The Donatell Diary: Stymied By Steeler Skill in Week 5

Dec 9, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Chase Claypool (11) is tackled by Minnesota Vikings cornerback Bashaud Breeland (21) during the fourth quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Week 4 featured a tough loss to the Ravens. Denver’s follow-up performance against another AFC North team – the Pittsburgh Steelers – left a little to be desired. The Broncos have now had two-straight weeks of ho-hum performances. By no means was Ed Donatell’s defense an outright disaster. Nevertheless, there have been some struggles, and the step back from the Broncos offense has made things difficult for Donatell & Friends.

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, and Week 4. It’s now time to take on Week 5.

The Positives

Patrick Surtain II has been steadily improving. At this point, he’s Denver’s CB1. Kyle Fuller has been a major liability in coverage, so it’s the rookie and Bryce Callahan who are the clear top two. He does a nice job contesting catches. In a week when Chase Claypool was a matchup nightmare, Surtain was able to compete. If the Vikings do select a CB in the opening round, fans should hope for someone who can replicate Surtain’s improvement.

Losing a player like Bradley Chubb is very difficult to overcome. Malik Reed, though, has some nice moments, such as the strip sack in the above video. Reed and Von Miller both have chances to produce, so I’m feeling hopeful about what Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith will be able to do.

Another week, another impressive performance from Kareem Jackson. He hits hard:

Fans are really going to enjoy watching Harrison Smith and Camryn Bynum in this defense. In the above clip, you’ll see Jackson identifying the run and then flying up for a hit. Similar to a linebacker filling a gap between the tackles, Jackson steps into the in-between area to take down Juju Smith-Schuster before the Steelers’ WR could get a large gain. From what I can tell, the Steelers were calling that play with the expectation that two blockers would be enough. The receiver and tight end each do a nice job of getting their mitts on their man. Pittsburgh’s error was in underestimating the veteran safety.

Every week, QBs have made inaccurate throws in seemingly easy situations. It was easy to overlook Daniel Jones and Zach Wilson, but I’m starting to see a trend. Perhaps the Broncos defense rattles opposing QBs, throwing them off kilter in a manner that contributes to being inaccurate at times.

The Negatives

For the first time all season, the Broncos run defense wasn’t impressive. Najee Harris had 23 carries for 122 yards and a TD. If it wasn’t for muscle cramps, he certainly would have piled on more yards. Denver didn’t have a great answer.

Chase Claypool was a problem. He turned his 5 catches into 130 yards and a TD. At one point, they got him into the slot against Von Miller. This was an instance of the Broncos getting outcoached; Miller’s job isn’t to cover talented receivers. The short slant pass ended up going for 59 yards. Minnesota will need to ensure that they’re not putting Hunter on someone of Claypool’s abilities. In fact, they should avoid putting their stud EDGE twosome into one-on-one coverage situations.

Just as Jackson is consistently impressive, Fuller is consistently unimpressive. Diontae Johnson – who, in fairness, is legit – scorched the veteran CB on a long TD:

One of the main takeaways from these opening five weeks is that Denver got in trouble a lot due to Fuller’s struggles. Having a clear weak link in the secondary leaves this defense in some trouble since there can be so much one-on-one.

At various points, the Steelers used 11 personnel, deploying all three receivers to one side. In so doing, they left the opposite side with just the TE and potentially the RB running a route into oodles of green grass. Teams with dynamic TEs and RBs may do this to create room for themselves, so it’s something to keep an eye on this season.

Alexander Johnson had a shot at multiple INTs in this game, but he dropped them. A strong player, Johnson’s miscues made things more challenging than they needed to be.

The Send Off

In the end, the Steelers won 27-19. To his credit, Teddy Two Gloves rallied back from his less-than-stellar start to this game. With very little time on the clock, Bridgewater had his offense in a first-and-goal situation. Unfortunately, a late interception sealed Denver’s fate.

The defense could have done more to snag the win. Allowing Harris to be so productive meant they were commonly giving the Steelers first downs, and the Claypool matchup was one that favored Pittsburgh all day. In the past couple seasons, the Vikings defense has been in games where they’ve completely spiralled. So far, Denver’s bad games have still given the Broncos a chance to win. That’s a glass-half-full way of understanding two modest weeks.

Now 3-2, the Broncos will take on the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 6.

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