Broncos remain a work in progress

The local pro football club entered Week 5 ranked ninth in the NFL in rushing defense, surrendering an average of 87.5 yards a game on the ground. Needless to say, that ranking will tumble after the Patriots steamrolled them for 251 rushing yards Sunday on their way to a 31-21 victory.

In fact, Denver’s defense as a whole looked Charmin soft most of the afternoon, especially on third down, when the Patriots made an interminable series of big plays. New England’s three longest gainers came on third down, as did the ultimate humiliation of Denver’s defense — a third-quarter running play on third-and-17 that gained 19.

Whatever the Broncos are doing defensively on third down, they need to re-examine it. In fact, it wouldn’t hurt to do a top-to-bottom review of a defense that gave up 444 yards to the Patriots.

“You’ve got to translate things from the meeting room and practice field to the game,” cornerback Champ Bailey told KOA afterward. “Coaches can’t go out there and play for us. We’ve got to make sure we put ourselves in the position to make plays and get off the field on third downs or whatever it may be. We worked on everything they did to us. It wasn’t no surprises. They just hit us in the mouth and we didn’t hit back hard enough.”

On the bright side, if it weren’t for three killer turnovers, the offense might have kept pace with the Patriot juggernaut. When he could get on the field, Peyton Manning was excellent, completing 31 of 44 passes for 345 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer rating on the day (116.2) was slightly better than Tom Brady’s (104.6).

Down 31-14 early in the fourth quarter, the Broncos were driving when running back Willis McGahee dropped an easy swing pass on fourth-and-one to end the possession. Still, after the Patriots turned the ball over on downs on their ensuing series, Manning drove the Broncos offense 43 yards in six plays and hit Brandon Stokley with a short touchdown pass to make it 31-21 with more than six minutes remaining.

Three plays later, Von Miller, who was the Broncos’ only defensive playmaker in Foxborough, stripped the ball from Patriots running back Stevan Ridley for Denver’s only takeaway of the afternoon. Manning drove the offense another 54 yards in less than two minutes to the New England 14. With 3:48 to play, the Broncos had a chance to get within one score and set up a potentially memorable comeback.

Instead, Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich stripped the ball from McGahee at the New England 11 for the Broncos’ third giveaway and that was that.

“Man enough to admit I messed the game up,” McGahee posted on Twitter soon after it was over. “Put it on my shoulders. I can handle it.”

Between the defensive softness and the offensive turnovers, the Broncos demonstrated that they are still a work in progress and not quite ready for prime time (although they’ll have a chance to dispute that assessment in prime time next Monday night, when they face off against the Chargers in San Diego).

The continuing deficits in the turnover battle are a growing concern. New England entered the game first in the AFC in turnover margin at plus 8 and improved to plus 10. The Broncos were tied for 12th at minus 4 and are now minus 6.

Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, in particular, needs a crash course in ball security. If anyone doubted Thomas’ vast potential as a playmaker, those doubts should have been erased by his nine catches for 188 yards, including a couple of sensational grabs where he looked like a man among boys. But after fumbling a ball last week while switching it from one hand to the other to short-circuit an apparent touchdown, he prevented the Broncos from getting off to a quick start Sunday by fumbling at the New England 10 on Denver’s first possession of the game.

There’s no telling how that might have changed the complexion of the game. As it was, the Patriots scored first and ultimately built a seemingly prohibitive 31-7 lead.

The Broncos’ second giveaway was a Manning fumble when Ninkovich beat right tackle Orlando Franklin on a pass rush and came up behind Manning to slap the ball out of his hand. The third was McGahee’s fatal fumble with 3:48 to play.

“They are a good team, and when you play a good team at their place, you don’t have to play perfect football, but you have to eliminate mistakes and be sound and can’t have self-inflicted wounds,” Manning said. “We had a couple of those today which kept us from having a chance to get back in the game. It’s tough when you do that against a good opponent.”

If the turnovers were maddening, the defense was mostly frustrating. The Patriots converted 11 of 17 third downs (65 percent) and the Broncos couldn’t get them off the field for long stretches of the afternoon.

New England had the ball for 35 minutes and 49 seconds of the available hour, the Broncos for the remaining 24:11. When you have two of the best quarterbacks of all time facing off, you’d like to give them roughly equal time to do their stuff. The Broncos were unable to manage that.

The Patriots’ three longest plays of the game came on third down:

— On third-and-14 from the New England 11-yard line in the second quarter, Brady’s short pass to Danny Woodhead went for 25 yards with safety Mike Adams and linebacker Joe Mays finally making the tackle.

— On third-and-12 from the New England 18 to start the fourth quarter, wide receiver Deion Branch beat cornerback Tracy Porter up the middle for another 25.

— On third-and-one from the New England 45 late in the second quarter, Brandon Bolden rumbled 24 yards to the Denver 31.

But the third down conversion everyone will remember was the third-and-17 from the New England 43 midway through the third quarter. The score was still 17-7 at that point and the Broncos had an opportunity to get the ball back with plenty of time to make up the deficit.

The Patriots seemed to concede the change of possession by calling a running play. Woodhead, their 5-foot-8-inch bowling ball, rambled around left end for 19 yards and a first down. Eleven plays later, the Patriots scored on a quarterback sneak to make it 24-7.

“They’re a good offense,” said Miller, who had two of the Broncos’ four quarterback sacks in addition to their only forced fumble. “We knew that coming into the game. We prepared for the type of offense that we knew they were going to run. I felt like we were very prepared coming into this game. We just didn’t execute. Another week we didn’t execute and we put ourselves in situations that we can’t get out of.”

Some of this is to be expected. The Broncos have a new defensive coordinator again — Jack Del Rio is their seventh in seven years — so his schemes may take some getting used to. Still, it seems clear that Del Rio and head coach John Fox, a former defensive coordinator himself, need to sit down together in a video room early this week and figure out what’s going wrong with their third-down defense.

For some time, the Broncos have had a dilemma on third down. Last year, when they went to their nickel defense in passing situations, the fifth defensive back took the place of middle linebacker Joe Mays, who plays the run a lot better than he plays the pass.

Opponents reacted by running the ball against the Broncos’ nickel, often with great success. So this year the club has experimented with keeping Mays on the field in the nickel. Opponents have responded by targeting him in the passing game.

Sunday, it didn’t seem to matter who the Broncos had on the field. The Patriots ran it down their throats at will. But the tendency to give up big plays on third down is not one that can continue if the Broncos hope to climb into contention.

Fox and Del Rio need to diagnose what went wrong and be willing to make whatever changes to their schemes or personnel that diagnosis demands. Surrendering 251 yards on the ground is an embarrassment, or should be.

“It’s a disappointing loss,” Manning said. “We’re 2-3 and we’ve got a pivotal division game (coming up). I just made a little talk to the team. We have to learn from this. It hurts. It just rips your guts out to lose a game against an AFC opponent, but we have to learn from it, have to find a way to get better from it. I think we’ll see some things on the film that were good, some guys made some big plays at some pivotal times. We just need to have more consistency throughout the 60-minute game.”

There’s a tendency to overreact to whatever has happened most recently in the NFL, but it’s worth remembering that it’s still early. A win in San Diego next week would keep the Broncos in touch with the division leaders while they wait for their schedule to lighten up, which it does on the back end.

It’s also worth remembering that the three teams they’ve lost to — Houston, Atlanta and New England — are three of the best in the league. Such losses early in the season, while you’re getting acclimated to a new quarterback and defensive coordinator, are not particularly surprising. Lots of experts figured if the Broncos could make it through a difficult first half schedule at 4-4, they’d be in good position to make some noise in the second half of the season.

But if they want to be ready to make a move following their bye week, they need to address their defensive issues now, while there’s still time.

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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