DENVER – The Denver Broncos are 1-1 by the grace of their defense, but make no mistake, much of the optimism surrounding the arrival of quarterback Russell Wilson -- as well as a new coaching staff with big dreams on offense -- has been swept away by a flurry of penalty flags, clock management problems and a red zone drought.
The bottom line after a 1-1 start is the Broncos’ offense is not pulling its weight, and the boos raining down at times in Sunday’s home opener against the Houston Texans reflected an increasingly frustrated fan base.
“Too sloppy by the offense, too many things where we just made it hard on ourself," Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett said after Sunday’s 16-9 victory. “ … That’s inexcusable.
“I don’t blame [the fans]," Hackett added. “I’d be booing, myself … very frustrating. Get down in the red zone twice and don’t get another touchdown … I don’t think we’ve scored in there yet."
There are plenty of things for the Broncos’ decision-makers to drill down on in the coming days, but here are some of the big-ticket items that demand their attention:
Dial down the cuteness factor
Wilson gives the Broncos the potential of a vast playbook filled with the creative musings of Hackett’s football imagination. But there are times, especially at this stage of things, when a nod to simplicity might be the way to go.
A team that averaged 4.8 yards per carry in Sunday’s game and has rushed for 252 yards in two games decided to attempt four passes from the Texans’ 2-yard line or closer and completed none of them.
And overall, the Broncos are 0-for-6 in the red zone on the young season.
At one point, they surrendered a sack when they couldn't protect in a three-wide-receiver grouping with an empty backfield. That stifled one drive into Houston territory, and in another, they elected to send fullback Andrew Beck on a sweep on a third-and-1 that lost a yard. Wide receiver Jerry Jeudy’s rib injury in the first quarter certainly influenced things, but overall, until the Broncos have spent more effort on their timing, the simplest answers may be the best ones.
Somebody, anybody, get a handle on the play clock
Things were so bad Sunday when the Broncos had the ball in the fourth quarter, the crowd did not keep things quiet for the team’s offense, but instead loudly counted down the play clock.
The Broncos had two delay of game penalties after they had lined up for field goal attempts, and they used their final timeout of the second half with 7 minutes, 38 seconds left because they couldn’t get organized. They had to call a timeout because rookie Montrell Washington was not on the field with the rest of the punt return team, and whether it’s fair or not, in every case, few things make a coaching staff look more disorganized than repetitive issues with the play clock.
Toss in the 64-yard field goal attempt in Seattle that didn’t work out in the opener to go with a few more eyebrow-raising timeouts, and the first two weeks have been a bumpy ride for the Broncos. The only saving grace is they avoided the historical trouble of an 0-2 start – no team that started 0-2 last season made the playoffs, and since 2007, just 12 of 125 teams that have started 0-2 have made the playoffs.
Clean up the penalties
The Broncos' two opponents have accepted 25 penalties -- 12 penalties for 106 yards in the opener, and 13 penalties for 100 yards Sunday.
“We’ve got to quit hurting ourselves … that’s discipline, that’s making sure we’re doing the little things right," Wilson said.
"This has got to stop, "Hackett said. "We’re not going to win a lot of games with that many penalties."
The particularly glaring penalties were the three false starts – at home – and those delay-of-game penalties on field goal attempts. Toss in a defensive penalty for 12 men on the field when the Texans were in a third-and-10, and it was the football version of a baseball 0-for-4 with four strikeouts.
Stuff’s going to happen at times; players are going to grab a receiver to prevent a touchdown; they're going to hold to protect the quarterback; or just have a play or two when things don’t go right. But the Broncos are committing fouls at an alarming rate for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
Hackett said he would "evaluate everything" as he, and many of his players, repeated the message Sunday that it is “hard to win" in the NFL. True, but it’s even tougher if you keep getting in your own way.