Film Study: Broncos’ Sutton shining despite little help

Rarely can a single receiver carry an entire offense, but Courtland Sutton did so for the Denver Broncos in Sunday’s win over the Los Angeles Chargers.

Facing top Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward and selective double teams, Sutton drew just five targets. But even with shaky quarterback play, he produced both Denver touchdowns and the team’s three longest gains on a day when the Broncos tallied just 218 yards and averaged 4.1 yards per play.

The longest was a 37-yard pass-interference penalty with three seconds left to set up the game-winning, 53-yard field goal. It was more Hayward’s error than Sutton’s brilliance, but it spoke to the wideout’s all-around skillset.

While known for size and contested-catch ability, Sutton created the penalty with speed. Despite a so-so 40 time (4.54), he’s a long strider, and he ate up Hayward’s cushion quickly on a corner route against the Chargers’ four-deep coverage.

Sutton’s stem aimed midway between Hayward and safety Adrian Phillips, and he nearly pulled even with Hayward by the time he broke out. Hayward underestimated how much depth he needed and then tracked the ball poorly while trying to regain ground, cutting off Sutton to draw the flag.

It was the fifth pass-interference penalty drawn by Sutton this season, accounting for 116 yards. The latter figure ranks second in the NFL behind Mike Evans.

Apart from the late penalty, Sutton did most of his damage earlier Sunday.

On third-and-8 in the first quarter, he rescued a misplaced throw to give rookie Drew Lock his first career touchdown pass. To Lock’s credit, he altered Sutton’s route to a fade in the huddle, but the receiver did the heavy lifting for the 26-yard score.

Sutton beat Hayward’s press outside off the line, then used subtle hand-fighting to gain late separation. With Hayward trailing and inside, Lock should have thrown to Sutton’s outside shoulder. Instead, he threw inside, bringing Hayward into position to recover and requiring a much tougher grab.

Sutton dove inside but had his left arm hooked by Hayward, who actually used it to help propel himself toward the ball with his other hand. No pass interference was called, but Sutton snagged the ball with his right hand anyway and pinned it to his chest, holding it perfectly still as it scraped the turf.

Dominant on contested catches in college, the 6-foot-4, 216 pounder was inconsistent as a rookie, narrowly missing some critical downfield opportunities. Now he’s cashing them in. Teammate Chris Harris Jr. called him “Baby Megatron” after Sunday’s win.

The one-handed beauty came in the same corner of the end zone where Sutton snared a pass — also thrown too far inside on a fade — in Week 9, snatching a likely interception away from Cleveland’s Denzel Ward. In Week 11, he pulled down a 48-yarder on a corner route despite air-tight coverage from Minnesota’s Xavier Rhodes.

On another grab Sunday, Sutton had to reach for a throw behind him on an over route and wrestle a 33-yard gain from Desmond King. (The play proved to be a stat-padder to end the first half, but was a great grab nonetheless.)

But Sutton doesn’t just win aerial battles. He has shown excellent development as a route-runner, both against man and zone, with Sunday’s second score a great example.

With the Broncos at the 5-yard line, the Chargers appeared presnap to be bracketing Sutton. But, as he told reporters afterwards, Sutton knew safety Derwin James (the inside man of the “bracket”) would fall off into the flat, leaving him alone on Hayward.

Sutton stemmed slightly inside toward James, and Hayward cut hard inside to take away the slant. But Sutton saw Hayward coming, sent him flying by and broke outside, coming wide open despite a late grab from Hayward.

Sunday marked the third time in four meetings that Sutton burned the Chargers. In Week 11 last year, he caught 39- and 30-yard passes, including a last-second catch-and-run to set up the game-winning field goal. In Week 5 this year, he had four grabs for 92 yards and a 70-yard score.

Sutton isn’t dominating every week. Buffalo’s Tre’Davious White limited him to one catch (for 27 yards) on eight targets last week, adding an interception on a miscommunication.

But Sutton has consistently produced despite poor service from three quarterbacks. Lock was erratic for much of Sunday — he threw well behind Sutton on a back-shoulder try up the seam — and Brandon Allen’s throws couldn’t cut through the wind in Buffalo. Joe Flacco had issues with both accuracy and downfield aggression before going on injured reserve.

Of 26 receivers entering Week 13 with 80-plus targets, Sutton ranked 23rd in catch rate (59.5 percent). But per Sports Info Solutions, only 66.7 percent of his targets were actually catchable, ranking 25th. Sutton secured 89.3 percent of catchable targets, per SIS, good for seventh.

He’s done that despite facing top opposing corners every week, often with dedicated double teams. In Minnesota, Sutton faced double-team brackets (not just a safety over top) on 12 different snaps and still totaled five grabs for 113 yards (plus a 24-yard DPI penalty).

Whether Lock is Denver’s future or not, Sutton has proven he can elevate poor QB play. Imagine what he might do if the Broncos can find a quality quarterback.

–By David DeChant (@DavidDeChant), Field Level Media

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