Justin Simmons captured how many in the Broncos organization probably feel right now. Following Sunday’s win against the Jets, Simmons posted an Instagram that detailed a kind gesture from quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Simmons had missed the postgame prayer at midfield because of an interview. But as the group parted, Bridgewater hung around for Simmons. “There is a reason God brings people in your life depending on what ‘season’ of life you’re in,” Simmons wrote.
This must be Bridgewater’s “season” of rejuvenation and reinvention. Denver is 3-0 and Bridgewater, whom the Broncos traded for this offseason, has played a key role. He’s looked the part of a top-tier signal-caller following an offseason battle with Drew Lock for Denver’s starting job. The Broncos have played three regular-season games since the safe, steady Bridgewater earned the starting role, and the former first-rounder looks capable of offering much more than just a veteran presence.
“He’s a dog, man,” left tackle Garett Bolles told reporters Sunday. “The man can come in here and win a team over and continue to do the things he’s gonna do. I love protecting his blind side. You know, being with him, and watching him do his thing. The dude is composed back there.”
Through three games, Bridgewater is statistically one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Bridgewater has completed 76.8 percent of his attempts for 827 yards, four touchdowns, and zero picks. While the 28-year-old typically rates among the league’s least aggressive passers, this season he’s shown a willingness to drive the ball downfield. Bridgewater is averaging 8.7 yards per attempt (tied for seventh among qualified passers), which would be more than a yard better than his career high (7.6) set last season. According to Pro Football Focus, Bridgewater’s 18 deep pass attempts (20 yards or more) entering Week 4 were tied for third most among NFL passers. His performance is key to the Broncos’ unbeaten streak and tie for first place in the competitive AFC West.
“Now that we’ve had a taste of success,” Bridgewater told reporters after Sunday’s win, “we want to just stay there.”
It’s been a long journey for Bridgewater. A one-time Pro Bowler, Bridgewater once seemed destined to pilot a playoff-contending Vikings team before a season-ending knee injury in 2016. Since then, he’s bounced from New Orleans to Carolina and now to Denver, where he has that chance to lead a contender once again. But how much of Bridgewater’s performance is real? Will any of this last?
There is one big caveat to the Broncos’ success: None of Denver’s first three opponents (Giants, Jaguars, and Jets) have won a single game this season. It’s a compelling reason to question how much of the Broncos’ initial success is legit.
“There’s always going to be a ‘but’ with everything you do in life,” Bridgewater told reporters Wednesday. “We could be sitting here 0-3, or our opponents could be sitting there at 3-6. I look at it as you respect the game. And on any Sunday, any team can be beat. We go out there on Sundays and we don’t get caught up in who it is that we’re playing. It’s all about trying to make this team better and trying to move in the right direction.”
Bridgewater has been impressive in every way. His 76.8 completion rate is a league-high 11.1 percentage points higher than expected, according to Next Gen Stats. Per Ben Baldwin’s database, Bridgewater is second among passers in estimated points added per play (after filtering out garbage time) and first in success rate.
The big change is how often Bridgewater is willing to push the ball downfield. Bridgewater entered Week 4 ranked fourth among passers in air yards per play (9.5); he was 39th in the same metric last season (7.1). Three games is a small sample size, but he’s also seen a sizable uptick in medium (10 to 19 yards) and deep (20 yards or more) attempts. According to PFF, 32.6 percent (13.7 percent medium; 18.9 percent deep) of Bridgewater’s 2021 attempts have traveled 10 yards or more. That’s a big jump from 29.9 percent (18.7 percent medium; 11.2 percent deep) in 2020, and 21.4 percent (14.3 percent medium; 7.1 percent deep) in 2019.
Only Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson (21.8 percent) has attempted a higher percentage of deep throws this season, per PFF. The interesting thing is that while Bridgewater is taking more downfield shots, he’s not taking more risks. According to Next Gen Stats data, 14.7 percent of Bridgewater’s attempts have been thrown into a tight window, defined as throws when a defender is within a yard of the intended receiver. That ranks 22nd among passers this season. That isn’t a stark difference from his aggressiveness through the past two seasons, in which he averaged 12.2 percent (2020) and 13.8 percent (2019).
So far, Bridgewater is more frequently throwing to open targets than he did last year in Carolina. Aside from Curtis Samuel (3.5 yards of separation per target, per Next Gen Stats), Robby Anderson (2.9) and D.J. Moore (2.5, tied for 18th-lowest margin) weren’t creating the same windows as his current group of pass catchers: K.J. Hamler (3.9), Noah Fant (3.6), Tim Patrick (3.2), and Courtland Sutton (2.8). Much of that can be credited to offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s play designs, which have made great use of Denver’s versatile receiving corps to attack all three levels of the field. The Broncos aren’t throwing the ball much more frequently than expected, ranking 17th in early-down pass frequency (54.6 percent when win probability is 5 to 95 percent), per Baldwin’s database. Bridgewater’s 58.8 percent success rate (or plays that generate positive EPA), however, is first in the league.
Bridgewater’s supporting cast has played well. Sutton, who missed almost all of 2020 with a knee injury, looks like the Pro Bowl–caliber player he was in 2019, when he racked up 1,112 yards. Patrick’s 6-foot-4, 212-pound frame and contested-catch ability has made him reliable, especially on tight-window throws. Still, Denver’s receiving corps has to work through recent injuries. Hamler suffered a torn ACL last week against the Jets, stripping the Broncos of their most effective deep threat. Denver has boasted the league’s eighth-most explosive passing game (11 percent), according to Warren Sharp’s database, and losing Hamler’s speed will certainly impact future game plans. Jerry Jeudy was placed on injured reserve with an ankle sprain after Week 1, but his expected return in a few weeks could round out a receiving group that’s helped Bridgewater perform incredibly well in obvious passing situations.
*small sample size alert*— Tej Seth (@tejfbanalytics) September 28, 2021
here's how quarterbacks have done so far in 2021 on plays where the chance they pass is greater than 60% (this includes mostly passes but also sacks and runs) #nflverse https://t.co/pWEv1aV7B1 pic.twitter.com/z5bGJmQxle
The Broncos defense has also looked impressive. Coach Vic Fangio’s unit has dominated opposing offenses, allowing no more than 13 points through its first three contests. While the group has enjoyed star pass rusher Von Miller’s return from injury after he missed all of last year, he’s played with Bradley Chubb only once so far (Week 2). Chubb is due to miss six to eight weeks due to an ankle surgery. Fangio has also enjoyed strong play from his secondary, including rookie cornerback Patrick Surtain II. Denver’s defense was expected to be a strong group and so far has held up its end of the deal.
“In today’s game, the way offenses are trending, you’re going to have to find ways to get possessions for your offense,” Simmons said. “Especially our offense: running the ball really well, utilizing our receiving core in the play-action game and getting the ball to those guys. I think Teddy and the whole crew are just doing a really good job.”
Early down defense— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) September 30, 2021
Fangio legit breaking the chart pic.twitter.com/xWsaj5VFUN
Still, the Broncos may regress in the coming month. Denver faces the Ravens and Steelers defenses in consecutive weeks. The Raiders defense—which has surprised—and the Browns—whose pass rush ranks among the league’s best—also pose better tests for the Broncos offense than their initial three opponents.
The Broncos also have their own issues that need sorting. By Bridgewater’s own admission, Denver has faltered too often in the red zone. Entering this week, the Broncos ranked 27th in red zone touchdown rate (42.9 percent). They are one of three teams who reached the red zone at least 10 times through Week 3 and scored touchdowns on fewer than 50 percent of their visits (Chargers, 46.7 percent; Colts, 36.4 percent). Of all quarterbacks who attempted at least 50 red zone passes in 2020, only Bridgewater and Daniel Jones threw fewer than 10 touchdowns. During the offseason, Bridgewater called out the Panthers for their lack of red zone work; Carolina finished 28th in red-zone efficiency in his year with the team. But so far, that lack of success has followed Bridgewater to Denver. It’s a trend to monitor as the Broncos begin facing opponents who can punish squandered opportunities.
Denver’s rushing attack is also still coming together. While the offensive line ranks ninth in ESPN’s pass block win rate, it ranks only 23rd in run block win rate. Teams have been aggressive in loading the box as the Broncos utilize their duo of Melvin Gordon III and Javonte Williams, and as a result they rank 24th in rush EPA (minus-0.168) and 27th in success rate (34.5 percent), per Baldwin’s database. That’s contributed to Bridgewater’s success in the passing game.
“If teams wanna sell out and stop the run, we’re gonna ask our receivers, tight ends and even running backs to do a great job of just helping the pass game get going,” Bridgewater said. “We understand that each week, teams are gonna play us different.”
The next few weeks will help clarify whether the Broncos are legitimate or not. But so far, they’ve done what’s been expected of them—and more. Bridgewater’s game hasn’t changed too much. And if he manages to continue performing at this level, Denver may be able to stake its claim as a true postseason contender.