Following the embarrassing loss to the Baltimore Ravens last week, I wrote about how we all need to take a deep breath because the sky was not yet falling. I have no such words of comfort today. The Broncos got outcoached and outplayed on their way to a 27-19 loss that was worse than the final score suggests because it could have such a devastating impact on the playoff math in a few months.
Let me just say I’m already tired of writing about devastating losses this year, but here are a few things I think after watching the broadcast live.
The Broncos slept through the first half
Teddy Bridgewater’s failed attempt to Courtland Sutton on 3rd and five perfectly encapsulates the first half issues for Denver. Someone smarter than me probably has the numbers for how teams from the Mountain and Pacific Time Zones fair in the 1 PM slot against East Coast teams, but it sure looked like the Broncos forgot they had a game at 11 AM local time today.
No buts about it. Sutton screwed the pooch here. pic.twitter.com/FcHuGV7dFf— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 10, 2021
The refs were bad, but Denver lost on their own
Unless the zebras look like they fixed the game ala Jacksonville in week two, I’m not about to say they were the main culprit in a game. The DPI on Kyle Fuller was shaky, the taunting penalty against Pookie was lame, and the leverage call on Dre’Mont Jones was... weird. Broncos still had their chances and blew it.
Alexander Johnson dropped two interceptions
Not a lot to add to this. If Johnson catches either opportunity, Denver may have scraped by with a close win after a scare.
Von Miller gets pressure inside on Roethlisberger. Alexander Johnson had the pick, but dropped it. pic.twitter.com/zkaZ2U2vhF— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 10, 2021
Both potential interceptions happened in the redzone and both passes were catchable. One of those things where you remember the dino plays defense.
Alexander Johnson has a second chance to pick off Ben Roethlisberger. Incomplete. pic.twitter.com/0YuVrf9aDZ— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 10, 2021
Bridgewater wasn’t blameless, but he wasn’t the biggest problem
For weeks now I’ve said that Teddy Bridgewater is the Broncos best starting quarterback since Peyton Manning retired. I stand by that, but it speaks as much to where Denver’s been under center as what I believe Bridgewater is. He’s not a franchise savior and I do expect George Paton to try and find an upgrade at QB this coming offseason. That said, he’s a competent NFL passer who can make his way through progressions, hold up against a pass rush, and deliver a catchable ball. He’s a passer you can win with, but not necessarily because of. We saw that today. Multiple times in critical situations Bridgewater either ignored the rush or dodged around in the pocket to buy himself time.
Tim Patrick with a heck of an effort to convert the 4th and 5 by a nose. Broncos first down. pic.twitter.com/ROFX4DWoop— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 10, 2021
With that all said, Bridgewater looks like he was one of the two main culprits on the redzone sack that ruined an opportunity to get six.
If you're laying blame for this one, I'd say it's split between Pookie and Bridgewater. pic.twitter.com/rcIuEw4VvC— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 10, 2021
Matt Canada outfoxed Fangio on two chunk plays
I’ll need to review the Broncos defense to get a better bead on the gameplan, but it looked like Fangio was content to play back in coverage and make Pittsburgh try to sustain drives with short passes and the run game. It made sense going in because Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers run game have both been abysmal all season, but we quickly saw how it wasn’t an issue today. One area that will have my attention when I see the all-22 is how Denver’s run defense held up off the left end, where they ranked among the worst teams in football by Football Outsiders Adjusted Line Yards through four weeks. I suspect it’s related to the depth along the DL, Justin Strnad, and Malik Reed, but I’ll get back to you on that.
Shamar Stephen gets blocked, Justin Strnad can't make a tackle near the LOS, which leaves Fuller and Simmons to clean up. pic.twitter.com/VHwtERscFC— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 10, 2021
Beyond all that, Denver’s biggest problem today was the two chunk plays. The first was a touchdown to Diontae Johnson against Kyle Fuller. From what I could tell on the broadcast, it looked like the Broncos were in cover six, which means the safety to Fuller’s side was responsible for the #2 receiver if he threatened vertically. He did. This meant the cornerback had what boils down to man to man coverage on the boundary. Fuller simply got beat on it.
If you're wondering how Fuller was left isolated on a long pass, check out the way the safety came down for the #2 vertical.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 10, 2021
Broncos were in what looks like C6, so it wasn't a Fangio problem. Fuller has to stick with the receiver. pic.twitter.com/fu46Brl9zr
The second chunk play was more frustrating to me because I thought Fangio should have called a timeout. For years I’ve defended the Broncos dropping their edge rushers into coverage because schematically it makes sense in certain situations and when a player like Von Miller or Bradley Chubb impacts the pass protection without rushing, it can become a win for the defense.
Today, Matt Canada exploited it. The Broncos were in their base 3-4 and Pittsburgh motioned Chris Claypool across to create a 3X1 set. Denver’s adjustment was Miller sliding out into zone coverage, which left him in no-man’s land when the inside slot ran a corner. None of this is groundbreaking. It’s a fantastic way to attack Fangio’s base coverage rules. He should have prevented it from occurring because Von’s the only edge rusher who can consistently win in one on one rushes.
Broncos were in their 3-4 base personnel. Steelers motioned Chase Claypool across which dragged Miller into coverage.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 10, 2021
Route combination left 58 isolated in space and gave Roethlisberger an easy completion he almost screwed up. pic.twitter.com/bEhYzOptlp
Pat Shurmur’s play calling was a problem
If we’re looking to lay the game at the feet of one person, it ought to be the Broncos offensive coordinator. Now, to be fair he came into the game with huge limitations with his personnel. Courtland Sutton was playing through an ankle injury, which meant the receiver room was leaning pretty heavily on a gutsy performance and Tim Patrick. No Albert Okwuegbunam meant it’d be tough to live in two tight end sets and exploit the Steelers linebackers in coverage. Add in the fact that Pittsburgh has some special defensive players in T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward, and it never seemed fair to expect a 30 point barrage or anything.
Even with all those excuses in his pocket, Shurmur blew it.
Let’s start with the most obvious issue. Throughout the first half and most of the third quarter, Keith Butler’s defense looked like the Steel Curtain down two starting defensive linemen and a starting cornerback. A big part of this was related to the same playcalling problems I made note of during the Ravens game: Shurmur gave Melvin Gordon all of three carries (and two of which came in long yardage situations) and tried too hard to dial up iso-routes out of 11 personnel. I need to see how the Steelers covered him, but the way Shurmur seemed to use Noah Fant through the first three quarters also deserves some serious scrutiny.
Noah Fant vs. T.J. Watt went about as well as you'd expect. pic.twitter.com/hzMKZRzzki— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 10, 2021
You’ll notice I didn’t mention Javonte Williams, and that’s because the rookie’s vision and decision making are still impacting his consistency from carry to carry. When his decision to bounce works, he looks spectacular. Four of his six carries also went for two or less yards in the first half.
Broncos feed Pookie on 3rd and short. Javonte Williams rumbles for 49-yards. pic.twitter.com/plqpxAmpmM— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 10, 2021
If Shurmur said Pookie’s tendency to eat a loss is why he didn’t want to give the rookie totes in the redzone, that’s one thing. But I find it hard to believe that a fade to the 5’9 Diontae Spencer is the best call in the playbook with the game in the balance. Counting both two-point attempts, the Broncos had 11 plays within the 10 and Bridgewater dropped back to pass on 10 of them.
Final Thoughts (for now)
Unfortunately, the Broncos dropped the ball today and lost an important game against an AFC team. The margin for error is already razor thin and there’s no doubt it hurts their chances at the postseason. It wasn’t all bad, though. Keep in mind that the Broncos basically didn’t play the first half, had some monumental mistakes and dropped gifts, and still came within a play call or two from beating the Steelers. Huge shoutout to Kendall Hinton for picking the perfect time to catch his first NFL touchdown, by the way.
At 3-2 the Broncos remain a contender in the playoff chase. With Jerry Jeudy and Ronald Darby trending towards a return in the next couple of weeks, both sides of the passing game should receive a little help. Their next opponent and first division game is against the Las Vegas Raiders, who are currently embroiled in controversy because Jon Gruden used racist language against DeMaurice Smith.
The Broncos and Fangio can still write their own destiny. Let’s hope they’re up to it.