A game of flinches
Broncos not making the plays they need to close out wins
It is second-and-goal at the Tennessee Titans’ 16yard line with just under five minutes left in the fourth quarter. Trevor Siemian is in the shotgun. The Broncos’ quarterback quickly scans the line, then drops back and shifts left to evade pressure coming from his right side. His eyes lock and his arm fires, sending a missile toward Bennie Fowler’s chest for what could be the game-winning score at Tennessee.
If only. The ball bounced off Fowler’s face mask as he spun around and faceplanted in the end zone. The Broncos would settle for a field goal, cutting Tennessee’s lead to 13-10 on Sunday. Then they lost a fumble on their next and final possession and dropped to 8-5.
“We had four or five plays to make, a couple on (Siemian’s) behalf and a couple on the receiver’s behalf, that would have closed the football game,” Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said Monday. “Those are the plays we have to go make.”
Fowler’s drop not only quashed the Broncos’ best chance at turning their fourth-quarter rally into a victory but also seemed to capture the style of the offense of late: start slowly, then rally
but fail to finish.
It has become the Broncos’ way for reasons not even Kubiak can explain. Denver’s run game died long ago and, no matter the personnel changes, has yet to be resuscitated. The passing game, now the most reliable part of the offense, has afforded the quarterback little protection. And the offense as a whole has been consistently inconsistent, riddled with mistakes.
The Broncos’ offensive woes are laid bare in the numbers: They’ve produced a league-low 23 points in the first quarter but a league-high 143 points in the fourth.
The lagging run game that has frustrated Kubiak for much of the season has averaged only 2.9 yards per carry in the past six games, down from 4.1 through seven games.
Sunday, the Broncos ran the ball only nine times for 18 yards, tied for the third-fewest in Broncos history.
Siemian, as a first-year starter, is a convenient target to blame, but his play has proved he’s not the problem. In the last five games, he has averaged 303.8 yards passing, the secondmost of any quarterback in that span behind Washington’s Kirk Cousins — while getting sacked at the fifth-highest rate (7.8 percent of pass plays) behind the Broncos’ line.
The Broncos failed to muster much of any offense in the first half Sunday against the Titans, and, as both as a cause and effect, ran only 24 offensive plays. They punted four times, recorded only 12 yards rushing, went 0for-5 on third downs and had only five first downs. But in the second half, when they all but scrapped their running game, they rallied behind Siemian, who finished with 334 yards passing, a touchdown and zero interceptions for a 93.1 passer rating.
“If you look at Trevor’s numbers, obviously they’re big numbers — really big numbers,” Kubiak said. “If you don’t stay on the field and you’re not getting snaps, those numbers aren’t going to come.”
Which creates an obvious question for the Broncos with three critical games remaining: Do they stick with a run game that is inexplicably inefficient, or do they pass more, as Denver did in the second half Sunday, and accept more risk of the quarterback getting hurt?
“Right now we have to be able to run the ball and protect,” said tight end A.J. Derby. “We have to make plays for him.” For Kubiak, the question is much simpler. “It’s not about the plays. It’s about execution, it’s about details, it’s about some of those things,” he said. “Then you have to ask yourself why. Why is the detail not there early in the game?”
The Broncos’ Bennie Fowler can’t secure what would have been a touchdown reception in the fourth quarter Sunday.
Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian had a strong fourth quarter Sunday, but not good enough to win.