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Giants vs. Broncos: What to expect when Denver has the ball

Breaking down the Denver offense position by position, and discussing how Pat Shurmur will use the players at his disposal

NFL: Denver Broncos at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants’ defense surprised many in 2020, as it matured into a top 10 overall scoring unit (ninth in points allowed). Patrick Graham left his coordinating job in Miami to join Joe Judge as the Giants’ defensive coordinator. Graham extracted the best seasons out of defensive lineman Leonard Williams, linebacker Blake Martinez, cornerback James Bradberry, and safety Jabrill Peppers.

The unit ranked 12th in yards allowed (349), 11th in rushing yards allowed (111.4), and 16th in passing yards allowed (237.9). Big Blue had 40 sacks, tied with the Indianapolis Colts for 12th in the league. Graham played a heavy zone defense and forced teams to nickel and dime, which would result in third-down opportunities where Graham would employ a diverse set of trap coverages (Slice, Inverted C-2, ETC.) and/or bring the heat from a variety of different locations.

The stud defensive coordinator has alluded to the importance of man coverage. Offseason moves such as the addition of Adoree’ Jackson and the selection of Aaron Robinson substantiate those claims. The Giants used man coverage on only 23.1 percent of the time last season, which ranked 26th in the NFL last season, according to Football Outsiders.

The Giants’ defensive front forced opponents to run in the interior gap direction only 41.9 percent of all the rushes they faced - the lowest rate in the NFL since 2017. This was, in part, because of the massive personnel groupings Graham would employ on running downs. Graham used a lot of TITE fronts with Dalvin Tomlinson as the nose tackle, Leonard Williams as a 3-technique, and Dexter Lawrence as a 4i-technique, usually to the field or strong side of the formation.

The TITE formation forces runs to spill outside to force/contain defenders who are usually outside linebackers, and secondary force defenders in cornerbacks. It forces running backs to run east to west, rather than north to south, allowing linebackers like Blake Martinez to clean up in pursuit. Martinez ranked third in the NFL with 151 combined tackles and was tied with Alexander Johnson of the Broncos at third in stops with 58.

The game on Sunday is winnable, especially on the defensive side of the football. The Giants’ offensive line concerns me, but if this defense can force takeaways, the Giants could win this game at home. Let’s take a look at the Broncos’ offensive matchups this defense will be squaring up with on Sunday.

Broncos offense

Quarterbacks

I have an “s” listed under quarterbacks for a reason. One of the more relevant camp battles at the quarterback position was incumbent starter Drew Lock against former Carolina Panthers’ starter Teddy Bridgwater. The Broncos’ added a plethora of skilled weapons during the 2020 offseason. Lock couldn’t maximize the talents of these players, and he led Pat Shurmur’s offense to 26th in passing yards, 24th in total yards, and 28th in points scored during the 5-11 2020 season.

In that same offense under Shurmur, with worse personnel, a rookie Daniel Jones led the Giants to the 17th-ranked passing offense, the 23rd-ranked unit in total yards, and the 19th-ranked scoring offense. Both Jones and Lock turned the football over far too often. The mistake-prone nature of Drew Lock prompted Broncos’ team president John Elway to pursue other options. After positive camp reports that seemed to fluctuate weekly, it was Bridgewater who earned the starting job.

Bridgewater has been a journeyman who has overcome a lot of adversity. He’s a former first-round pick out of Louisville that suffered a significant knee injury with the Vikings. He then had a solid four-game stint for the Saints after Drew Brees broke a finger on his throwing hand against the Rams in 2019. He ended up on the Jets for a cup of coffee before being traded to the Panthers to start last season.

He completed 340 pass attempts out of 492 tries - a completion percentage of 69.1. He threw for 3,733 yards for 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while fumbling the football six times and adding five rushing touchdowns. He’s not a significant threat with his legs, but he had 276 yards rushing to go with those five touchdowns on the ground. It was more of an outlier than anything else, for he had four total rushing touchdowns in his previous six seasons.

Bridgewater should allow the offense to stay on schedule a bit more than Lock. The former Missouri quarterback has a much bigger arm than Bridgewater. Still, it’s no surprise that a conservative defensive coach who is ostensibly on the hot seat would rather trust a proven low-ceiling veteran like Bridgewater over a big-armed turnover-prone young quarterback like Lock.

This Giants defense can certainly still force turnovers and bait Bridgewater into mistakes. A healthy Xavier McKinney and Adoree’ Jackson will show this offense more man coverage than what they saw on the 2020 tape. This could lead to exciting wrinkles. And, for the first time in over a year, there will be actual crowd noise in a regular-season game, so bring it Giants fans!

Running backs

Giants’ fans know Denver offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur well. When he was Giants head coach, he ran a ton of inside zone. The power/gap run he employed with the Giants was a 6-hole pull from the backside guard (Will Hernandez) to the play side tackle (Mike Remmers). The play was flipped at times but was predominantly run with the left-side guard pulling. The team also used stretch-zone looks to create vertical creases for Saquon Barkley by stretching the defense horizontally.

Last season, according to Pro Football Focus, offensive line coach Mike Munchak had more GAP runs than zone runs in 2020. Munchak is widely regarded as one of the premier offensive line coaches in the NFL, and the development of Garett Bolles suggests its truth. Shurmur also opened up the offense for Lock more than the preceding offensive play-caller Rich Scangarello. Shurmur incorporated more single-back formations - jumped from 67 percent to 88 percent while also employing more shotgun/pistol formation.

According to Football Outsiders, Shurmur used motion more than Scangarello (39 percent to 47 percent), was in 11 personnel 68 percent of the time, and was in shotgun formation 66 percent. In 2018 with the Giants, Shurmur ran 11 personnel 61 percent of the time and 74 percnet in 2019. Shurmur isn’t scared to use 21 personnel and build an effective play action game off a run look. These types of plays may be more effective if the running game is more established, but expect Shurmur to work the boot-action.

Melvin Gordon III and Phillip Lindsay led last year’s Broncos’ rushing attack. Denver ranked 13th in rushing yards per game (119 rushing yards), and they were 12th in rushing attempts per game (27). They only ran RPOs 5 percent of the time, and their run-on-first-down percentage was at 49 percent, ranking 15th in the league.

Gordon III was an offseason signing from the division rival Chargers. He had 986 yards on 215 attempts (4.6 YPC) with nine touchdowns and four fumbles. Lindsay, who is now a member of the Houston Texans, had 502 yards on 118 attempts, a 4.2 yards per carry mark. Lindsay has departed, but John Elway and the Broncos had their eye on an impressive prospect coming into the 2021 draft. The Broncos selected bruising talent, Javonte Williams, out of UNC - a physical running back with shades of a better Marion Barber.

I expect Gordon III to remain heavily involved in this rushing attack, but the future is with Williams. The UNC star is one of the more physical backs to come out of college in a long while. He’s a 5-foot-10, 212-pound bruiser who had 19 touchdowns to go along with 1,140 yards, rushing for seven yards a pop. Williams will be a household name soon enough.

I expect the Broncos to try and spread the Giants out a bit, a lot of horizontal runs as long as the combination of Austin Johnson and Danny Shelton proves viable in the stead of Dalvin Tomlinson at nose. The Giants can win this matchup and force Shurmur to rely on the quick passing attack to move the ball. Mistakes can happen in the quick game if the Giants can disrupt releases off the line of scrimmage. Shurmur will use quick game out of 12/11 personnel with double slants to one side, slant flat to the other - or any common two receiver route concepts. These are bang-bang plays that Bradberry has done an excellent job at stopping. Bradberry’s ability to click and close downhill on routes in front of him has been one of the best parts of his game. It should be an interesting chess match to watch Graham go up against Shurmur’s offense.

Wide receivers

The duo of James Bradberry and Adoree’ Jackson (if he plays) can match the young, dynamic receiving corps the Broncos possess. Jerry Jeudy is a second-year wide receiver out of Alabama; he’s coming off an exciting dismal campaign - I know, weird. He flashes all the skills from a route running and athletic perspective, but he dropped the ball so much last season. He had 12 drops and a poor 46 percent catch rate. He did catch 53 of his 113 targets for 856 yards and three touchdowns.

I can see Shurmur align Jeudy in the slot to create a mismatch with Darnay Holmes. Jeudy aligned in the slot for about 33 percent of his snaps in 2020. I can certainly see James Bradberry shadow either Jeudy or possibly Courtland Sutton - Bradberry has gone in the slot three times this preseason, so I wouldn’t be shocked to see that either.

Bradberry averaged 0.7 yards per coverage snap which ranked third in the NFL behind Jalen Ramsey and Jaire Alexander (corners that faced 50 or more targets). If he can maintain his level of play from 2020, the Giants will be in a good spot. Bradberry played 462 snaps on the left side and 412 on the right side last season, so shadowing is well within his skill-set.

I wouldn’t be shocked to see Adoree’ Jackson (again, if he plays) initially cover Jeudy while Bradberry attempts to completely shut down Courtland Sutton. This depends on how healthy Sutton is (he looked solid in preseason) and how Jackson is feeling after the ankle situation. If the Giants go this route, they can roll coverage towards Jeudy (if necessary), and Bradberry can island up Sutton. However, this may be difficult with some of the other weapons on this offense.

Tim Patrick is a quiet contributor to this group. He doesn’t get the hype, but he caught 51 of his 79 targets for 742 yards and six touchdowns last season. Shurmur will mix and match his 11 personnel packages with Patrick and second-year speedy wideout from Penn State K.J. Hamler. Patrick creates a size mismatch; he’s 6-5, 210 pounds, whereas Hamler offers explosive speed in a smaller 5-9, 178-pound frame.

Hamler is dangerous near the line of scrimmage, and he’s dangerous when moving vertically. He has all the speed in the world, and he played two-thirds of his snaps in the slot. I expect a shot play or two in Hamler’s direction - watch those slot-seams. He had three catches for 107 yards and two touchdowns in the preseason.

Tight ends

Both Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam are incredibly athletic players who test over the 95th percentile in speed. This is a mismatch 12 personnel package that would offer some series speed and athletic ability, given that Okwuegbunam is fully back from his torn ACL, and provided that Fant is healthy - he struggles to stay on the field. Fant saw 93 targets and caught 62 of them for 673 yards and three touchdowns.

Okwuegbunam wasn’t used frequently at Missouri with Drew Lock, but he caught the league’s eye at the combine. Both of these players can stretch the seams, and the Giants’ defense must be conscious of their speed, contested catchability, and strength with the football in their hands.

At times, the Broncos may trot out Eric Suabert, who is a better blocker than Okwuegbunam and Fant. However, I feel confident in Lorenzo Carter’s ability to set the edge, take on pullers with various techniques, and not be out of position as a run defender. Carter and rookie Azeez Ojulari should hold up at the point of attack against these tight ends.

Offensive line

What a difference a quality offensive line coach can make. The Broncos’ offensive line took a significant step forward with Mike Munchak as their coach. In 2019, the unit surrendered 41 sacks with a 32.2 percent pressure rate while averaging a solid 4.2 yards per carry. Last season, the yards per carry went up to 4.46, the pressure rate dropped to 29.4 percent, and the sacks dropped to 32.

No one benefited more from Munchak’s arrival than left tackle Garett Bolles. Many had labeled him as a bust, but Munchak allowed him to actualize his potential. After being penalized 13 times in 2018 and 17 times in 2019 - which are insane penalty numbers, he was only penalized four times last season. He didn’t surrender a sack in 622 drop backs while only giving up 13 pressures, which was more than half the number he surrendered in the previous season (31).

Bobby Massie is the starting right tackle for the Broncos, with Cam Fleming possibly waiting in the wings. I would like to see a little Carter/Ojulari vs. Fleming if the former Giants’ tackle gets some playing time. Massie is a competent tackle who isn’t unbeatable. Both Carter and Ojulari can win some reps against Massie.

Second-year center Lloyd Cushenberry struggled last season; he ranked fourth in pressures allowed with 29 and gave up five sacks - that’s a lot as a center. Cushenberry will look to bounce back after a tough rookie season. The Giants can put Leonard Williams as the 1-technique in obvious passing situations. This could provide an advantage to Williams, especially if Graham aligns his front in a manner that will divert attention away from Williams. Look for the Giants to run stunts/twists in their four-man pressure packages while also bringing the five-man package. We’ll see some of these safeties flying off the edge.

Dalton Risner and Graham Glasgow are the guards on the left and right sides, respectively. According to PFF, Risner didn’t surrender any sacks last season, but he gave up 27 pressures while grading marginally in as a run blocker. Glasgow was a bit more stable in both phases of blocking last season. This offensive line is solid, but the Giants’ defensive line can win these matchups up front and create havoc for Teddy Bridgewater and company. Bolles is a challenging task if he maintains his 2020 play, but Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, and a healthy Lorenzo Carter should be able to apply pressure.