Yet another offensive letdown means Broncos drop one they had no business losing
DENVER — Overtime beckoned on a perfect early-autumn night, and some Broncos fans strode to the exits, having seen enough.
Enough of an offense that spent most of the night unable to get out of its own way. A fourth scattershot performance in five weeks and a putrid 11.3 offensive points per home game so far this season has a way of doing that.
Enough of a red-zone offense that, by the end of the night, had just 3 of a possible 28 points from four possessions. Which isn’t a news flash, of course. Through 4 games, the Broncos offense is more likely to not score at all on a red-zone series (35.7 percent) than find the end zone (21.4 percent).
And enough of a team that, despite myriad offseason changes, still looks far too much like the middling outfits that preceded it.
Other than the game-time temperature of 69 degrees, there was nothing nice about the Broncos’ 12-9 overtime defeat to the Indianapolis Colts.
And unlike in the team’s loss in Las Vegas four days earlier, the $165-million-guaranteed quarterback wasn’t the man who kept the hopes alive. In the end, the defeat fell at his feet — specifically, two times late Thursday night that he rolled the dice against Stephon Gilmore and came up snake eyes.
“At the end of the day, I have to be better. I have to play better,” Russell Wilson said.
It never should have come down to those two passes, though.
The Colts flew into Denver with arguably their best two players — LB Shaquille Leonard and RB Jonathan Taylor — injured. Their 15-year-veteran quarterback, Matt Ryan, is at the potted-plant stage of his career. For most of Thursday night, Ryan was a stationary target, absorbing blow after blow behind the one of the least effective lines since Maginot.
Denver hit Ryan 12 times, including 6 sacks. The Broncos rattled Ryan into two interceptions on which safety Caden Sterns appeared to be the intended receiver.
And yet Ryan — for all his flaws, fumbling proclivity and leaky protection — finished the night with a higher passer rating than Wilson.
Per ESPN, Ryan had an EPA (expected points added) of minus-2.2 — and it was still enough to win.
“Isn’t it awesome that you can have a game like that and still win?” asked Colts coach Frank Reich. “It really is.”
It had been 36 years since the Broncos lost when not allowing a touchdown and holding an opponent to single digits in regulation play. Thursday’s loss chucked the 42-game winning streak for that scenario into the South Platte.
Indianapolis won a game it had no business winning.
Denver lost one it had no business losing.
But the sad truth is, that was the case in Las Vegas, too. And ditto for Week 1.
And in most of the season, the common thread has been an offense that accumulates yards, but is cataclysmically awful at converting them into points on a consistent basis.
“I’m frustrated. I think everybody’s frustrated,” WR KJ Hamler said. “We’ve just got to stop shooting ourself in the foot. Self-inflicted wounds.”
After the game, the common refrain was straight from the Book of Costanza: It’s not you, it’s me.
Or, more specifically, it’s “we.”
“It’s just us. We’ve just got to get in a rhythm,” RB Melvin Gordon said. “We’ve gotta stop making mistakes, and we’ve gotta be sharp on the details.
“We are a way better football team offensively than we’ve shown the past few weeks, and that’s probably what’s disappointing more than anything.”
The problem is, the miscues are as much a part of the offense’s DNA as the explosive plays are. You can expect some dynamic moments. You can also expect the offense to go off-schedule because of penalties and execution errors.
Which is why Denver had four plays longer than anything the Colts amassed Thursday, and they still didn’t matter. Because the banana peels seem to always sit around the next corner for Denver’s offense.
EXPECTATIONS VS. REALITY
This is no longer an offense that was taking its time to find its form.
This is a unit that appears to have lost the road map and is like Clark Griswold driving the Family Truckster through the Arizona desert.
Like Griswold himself, the Broncos are capable of soaring 50 yards in a single flight. To wit: In the third quarter, Wilson hit Courtland Sutton for 51 yards on a pass where Sutton appeared to grab the football from rookie Montrell Washington as both went up for it.
And then all the tires blow right after the landing. After a subsequent first down, the Broncos went backwards 7 yards in three plays. Then, Indianapolis’ Grover Stewart blocked a 34-yard McManus field-goal attempt.
The Broncos have just 6 touchdowns this season. Just twice in team history have they had fewer trips to the end zone through five games.
And no longer can past seasons be used as a parallel. In recent months, the stuttering start to Peyton Manning’s first Broncos season of 2012 was a guidepost that no matter how things struggled, they can — and would — get better. Ditto the first season for Nathaniel Hackett and Aaron Rodgers together in Green Bay.
So, let’s look at those offenses compared to this one:
Offensive touchdowns per game:
- 2012 Broncos: 3.0
- 2019 Packers: 2.8
- 2022 Broncos 1.2
Offensive points per game:
- 2012 Broncos: 25.4
- 2019 Packers: 23.8
- 2022 Broncos: 14.6
First downs per game:
- 2012 Broncos: 23.2
- 2019 Packers: 20.8
- 2022 Broncos: 16.8
Yards per game:
- 2012 Broncos: 388.4
- 2019 Packers: 337.2
- 2022 Broncos: 343.6
QB’s passer rating:
- 2012 Broncos: 101.0
- 2019 Packers: 93.4
- 2022 Broncos: 82.8
These Broncos aren’t the Manning-led edition of a decade ago, nor are they the ’19 Packers. Because unlike those offenses in everything but yardage, the Broncos must improve just to be middling.
That sounds all too familiar to the offenses of recent vintage.
So, in light of that, and knowing that rarely can a team go from punchless to powerful in the snap of a finger, the Broncos have to rethink how they find success and the path they take.
And that may require a more pragmatic approach than, say, firing into the end zone at a defense’s No. 1 cornerback on third-and-4 from the 15 when even a field goal might have put the game out of reach against a team whose offense spent most of the night unable to protect its aging quarterback.
“We wanted to be sure that we were able to get a first down,” Hackett said. “So, we were trying to give ourselves a play that could help us with that.
“We’ve been running the ball well there, so we went with a play-action pass and in that situation, obviously we don’t want a turnover, we want to come away with the points, that would have helped us.”
But in the pursuit of everything, the Broncos came out with nothing, when something would probably have been enough to escape with a win, considering the havoc its defense wreaked.
The Broncos and their fans dreamed of offensive fireworks.
But after yet another game in which the offense misfired, miscued and mismanaged itself into oblivion, this team could have to turn to an old algorithm — of a terrific defense carrying an underachieving offense.
And Broncos fans know how that looks.
No wonder some didn’t want to see Thursday night’s drudgery through to the end.