ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos have shown the kind of remember-when potential they have on offense.
Quarterback Peyton Manning threw for seven touchdowns in the season opener and they have scored 429 points in 11 games. They have vexed defensive coordinators and pushed the pace to score early, often and anywhere between. Yet, at times, they have been their own biggest problem when they have failed to take care of the most basic of the basics. That none of it is possible without the ball.
And the fact is, sometimes, too often really, the guys in this pedal-to-the-metal touchdown factory simply don’t take care of the ball.
"We have to get that fixed -- we’re working on it every day," said offensive coordinator Adam Gase. "What we’ve seen so far isn’t good enough."
The Broncos lead the league in scoring -- 39 points per game, or a staggering 11.2 points per game ahead of the next team (Seattle) -- Manning leads the league in touchdown passes with 36 and the Broncos have three players with at least nine touchdown catches.
But they also lead the league in lost fumbles with 16, four of those coming from their running backs, and are coming off a game in New England when the Broncos receivers and running backs also had seven clear drops in the passing game. The drops were across the board, as well as two from Demaryius Thomas, three from Wes Welker, one from Eric Decker and one from rookie C.J. Anderson. Toss in five fumbles in all against the Patriots, three of those lost on a frigid night in Foxborough, Mass., and that’s an awful lot of loose ends from a Super Bowl hopeful.
Especially when you consider the idea that chances are the Broncos, with the Super Bowl set to be played outdoors at MetLife Stadium, will have to bundle up again in the postseason to even get to the title game as well.
"When you look at any loss, you look at the turnovers, the explosive plays that were made -- or should have been made," Decker said. "And then, again, just self-inflicted wounds. I think some of those drops can’t happen. There was a lot of wind in New England, but that's not an excuse to drop the ball. That’s something that we worked on this week is catching extra balls, making sure that we secure the football when we have it because those are the things that will cost you games is if you turn it over."
Running back Montee Ball’s fumble in the third quarter gave the Patriots the ball on the Broncos' 32-yard line. New England scored six plays later to cut the Broncos' lead to 24-14 with 5 minutes, 40 seconds left in the quarter, and it turned into the kind of game-changing gaffe coaches always fear in the turnover totals, the one where control of things slips away.
Gase said of the seven drops, four would have resulted in "explosive plays," and that Manning’s stat line of 19-of-36 passing for 150 yards, as well as the scoreboard, would have looked far different if it had been a Broncos player handing the ball back to the official after each of those plays.
"I felt like we had too many drops so you look at that and you look at the competition percentage and if you just looked at a piece of paper you’d say, 'wow, the completion percentage wasn’t good,' but there’s four plays out there that we dropped that were going to be explosive plays and we need guys to step up and make those plays," Gase said. "I think then we got a different outlook on that game leaving the stadium."
The fumbles at running back, all from the backs behind Knowshon Moreno on the depth chart, are of particular concern as well since Moreno is currently working through a right ankle injury he suffered against the Patriots and since Moreno has had 64 carries combined in the last two games. The Broncos want, and need, somebody else to provide some kind of relief for Moreno and hang on to the ball while they’re doing it with the focus, at least at the moment, on the team's desire that Ball be that player.
"We have no other options," Gase said. "I mean, nobody is coming through that door. At some point one of these three guys, these young guys, they have to step up. We have to be able to not have (Moreno) go 37 carries a game. So one of these guys has to step up and hold on to the ball and do what they’re supposed to do and that’s a challenge to them. Somebody is going to step up. Hopefully, Montee decides, 'hey it’s not going to happen anymore.' We have to get that fixed -- but nobody is walking through that door so we have to fix it and they have to do it during a game."
It can be done, things can change, and the Broncos' backs only have to look to Moreno to see the proof and what it takes to do it. It’s faded into the mist of all that’s happened since in and around the team, but Moreno was sent to bench purgatory last season after a Week 2 fumble in Atlanta. He was a game-day inactive for the next eight games, until Willis McGahee suffered a knee injury in Week 10.
Since that point, Moreno has touched the ball, either as a runner or receiver, 386 times including the Broncos’ playoff loss to the Ravens last January, and has not lost a fumble. He had a bobble against Dallas earlier this season, but recovered the ball himself.
But it is just the kind of rebound the Broncos want, and need with a stretch drive staring them in the face.
"I think he made it a point of emphasis for himself," Gase said. He didn’t need me or (running backs coach Eric Studesville) or anybody else to tell him anything. He just decided that the ball was not going on the ground any more. It’s tough. When you carry the ball that much, it happens. We all have seen it happen to the best of them, but he’s made that decision that he’s not putting it on the ground. Hopefully these young guys can do the same thing and just realize, 'hey it’s happened, I have to move on and I have to make sure it doesn’t happen anymore.'"