Week 3 sees the New York Jets made a trip to the Rockies to battle the Denver Broncos, who are also facing a lengthy playoff drought.
The Opponent: Denver Broncos
The Dates: Week 3, September 26, 4:05 p.m. ET, CBS
The Series: Denver leads 21-16-1 (last meeting: 2020, 37-28 DEN)
Much like Elaine Benes’ heartbreaking revelation that she was turning into her incompetent friend George Costanza, the Denver Broncos may be coming to a similar epiphany of depression: they’re slowly transforming into the New York Jets.
Denver’s extended Super Bowl hangover…they haven’t reached the NFL postseason since their triumph over Carolina in Super Bowl 50…is only at five years compared to the Jets’ five-plus decades. That postseason drought, however, is tied for second-worst in the league (Arizona and Cincinnati are likewise shamed) behind only the Jets’ decade-long disappearance. What’s particularly troubling in Denver is the fact that their post-Super Bowl rut has stationed them at the bottom of the NFL’s standings. An active streak of four straight losing seasons is their longest such since a nine-year tally mostly accumulated during their AFL days. The 23 wins gained in that span best only four other teams.
The Broncos are a franchise in flux, cursed with both a quarterback controversy and a dominant thrower stationed in a divisional rival’s camp (Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City) with no end to his reign in sight. Head coach Vic Fangio is entering his third season, the proverbial make-or-break campaign, with only a dozen wins under his belt. A once-proud defense is struggling to regain its footing.
Their matchup against the Jets is the conclusion of an intriguing September slate. The Broncos have a prime opportunity to start 3-0 as a Week 2 matchup in Jacksonville is sandwiched by showdowns against the reeling New York franchises. Gang Green’s visit will serve as their 2021 home opener.
Denver and New York will square off for the second straight season. A Thursday night get-together, won by Denver in a 37-28 final, was overshadowed by late extracurriculars said to be exacerbated by ousted defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
The Skinny on the Broncos
Quarterbacks old and new have taken center stage in Denver’s endeavors of the new decade. Life after Peyton Manning proved to be too much for franchise legend John Elway, who stepped out of the general manager role over this offseason, passing the affair over to George Paton, formerly of the Minnesota Vikings’ front office.
Paton raised the heat on incumbent franchise thrower Drew Lock by acquiring brief Jet Teddy Bridgewater for a day three pick. Bridgewater is by far one of the most inspiring stories in recent NFL memory: last season saw him return to the brotherhood of NFL starting quarterbacks in Carolina after suffering a devastating non-contact injury in Vikings camp in 2016. Paton is very familiar with Bridgewater’s work, as he was the assistant general manager when Minnesota made him a first-round pick in 2014.
Lock is in a precarious position as he, like Fangio, enters his third season in the Rockies with a lot to prove. He tied for the league lead in interception with Carson Wentz (15) last season and is threatening to become the latest failed franchise project in the post-Manning era (joining washouts like Brock Osweiler, Paxton Lynch, and Trevor Siemian). The Missouri alum ended the year on a strong note, posting a 92.1 passer rating over his last four games, but the upcoming preseason slate will be crucial for him to prove can still be a long-term solution for an NFL franchise.
The ultimate shame about Denver’s quarterback issues is that they have a strong, skilled arsenal to work with. Courtland Sutton missed all but two games in 2020 due to a torn ACL, but the Broncos enjoyed promising showings from Tim Patrick, Jerry Jeudy, and tight end Noah Fant. Elsewhere in the backfield, the team lost Phillip Lindsay to Houston but is set to welcome back accomplished veteran Melvin Gordon.
Defensively, the team is set to welcome back franchise face Von Miller, who returns from a devastating peroneal tendon injury that kept him out of the 2020 season entirely. Bradley Chubb rose to the occasion in Miller’s absence, earning his first Pro Bowl nomination and approval on his fifth-year option. The Jets felt Chubb’s wrath firsthand, as Sam Darnold was victimized for 2.5 sacks in the aforementioned Thursday night get-together.
What’s New in Denver?
The Broncos had an early draft pick to work with, choosing to use the ninth overall pick on Alabama defender Patrick Surtain II. His arrival was part of an expensive renovation project in the Denver secondary, as the Broncos bestowed over $65 million in guaranteed money to Justin Simmons, Kyle Fuller, Kareem Jackson, and Ronald Darby.
At $61 million over four seasons, Simmons (Pro Football Focus’ top-ranked safety in 2021 and earner of 16 interceptions since his 2016 entry) is now the highest-paid safety in football. Once Fuller was let go from Chicago, reuniting with Fangio, his former defensive coordinator with the Bears, was a de facto no-brainer. Fuller was added on a one-year deal worth nearly $10 million, it’s clear that Denver expects a lot of him in this prove-it year.
After Surtain’s selection, the Broncos also added Javonte Williams in the second round. The North Carolina alum shared the Tar Heels’ rushing duties with fellow rookie and current Jet Michael Carter. With Gordon in the latter part of his two-year deal, Denver could begin a transition plan that would make Williams their ground man of the future.
How to Beat Them
-Corral the QB
The Jets’ pass rush has a brilliant opportunity to show how far they’ve come from the depths of the 2020 season. That nationally televised loss against the Broncos let America know just how far the Jets had fallen. They failed to take down Denver third-stringer Brett Rypien at any point during the night, letting up a whopping 37 points and 359 yards of offense.
Listing pressure on the quarterback as a key to victory is a football cliche, perhaps the football equivalent of “pucks deep“. But when you’re facing a team that’s dealing with uncertainty in the most important role in football, dealing with a battle that could well extend into the regular season, the pressure becomes more important than ever. The Jets spent this offseason further bolstering a pass rush that was one of the rare silver linings of a 2020 season. If there’s any unit on their current depth chart that can be considered “elite”, that’s it.
Week 3 could also be a breakout for the New York pass rush because of Denver’s issues on the offensive line. Ja’Wuan James opted out of the 2020 season and was later released after suffering a torn Achilles in May. Another former Bear, Bobby Massie, is expected to take over. Division III standout Quinn Meinerz should also raise a little heat on incumbent center Lloyd Cushenberry. Granted an opportunity to build long-term momentum, the Jets must take advantage.
-Neutralize the Weaponry
Denver has stockpiled several offensive weapons that the quarterback, be it Bridgewater, Lock, or someone from the 2022 draft class, could work wonders with. The Jets found out about the group’s potential the hard way last fall: going up against Rypien, an undrafted second-year man making his first NFL start, Patrick tallied 113 yards on six clutch receptions, while Jeudy literally stole his first NFL touchdown from Pierre Desir.
The showdown against Denver will be one of the Jets’ biggest challenges in the early going, especially with Sutton’s potential return to the lineup. But with so many areas to improve after the horrors of 2020, it was almost a guarantee that one or more areas of the roster were going to be neglected. That turned out to be the secondary, which is set to see Bless Austin and Bryce Hall headlined at cornerback. Projected top strong safety Ashtyn Davis is already out for Week 1, while rookies and undrafted journeymen are expected to receive major snaps.
This visit against Denver presents a major opportunity for Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich to show their impact. Whether the Jets capitalize remains, as always, the question.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags