Broncos-Chargers could boil down to Pat Surtain-Keenan Allen matchup

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- To match or not to match, that is always the question for the Denver Broncos when it comes to cornerback Pat Surtain II.

Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph has picked his spots when putting his All-Pro cornerback on the opponent's best receiver this season. But trying to set the defense up for success, it isn't always as simple as set-it-and-forget-it for where Surtain lines up.

"It's always that balance," Joseph said. "You know with a player like Pat sometimes they, the quarterbacks, are just going to avoid him, so you have to have ways to help the guy opposite of Pat. But sometimes we want them to go to Pat because we like what Pat can do in those situations. But in the end, you have to think it through, because the bottom line is who really wants to throw at him?"

Surtain has been all over in the Broncos' coverage plans over the first 12 games, but he has also had plenty of one-on-one work against Davante Adams of the Las Vegas Raiders, Terry McLaurin of the Washington Commanders and Stefon Diggs of the Buffalo Bills. Sunday, however, Joseph has to consider how much Surtain will match up against the NFL's receiving leader: the Los Angeles Chargers' Keenan Allen.

Allen, who could challenge New Orleans Saints WR Michael Thomas' single-season record of 149 catches, leads the league in receptions (102) and is third in receiving yards (1,175). Allen has 71 more receptions than the Chargers' next leading receiver -- running back Austin Ekeler at 31 -- and four more touchdown catches than the next player. On average, once every 2.8 times quarterback Justin Herbert throws a pass, he's throwing toward Allen.

"Any time you're talking about coverages, you're going to look at volume,'' Broncos safety Justin Simmons said. "Quarterbacks always have their favorites, the guys they look to because they make plays, so you're always working off of that because we want the best matchups too.''

"I always want to prepare for whatever [Joseph] wants me to do,'' Surtain said. "If it's staying on somebody, I will do that. But you study tendencies of everybody, how they handle certain things, see if you can find any tells, because I want to be ready to move if I have to. That's on me to be ready.''

The rub will be likely pushing Surtain toward the slot if they want to match him up with Allen. In the days of the "No Fly Zone'' it was former Broncos nickel corner Chris Harris Jr. who routinely matched with Allen.

Harris had the short-area quickness and the physicality to match with Allen in the middle of the field, and the battles were must-see. Allen has done most of his damage this season in the short to intermediate areas.

He is the league leader in pivot route receptions -- in which the receiver breaks quickly toward the middle of the field and stops to cut toward the sideline -- with 19, and is tied for third in the league (with running back Christian McCaffrey) in routes inside the hashmarks in the short zones with 18.

For the Broncos, that is currently the real estate of cornerback Ja'Quan McMillian, who has handled the nickel duties since Joseph put him in the lineup in Week 4. McMillian, who spent almost all of last season on the Broncos' practice squad as a rookie before he played in the season finale, has been up to the task with two interceptions, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and a sack in the past six games alone.

Allen said last week he has played with a sprained AC joint in one of his shoulders for much of the season. And he was limited in practice in the days leading up to the Chargers' win Sunday over the Patriots due to a thigh contusion he suffered against the Baltimore Ravens the week before (he said he was kneed so hard it caused him to fumble the ball).

"Pat, we could all always see the attention to detail,'' Broncos defensive backs coach Christian Parker said. "When he got here [in the first round of the 2021 draft], Vic [Fangio] had him learn three positions, and Pat didn't even blink. I think guys come into our building now and look at him like he's a 10-year vet, looking to him to help them. Now, some things he can do, he can't explain to other people because they may not be able to do them, but he's gotten so good in the preparation part talking people through things and getting himself ready.''

The Broncos' pass defense has had its share of rough spots this season, especially over the season's first month before Joseph made several lineup changes, including moving McMillian and Fabian Moreau into the secondary. In Sunday's loss to the Houston Texans, a game Surtain left briefly in the first quarter with a left knee injury, Texans rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud threw for 154 of his 274 total passing yards in the first quarter.

Surtain returned and finished out the game. He said afterward he thought he would "be fine'' and didn't know yet if he would be limited in practice at all this week.

"When he takes the No. 1 player away, does the quarterback hold on to the ball longer?'' Broncos coach Sean Payton said. "... He plays at a high level each week. He sees the best they have, and that's not an easy task. He's answered the challenge.''

"You're not going to have very many players like Pat,'' Joseph said. "So it's a good problem to have to try to figure out the best way to fit him in with what we want to do. A really good problem to have.''