Von Miller’s season-ending ankle injury is a devastating blow to the Broncos’ 2020 playoff hopes, but there’s still reason to be hopeful. The pieces on defense and around the rest of the team should be enough to keep the team afloat and in contention as long as a few key pieces take a big step forward this season.
Here are those players that need to step up.
Malik Reed, Jeremiah Attaochu & Derreck Tuszka
Last season, when Bradley Chubb ended his season prematurely by tearing his ACL, Malik Reed and Jeremiah Attaochu were forced to step up. They’ll be asked to step up once again this year, now that Von Miller won’t play a snap for the Broncos in 2020, though this time they’ll have the help of Derreck Tuszka as well.
Reed performed well in training camp this off-season and seems to have taken a big step in his development. You would expect as much from an undrafted free agent from a non-power five conference who was asked to start the majority of the season as a rookie. Denver will need him to take a leap, as his rookie stats of three sacks and 20 pressures won’t go far in terms of replacing Miller’s impact on the defense.
Attaochu could help supplement those numbers a lot if plays like he did down the stretch for the Broncos last season. Over the final four weeks of the season, Attaochu generated four sacks and nine pressures. That sack rate would be difficult maintain, but if he can continue to generate approximately two pressures per game in 2020 that would huge.
Lastly, the Broncos will have to rely on Tuszka, who they hoped could get a redshirt season to help improve his play strength. That redshirt season should be off the table now, as Tuszka can contribute from day one just like Reed did last year following Chubb’s injury. Tuszka already has multiple pass-rush moves in his arsenal, a relentless motor, and produced a good amount of pressures and sacks in college. He’ll have to handle a big leap from FCS football to NFL football though, which won’t be easy.
Bradley Chubb & Dre’Mont Jones
Last year, Miller had a lot on his plate as he had to compensate for the absence of Chubb, and now Chubb will have to compensate for the absence of Miller, which is a lot to ask of a player coming off an ACL tear, looking forward to what will hopefully be his second full season.
He showed that he had the talent to eventually replace Miller as a rookie. He generated 12 sacks, the second-most ever from a first-year player, 36 total pressures and was arguably a better run defender than Miller from day one. Still, as Miller learned last year, it’s a lot harder to produce when you don’t have a dominant co-star on the other side.
Fortunately, Chubb will also have Dre’Mont Jones and a loaded defensive line helping him bring pressure. Jurrell Casey has been a perennial Pro Bowler and Shelby Harris has been a star for the Broncos the past two seasons, and while that needs to continue, the player that really needs to step up is Jones.
He’s received a ton of hype this off-season and rightfully so, he looked phenomenal in camp, but he’ll have to live up to that hype now in order to keep Denver’s pass rush churning. He was unbelievably productive in spurts as a rookie, now the challenge will be to maintain that pace over the course of a full season.
All of the defensive players listed above could step up and play at a high level, but they still won’t be able to fully replace Miller, because who could? That means the defense is going to take at least a small step back, which just further raises the pressure on the offense and second-year gunslinger Drew Lock.
Broncos Country was already expecting the offense to take a step forward in Lock’s first full season starting, following the off-season overhaul that unit saw. That’s going to be difficult to pull off in 2020, with the lessened practice time, which is why John Elway tried to pump the brakes on the hype train earlier this summer and preached patience.
“Obviously, we’re going to have to lean on the defense,” Elway said back in July. “We have veterans on the defensive side that we can rely on as we grow as an offense. That’s the hope. I’d love to see us come out and score 40 points against Tennessee on Monday night. I’m not saying that can’t happen, but with the youth that we have, it’s going to take some time.”
Remember, that’s the same guy that said Joe Flacco was just entering his prime last season. He’s not one to tap the brakes on a hype train.
Unfortunately for Elway, the Broncos don’t have the luxury of time now, and will need Lock and the rest of the offense to hit the ground running. With a strong rushing attack, receiving core, and greatly improved offensive line and offensive coaching staff, a quick start isn’t out of question.