Young Defenders Expected to Play Large Roles vs. Jets


JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA – SEPTEMBER 19: Safety Caden Sterns #30 of the Denver Broncos reacts after a missed Jacksonville Jaguars field goal attempt in the first half of the game at TIAA Bank Field on September 19, 2021 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

The Denver Broncos (2-0) are heavily favored in their September 26 tilt against the winless New York Jets (0-2), but that doesn’t mean the contest is expected to be a cake walk.

Not even the fact that it’ll be the first home game with a capacity crowd since December 19, 2019 guarantees a Broncos victory. That’s because the Jets have been competitive in both losses and won’t be a pushover for any team, as long as their new hard-nosed head coach Robert Saleh is in charge.

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Without the services of three defensive starters, the Broncos will be relying on a youth movement to make sure things keep humming and the team remains unbeaten. Denver hasn’t started the season at least 3-0 since the 2016 campaign, when they were defending their Super Bowl 50 crown.

Youth Being Served in Secondary

The youth movement is by no means intentional. There will six players who are at least rookies or second-year players that will play significant snaps against the Jets, including two rookies in the secondary — cornerback Patrick Surtain II and safety Caden Sterns. Neophyte pass rushers include inside linebacker Justin Strnad (technically a second-year player, but sat out all of 2020 with season-ending wrist surgery) and rookie outside linebackers Jonathon Cooper and Andre Mintze.

Veteran corner Ronald Darby (hamstring) is on short-term IR and is out at least three weeks. He was placed on the injured list on September 14, following the Broncos’ season-opening victory over the New York Giants, meaning he won’t be eligible to return until at least the Week 5 contest at the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Surtain II has been the one who has stepped in for Darby and has filled in admirably. The man dubbed “PS2,” has been fully engaged in the game, as his first-career start attested. The No. 9 overall pick by the Broncos recorded his first-career interception in his first-career start (second-overall NFL appearance), in a September 19 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The rookie certainly looks the part of a lock-down corner, and he’ll get a crack at another rookie quarterback for the second-straight week.

Surtain II isn’t the only rookie that figures to see lots of action, as Stern has been seeing his reps count incrementally raised each passing week. Head coach Vic Fangio has been grooming the rookie to be a key contributor since the former University of Texas star was selected in the fifth round of the 2021 draft. Sterns had a strong summer and was getting rave reviews, as MMQB’s Senior NFL Reporter, Albert Breer, tweeted before the 2021 season opener.

Sterns has been the first defensive back off the bench when Fangio employs dime coverage (six defensive backs), showing just how much the rookie is trusted.

If the Broncos get an early lead and force Jets’ rookie quarterback Zach Wilson to play catch-up via the pass, Denver’s secondary could feast and pad some stats.

Young Linebackers Ready to Show and Prove

Sans two starters, the Broncos’ linebackers room has a rather young feel to it. Other than future Hall of Famer Von Miller (32 years old), the starting unit will feature Strnad (25) and Malik Reed (25). Cooper (23) and Mintze (23) also figure to see significant reps when the starters need a rest.

Reed will be starting in place of outside linebacker Bradley Chubb, who is on short-term IR with an ankle malady. There shouldn’t be much of a drop-off with the Reed, as he filled in very well for Miller, in 2020, when the veteran missed the entire season. Reed finished with a team-high eight sacks. Strnad will be the key in that huddle, though, as he’s the middle linebacker and is replacing Josey Jewell, who is out for the season with a season-ending shoulder injury.

Whether Strnad is the one calling the assignments, as Jewell did, is up in the air, but the fact he’s replacing such a valuable cog will certainly keep a bright light on his performance.

Follow Tony Williams on Twitter: @TBone8

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