BRONCOS // CHARGERS OVERVIEW
The 3-6 Broncos come off their bye this week to travel to a 7-2 Chargers team whose only losses this year have come against the Chiefs and the Rams. This is not a bad Broncos squad (they beat the Seahawks in Week 1, and they lost by three points to the Rams, by four and seven points to the Chiefs, and by two points to the Texans) — but barring a magical turnaround, this team is playing for nothing but pride (and a new coach next year), while the Chargers are trying to secure their rightful spot in the playoffs.
Surprisingly, Denver has played at the sixth fastest pace in the league this year — hanging out on the far opposite end of the spectrum from the Chargers, who rank 32nd in pace and 24th in pass play rate. The Chargers are a slow-paced team that likes to lean on the run. The Broncos are a fast-paced team that would probably like to lean on the run, but that has been forced into a middling pass play rate due to the time they have spent trailing in games this year.
Teams have been happy to attack Denver on the ground (they have faced the seventh lowest pass play rate in the NFL), so we should expect the Chargers to land in their typical range once again. Philip Rivers has now gone five consecutive games without topping 27 pass attempts — and while most people confusingly continue to ignore this trend, we should realize that this is very much the way Anthony Lynn and the Chargers want to play: with strong defense, a strong run game, a slow pace, and a low-volume, high-efficiency passing attack. The Broncos have faced the seventh fewest pass attempts in the league this year, while facing the 13th most rush attempts. Unless Denver jumps out to a big, early lead, we should expect the Chargers to slow down the pace and lean on the run game yet again.
Vegas has installed the Chargers as early seven-point favorites, with an Over/Under of 46.5. This game may play a bit closer than that spread implies, but we should ultimately expect the Chargers to control this contest, and for the home team to dictate the way in which this game will be played.
BRONCOS PASS OFFENSE
The Chargers’ pass defense has continued to improve this year, as they have now forced the third shallowest aDOT in football, while allowing a below-average catch rate and only 15 passing touchdowns (only four more than league leader Tennessee). Along the way, the Chargers have ramped up their pass rush (their 26 sacks rank ninth in the league, only five behind the league leaders) — and after notching only eight sacks through their first four games, they have 18 quarterback takedowns across their last five contests. The one area where the Chargers have been below-average is in YAC/R rate, which has left this team middle of the pack in yards allowed per pass attempt. Ultimately, this is a downgrade spot for opposing passing attacks, but it is not a true “shy away” matchup if you want to hunt for places to attack.
If choosing to attack, the bad news is that Case Keenum has been remarkably inconsistent this season, throwing for 290 or more yards four times, but throwing for 222 or fewer yards another three times. He has thrown 10 interceptions through nine games (with only one game all year without a pick), and he has pushed only 11 passes into the end zone. Denver ranks 22nd in red zone touchdown rate, while the Chargers have allowed the fifth lowest red zone touchdown rate on the year.
Much like last year: the Chargers have been especially tough on wide receivers, allowing the sixth fewest catches and the seventh fewest yards to the position. The truth of this matchup may lie somewhere in the middle, as this team got smoked by the Chiefs in Week 1 and looked attackable in Week 3 against the Rams…while their stretch of strong play has come against the 49ers // Raiders // Browns // Titans // Seahawks // Raiders. Tajae Sharpe (of all players) is the only wide receiver in this stretch to top 100 yards — and he got there on volume, rather than on explosiveness, with none of his catches in this matchup going for even 20 yards. Realistically, the Broncos’ passing attack is in the same range as the teams listed above, lowering floor expectations across the board. Russell Wilson and C.J. Beathard are the only quarterbacks in this stretch to pass for two touchdowns against the Chargers. None of these quarterbacks threw for 300 yards.
The player likeliest to beat this matchup is Emmanuel Sanders, though Manny has become the possession receiver in this attack lately, with only six targets in his last three games coming more than 10 yards downfield. Sanders is seeing most of his looks within five yards of the line of scrimmage — though he does get one or two downfield shots each game, giving him upside if he connects. He has seen at least seven targets in all but two games this year.
Our boy Courtland Sutton unsurprisingly saw very little change in role with Demaryius Thomas gone — as Sutton has been used primarily as this team’s downfield weapon, and the Broncos seem hesitant to take him off these “upside” routes for the shorter-area stuff that Demaryius often handled. Sutton has four to six targets in all but two games this year, and his aDOT of 14.7 gives him upside on these looks. The Chargers have had some breakdowns this season on the back end — allowing the eighth most pass plays of 20+ yards — though Sutton is still reliant on Keenum for his upside to manifest.
Helping to cover the void left by Demaryius in the Broncos’ last game was Jeff Heuerman, who saw a whopping 11 targets against Houston, off of previous target counts of 4 // 7 // 4 // 5 // 0 // 5. Heuerman’s upside is dented by a basement-low aDOT of 5.8, but his YAC/R of 4.9 and his xYAC/R of 5.4 does provide some room for yardage. He’s unlikely to see 11 targets again this year, but something like five to seven looks is reasonable. The Chargers have allowed a very low 57.5% completion rate to tight ends (typically, tight end completion rates are higher than average), with rookie superstar Derwin James keying coverage for this squad, but it won’t be a shock if Heuerman posts a respectable line, and he has upside if everything clicks just right.
BRONCOS RUN OFFENSE
The Chargers have given up only five touchdowns to running backs (tied with a few other teams as the third lowest mark in the league), but they have otherwise been more attackable with backfields than they have been with wideouts and tight ends — ranking 20th in fewest yards allowed per carry, while allowing the eighth most receptions and the second most receiving yards to the position.
The good news slows down when we actually reach the Broncos’ backfield, as Royce Freeman is returning this week to what has been a three-way timeshare when all three backs have been healthy. Expectations with all of Freeman, Phillip Lindsay, and Devontae Booker active have looked about like this:
:: Lindsay — 12 to 14 carries // 2 to 3 catches
:: Freeman — 8 to 13 carries // 0 to 1 catch
:: Booker — 2 to 5 carries // 2 to 5 catches
CHARGERS PASS OFFENSE
Although the Broncos are no longer the fierce unit against the pass that they were in the past (22nd in yards allowed per pass attempt; 16 passing touchdowns allowed, against a middling eight interceptions), they do still boast a ferocious pass rush (their 28 sacks are only three behind the league leaders), and they have been attackable enough on the ground (the eighth most yards allowed per carry in the league) that teams have been content to lean on the run in this matchup. Barring an outlier scenario (i.e., the Broncos jumping out to a big, early lead), we should expect Rivers to once again stay under 30 pass attempts. His best bet for rising above this mark would be for play volume on the Chargers to spike unexpectedly. With the Chargers slowing down the pace and sticking to the run, they have piled up the second fewest plays per game in the league.
When Rivers does pass, his first focus is Keenan Allen — as even this low-volume stretch has yielded target counts of 9 // 6 // 5 // 10 // 9 for the Chargers’ top weapon. Naturally, Keenan’s low aDOT (9.4) has yielded yardage totals in this stretch of 90 // 62 // 72 // 124 // 57. With only two touchdowns all season and a tough matchup against Chris Harris in the slot (where Keenan plays over 50% of his snaps), he’ll have a tough time popping off for a big game.
With Keenan locked into first-read looks and Melvin Gordon adding target counts in this stretch of 4 // 4 // 4 // 6, there is little left to go around to other pass catchers, with Mike Williams seeing recent target counts of 4 // 4 // 3 // 3 // 0, and with Tyrell Williams going 3 // 4 // 4 // 3 // 6. Mike played only 26 snaps last week to 45 for Tyrell, making the latter the preferred tourney “upside” play. The Broncos — as noted all year — have struggled at times against speed-based deep-ball receivers. It won’t be a shock if Tyrell hits here, and his floor has been useful even in games in which he has failed to notch a touchdown or a big play.
CHARGERS RUN OFFENSE
While volume has been a concern lately for the Chargers’ passing attack, this has not been the case for the run game, as Gordon has been an absolute centerpiece this year — seeing touch counts during this low-pass-volume stretch of 23 // 20 // 17 // 23. As noted several times over the last few weeks: Gordon doesn’t quite have the touch ceiling of guys like Gurley and Conner, as this team is going to give some touches to Austin Ekeler before turning Gordon into a 25+ touch back — but he’s a good bet for 80 to 100+ yards on the ground and two or three receptions, while his red zone role (11 touchdowns on the year) gives him plenty of upside from there. The Broncos have allowed a 9.3% increase on the league-average yards per carry, and their nine touchdowns allowed to the position ranks middle of the pack (14th in the league). Denver has downgraded pass-catching production (seventh fewest receptions // seventh fewest yards to the position), but ultimately, this is a slightly above-average matchup for one of the most reliable backs in the league.
The Broncos’ offense does not stand out to me at all in this spot — unsurprising, given that there are 13 teams with Vegas-Implied totals in the range of 22.5 to 27.5, and Denver is not one of them. I’m unlikely to have much (if any) interest on this side of the ball on my Main Build, and I may not even take any shots here in large-field tourneys, as it’s difficult to see a week-winning score emerging from this side of the ball. The likeliest bet for a week-winning score is Emmanuel Sanders, as he can pop for a big game when he connects on his deep shots, while providing floor with the rest of his looks.
I’ll also continue to leave the Chargers’ passing attack alone, as volume is just too important for me to want to slide over to a team that is unlikely to notch 30 pass attempts. The one player in this attack I have had interest in lately is Tyrell, who becomes an interesting “upside” piece in his price range in large-field tourneys — as a guy who doesn’t kill your roster when he misses, and who can outscore most of the other players priced around him if he hits. Adding him to a large-field roster that otherwise carries plenty of floor can be an interesting way to capture some added upside.
I’ll likely leave Melvin Gordon alone this week — not because I don’t like him (I like him plenty), but because I can target higher point-per-dollar upside in other spots at the running back position. This is an above-average matchup, but not a true “spiked-week” spot, and Gordon’s price (along with the availability of plenty of other quality running back setups at lower prices this week) will have him farther down my list. To rephrase that: I expect yet another strong game from Gordon — though at his price, I likely won’t be there myself, as there will probably prove to be better ways to build a quality top-to-bottom roster this week.