ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In a span of five days, the Broncos went from the AFC's top seed with a dominant win over the Tennessee Titans to a loss to the San Diego Chargers this past Thursday night that knocked them out of the inside lane for the No. 1 seed and added a question mark or two along the way.
The Broncos didn't handle their short week, prime-time appearance very well, with a one-dimensional look on offense that featured miniscule work in the run game to go with another tough night for a beleaguered defense still looking for answers.
And after a long look at the video from Thursday night's loss, here are some thoughts on the team's defense and special teams:
Broncos rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster has taken plenty of heat for his work in the loss and some of it is deserved as part of the growing pains that come with the position for first-year players. His technique is spotty at times, particularly when he tries to press a receiver as he often surrenders too much room to the inside or outside, depending on his positioning. If he's going to line up tight, he can't give the receiver an escape route. But Webster was also a victim of Philip Rivers' accuracy. Rivers' 14-yard completion to Vincent Brown in the first quarter, the 12-yard completion to Eddie Royal in the second quarter, the 10-yard touchdown throw to Keenan Allen in the second quarter, and the 32-yard completion to Brown in the third all had plenty in common. First, Rivers hammered away at the rookie as veteran quarterbacks will do -- i.e. Manning, Peyton on Cooper, Marcus. Second, Webster's positioning has him in tight on many of the completions, the ball was simply in the best spot. On the touchdown to Allen – the non-hurdling touchdown for the Chargers rookie – Webster even, as defensive backs coaches say, has his hand “in the pocket'' in between Allen's hands. But Allen won the battle for the ball with quality hand strength. Yes, the rookie has some rough edges and yes any quarterbacks the Broncos see in the postseason will have more than enough ability to come after him again. But he's a prospect with potential who kept playing with a fractured thumb who didn't fare as badly as some Twitter rants would seem to indicate.
The bigger concern for the Broncos is what to do in their specialty looks on defense. They consistently rush the passer well out of their nickel and dime packages as well as a seven-defensive back look because of the variety of fronts they present and the variety of places in the formation the rushers can come from. But to make it work, they have to hold up in the secondary. And opposing quarterbacks have started to single out the safeties in coverage in those looks, especially if they can get the matchup they want on Duke Ihenacho. Rivers went after Ihenacho plenty, especially if the Chargers were able to get tight end Antonio Gates or tight end Ladarius Green singled up with room to work. Ihenacho took a pass interference penalty in the fourth quarter when he grabbed Green's jersey as Ihenacho trailed the play. Gates had a 14-yard catch in the first quarter to go with a 9-yarder in the third quarter to convert a third-and-6 with Ihenacho in tow. The Broncos have taken Ihenacho out of the base defense already, but when he joins the specialty looks, now the dime (six defensive backs) or the seven-defensive back looks, quarterbacks have located him quickly.
The Chargers made plenty of room to run against some of the Broncos' specialty looks as well. On back-to-back plays in the third quarter, the Chargers got bigger-on-smaller matchups to win the play. On a second-and-6 play, with the Broncos in their nickel (five defensive backs) that includes three linebackers as well, Chargers rookie tackle D.J. Fluker went to the second level and plowed over linebacker Danny Trevathan as Danny Woodhead had an 8-yard gain. On the following play, with the Broncos in the same personnel grouping, Denver lined up Shaun Phillips and Von Miller as stand-up linebackers to the defensive right and left respectively around three down defensive linemen. Cornerback Chris Harris was lined up behind Miller a bit because the Chargers did not have a slot receiver in the formation, but had two tight ends to Miller's and Harris' side. As the play flowed to the defensive right, Miller missed a tackle after he couldn't shed the block as he's was being shoved by Chargers tight end John Phillips, Harris was kicked out of the play and center Nick Hardwick was well down the field to pick up safety Omar Bolden. The result was a 23-yard run by Ryan Mathews.
The Broncos weren't able to consistently get the stops they needed when the Chargers had a short field. In the second quarter, when the Broncos' offense put up three consecutive three-and-outs, the Chargers got the ball on the San Diego 45-yard line and the Broncos' 43-yard line after the second and third of those three-and-outs. The Broncos forced a punt when San Diego got the ball on the 45, but didn't fare as well when San Diego took over on the Broncos' 43. The Chargers' drove seven plays for a touchdown.
The Broncos had some issues with the comeback-crushing penalty on linebacker Nate Irving on a punt in the fourth quarter. The Broncos, trailing 24-10, appeared to have forced a punt with the Chargers facing a fourth-and-4 with 8:28 to play in the third quarter. Chargers punter Mike Scifres was set to punt from his own end zone and the Broncos were set to get the kind of field position they had not had for much of the night. Instead, Irving was called for a neutral-zone infraction that gave the Chargers a first down. San Diego went on to hold the ball for almost seven more minutes before the Broncos forced another punt, seven minutes that would have come in handy in what turned out to be a seven-point loss. The Broncos believe long-snapper Mike Windt picked up the ball and set it back down before picking it up again to snap. Irving jumped at the first movement. The video confirmed Windt did pick the ball up -- he picked it up slightly and tapped the nose of the ball on the ground before he set it back down to pick it up again to snap. In the end Irving was likely drawn off by the first movement, which by the letter of the law isn't allowed, but the penalty is still inexcusable in that situation, even if the Broncos were set to rush Scifres hard to try to get the block.
The Broncos' special-teams units were among the league's most productive and disciplined in the early going this season. And Matt Prater's 64-yard field goal against the Titans was a league record. But like Irving's penalty, the group was undone late by fundamentals. Recovering an onside kick is difficult enough these days with recent rules changes to take away the re-dos as well as prevent over-loading one side of the formation. But in the final seconds Thursday, the Broncos didn't even give themselves a last-chance gasp because Prater's attempt didn't go the required 10 yards.