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Previewing the Jets’ Opposition: Denver Broncos

Denver Broncos v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Jets and Broncos last met in 2018, as Isaiah Crowell had a record-breaking performance and Robby Anderson caught two long touchdown passes from Sam Darnold. However, both teams have gone downhill since then and they’ll each be looking to avoid going 0-4 on Thursday night.

Quarterbacks

While Darnold is still starting for the Jets, Denver will have a new starter on Sunday as head coach Vic Fangio has announced Brett Rypien will get his first start in Pat Shurmer’s west coast offense.

Rypien, who was an undrafted rookie last season, completed eight of nine passes in relief duties on Sunday, albeit for just 53 yards. Only two of his passes went beyond 10 yards, one of which was intercepted. The other went for a 22-yard gain.

Jeff Driskel, who started the past two games for the injured Drew Lock, will back up Rypien with Fangio having said he could get some playing time too. Driskel’s numbers weren’t too bad while he was filling in for Lock, but he only completed 55 percent of his passes and was sacked 11 times.

Although Lock is still regarded as their quarterback of the future, the Broncos signed Blake Bortles to provide some veteran cover, although he’s apparently not ready to play yet.

Offensive Line

The Broncos made a few changes on the offensive line this season as they let Connor McGovern leave to join the Jets and signed Graham Glasgow to replace him, and put rookie third-rounder Lloyd Cushenberry in as the starting center. Both have struggled in pass protection, with Cushenberry surrendering three sacks in the first three games.

They’ve also had to pivot at the right tackle position after Ju’Wuan James opted out before training camp. They reverted to Elijah Wilkinson, who had started there in 2019, but he’s just gone onto injured reserve so veteran Demar Dotson will get his first start on Thursday night.

The Broncos are stronger on the left side with tackle Garrett Bolles and guard Dalton Risner returning. Bolles is their best lineman, but does have 19 penalties in his last 19 games.

None of the bench players - guard Austin Schlottmann, ex-Jets tackle Calvin Anderson and rookie guard Netane Muti - have played yet this season. Denver doesn’t have a backup center, but both guards can slide across if required.

Running Backs

Phillip Lindsay was the key to the Broncos’ running game last season and they brought in Melvin Gordon to form a two-headed attack. However, that hasn’t worked out so far because Lindsay hasn’t been healthy. He is listed as questionable again for Thursday night.

Lindsay was a pro bowler in 2018 and rushed for over 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Gordon has also been a thousand-yard back in the past, although he had a down year in 2019. Both offer production in the passing game too.

Royce Freeman makes most of his contributions as a third down back as he had 43 catches last season.

Undrafted rookie LeVante Bellamy has also been activated from the practice squad, which might be a sign that Lindsay will be a gametime decision.

The Broncos list Andrew Beck, who also plays tight end, as their starting fullback.

Pass catchers

The Broncos were dealt another injury blow when Courtland Sutton, a pro bowler and thousand-yard receiver, tore his ACL. As a result, they now have to rely on three rookies - first rounder Jerry Jeudy, second rounder KJ Hamler and seventh rounder Tyrie Cleveland to step up.

Jeudy, who is an impressive route runner, has produced well so far with 13 catches, although he does also have three dropped passes.

In terms of veteran experience, the Broncos don’t have much at this position, although DaeSean Hamilton and Tim Patrick combined for 44 receptions in 2019. Patrick is listed as the other starter alongside Jeudy, while Hamilton generates most of his production from the slot.

Diontae Spencer, who finally broke into the NFL last year after spending four years in the CFL, is mostly used on special teams.

At tight end, former first round pick Noah Fant is leading the Broncos in receiving and has two touchdowns after having caught 40 passes last year.

Jake Butt, Nick Vannett and fourth round pick Albert Okwuegbunam provide depth. Butt has had an injury-plagued career so far.

Defensive Line

The defensive line is another place where the Broncos - who usually play a 3-4 system - have been affected by injury. After losing Derek Wolfe in free agency and Kyle Peko to an opt-out, they were already thin, but have also placed Dre’Mont Jones, DeMarcus Walker and Jurrell Casey on injured reserve since the season began. Casey is the biggest loss and it was confirmed earlier this week that he is done for the year, so the Broncos responded by signing veteran Timmy Jernigan on Wednesday.

Their most productive lineman is a former Jets cast-off, Shelby Harris, who batted down nine passes and recorded six sacks last year. He also leads them with two sacks so far this season.

Mike Purcell is the starting nose tackle and he contributed eight tackles for loss last season. Third round rookie McTelvin Agim backs him up.

DeShawn Williams was just activated off the practice squad and should get more playing time this week.

Linebackers

Perhaps the biggest injury blow for the Broncos was star pass rusher Von Miller’s ankle injury that required surgery during training camp. Their depth has also been compromised at inside linebacker where they lost leading tackler Todd Davis in the offseason and have placed Mark Barron and Austin Calitro on injured reserve in recent weeks.

The Broncos are hoping Bradley Chubb can step up in Miller’s absence but he’s yet to record a sack this year having returned from a torn ACL of his own. He had recorded 12 sacks in his rookie year in 2018.

Former Jet Jeremiah Attaochu is listed as the starter on the other edge for the Broncos, but he’s been ruled out with a quadriceps injury.

Anthony Chickillo and Malik Reed have been the backups at outside linebacker so one of them will probably get the start. Reed is another player who was reported to have signed for the Jets as an undrafted rookie, but that deal fell through. Denver also activated Derrek Tuszka from the practice squad for this game.

On the inside, AJ Johnson and Josey Jewell are the starters. Johnson is the Broncos’ leading tackler this year, having racked up 93 tackles in 2019. Jewell has been exploited at times in pass coverage. Behind these two, Joe Jones provides depth off the bench.

Defensive Backs

The Broncos also suffered big losses at cornerback with Chris Harris leaving during the offseason and AJ Bouye being placed on injured reserve.

At the moment, Bryce Callahan and Michael Ojemudia are starting at cornerback. Callahan is an outstanding slot corner but has been forced into action on the outside with undrafted rookie Essang Bassey filling in as the nickel back.

Ojemudia, who was drafted in the third round in April, has had some struggles so far, including against the Steelers when Chase Claypool burned him for an 84-yard touchdown on a deep throw.

At safety, converted cornerback Kareem Jackson provides veteran leadership and Justin Simmons is one of their top playmakers. Simmons racked up 93 tackes, 15 passes defensed and four interceptions last season.

The likes of De’Vante Bausby and Davontae Harris provide depth at cornerback and PJ Locke and Trey Marshall are the backups at safety. Harris is listed as questionable though. Duke Dawson is a versatile utility guy, although he had five penalties in a reserve role last year.

Special Teams

So far, the Broncos’ special teams unit has been poor. In the first three games, kicker Brandon McManus missed a field goal, punter Sam Martin had one punt blocked and had to concede a safety on a bad snap and the coverage unit gave up a 49-yard kickoff return.

McManus missed five field goals and an extra point in 2019 but made four from beyond 50 yards, while Martin is a new addition having spent seven years with the Lions.

Spencer is the main return man. He was seventh in the NFL in punt return average last year and averaged over 29 yards per kickoff return. Cleveland is listed as the backup kickoff returner and Callahan is listed as the backup on punt returns.

On coverage, Marshall and Jones are two of their main contributors, although Jones does have issues with missing tackles. The Broncos gave up two touchdowns on punt returns last season.