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3 things we learned in the Broncos’ painful 34-27 loss to the Atlanta Falcons

The passing attack had to carry the day. It almost worked.

Denver Broncos v Atlanta Falcons
Lock dives into the endzone, but his comeback bid falls short.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It was another tale of two halves for the Broncos’ offense. The big difference is Lock’s late heroics weren’t enough without a defense to lean on early. The Chargers had six scoring drives last week, three field goals and three touchdowns. The Falcons had six today, two field goals and four touchdowns.

Here’s what we learned.

The Broncos were down three corners. It showed.

Three of the Broncos’ most important defenders didn’t suit up today. A.J. Bouye missed the game with a concussion, Bryce Callahan with an ankle injury, and Shelby Harris due to Covid precautions. When you add in the season-long absence of Von Miller and the decision to recently cut De’Vante Bausby, it left Fangio with Michael Ojemudia as his number one corner.

While the Falcons moved the ball down the field with ease early, they got bogged down after Josey Jewell blew up a Todd Gurley dumpoff in the backfield. When 2nd and 14 led to a long third down, Fangio dialed up the heat.

They had no such problem on their second drive. Even after a Russell Gage penalty pushed them into a third and long, Matt Ryan stood tall in the pocket and delivered a bomb to Olamide Zaccheaus for a 51-yard touchdown.

After the long touchdown pass, it became clear Matt Ryan knew where to go with the ball. On the Falcons third drive he went after Davontae Harris three different times. All completions.

On the Falcons’ third drive Ryan abused Harris again on third and 6 when the Broncos’ third year corner lined up across from Julio Jones. Harris tried to press Jones at the line, gave up the outside leverage, and got caught peaking back when the future Hall of Famer broke down on his comeback. One of the easiest calls a ref will make this year.

While Justin Simmons had a really nice interception on Ryan on the first drive of the third, for the most part the secondary continued to look like fish in a barrel. The Falcons quickly got to the doorstep on their next drive thanks to a rather dubious penalty on Kareem Jackson. Matt Ryan made the most of it.

I still need to go back over O.J.’s tape at length and the situation he played through today is a tough one. My point in the tweet above is more to the point that expectations in some corners of Broncos’ Country seemed to be that the rookie would be enough to make up for the loss of Bausby, Callahan, and Bouye. Considering his struggles against guys like Chase Claypool and Mike Williams, that seemed really optimistic.

It wasn’t all bad, at least on the broadcast it does look like Essang Bassey did a better job with his assignments. He also came up big when Ryan tried to hit an isolated Russell Gage on him.

It was right around Bassey’s big play that I noticed the Broncos’ defense was finding ways to get stops. The trend kept up after Drew Lock found Jeudy in the early 4th. Ryan gave up a sack to DeMarcus Walker when he couldn’t find a receiver out of empty personnel on 1st down. 2nd down went nowhere and the Falcon’s faced a 3rd and 15.

Last year this would have been a situation where Fangio dropped eight in coverage and rushed three. He knew that wouldn’t fly today.

The pain train arrives for the Broncos’ tight ends.

The Falcons have had a ton of issues covering tight ends this season and Pat Shurmur dialed up a pass to Noah Fant for Lock’s first play. It was an easy out route that gave Fant a chance to rip off some yards after the catch. He did just that, but hurt his ankle when he was taken down.

Before the game I thought the Broncos would be running in quicksand today and early on that proved true. Shurmur’s answer was to dial up a give for K.J. Hamler and Fant didn’t let the ankle stop him from making a key block.

The injury to Fant left me curious if Shurmur would adjust and tilt some of passing game duties towards a healthier Albert Okwuegbunam. I’ll need to look at the snap numbers, but it sure looked like he was earning TE2 type of snaps in the first half. Even still, he didn’t receiver a target until the middle of the third and immediately clutched his knee.

Locked in?

While the Falcons’ secondary tightened up in their second game with Teddy Bridgewater, on paper today looked like the best matchup Drew Lock has had since the Houston Texans last year. With all of the missing defenders and facing a tough run defense, it also looked like the only way the Broncos could stay in the game was on the back of their quarterback.

To Lock’s credit, he did what he could early as Shurmur tried to establish the run. On the Broncos’ first drive Phillip Lindsay received two 1st and 10 carries. He gained three yards on the first before getting stuffed for a loss of five on the second. The second and 15 play led to an incomplete pass before Lock dumped down on third and long.

I’ll need to go back over the All-22, but it sure looked like Lock’s second drive was his best of the first half. The running game continued to do nothing, but the second year passer found a way to drive the field and get three. My one nit to pick is he had what looked like two clear chances at six.

On the play above K.J. Hamler has to reach up to grab the ball, which gives his defender time to catch him. If Lock can find a way to give his receiver a way to catch the ball on the run, Hamler has little but green grass ahead of him.

The play above is sure to garner some heated discussion this week.

Tim Patrick thought A.J. Terrell interfered with him, but no zebra threw the flag. If you ask me, it’s definitely a fair complaint. Either way, I thought Lock’s form and placement were solid.

It was a similar story on the first drive of the second half.

As the third quarter bled into the fourth and Albert O and Noah Fant clearly weren’t near 100%, Lock leaned on Jerry Jeudy more and more. The rookie saw three different targets on the Broncos’ first touchdown drive and schooled A.J. Terrell on his way to the endzone.

On Lock’s second touchdown drive he tried to hit five different receivers before finding Tim Patrick in the end zone. The pass itself reminded me of Lock’s strike to Albert O last week with a big target down the seam.

Final Thoughts

This game had enough good and bad that whatever you felt about this Broncos’ team probably didn’t change a whole ton today:

  • Missing Von Miller, Jurrell Casey, Bryce Callahan, A.J. Bouye, and De’Vante Bausby hurts.
  • Drew Lock continues to show off hints of strong play as well as maddening issues with footwork, pocket management, anticipation, ball placement, and reading the defense.
  • It didn’t help Lock that the Lloyd Cushenberry, Austin Schlottmann, and Jake Rodgers were the right side of his offensive line. Rodgers is the Broncos’ fourth right tackle this season.

All told, it was a frustrating game with some really iffy calls that didn’t go the Broncos way. There were also some really dumb penalties such as Bradley Chubb’s roughing the passer. I’d say the best news out of the loss is there should be no doubt the future looks very bright in the receiving corps.

On to Vegas.