Midweek Musings: Broncos and QBs and Bears, Oh My!

Hello, Bronco fans! As you all know, a significant change took place with the Broncos this week, and SMA has already reviewed the effect Brock Osweiler could have on the offense. The question, though, is what this means for Sunday’s game against Chicago.

You are probably going to see a lot of people predicting that the Bears are going to beat the Broncos, because Osweiler doesn’t have the experience, the offensive line is a mess, the Broncos can’t run the football, and the likes of Jay Cutler, John Fox and Adam Gase are going to be motivated to be the team they used to be part of, and Fox and Gase know all the answers to how to beat the Broncos at what they do.

Except it’s not that simple. You can check SMA’s piece yesterday for what to expect from the offense, but let’s focus on what the Bears are like this season.

First of all, yes, the Bears are improving. Jay Cutler is not the same quarterback he’s been in past seasons. No longer can you count on him being the guy who throws multiple interceptions in a game while taking a pounding because of a porous offensive line. This season, Cutler has thrown 13 touchdown passes to five interceptions in eight games (he missed one start because of injury). At his current pace, he will have 26 TDs and 10 interceptions, which would be the best TD-to-INT ratio of his career.

With that said, it’s important to remember what’s allowed Cutler to have more success this season. First, Gase has coached up Cutler to be more selective in reading the field and be willing to check down to running backs if nothing is open down field. Second, the Bears haven’t been able to stretch the field that much because of injuries to wide receivers. Third, the offensive line is doing a much better job protecting Cutler. He’s only been sacked 12 times this season, a pace that would put him at 24 for the season. That may seem like a lot, but consider he was sacked 38 times last season, 38 in 2012 and a whopping 52 times in 2010 (the season that the Bears reached the NFC Championship) and it’s not hard to figure out that Cutler isn’t taking the pounding he used to.

The offense overall, though, is about league average. Last week against the Rams, two of the Bears’ touchdowns came on big plays. The 87-yard touchdown pass to Zach Miller came because the Rams missed several tackles, and that’s something the Broncos haven’t had an issue with. The 83-yard pass to Jeremy Langford came after the Rams blitzed Cutler, but he dumped it off to Langford, who got two key blocks that allowed him to go the distance. You can chalk up the latter big play to blown coverage, which is something the Broncos have had a couple of times this season.

That’s not to say the Bears don’t have capable playmakers on offense. Matt Forte remains questionable to play, but Langford is similar to Forte in that he’s a good pass catcher and makes good cuts in the open field. So the Bears don’t really drop off that much if Langford takes the majority of the snaps. I would expect that, if Forte plays, he’ll split the load with Langford, but if it’s mostly Langford, the Broncos must still be prepared to account for the screen passes.

Alshon Jeffery missed several games early in the season with various injuries and he gives the Bears a legitimate downfield threat. Jeffery is listed as questionable but I would expect he’ll play this week. His presence is necessary because the Bears’ wide receiver depth drops off dramatically after that. Kevin White was a first-round pick who hasn’t taken a snap this season because of a stress fracture in his left shin. White won’t play Sunday and I don’t think he’ll play a game at all this year. Old friend Eddie Royal has been dealing with a knee injury that’s caused him to missed the last three games and, so far, it doesn’t look like he’ll play Sunday. Thus the Bears have to roll out the likes of Marc Mariani and Marquess Wilson as receivers, and neither of them are that good.

Where the Bears make up for that in the receiving game is with the tight ends. Martellus Bennett has good chemistry with Cutler and Zach Miller, who used to play for the Raiders, has slid into the No. 2 tight end role. Bennett has been targeted far more often than Miller (70 targets for Bennett to just 10 for Miller), but that doesn’t mean the Broncos can ignore Miller.

The offensive line hasn’t given up as many sacks, but how you rate the pass protection depends on who you ask. Football Outsiders ranks the O-line fifth in pass protection, while Pro Football Focus ranked it 24th. In run blocking, FO ranks the line 15th and PFF ranks its 18th, so they are closer in agreement there. Guard Matt Slauson is the Bears’ best lineman, while left tackle is the biggest issue. Jermon Bushrod was the starter, but if you look to his past, you’ll know he looked better than he really was in New Orleans thanks to Drew Brees’ quick release. Since coming to Chicago, he’s been exposed. Bushrod has been benched for Charles Leno, a 2014 seventh-round pick, who struggled at first but has shown improvement.

When it comes to what the Broncos need to do defensively, they need to carefully consider who they have Aqib Talib and Chris Harris defend, because only Jeffery demands attention from a top cornerback, while Bennett and Miller would be next in line. I imagine the Broncos will task T.J. Ward with defending Bennett, but if they use him elsewhere, I’d let Harris or Talib take Bennett. As for Miller, it may be time to utilize Bradley Roby on him. Roby should also be able to handle any of the other Bears’ receivers, too.

Most of all, the Broncos have to be ready to defend the screen pass, because Cutler will take it. He’s not going to try testing the Broncos downfield on most plays because he’s done well in learning from Gase about when he can safely attack the field and that he doesn’t need to take chances.

As for the defense, it remains to be seen if the Bears will have their best overall player, Pernell McPhee. He’s by far the best free agent signing the Bears made this offseason. McPhee has had 45 pressures and five sacks. However, he missed last week’s game with a knee injury and didn’t practice Wednesday. If he’s out, the Bears’ pass rush takes a hit. Their next best pass rusher, LaMarr Houston, is playing better this year, but he’s not as good as McPhee. An underrated pass rusher is rookie Eddie Goldman, who has 13 pressures and 1.5 sacks. Goldman doesn’t rush the passer often, but he can cause problems when he does.

The defensive backs are led by second-year player Kyle Fuller, who has improved from last season. He had four interceptions and 10 passes defended last season, but he struggled a lot. I think the Bears’ new coaching staff has helped make him a better player and he’s got potential to develop into a No. 1 cornerback. The other cornerback position has seen journeyman Alan Ball and old friend Tracy Porter take the field. Porter is the better of the two, but his best days are behind him. At safety, Adrian Amos has started all nine games, while Antrel Rolle has started seven, but he’s missed two games with injuries and he’s questionable to play this week. If Rolle is out, the Bears’ secondary takes a hit.

But no matter who takes the field among the pass rushers and defensive backs, the Bears have been solid against the pass, ranked 18th in Football Outsiders DVOA. Against the run, though, the Bears have struggled. FO ranks the Bears D 31st and they’ve given up 4.6 yards per carry to opposing runners. Yeah, you can point to how the Bears contained Todd Gurley, but the truth is, Rams coach Jeff Fisher abandoned the run game earlier than he should have. Don’t expect Gary Kubiak to abandon the run early — he’ll stick with it unless the Broncos are trailing by a lot, and even then, he’s going to call some run plays to keep the defense honest.

And I don’t expect the Broncos to be a in two-TD hole. Go back to SMA’s article from yesterday. Did you read the part about how the Broncos won’t run the pistol formation now that Osweiler is under center? Did you notice SMA point out that Osweiler taking snaps under center will be a boost to the running backs? Combine that with a porous run defense and I expect C.J. Anderson to have his best game of the season, and Ronnie Hillman should be productive, too. Remember, with Osweiler under center, teams can’t count on the Broncos using the pistol.

And then there’s special teams. We haven’t discussed this a lot regarding the Broncos, but their special teams ranking in FO DVOA has improved with each week. The Broncos are ranked fifth after nine games. Where are the Bears ranked? Dead last. Their biggest problem is kickoffs, which FO rated at -16.4. Robbie Gould has just 26 touchbacks on 48 attempts and the Bears have given up 591 yards on kick returns, two returned for touchdowns. On one hand, Brandon McManus has 30 touchbacks on 47 attempts, but part of that goes to a couple of bad kicks on his part. When it comes to kick returns, though, the Broncos have given up just 282 yards and nobody has return a kick for a touchdown.

This means Omar Bolden can be prepared to get opportunities to return kickoffs in this week’s game, and if he keeps playing as well as he has this season, he could get some good returns that help the Broncos win the battle of field position. Go back to last week’s game against Kansas City, and you will see that the Broncos lost the battle of field position badly. If the Broncos can reverse that this week, they should win this game.

I don’t expect this to be a game in which the Broncos make Cutler look like the quarterback we normally joke about. I do, however, expect this to be a game in which the Broncos offense does a better job than people expect, the Broncos defense gets focused and doesn’t make the mistakes it has made in recent weeks (particularly those against the Colts) and for the special teams to keep improving. And I expect the Broncos will defy what many believe, pull out a win and cause a few pundits to reassess their thinking regarding what the Broncos can do with Osweiler under center.

Go Broncos!

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.