The Giants take on the Denver Broncos to open their 2021 regular season on Sunday. The Broncos went 5-11 in 2020, dealing with serious injuries to top players on both sides of the ball. Vic Fangio is entering his third year as the team's head coach, and the roster has undergone some major changes with hiring of new GM George Paton.
When the Giants have the ball…
1. Changes in the secondary: The Broncos defense ranked 21st last season in yards allowed per game (367.9), and allowed the eighth most points in the league (27.9 pts/g). The Broncos hope to drastically improve those defensive rankings with their additions at cornerback this of-fseason.
Cornerbacks Michael Ojemudia, AJ Bouye, Essang Bassey, Will Parks, and De'Vante Bausby, Parnell Motley, Davontae Harris, Duke Dawson Jr., Nate Hairston and Kevin Tolliver played a combined 2,343 snaps last season and are no longer on the roster. Bryce Callahan is the only returning player at cornerback and should slide back into the slot.
The Broncos will replace those players with free agent additions Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby and Mike Ford, along with draft picks Patrick Surtain II and Kary Vincent. Darby has been a solid six-year starter in the NFL, while Kyle Fuller has two Pro Bowls and an All-Pro selection on his resume during his seven-year NFL career.
The Broncos return their two starting safeties - Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson. Simmons signed a huge contract extension this off-season, made the Pro Bowl last year and is widely recognized as one of the top safeties in the NFL. Simmons had five interceptions last season, nine passes defended and three tackles for loss. He can play over the slot receiver and in the box, but nearly two-thirds of his snaps last year came at free safety.
Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio likes to play start both his safeties playing deep, which is why Jackson also played nearly two-thirds of his snaps at free safety last season. He finished the year with four passes defended, one interception and a tackle for loss. Jackson and Simmons form one of the best safety duos in the NFL.
Last season, the Broncos mixed up their defensive scheme, though played Cover-3 and Cover-1 more than other coverages. Only three teams allowed more than the Broncos 59 pass plays of 20 or more yards. They were able to compensate for allowing so many big plays with a league best 47.5% red zone touchdown efficiency rate defensively. Traditionally, Vic Fangio defenses do not give up many big plays, and the hope is that the revamped cornerback corps will help in that area.
2. Rushing the passer: The Broncos employ a 3-4 base defense with two upper-echelon edge rushers in Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, both of whom have dealt with lower body injuries the past two seasons. Miller missed all of his 2020 season with a tendon injury, while Chubb missed most of 2019 with a torn ACL.
Chubb rebounded in 2020 with 7.5 sacks, 19 quarterback hits and PFF tracked him with 61 total pressures (16th in the league. He will line up over the left tackle the majority of the time. He is dealing with a preseason ankle injury.
Von Miller will line up over the opponent's right tackle, and enters his age 32 season in 2021 with 106 career sacks, but he has not reached double digits since 2018. He had eight in 2019, but totaled 10 or more in seven of his first eight seasons. Despite finishing with only eight sacks in 15 games in 2019, he still finished with 83 pressures, which was the eighth in the NFL. It will be interesting to see how explosive he looks coming off of serious injury.
Last year, the Broncos were an efficient blitzing team, holding opposing quarterbacks to a 84.1 quarterback rating (6th-best on the league) when they sent extra pass rushers in 2020. They blitzed just under 30% of the time in 2020, which was close to league average. They blitzed from the slot cornerback spot with the eighth-most frequency in the league. Their 32% overall pressure rate ranked 15th in the NFL and the Broncos finished ninth in the league with 42 sacks, but both numbers could improve this year with the return of Miller.
3. Stopping the run: The Broncos struggled to stop the run last season, giving up an average of 130 yards on the ground per game (25th in NFL), and 4.79 yards per carry (29th). On early downs, when teams are looking to run the football, the Broncos ranked in the bottom six of the league and gave up nearly five yards per carry. They also struggled in preventing big running plays, allowing the fifth-most runs of 20+ yards (17).
View photos of the Denver Broncos starters ahead of the Week 1 matchup against the Giants.
When the Broncos have the ball...
4. Quarterback: The Broncos acquired Teddy Bridgewater this off-season and he beat out Drew Lock to start against the Giants in Week 1. Bridgewater defied his reputation as a risk adverse quarterback for the Panthers last season. He finished ninth in the league with 11 interceptions and PFF tracked him for 20 turnover-worthy plays, which was the ninth-highest mark in the NFL.
With some added mistakes also came some bigger plays. Bridgewater finished 2020 with the 14th-most completions of 25+ yards in the NFL with 27. His 7.59 yards per attempt was 12th-highest in the NFL while maintaining a completion percentage of 66.9% (seventh).
Despite those big-play numbers, he only managed 15 passing touchdowns because of his production in the red zone. He had the worst PFF passing red zone grade of any quarterback in 2020. He finished with only nine touchdowns with three interceptions and a 78.2 quarterback rating on red zone throws. He was PFF's lowest graded quarterback on red zone pass plays.
A total of 51% of Bridgewater's passing yards came on yards after the catch., which was the eighth-highest percentage in the NFL. His average depth of target was just 7.7 yards, which ranked 36th in the NFL. His big-time throw rate, which is tracked by PFF, was just 3.3%, which ranked 35th in 2020.
5. Skill positions: The Broncos have one of the deepest and best skill positions groups in the NFL. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur's offensive scheme attempts to get players the football on the move to set up big plays and yards after the catch.
Courtland Sutton tore his ACL in Week 2 of the 2020 season, but is expected to be ready to play. He uses his frame extremely well at 6'4 and 216 pounds, and finished 2019 with 72 catches for 1,112 receiving yards and six touchdowns. Tim Patrick (6'5, 210 pounds) took advantage of Sutton's injury last season and finished with 742 receiving yards and six touchdowns.
Jerry Jeudy had a productive but inconsistent rookie season, finishing with 52 catches and 856 receiving yards to lead the team. PFF also tracked him with 12 drops, which was the second-most in the NFL after Diontae Johnson. Jeudy is one of the best route runners in the NFL and is able to create consistent separation. KJ Hamler is a smaller speedster (5'9, 178) who spent 65% of his snaps in the slot last year.
Tight End Noah Fant led the Broncos in catches last year with 62. At 6'4 and 250, he has the speed to get down the seam, which helped him gain 673 yards through the air on 10.9 yards per catch. He has been dealing with a leg injury during the preseason.
The Broncos have a two-headed monster approach at running back with veteran Melvin Gordon and rookie second round pick Javonte Williams. Williams broke PFF's broken tackle per rushing attempt (.48) in his final year at North Carolina in 2020. He is a bruising, between the tackles.