The Donatell Diary: Seesaw Continues Against Herbert’s Chargers

Nov 14, 2021; Inglewood, California, USA; Minnesota Vikings outside linebacker Nick Vigil (59) pressures Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) to throw an incomplete pass in the second half of the game at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Not altogether unlike the recent versions of the Vikings, the Broncos often went back and forth between strong and not-so-strong play. In Week 12 of the 2021 season, Denver got back to playing well, doing so against a talented Chargers team. A variety of players made impact plays, allowing Ed Donatell and the Broncos to give themselves a better shot at making a push down the stretch.

Readers who haven’t been following along or who’d like a refresher can feel free to read the reports on the Broncos’ defensive performance in Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, Week 4, Week 5, Week 6, Week 7, Week 8, Week 9, and Week 10. It’s now time to take on Week 12 (Week 11 was Denver’s bye week).

The Positives

The LA Chargers have a scary offense. Justin Herbert is already one of the better QBs in the NFL. Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Austin Ekeler form a tremendous top 3 playmaker combo. By holding them to a mere 13 points, Denver did a really nice job.

Patrick Surtain was asked to do a lot in this game. He picked up two interceptions, one of which was returned for a score. When he wasn’t intercepting Herbert, Surtain had to either corral Allen or Williams, so things weren’t easy out there. He deserves a ton of credit for playing well during his rookie season, and one wonders how much of his success can go back to coaching and scheme. The Vikings have their own promising rookie corner in Andrew Booth Jr. Cameron Dantzler also stands out as a young player with a lot of potential.

Denver also did a nice job of pressuring the young QB. Bradley Chubb returned, which certainly makes life easier. It’s been encouraging to see the Broncos generate pressure even though their front 7 has been battling injuries. We can expect Donatell to move around Harrison Phillips, Armon Watts, Danielle Hunter, and Za’Darius Smith to give them favorable looks.

Former Viking Stephen Weatherly got home for a sack.

A major part of the reason why Denver could build a strong 14-0 lead was because of the defense. When he was still in charge, Mike Zimmer would often talk about complementary football. The basic idea is that all phases of the game influence each other. If a defense hinders the opposition from moving down the field, then the offense doesn’t have as far to go to score. In the opening quarter of this game, Denver held LA to a couple 3 & outs. In so doing, Denver’s offense could get some early success.

Minnesota is working under new leadership, but the goal remains the same. Football is an interconnected sport, so all the different components work together.

The Negatives

Keenan Allen on Kyle Fuller was a mismatch. The Chargers found a way to move the ball when they were targeting the struggling corner, especially since Allen is such a good route runner. It’s yet another reminder that a weak spot in the secondary can lead to some issues. Using one of the talented safeties – Harrison Smith, Lewis Cine, or Camryn Bynum – to bracket a top receiver will likely be necessary at various points this season.

Herbert did his best to scramble, and at times he was able to pick up some yardage. Nevertheless, the linebackers did a much better job of ensuring the QB didn’t find a lot of room. Baron Browning made several strong plays. Jordan Hicks and Eric Kendricks will be asked to do a fair bit. Given their veteran experience, I expect both to show that they’re very capable of thriving in this system.

In the above video, you’ll see Ekeler find a ton of room along the inside. He begins by making it look like he’s moving toward the sideline before decisively working back into the middle. Meanwhile, the receivers are running into the endzone to help clear things out. If I’m not mistaken, the game broadcast pointed out that the main error rests with the middle linebacker, who too aggressively starts going toward the flats. In so doing, the defender left far too much room for Ekeler to work back inside.

It’s a good reminder that regardless of the scheme one wants to run, players will need to maintain their discipline.

The Send Off

By beating their division rival, the Broncos got up to 6-5. Their year has largely been characterized by up and down play. At times, their defense looks very good, and we need to remember that so much of their season occurred without many of their main defenders. Donatell thus needed to do a lot of work in order to get this defense prepared for Sunday. They won the game 28-13, largely due to the defense stifling the Chargers offense.

In Week 13, the Broncos take on the high-powered Kansas City Chiefs, perhaps the most challenging game yet for the defense.

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