How do the Denver Broncos regain their magic?
That question has been posed all week in the Rocky Mountains as the team is on the cusp of blowing a monumental lead in the AFC West.
The reeling Broncos somehow have to find the answer Sunday as they play host to San Diego in a matchup for sole possession of first place in the division. Both Denver and San Diego are 6-3. That tie seemed highly unlikely on the night of Oct. 19, when the Broncos beat the Chargers to improve to 6-0 and drop San Diego to 2-3.
However, Denver has lost three straight games, most recently at lowly Washington, since its bye. While Denver has come crashing back to earth, San Diego has won four straight games.
The Broncos have had a number of problems the past three weeks. They have looked more like the team many league observers expected them to be, with issues on both sides of the ball.
Here is a look at Denver’s problems and what it must fix to get back on the winning track:
No pressure from the defensive front: This area was considered one of Denver’s biggest question marks going into the season. Starters Kenny Peterson, Ryan McBean and Ronald Fields had two combined NFL starts prior to the season.
The group played well in the first six games but has been pushed around lately. Pittsburgh and Washington ran all over the Broncos. After the 6-0 start, the Broncos were third in the NFL in rushing yards allowed, yielding 79.7 yards per game. Now, they're 12th in the league, allowing 105.6 yards per game. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information, Denver has allowed 157.3 yards rushing, 26th in the league, over the past three games.
The problem clearly starts up front.
“It seems like it’s the group we expected it to be prior to the season,” Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. “That unit does not control the line of scrimmage anymore.”
It will be interesting to see how Denver’s defense plays the run against San Diego. The Chargers had the worst rushing offense in the NFL most of the season. But LaDainian Tomlinson got going a bit Sunday against Philadelphia, rushing for 96 yards and taking the pressure off San Diego’s outstanding passing game. Denver must stop the run to keep San Diego's offense one-dimensional.
The entire defense is wearing down: The Denver defense sparked its hot start. The unit didn’t allow more than 17 points in the first six games. It was timely and punishing.
Yet, over the past three games, the defense has looked tired, and it has fallen apart late. Denver has allowed 85 points in the past three games after allowing only 66 points in the first six games. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Denver allowed 262.5 yards per game in the first six games. In the past three games, it allowed 351.7.
The change is startling.
“[We are playing] not very good team defense,” Denver coach Josh McDaniels said. ”We know that we can be successful when we play good team defense. We’ve shown that ability. We’ve done it in the past against good teams. For a number of reasons, we’ve kind of forgotten what got us to that point. We’ve got to go back to work, and we’ve got to all understand that we’re not 11 individuals out there. We’re one group that has to play our responsibility the way that it needs to be played and do our job the way that it needs to be done, and that is many times done without glory individually, but what happens is the ball ends up going back to the guy that it’s supposed to go back to and he’s there to make the tackle. If he does, then you usually play decent run defense. Once you start jumping around blocks and [are] trying to make a play here and there, it kind of spreads throughout the defense and becomes a problem.”
The longer the drives go, the worse Denver gets. According to ESPN Stats & Information, offenses were converting third downs only 26.9 percent of the time against Denver. In the past three games, offenses are converting on third down 56.5 percent of the time.
“It worked for a while, but the defense looks worn down and tired,” Williamson said. “Can it get better? I’m not sure because it’s not going to get any younger.”
Deep ball: The offense was, for the most part, along for the ride during Denver’s hot start. The defense was leading the way.
But the offense made it count when it needed to. Led by quarterback Kyle Orton, Denver made the right plays when it had to on offense against Dallas, New England and San Diego.
But Denver’s offense derailed in its seventh game, a 30-7 loss at Baltimore. The Ravens forced the Broncos to throw deep, which is not Orton’s strength. The Ravens played one safety and stacked the box to take away the running game and the short passing game. The Ravens kept Denver’s receivers in front of them and took away the big play. The Steelers mimicked that plan.
In the first half against Washington, Orton had success throwing deep before he hurt his ankle.
“Still, I don’t see that happening on a regular basis,” Williamson said. “Without the deep ball being a constant threat, this offense gets limited.”
For Denver to get more success on offense, it will have to run the ball better. Rookie Knowshon Moreno broke out of a slump with 97 yards against the Redskins. His improved play has to continue. If the Broncos aren’t going to be able to throw deep, they will at least have to complement the short passing game with a legitimate running game.
Special teams: One of the nagging problems of the Mike Shanahan era in Denver was poor special-teams play. Under McDaniels, special-teams play improved early in the season.
However, it has been an issue recently.
Against San Diego and Baltimore, Denver allowed a punt and kickoff return for a score. Against Washington, the Redskins got back into the game with a touchdown on a fake field goal.
These are the types of problems that can kill a team. With problems finding their identity on offense and defense, Denver can’t afford to deal with major failures on special teams. This should be a fairly easy problem to remedy. And it has to be solved. Giving away points on special teams is a sure way to lose games.
All of these issues need to clear up immediately. McDaniels knows his team can execute. Still, the past three weeks are clearly poking holes into Denver’s legitimacy.
“I am not sure where the psyche of our team is,” McDaniels said. ”I know where I’m at. We need to get better. We need to play better. We can coach better. We’re 6-3. We’re playing San Diego, who is also 6-3. It’s a huge division game at home. I don’t know why we wouldn’t like to be in this situation.
"I wish we had won the last three games. I think everybody in this building does, but we didn’t, and there are reasons why we didn’t. We’ve got to go fix the problems and play good football from here on out, starting with this week against a great team coming from San Diego in our division.”
Asked if he thinks Denver can regain its early-season form, Williamson was noncommittal.
“I really don’t know about this team,” Williamson said. “I didn’t expect them to start 6-0 and when they did I was impressed. But they have not looked like they can be a winning team in the past three weeks. They’re a very hard team to read. But they better get it together soon, or they are going to be in trouble. It has to start now against San Diego.”