By Matt Citak
The Denver Broncos got the season off to a great start, winning three of four games before heading into their Week 5 bye. Despite two weeks to prepare, Denver came out flat against the New York Giants. The Giants ran the ball 32 times for 148 yards, with Orleans Darkwa gaining 117 of those yards on 21 carries (5.6 yards per carry), en route to a 23-10 victory. Darkwa ran for more yards than the Broncos had allowed to Melvin Gordon (54), Ezekiel Elliott (8), LeSean McCoy (21), and Marshawn Lynch (12) combined in Weeks 1-4.
Quarterback Trevor Siemian will be without a few of his top options in the passing game when the Broncos take on the Los Angeles Chargers and their top-5 pass defense this weekend. Wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Isaiah McKenzie suffered ankle injuries against the Giants and will miss Sunday’s game and possibly several more. Demaryius Thomas is coming off his best game of the season (10 receptions for 133 yards), but will likely see shadow coverage from Casey Hayward, one of the NFL’s top shutdown corners.
The Chargers have had an incredibly up-and-down season thus far. Starting the season with four losses, Los Angeles has rebounded with close wins on the road against the Giants and Raiders. In fact, five of Los Angeles’s six games in 2017 have been decided by five points or fewer. Had their field-goal attempts at the end of Weeks 1 and 2 been successful, the 2-4 Chargers would be enjoying a 4-2 record.
Los Angeles is riding the play of star running back Melvin Gordon this year. Gordon has scored four touchdowns in the last two weeks, and has shown the ability to do a little bit of everything. The running back has carried the ball 99 times for 356 yards (3.6 yards per carry) and three touchdowns through the first six games, but has really made his presence felt in the passing game. Heading into Week 7, Gordon has caught 28 passes for 222 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 7.9 yards per reception. In the last two weeks alone, he has 15 receptions for 125 yards and three touchdowns. Philip Rivers and the Chargers’ offense has relied on their running back early and often in 2017.
THE NFL ON CBS play-by-play announcer Kevin Harlan weighed in on this week’s matchup between the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Chargers, which he will be calling alongside Rich Gannon, as well as other upcoming NFL ON CBS action in Week 7.
Denver Broncos vs. Los Angeles Chargers – 4:25 PM ET Sunday – CBS
CBS Local Sports: The Broncos defense just allowed a season-high 117 rushing yards to the Giants’ Orleans Darkwa. How do they stop Melvin Gordon from doing the same on Sunday?
Kevin Harlan: We’ve seen a change in Los Angeles with their offense. I’m pretty confident a conversation ensued [after] that 0-4 start, and Philip Rivers and Anthony Lynn, the quarterback and the first-year head coach, got on the same page and tweaked what they were doing. Namely, use this elite running back, Melvin Gordon. That means [Rivers] playing under center, and that means checking down and not looking deep all the time, and going for the safe pass with a lot of room to roam for a guy like Gordon, who is a great pass-catcher. He’s a three-down running back. He can pass block, he can run, and he’s a very good receiver out of the backfield.
The Chargers, in the span of about three weeks with the two consecutive wins, have shown that they can run the ball and adjust, which they have done. Denver has their hands full. They just got gashed for over 100 yards on the ground by the Giants and Darkwa, and now they’ve got to contend with Melvin Gordon. And the confidence on the Chargers’ side is palpable. They’ve lost close games. They’re a much better team than their record. They’re going to give the Broncos all they can handle.
CBS Local Sports: After losing their first four games of the season, the Chargers have won two consecutive close contests. What will Los Angeles have to do to keep the winning streak going against the Broncos?
Kevin Harlan: They have to stay healthy, because certainly that has been the problem with them over the last couple of years. They’ve always had the talent. They’ve always had playmakers. The problem is, they can’t keep them on the field. They’ve already lost their Pro Bowl cornerback Jason Verrett. Trevor Williams is playing the corner [now]. They found some kids that are playing well and playing within the scheme. Gus Bradley is their new defensive coordinator, and he is bringing a simplified, quick-read, attack formula, which is playing very well.
For the Chargers, this season has been, over the last two weeks, defined by grabbing momentum. They feel it. The quarterback has adjusted. They’re staying healthy, so far. The running back, who we knew was good, is emerging. And, they are brimming with confidence. And now you have Kansas City with the loss, the Raiders have lost all these games in a row after a 2-0 start, and Denver is on the ropes a little bit. For the Chargers, we’re still so early in the year that they can, shockingly, be back up there in the conversation with a win this weekend. So it’s a huge, huge game in the AFC West.
CBS Local Sports: Between Denver being without starting wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, and the presence of shutdown corner Casey Hayward in the Chargers’ secondary, how will Trevor Siemian and the Broncos’ passing offense fare in this matchup?
Kevin Harlan: Denver is going to have to adjust. When you lose guys that you count on so much, and in this case guys that can stretch the field, sure-handed, reliable receivers, it affects a lot of your offense. A team which is hot, you’re debilitated, and a quarterback — Siemian — who is coming under fire. The Broncos are on the ropes. They have a feel about their team right now. And in the first game of the season, the Chargers were right there at the very end. They had a rookie free agent kicker that had a kick blocked at the end of the game. This is a tough one for Denver. This game has a feel to it that I’d be very leery if I were the Broncos. The Chargers have a great deal of confidence. They (the Chargers) played them (the Broncos) well [before].
Kansas City Chiefs vs. Oakland Raiders – 8:25 PM ET Thursday – CBS and NFL Network
CBS Local Sports: The Raiders’ season is unraveling after suffering four consecutive losses, already matching their loss total from the 2016 season. How does Oakland get back on track and defeat one of the league’s most well-rounded teams?
Kevin Harlan: Derek Carr is still injured, and he’s in pain. Carr has the small, broken bone in the lower part of his back, and that is not going away. He should have been out for three to six weeks, yet he missed only one game. The kid is playing in pain. What defined the Raiders to me last year was their ability to win late, their explosiveness on offense, their ability to take away the ball, and not allowing the big plays. But overriding all of that is the passion and intensity which marked their team so well last year. I don’t see it this season.
Their body language is bad. That team seems different to me. Amari Cooper is dropping as many balls as any receiver in our game right now. We know they’re trying to incorporate Marshawn Lynch, who is a special back and coming off a very good game this past week and running like the Lynch we know. But he, at the same time, demands less than a full load now. So they are taking him out and using a running back by committee. Their offensive line is okay, but not great. They came into the league this year as one of the top four or five in the NFL. But overall, the offensive line has not performed up to those lofty standards they established a year ago.
It’s a lot of little things that have added up. And it probably begins with their quarterback. They do not win when Carr is out of the game, so they need to keep him upright. They’re so worried about him getting hit, and the ball is coming out so fast that they can’t be what they are, which is a vertical team, throwing deep and loosening up the strings on the defensive coverage so they can run the ball. They have none of that.
Cincinnati Bengals vs. Pittsburgh Steelers – 4:25 PM ET Sunday – CBS
CBS Local Sports: Was last week’s performance against Kansas City the spark that Pittsburgh’s Killer B’s attack (Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown) needed to finally get the offense going?
Kevin Harlan: The emerging story in Pittsburgh is Bell has his football legs and the football-feel back. After missing all of camp and trying to come in and pick up as the train is going 100 MPH is difficult for anybody, even the best all-purpose running back in the league in Le’Veon Bell. With Roethlisberger not playing at the standard we know, Bell becomes even more important. A quarterback’s best friend is a good running game, and they’ve got it with Bell. Bell can catch, we know he can block. He’s a three-down back like Melvin Gordon.
Bell is their key. When he’s going, that team is at its optimum. And then you just want Roethlisberger to be what he’s been — a guy that will use play action and throw the deep ball. Then you’ve got Brown. People label him a selfish player, and there’s no doubt he is. But you have to have a little bit of selfishness and style to be great. You have to want the ball. They need Brown to perform, but they need Roethlisberger to get him the ball. That will be enhanced with the continued performance of Le’Veon Bell.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.