Game Preview: Chargers @ Broncos MNF 9/11/17

It's finally arrived. After a long wait, game day is here as the Chargers will travel to the Mile High City to take on the Broncos in a Monday Night Football clash that will wrap up week 1 of the NFL season. Both teams have lofty expectations and aspirations heading into the season, and the loser will begin the season significantly behind the other three AFC West teams after Kansas City and Oakland both picked up tough road victories.

Both teams are coming off seasons to forget, as the Chargers suffered through injury after injury on their way to a 5-11 finish. The Broncos went 9-7 but missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Both teams enter the season with first time head coaches, Vance Joseph for the Broncos and Anthony Lynn for the Chargers. Both have new defensive coordinators, and the Broncos hired Mike Mccoy to be their offensive coordinator after the Chargers sent him packing after the season.

That's about where the similarities end however. The Chargers are seen by most as a team on the rise, with a chance to improve greatly upon their 2016 result. The Broncos conversely are seen by most as a prime candidate to regress this year. Vegas put the Chargers expected season win total at 7.5 heading into the season, and Denver's at 8.

Among the many storylines to watch, Keenan Allen will be playing in his first game since the opener last year when he tore his ACL. Allen looked great in the preseason, catching all 5 of his targets in the regular season dress rehearsal 3rd preseason game. He will be playing alongside Tyrell Williams who's deep threat presence should open up more for Allen in the intermediate range. Anything that can be gained on the Broncos' stingy pass defense is a bonus, so if Allen can get things moving and Williams can catch one or two deep balls, the Chargers will be in great shape.

The Broncos offense struggled mightily at times last year, with virtually no run game and a mediocre-at-best Trevor Siemian leading the passing attack. Siemian dealt with a shoulder injury for most of last season but I doubt him being fully healthy will lead to a great deal of improvement like some seem to expect. Siemian struggled particularly in his two matchups against the Chargers last year, throwing for a combined 506 yards on 88 attempts, a measly 5.75 YPA. The Broncos added Jamaal Charles in the offseason to help their running game, but he's likely to be on a very limited snap count to start the season and its unclear how much he has left in the tank anyway, although he did look good in his lone preseason appearance. If the Chargers can stop the run by stacking the box and making Trevor Siemian beat them with his arm, the Broncos should struggle for points.

Like all division games usually are, this game is sure to be scrappy and hard fought with not a ton of scores. Here are some keys to the game for each team:

1. Hunter Henry & Antonio Gates. As I detailed in my Broncos defense preview, the one area in which Denver's secondary sometimes falters is covering tight ends, so the Chargers will need Henry and Gates to step up big time. During last years win over the Broncos Henry had 83 yards and a touchdown and on the opening drive, the Chargers' only touchdown drive of the game, Henry and Gates combined for 4 catches for 48 yards and a TD. With WR Dontrelle Inman looking iffy at best to suit up, I would hope and expect to see a lot of two tight end sets tonight. They'll be needed.

2. Chargers' pass rush VS. Broncos O-line. Will Joey Bosa build off of last years defensive rookie of the year campaign and cement himself as one of the leagues top pass rushers across from Melvin Ingram? Yes, I expect him to. Bosa and Ingram will be facing off against what on paper looks like an improved Broncos offensive line. Both of the Broncos' tackles will be making their first appearance for Denver, with rookie 1st-round pick LT Garrett Bolles and newly signed RT Menelik Watson across from him, who came over from the Raiders in March. I was a big fan of Bolles coming out of college and he has been sharp in preseason action. Watson is a bit of a question mark as he was shaky in limited action for Oakland last year and has been continually injured since entering the league in 2013 as a 2nd round pick. Overall I give the edge to the Chargers here because while the Broncos O-line *should* be improved, it's still not great, and Bosa and Ingram should have plenty of opportunities to get to Trevor Siemian.

 3. The Chargers' O-line/Broncos run defense. In my preview of the Broncos defense, I detailed how the Broncos oddly pair a historically stout secondary with one of the league's worst run defenses, struggling particularly with runs up the gut. I'm sure the game-plan from Ken Whisenhunt will involve a heavy dose of Melvin Gordon, and he'll be counted on to move the chains against an at times soft Denver middle. The Broncos will have star DE Derek Wolfe back at full strength, but have still yet to find a suitable replacement for DT Malik Jackson as a run stopper since he left for Jacksonville before last season. The Broncos insist the run defense will be improved, but I won't be sold until I see it in action. With defensive linemen Jared Crick and Zach Kerr both not playing tonight, the Broncos D-line will be even thinner, and Gordon could be in for a big game.

4. Chargers ability to stay calm and composed. A primetime game in Denver can be one of the toughest and loudest environments to play in across the entire NFL. The crowd will be raucous and the Chargers offense will have to stay composed and not allow itself to be rattled early on. Philip Rivers has obviously been there done that and is up to the task, but Gordon and Henry and the offensive line are all still relatively inexperienced and will need to avoid the mental mistakes that often accompany playing on the road in a primetime game. If the first few series don't go well they will have to avoid letting the deafening crowd noise get in their heads and affect their confidence.

Those are the 4 things I will be watching closest tonight. Overall I expect it to be a close game, and one that the Chargers have a much better chance of winning than if this game were being played last season. No matter what, it will be a great game to watch and I hope you all enjoy. Be sure to check back after the game for a recap.


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