ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- On Sept. 5, Denver Broncos general manager John Elway said: "I think we feel pretty good about where we are, kind of excited about the football team we have."
In just 19 days since, the Broncos have watched those plans -- those good feelings -- and their depth chart get pummeled by the cruel realities of pro football.
Quarterback Drew Lock will now miss several weeks with a right shoulder injury -- his throwing shoulder. Running back Phillip Lindsay could miss multiple games with a toe injury and cornerback A.J. Bouye will be on injured reserve for at least two more games. In order, that's the guy the Broncos structured the blueprint for 2020 around, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher and a starting cornerback who was a key defensive acquisition.
That's not all. Starting defensive end Dre'Mont Jones will likely miss at least four weeks with a knee injury. Veteran linebacker Mark Barron, who was brought in to replace rookie Justin Strnad (out for the season after wrist surgery in training camp), hasn't practiced since Sept. 5 because of a hamstring injury. Defensive end DeMarcus Walker will miss some time with a calf injury. Add it all together and you have a big can of "why us?" getting opened up in the Broncos' locker room.
"Well, I'm disappointed for the players that have gotten injured," Broncos coach Vic Fangio said earlier this week when asked if all of the bad news is something he has to address with the team. "... Yeah, it does have a negative effect on the team. I'm not going to insult anybody's intelligence that losing the type of players and the [number] of players that we've lost doesn't have some type of effect.
"[But] we have good players here in the building still," he added. "They're going to come in and rally and look at it as an opportunity for them to go out and play good and show what they've got."
Throughout the abbreviated training camp, Broncos leadership consistently talked about the importance of being nimble, of being ready to adjust in a season they believed would be unlike any other. But at the time they were talking about COVID-19 and the impact the virus could have on a team's roster.
The potential impact of COVID-19 still hovers around the Broncos, but it's not the cause of their current problems, and depth additions and rookies are now having to hold the line following an 0-2 start. At the front of that group, at least in the short term, are backup quarterback Jeff Driskel and cornerback Michael Ojemudia. Driskel has said "it's my job to be ready at all times." He completed 18 of 34 passes for 256 yards with two touchdowns and an interception against the Steelers.
"Driskel came in and did a heck of a job for our team," guard Dalton Risner said. "He had confidence, was a leader out there."
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger consistently targeted Ojemudia, who is playing in Bouye's spot. When Ojemudia had the chance to get at least some payback, he didn't hang on to an interception and the Steelers scored two plays later. Ojemudia later lost the hand-fighting battle with Steelers rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool as Claypool broke free for an 84-yard catch-and-run touchdown.
"I have to be better," Ojemudia said following the game. "And I will be."
"If he's going to play corner in this league for a long time, he's got to be able to come back from plays like that," Fangio said. "He can't let them linger and he can't let them affect the next plays that follow. He's going to get beat. If you play enough snaps in the NFL at corner, you're going to give up some stuff. The important thing is how you react to them and how you come back. I think Mike is the right kind of guy to do that."
For Ojemudia, or any of the backups now playing, though, the Broncos have to accept help isn't on the way anytime soon.
"Talking about leadership, guys that are leaders on this team have to find ways to make those plays so that we can have the outcome that we want," said safety Justin Simmons. "It doesn't matter how ugly a game is as long as we find a way to win. That's the biggest thing right now. You have to put it on the leaders of the team to find ways to close out games like that and make the plays where they need to be made."