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Broncos search for answers to get Trevor Siemian back on track

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- A shutout might be tabulated with a zero, but what it really does for an NFL team that suffers through it is raise a parade of question marks.

And when the shutout marks the first time a team didn't score a point in a game for a quarter century, well, then you have the Denver Broncos' week -- quarterback Trevor Siemian's week -- in a nutshell.

That is why one of the narratives after the Los Angeles Chargers' 21-0 victory over the Broncos last Sunday was that teams are playing Siemian's tendencies now, making him -- and the Broncos' offense -- pay for how he plays behind center.

"I don't feel that. I've watched every snap the guy's played since I've been here, and I don't see that," Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. "Obviously, after games like that, they had success, so obviously there's a reason why; it wasn't that."

The Broncos are 11-9 in Siemian's 20 career starts to this point, a record plenty of teams would take with a 25-year-old quarterback behind center. But the Broncos are not plenty of teams, and neither is their passionate fan base that just watched Peyton Manning close out a Hall of Fame career in 2015. Another Hall of Famer, John Elway, is the team's chief football decision-maker.

Beyond any discussion about the long term, it is abundantly clear in the here and now that the Broncos' offense hasn't been remotely right since the 42-17 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 2. The team is 1-3 in its past four games and has constructed just three touchdown drives longer than three plays in those four games, and Siemian has thrown two touchdown passes and five interceptions.

Joseph has been unwavering, as have Siemian's teammates, in the support for Siemian as the starter. They routinely cite the team's issues in pass protection, as well as the Broncos' inability to consistently run the ball of late, especially in losses to the Giants and Chargers, who came into last Sunday's game last in the league in run defense.

Siemian learned under Manning, and he understands everything that comes with the job, including the price of turnovers, the impact of losses and the siren that a shutout loss can be.

"I know I have to be better, no question," Siemian said. "I've said, it all starts with me."

Start with the turnovers. An informal survey of four current and former NFL defensive coordinators, who each have reviewed at least some Broncos game video, revealed one item all agreed on: They would tell their defensive backs, whether in man or bracketed coverage, to undercut throws to Siemian's left along the sideline. They believe Siemian is often late with that ball, against a variety of looks, and it offers a chance to make a play.

It was the kind of pass the Giants' Janoris Jenkins intercepted and returned for a touchdown and the kind the Chargers' Casey Hayward would have returned for a touchdown in the season opener had Hayward not dropped the ball.

And then look at the Broncos' personnel in some of the most troublesome situations. The numbers say that during the past four games when the Broncos put Siemian in a three-wide receiver formation, things have unraveled. The formation was a staple when Manning was the quarterback, and at times the Broncos struggled to protect Manning in it, as well -- especially in 2015, when Manning threw 17 interceptions in his first nine starts of that season.

In the past four games, the Broncos have surrendered 14 of their 16 sacks out of the three-wide-receiver look, and all five of Siemian's interceptions in those games have come out of three-wide, as well. Granted the Broncos are often in throw-first mode on those plays, but those results still show defenses have had the upper hand.

Asked this past week if the team protected Siemian well enough to play out of the three-wide as much as the Broncos would like to, Joseph said the protection issues were not related to the number of wide receivers in the formation.

"Sometimes we do, sometimes we don't," Joseph said. "You can be in three-wides, and you can have different protections to take care of the issues. ... It's not a two-wide or a three-wide issue; it's more of guys winning one-on-ones, and if we do have issues, having the right protections on."

Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy echoed those sentiments that the Broncos have seen some of the issues in their other personnel groupings, as well.

"There are certain times when Trev will tell you he needs to get out of the ball quicker on certain things," McCoy said. "Then there's breakdowns in protections. He's been hit before when we've been in big personnel groupings and everything. We just have to make sure we have the right plan and we go out there and execute it the right way."

Whether that means the Broncos try to beef up things against the Chiefs with more two-tight-end looks or more two-back sets, all involved say Siemian's turnover rate must reduce significantly, as must the number of hits he has been taking. For his part, Siemian said he needs to be smart with the ball and recognize opportunities to get things back on track.

"I don't think you should be cautious," Siemian said. "It's tough to play that way. For me as a quarterback, it's tough to play cautiously. You want to take care of the ball, and I have to do a better job with that. You can't be sitting on the ball back there. You have to make plays. You have to find a rhythm somehow."