Broncos' fate depends on addressing four big issues

Russell Wilson holds a huddle with his offense during the NFL International Series matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Wembley Stadium in London, England. (Photo by Pro Sports Images Ltd/DPPI/Icon Sportswire)

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When Denver Broncos safety Justin Simmons speaks of his experiences with the team, most notably the disappointments, he really is a party of one.

Simmons is the only player left on the Broncos roster from their 2016 draft class. Denver hasn't made the playoffs once during his tenure, the longest such drought for the Broncos since the 1970s.

“This is my seventh season [and] 9-7 is the best I've been, no playoff berths,’’ Simmons said. “I wouldn't say I hurt more than anyone else, but it hurts not to find ways to win.’’

The Broncos (3-5) landed back on U.S. soil Sunday night after a much-needed 21-17 comeback win over the Jacksonville Jaguars in London. But after their bye week, if they want to avoid that seventh consecutive year without a postseason game,, they will have to tackle some major items for their final nine games.

Stop making first down a letdown

The offensive struggles are substantial. They’re 31st in the league in scoring (15.1 points per game), 31st on third-down conversions, last in the league in the red zone when it comes to scoring touchdowns and tied for 30th in the league in scoring goal-to-go situations.

And beyond the deep dives into game film, one of the most glaring issues is foundationally basic -- the Broncos are not good on first down. For example, in an ugly Week 5 loss to the Indianapolis Colts (12-9 overtime), the Broncos faced a second-and-10 or longer 11 times.

Coach Nathaniel Hackett has a section on the play sheet reserved for “GBOT’’ plays – as in “get back on track”. Hackett has been forced to spend far too many snaps working off that section, especially early in games. That was the case at Wembley Stadium on Sunday, where they faced a second-and-8 or longer in each of their first three possessions – punt, interception, punt.

Their 325 rushing yards on first-and-10 plays this season is at the bottom four of the league. Bad on first down has made them desperate on second down and one of the league’s worst on third down. It’s no coincidence that punter Corliss Waitman is tied for the league lead in punts (45).

“I think that's been one of our nemeses,’’ Hackett said. “The amount of ‘get back on tracks’ we have is just too difficult.’’

Get KJ Hamler more involved

Hamler, who spent the offseason working his way back from an ACL injury and hip surgeries, has touched the ball only nine times this season but has averaged 20.9 yards each time.

The Broncos have six pass plays of at least 45 yards this season and Hamler has made three of those. And if London is any indication, the Broncos have found something worth exploring in grouping rookie tight end Greg Dulcich and Hamler on the same side of the formation.

It creates indecision for the defense and results in coverage matchups with players too small to handle Dulcich and too slow for Hamler.

Hamler’s 47-yard catch on the Broncos’ game-winning drive Sunday was the scale-tipping play of the day.

"[Quarterback Russell Wilson] called a play with my name on it ... Russ put it in a spot where only I could get it and I had to come up and make a big play when the time was called,’’ Hamler said.

The pitch count is working well given Hamler’s efficiency. But for a team in need of far more pop on offense, they can be more efficient in how they use Hamler as they continue to ramp up his play time.

The defense has been lights out, but any concern about holding up against the run?

The Broncos’ defense has done virtually all of the heavy lifting this season in their three wins. They have battled shoddy field position due to the offense’s turnovers. They’ve constantly trailed in one-score games, and know any mistakes could be costly.

But the defense gave up 212 rushing yards to the Raiders in Week 4, 155 to the Jets in Week 7 and 191 to the Jaguars on Sunday. In each of those games the Broncos gave up a run of at least 45 yards, including a 62-yard touchdown run by the Jets’ running back Breece Hall and a 49-yard run by the Jaguars’ Travis Etienne Jr. Sunday.

“Yeah, we have to clean that up,’’ Simmons said.

Much of the damage has come when the Broncos are in a nickel look (five defensive backs). Offenses have pushed the ball to the perimeter, particularly around the left end where they have created a blocking advantage with numbers and size.

The Broncos face the Las Vegas Raiders as well as two of the league’s top rushing teams – the Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens – after the bye. And in Week 14 they will face the Kansas City Chiefs, who have won 13 straight against Denver and feasted on the Broncos’ nickel look in their last matchup

Keep the composure they found in London

Despite the logistical struggles of packing up a team and taking it to London for a week, it was exactly what the Broncos needed. They were cocooned in their environment and focused on themselves.

Hackett is a first-year coach who was answering questions about his job security as early as Week 3, and despite Wilson constantly saying "I don't feel pressure'' or that "adversity is temporary'' his actions in the pocket haven't always reflected that.

Everything the Broncos have said, done, or not done, has been sliced, diced and picked over without pause. London was a nice respite.

They showed great composure in Wembley when they trailed 10-0 early and 17-14 in the final minutes. They keep saying they’re trying to shut out “the noise,’’ but it’s time to actually do it.

“I've always believed that when you win, you get to coach them harder because we have a lot of things we still have to correct and a lot of things that we still have to get to because we're not where we want to be,’’ Hackett said in London. “This was kind of a step in the right direction because we were able to make that big-time play when we needed to.''