ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — On Monday night, the Denver Broncos entered their first game of the regular season thin, in terms of depth, at the position they wanted to be their biggest, in terms of physical stature.
Thanks to three primetime performances from under the radar players across the defensive front seven, however, the Broncos left Week 1 stronger then they had originally been when they entered.
Going into Monday Night Football, Denver was without starting outside linebacker Shane Ray, starting defensive lineman Jared Crick and rotational defensive lineman Zach Kerr all due to injury. To fill the void, the Broncos activated undrafted rookie free agent Tyrique Jarrett from the practice squad to the 53-man roster just hours before the game to help fill the void up front against the Los Angeles Chargers.
But it was the players already planning to play along the defensive line that jumped out to Vance Joseph on Tuesday morning as he was in the process of evaluating the team’s 24-21 victory the night before.
“D-line wise I thought Shelby [Harris] played—again—very, very solid. I thought [Adam] Gotsis played well,” Joseph said. “Gotsis played the point of attack very strong on double teams. You could see his quickness; you could see his length and size. I think Gotsis is coming along, if he stays healthy, he’s what he should be for us. He can be a starter for us; he can rush the passer, he can play the run game. Obviously, I was pleased with Gotsis; I was pleased with Shelby.”
Gotsis, the second-round pick of just a year ago, had a tough rookie season battling back from a torn ACL he suffered his senior season at Georgia Tech. But a year of rehab later, Gotsis’ emergence in the first week of the season wasn’t a fluke.
“It’s hard to play in the trenches without a base,” Gotsis said recalling the difference between last year and this year. “I have a base behind me. I have a bigger upper body now.”
Joseph’s evaluation on the key defensive players was supported by Pro Football Focus’ (PFF) as Gotsis graded out as the team’s second-best player, only falling short to outside linebacker Von Miller, and Harris as the fourth-best player.
Their productivity had a direct translation to the Chargers’ production, or lack of production, on the field, too. In 2016, Chargers running back Melvin Gordon had the eighth-most rushing yards per game (76.7) on 3.9 yards per carry. Monday night, Gordon finished with 54 yards on the ground on 18 carries for a three-yards-per-carry average.
It should be noted, though, that the 2015 first-round pick racked up 21 of those yards on Los Angeles’ first play of the game. In the remaining 23 rushing attempts by the Chargers—including four carries by Branden Oliver—Los Angeles finished with 43 total rushing yards on 22 carries for a 1.95 average on the ground—an incredibly impressive number for the opposing defense.
Rushing the passer, however, Denver didn’t rack up as impressive of a stat sheet, only taking down quarterback Philip Rivers once behind the line of scrimmage for a seven-yard loss. Joseph wouldn’t assess blame to his own players for the lack of productivity in the sack column, but instead, give credit to Los Angeles’ game plan.
“We went into the game with a clear game plan to free Von up, but they wouldn’t let us,” Joseph explained. “They double chipped both sides, so they chipped both rushers.”
The man opposite of Von stepped up, big time.
“I was really impressed with Shaq [Barrett] and how he rushed the passer, how he played the run game,” Joseph said. “He probably played too many snaps for the first time out, so he kind of wore down toward the end. We need to play [Kasim] Edebali more to keep Shaq more fresh, but Shaq played well for the first time out. He hadn’t played in training camp. That was his first football action since last season, so I was impressed with Shaq. He should get better and better as we go along.”
Barrett not only notched the Broncos’ lone sack of the game, he had five quarterback hurries against a player who Joseph called “a special quarterback.”
After missing the entire preseason due to a serious hip injury, Barrett’s first live-game action was good enough to be graded as third-best player by PFF, only to Miller and Gotsis. PFF even went as to far as to say, “Barrett was even more impressive rushing the passer than his teammate Miller.”
What was even more impressive in both Von and Shaq’s collective performance, was the fact that the Broncos were often in two defensive lineman sets during the game, which put significantly more pressure on the two outside linebackers to bear a greater responsibility holding the line of scrimmage, especially against the run.
With plenty of question marks along the defensive front seven entering Week 1, the Broncos found the correct corresponding answers before the night was over.