Mathematically, Denver will still have some semblance of a shred of hope at the postseason following their 15-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. A look ahead to the remaining gauntlet against every other team in the AFC West makes it a bit of a sick joke to expect the playoffs now. Realistically, the Broncos season came to a frustrating end today.
Here’s what I think I think after suffering through the broadcast.
Vic Fangio’s defense was quite good. Everything else? Well...
If you’ve read my work for awhile you’ll know I vocally supported giving Vic Fangio a chance to prove he had the chops to be an NFL head coach before this year began. I believed John Elway’s rotating cast of bad quarterbacks simply didn’t provide enough of a fair shot to evaluate the longtime defensive coordinator. While Teddy Bridgewater was clearly a limited passer, he brought enough competence to the position that at least we could get a fair idea as to what to expect moving forward.
What we’ve seen this season doesn’t seem like it will help his cause. Even if you consider the absurd number of injuries to the linebacker corps. and Paton trading Von Miller away, there comes a point where the cons outweigh the pros.
The Bengals game was a must-win contest for Denver’s playoff chances because of gaffes and blunders throughout the early part of the campaign. Stupid mistakes on special teams cost the Broncos their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. A shaky gameplan cost them the game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Since Fangio’s conniption fit about the Baltimore Ravens running the ball late in their week four win, I’ve been on the fence about him for 2022. He is a legitimately great defensive mind, after all. Maybe I’m just frustrated watching the same issues crop up time and again today, or maybe I’m just upset that the season came to a painful end at home. But I believe it would probably be in the Broncos’ best interest to move forward with a new coach in 2022.
Pat Shurmur was abysmal after the opening script in the first
Like most offensive coordinators in the NFL, Pat Shurmur has a script of plays he follows to start each game. These plays are planned out during the week with an eye towards evaluating how an opponent will hold up to certain plays, what they’ll do against certain looks, and test certain matchups. Ideally, they also help the offense get into a rhythm. Since Pat Shurmur was hired as offensive coordinator the Broncos have rarely done much on these drives. That continued today, but to be perfectly fair Courtland Sutton’s drop played a huge part in it.
#Broncos O opening drives this year— Ryan O'Halloran (@ryanohalloran) December 19, 2021
Following the Broncos opening 10 to 15 play script, the wheels really came off the bus on offense. Time and again they tried to mash Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams into the meatgrinder that is the Cincinatti interior defensive line, and the duo combined for 14 carries for 40 yards in the first half. When the run game left the offense facing long yardage situations Shurmur did a poor job accounting for the inevitable Lou Anarumo pressure scheme despite it being all over the Bengals tape this year. Teddy Bridgewater was pressured early and showed all the signs of feeling it throughout his time on the field. So it should come as no surprise the journeyman quarterback struggled.
This may be controversial, but I think Pat Shurmur shouldn't leave Trey Hendrickson unblocked. pic.twitter.com/oJAli6CzbI— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 19, 2021
The two minute drive at the end of the first is indefensible
Thanks to an impressive effort from the Broncos defense Joe Burrow and the Bengals offense scored all of three points in the first, so when Denver got the ball back with 3:30 left in the first half they had an opportunity to go back to back with scoring drives.
Instead of trying to score a touchdown, Fangio seemed to chase a field goal. Shurmur dialed up two Javonte Williams runs to melt the clock down to the 2-minute warning. Bridgewater proceeded to dink and dunk the offense down to the Bengals 33-yard line and the drive stalled out after an incomplete pass to Kendall Hinton.
Brandon McManus proceeded to miss the 51-yard field goal, which gave the Bengals nine seconds to move from their own 41 to get into field goal range. Evan McPherson proceeded to kick a career long 58-yarder and Denver hit the locker room down by three.
Teddy Bridgewater’s injury was really scary
Bridgewater’s injury overshadows his performance throughout the first half, so I’ll spare you my thoughts on it ‘til another day. The Broncos’ starting quarterback was hurt diving for a first down during the third quarter of the Denver Broncos game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Upon hitting the ground he did not move. Officials quickly called an injury timeout. During the break Bridgewater’s facemask was removed from his helmet and he was slid onto a backboard and stretchered off the field. As I write this, all I know is its a head injury and he does have use of his extremities.
UPDATE: Bridgewater has a concussion and will stay overnight in the hospital. The Broncos reported that he checked out well on a CAT scan and other tests. It’s the second concussion that Bridgewater has suffered this season.
Bengals send heat and Teddy Bridgewater scrambled for the first, looks like he got hurt. pic.twitter.com/m8H9rOOK2k— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 19, 2021
Drew Lock played as expected
With Teddy Bridgewater knocked out of the contest it fell on the backup quarterback to try and keep the season alive. Immediately following the injury, Lock seemed to do his part when Tim Patrick adjusted to a short throw to haul in a touchdown pass that put the Broncos up by one.
Drew Lock with a touchdown toss to Tim Patrick on 2nd and 9. pic.twitter.com/Ddodw88Z51— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 19, 2021
Unfortunately Burrow and the Bengals quickly scored a touchdown that put Lock back into comeback mode to start the fourth quarter. To his credit, Lock had a really nice completion to Albert Okwuegbunam on a run-heavy drive that got Denver to the doorstep. Then everything turned to ash when Shurmur called a read option facing 2nd and goal from the nine yard line. Lock misread the edge rusher and elected to keep the ball, holding it high enough that it was easy to strip. It will go down as one of the worst plays I’ve ever seen a professional quarterback make.
The Drew Lock experience in one play. pic.twitter.com/Gd9v9XNn5o— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 19, 2021
The Broncos defense did it’s part to force stops and gave the offense two more opportunities to pull ahead late in the game. Lock completed two passes on those drives, took two sacks, and gave multiple Bengals defenders opportunities at a game sealing interception. The offense never moved past their own 37-yard-line.
Shit play call by Pat Shurmur— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 19, 2021
Shit pass by Drew Lock
Nice effort by Noah Fant on 2nd and 18 pic.twitter.com/A43A5ci4Zg
The combination of the Broncos’ dead playoff hopes, Bridgewater’s injury and Lock’s rookie contract means it is in the best interest of the franchise to trot the third year pro out for the last three games of the season. It’s hard to imagine he can do anything at this point to convince George Paton he has a chance at becoming the long term answer at the position though.
Lock almost throws a pick to Mike Hilton on 1st and 20 pic.twitter.com/Ix7Ess0orX— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 20, 2021
It wasn’t all bad for the Broncos, and I want to shine a light on a few great efforts.
Bradley Chubb had his best game of the season
It’s no secret the fifth pick of the 2018 draft has struggled this year. Bone spurs forced him to miss all but 19 plays through the first 11 weeks and since coming back from Injured Reserve he’s looked like a shell of himself. It certainly looks like George Paton is going to have a tough call to make on a potential extension for Chubb after he’s missed more games than he’s played the last three years, so to say it was encouraging to see him give Jonah Williams fits in spurts today was definitely encouraging.
The defense looked quite good
The Tyler Boyd touchdown and all the issues on offense, special teams, and above will probably overshadow what was a standout performance from the Broncos’ secondary, and that’s a dang shame. Outside of his 56-yard score to Boyd, Burrow completed 16 of 21 passes for 101 yards and took three sacks. The Bengals quarterback would have taken more, but he did a really good moving through his progressions to the checkdowns quickly, that and the fourth quarter lead is a big reason Baron Browning finished the game with a team leading 10 tackles.
A few other defenders who really stood out to me on the broadcast:
- Patrick Surtain II was phenomenal. Jamar Chase finished with one catch for three yards and it didn’t come against the Broncos’ first round rookie.
- Shelby Harris had another gritty performance playing through ankle and knee injuries.
- Justin Simmons’ sack was his most exciting play of the game, but he was all over the field swarming to the ball.
- I’ll need to go back over the LOS to really get a better picture, but Mike Purcell, Shamar Stephen, and DeShawn Williams seemed to play well. Joe Mixon finished with 3.4 yards per attempt on 17 carries and constantly had to weave through bodies in the backfield.
Jonathon Cooper and Shelby Harris beat the Bengals backups on the right side to bring down Joe Burrow.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 19, 2021
Broncos hold on 3rd down pic.twitter.com/B9MziZpPlE
Final Thoughts (for now)
After a frustrating loss a little perspective is probably warranted.
First, the bad: The Broncos will miss the playoffs for a 6th straight season, which is the worst stretch in franchise history since Gerald Ford was in the White House. They still don’t have a franchise quarterback and play in a division with two of the best signal callers in football. All that’s left of the 2021 campaign is playing out the string, rooting for the young players to develop into foundational players, and begin to look ahead to an offseason where change is going to be a constant. All signs point to a new owner replacing the Bowlens as soon as March.
The good: This roster wasn’t ever going to compete for a Super Bowl as currently constructed. George Paton made moves throughout his first year at the helm to try and set Denver up for success down the road, even if it hurt the roster in the present day. Trading Von Miller to the Los Angeles Rams took some oomph out of the pass rush, but also gives the Broncos two extra top 100 picks in the 2022 draft. The way he structured free agent deals and key re-signings last offseason as well as the extensions for Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick means the franchise is currently projected to have about $48 million in cap space next year. The young supporting cast, draft capital, and cap space makes Denver arguably the most appealing destination out there for veteran quarterbacks.
Things are going to be pretty unsettled in Broncos Country for awhile, but with perhaps a little Mile High Magic we could all be rooting for Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson come spring.