the first half:

The defense doesn't rest
The Broncos defense has taken to Fangio's scheme. It is a thinking man's defense. It involves nuance and weekly wrinkles to the gameplan required in a match-up league. The Broncos' secondary has flourished, remarkable given that two players filling significant roles -- cornerback Davontae Harris, nickel corner Duke Dawson -- were not on the team until the first week of the season. Chris Harris Jr. is playing at a Pro Bowl level, and if I am the Broncos I offer him a three-year, $42 million contract to keep him this offseason. Harris is needed given the concerns about Bryce Callahan's foot injury. Callahan might practice after the bye week, but there's no guarantee he plays this season. Speaking of contracts, the Broncos have talked with safety Justin Simmons' reps this season. He has been arguably the Broncos' best defender. He does everything well on and off the field. Securing him on a new contract before free agency should be a priority. For this defense to become special, more game-changing plays are required. The Broncos rank 27th with seven takeaways and sit tied for 23rd with 19 sacks.

Best surprise
Many, myself included, thought the Broncos would take Michigan linebacker Devin Bush with the 10th overall pick last spring. They moved back and selected tight end Noah Fant in the first round and quarterback Drew Lock in the second. Bush is a candidate for defensive rookie of the year, trailing Nick Bosa. However, Alexander Johnson has eased the sting of passing on Bush. As Chris Harris likes to say, "He is a problem." That's a compliment. Johnson has been among the league's best linebackers over the past five games since he made his starting debut against the Chargers. He can cover, and is a sound tackler with size and speed. The switch to Johnson at linebacker and Mike Purcell at nose guard sparked a defensive resurgence.

Trio of hope
The Broncos' offense remains an issue. Denver averages 16.6 points, ranking 28th overall. Of their 101 drives, the Broncos have gone three-and-out 27 times, the fourth highest percentage. The Broncos are on their sixth starting quarterback since Peyton Manning, with Brandon Allen riding the wave of his upset over the Browns. Against this backdrop, three players have separated themselves: Phillip Lindsay, Courtland Sutton and Dalton Risner. Lindsay is just off pace for his second-straight 1,000-yard rushing season, Sutton ranks 10th in receiving yards (692) and Risner is a rising star at guard with the versatility to play multiple positions, if needed. These three represent the cornerstone of the Broncos along with linebacker Bradley Chubb.

QB or not QB?
The Broncos' search for a long-term solution at the game's most important position makes contending problematic. Joe Flacco provided leadership and professionalism, but little else in this underwhelming offense. He was on pace for 12 touchdowns and 10 interceptions before his season-ending neck injury. I expect the Broncos to move on from Flacco this offseason, taking the $13.6 million cap hit, but clearing his $20 million salary off the books. Allen is the starter du jour. He played well in the win over the Browns, showing mobility and composure. But unless he beats the Vikings and Bills, it's hard to see him as anything but a placeholder. Allen could show, if nothing else, that he is a capable backup. Remember this: the Broncos rank 28th in passing yards (199.6). Until they become better at passing, the Broncos' dreams of the playoffs will continue to vanish into the thin air.

Line in the sand
Good teams find stability by building from the inside out. The Broncos offensive line is not settled. Not even close. Even if Garett Bolles is not benched, it's hard to see him back next season given his lack of improvement. Ron Leary has showed toughness battling through injuries, but is not the same player he once was. And Ja'Wuan James ranks among the season's biggest disappointments, logging only 32 snaps because of left MCL injury. He needs to be good for this line to take shape this season and beyond.

Not so special
Diontae Spencer boasts unique burst and has provided a jolt on punt returns. Kicker Brandon McManus is a reliable weapon. After that, there's little to like about the Broncos' special teams, the lack of depth constantly exposed. The Broncos rank last in kickoff return average against (31.5 yards), last in punt return average against (11.7) and 24th in net punting average (38.5 yards). This team does not have the luxury of giving away yardage as it does on a regular basis.

Unknown lock and key
Drew Lock remains a conversation because he could be the future. Lock is expected to begin practicing next week. If the Broncos reach eight losses, essentially eliminating them from the playoffs -- which is possible with upcoming road games at Minnesota and Buffalo -- there's no reason not to play Lock if he's ready. I understand why Fangio wants to exhaust options to win before making a move to the team's third quarterback this season. Still, Denver needs to find out what they have in the former Missouri star. Is he the answer? Or will the Broncos, if they own a top 10 pick, need to draft the likes of Justin Herbert or a chase a free agent like Teddy Bridgewater?

Viewed as a rebuilding season, multiple encouraging factors exist for the Broncos, starting with the defense. But until the Broncos can become functional offensively, a winning record will remain elusive.