The message out of the locker room yesterday was "we battled, but we came up short."
This is true, but the question is why? Why is this team coming up short even when the defense balls out? Even when receivers catch 100+ yards? Even when the quarterback makes big plays in the last quarter?
"It’s really disappointing. We played really poorly first quarter. We missed two third downs and six inches," coach Gary Kubiak said. "Offensively, we did nothing in the first half. …We had plays to make down in the red zone that we just didn’t make."
Trevor Siemian threw for 334 yards and one touchdown plus no interceptions. Emmanuel Sanders (100) and Demaryius Thomas (126) both had massive yards.
The defense – after allowing the Titans to run 138 yards in the first half – made schematic adjustments and kept the ground game to just 42 yards in the second.
"We kind of picked up more on the scheme they were running and made some adjustments on how the linebacker and myself were playing the run," Ward said, noting that the attitude also changed, aided by a dirty play from Titans’ Harry Douglas on Chris Harris Jr. that fired up the defense. "You got that the last half of the game, so that’s crunch time."
The bottom line is that this team should not have come up short. It is not perfect by any means, but it has enough talent on the field to beat 13 points.
But when your entire running game – in four whole quarters – is five yards less than the opposing quarterback’s longest run of the day, that should be a signal of a much bigger problem – zero running threat and not nearly enough of a run defense.
Of all the big stats from Sunday’s game to try and make a case for how well the quarterback played or point out how good the defense was, there are really only two stats that we should be talking about today:
- Broncos had 18 yards rushing.
- Broncos’ defense let the Titans run 138 yards in the first half.
Don’t get me wrong – the Broncos are not terrible and still can beat their final three opponents. But they absolutely won't if they don’t fix these two glaring problems. And fast.
The defensive issue is less concerning. The Broncos need to come out tougher and make their adjustments earlier in the game – maybe even earlier in the week in the film room. But when the defense can hold an opponent to 13 points – zero in the second half – the onus is on the offense to win that game.
And it’s not even coming close.
But before you want to make this a quarterback issue, just stop.
The fact of the matter is that the Broncos no longer have a genius QB anymore to make up for the incredible shortcomings of our offensive game plan.
Trevor Siemian is in no way a perfect quarterback, nor would I crown him "QB of the future" just yet, but he has talent that this offense can thrive under. He still doesn’t make great decisions always, throws into traffic too often when another guy is open, and his receivers often make his stats better with their catches. But No. 13 has also shown grit, thrown some dimes in clutch play and has improved over the season - so I'm not suggesting a QB change and this not about either Siemian or Paxton Lynch's skills.
This is about the offense overall.
The play calling is predictable, the offensive line is "walk over-able" (that’s a word, trust me) and the running game is abysmal.
"Obviously, we were playing catch up, so we are throwing the ball a lot," Kubiak said after the game in which the Broncos attempted to run the ball five times in the first half – five times for 12 yards, with one of those being 9 yards. "I think our first carry today we put the ball on the ground. …Obviously, there wasn’t much commitment to the run."
But why not?
Having to throw 20 times in the fourth quarter makes sense.
But throwing almost every play in the first half pretty much ensures the opponent’s defense isn’t going to be worried about a running game – making it a lot harder to get yards in the air.
"We have to be more effective. We have to start faster," said Justin Forsett, who was added to the team this week to help spark a non-existent run game. "It’s just a combination of a little bit of everything. We just have to get back to the film and see what really happened."
Unfortunately, there’s not going to be much tape to look at – only nine plays. There will be plenty of "vision" to clean up from that film, but the bigger question should be on the offensive play calling.
First three plays of the game were all passes:
1st-and-10: nine-yard pass.
2nd-and-1: incomplete pass.
Three throwing plays in a row, despite a 2nd-and-1 and 3rd-and-1.
The Broncos' second drive started 1st-and-10 with a four-yard pass play. Second play is a fumble. Then the third drive, two running plays that just go up the middle:
1st-and 10: six-yard pass.
2nd-and-2: up the middle for one yard…followed by "up the middle for no gain" on 3rd-and-2.
The most creative play call of the day came on a fake punt in which punter Riley Dixon hit Cody Latimer for a 16-yard gain on a 4th-and-2 late in the third quarter. It’s no wonder Broncos could not even consider running the ball into the end zone when it had 1st-and-goal from the 4-yard line.
This offense has its deficiencies – beginning with the offensive line and including the running backs and quarterback – but its biggest liability continues to be the coaching.
So when Kubiak notes there were no takeaways by the D - AS IF THAT WERE PART OF THE GAME PLAN - you know there's little confidence in the O. pic.twitter.com/UIQNv9XIim— L.Lattimore-Volkmann (@docllv) December 12, 2016
If I didn’t know better, Kubiak hinted that part of the offensive game plan includes counting on the defense to get turnovers.
"We moved the ball well. So we battled, we just didn’t come up with any turnovers or anything," Kubiak said. "That’s what this team does best. So we’re already minus two on the day and that’s the difference in the game when you look at it."
I do know better, and I don't think the play calling plans on the defense winning the game, but I think it has perhaps become complacent too in thinking the defense can save it. Great football minds on this blog will have (and have had - thanks shasta!) a host of better plays for this offense than Rick Dennison is coming up with and Kubiak is endorsing.
The players and coach insist that the team can come together "to battle" for its final three games.
"It’s going to be an awesome challenge. I know I’m looking forward to it," said Siemian. "Obviously, it starts one game at a time with New England coming in, but I think we’ve got the right guys in that locker room for it. We’re going to give it our best shot and see how we stack up. It’s going to be an awesome challenge."
Awesome is a bit of an understatement. The Patriots currently lead the NFL in first quarter points at 94; the Chiefs and Raiders have already beaten the Broncos and know several of its weaknesses. So if the Broncos are going to control their destiny, they have to fix major problems immediately - if not sooner.
"I just told them I know, from the outside looking in, a lot of people are going to say it doesn’t look good. I’ve been part of a hell of a lot worse and come out of it," Kubiak said. "We’re going to keep battling. I’m a battler. Those guys in the locker room are battlers. We fought until the end, but we didn’t play good enough to win. So we’re honest with ourselves. We go back to work tomorrow."
That better include the coaches first and foremost because if this team is going "to battle" with any success, it needs a much better strategy.