Ball, game slip away
Broncos run into road trouble; their playo≠ hopes take big hit Siemian plays well, but ground game generates only 18 yards
Tennessee Titans inside linebacker Avery Williamson strips the ball from the Broncos’ A.J. Derby for a fumble after the tight end’s catch late in the fourth quarter Sunday at Nissan Stadium. The Titans recovered, sealing their 13-10 victory against the Broncos.
nashville, tenn.» The Broncos knew what was coming. They knew the Titans’ plan of attack, they knew how they needed to counter, and they knew the disaster that could unfold if they didn’t.
But knowledge alone couldn’t save them Sunday.
Behind an offense that was inefficient for much of the game the Broncos lost to Tennessee 13-10, dropping them to 8-5 and putting their playoff hopes in doubt with games left against New England, at Kansas City and Oakland, the AFC’s top three teams.
Quarterback Trevor Siemian returned from a one-game absence because of a foot injury only to take more hits, including a pair of sacks, and suffer a lacerated left hand. But he endured to complete 35-of-51 passes for 334 yards and one touchdown.
“We had some opportunities to make plays there at the end that he would be the first one to tell you that he could make a couple of his plays too,” coach Gary Kubiak said. “But he battled through, did everything he
could possibly do. It just wasn’t enough.”
Siemian’s numbers and his performance were impressive, considering his physical woes and a nonexistent run game that produced only 18 yards.
In the first half alone the Broncos had six possessions, punting five times and fumbling once (courtesy of new running back Justin Forsett on his first carry), went 0-for-4 on third downs and recorded a paltry 12 yards rushing.
“I think our first carry today we put the ball on the ground . ... Obviously there wasn’t much commitment to the run,” Kubiak said.
The Titans jumped to an early 10-0 lead and behind the quick feet of running back DeMarco Murray and quarterback Marcus Mariota tallied 138 yards rushing in the first two quarters. They finished with 180 yards rushing, second-most allowed by the Denver defense this season.
Everything that could go wrong early on offense for Denver did. But what the offense lacked the defense seemed to gain, occasionally with flared tempers.
Titans wide receiver Harry Douglas nailed cornerback Chris Harris with a cheap shot to his right knee on a play late in the second quarter. Harris dropped to the ground in pain and his teammates rushed to his defense.
“I’ve never had a player just try to end my career like that,” Harris said, still fuming about the play after the game. “That was dirty. He should be fined. That’s not football.”
Harris slowly rose to his feet, but issued a few of his own words before walking off.
“I can’t even say what I said,” Harris said, admitting he was at first worried about having a career-ending injury. “I was sore, I’m not going to lie. I was hurting a little bit, but I toughed it out.”
Harris would return soon after — but not before cornerback Aqib Talib pounced on Douglas on the next play, sparking a brief brawl that, amazingly, drew only Talib a personal foul.
“You cut somebody’s knees and they’re not even paying attention to you, that’s not right,” said outside linebacker Shane Ray. “So the reaction we had as a defense, we’re not wrong at all. I would have done the same thing for any one of my other teammates.”
The free first down allowed the Titans’ drive to drag on and take many bizarre turns, with three penalties and chants of “Refs, you (stink)!” from the fans.
After 19 plays and 8:04 of game clock, the Titans settled for a field goal that extended their lead to 13-0 by halftime. The fight, though, seemed to shift the momentum. From that point, the Broncos’ defense took control. The ticked-off secondary held Mariota to 6-of-20 passing for a mere 88 yards and a 45.4 passer rating. He was sacked twice and had three of his passes deflected.
The work of the Broncos’ defense left the door ajar for their offense to, as it usually does, wait until the second half to come alive. On cue, it did.
Siemian opened the third quarter by spraying passes to wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Jordan Taylor, an obvious affront to the dead running game.
“Obviously we were trying to play catch-up, so we are throwing the ball a lot. … That’s what we were doing best at the end of the game,” Kubiak said.
On a drive later in the third quarter Riley Dixon had a 16yard fake-punt completion to Cody Latimer, and Siemian connected with Demaryius Thomas to convert two third-down plays. The drive was a revival of sorts — but it fell short of points, ending on a failed fourth-down attempt early in the fourth quarter.
The scoring drought would end, finally, on the Broncos’ subsequent drive, as they resorted to only passing and Siemian found Sanders for a 3-yard touchdown. The Titans’ lead was trimmed to a single score with 10 minutes remaining, plenty of time for it to be erased before the final whistle, and the Broncos were put in position to do just that.
Siemian found Thomas for a 13yard completion on third down that put the Broncos at Tennessee’s 6-yard line, but a sack and a pass that bounced off the hands of Bennie Fowler at the goal line forced them to settle for a 34-yard field goal, making it 13-10.
Denver’s defense held again, but a fumble by tight end A.J. Derby in the final minute at the Broncos’ 40-yard line eroded their last hope and sealed Tennessee’s victory.
“We had our chances down the stretch and we didn’t make the plays,” Siemian said. “But the start sure as heck didn’t help us.”
The Broncos’ offense couldn’t undo enough. The disaster had already unfolded.
Avery Williamson, left, of the Titans throws Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib out of the pile after a tussle with Tennessee wide receiver Harry Douglas during the second quarter Sunday. Talib was retaliating for what he considered a cheap shot by Douglas on Denver cornerback Chris Harris. Joe Amon, The Denver Post
Broncos tight end A.J. Derby is consoled by center Matt Paradis after getting the ball stripped by Tennessee Titans inside linebacker Avery Williamson for a fumble after his catch late in the fourth quarter Sunday. John Leyba, The Denver Post