BRONCOS

It came down to the Broncos’ defense — because the offense is a tire fire

Dec 4, 2022, 8:31 PM | Updated: Dec 5, 2022, 3:19 am
Russell Wilson...
(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

BALTIMORE — It took a 16-play drive that included two fourth-down conversions, an unnecessary-roughness penalty, a 17-yard pass-interference infraction and an adept pump-fake that caught Baron Browning ever-so-slightly out of position in coverage for the defense to finally break Sunday.

This doesn’t mean that Denver’s defense is lousy.

Anything but, really.

So, in the wake of the latest Broncos defeat, a 10-9 defeat to the Ravens, I don’t want to hear moaning about Denver’s defense yielding in the clutch, blah blah blah.

Because it should never have come to that.

Tyler Huntley and Baltimore’s offense, stuck in neutral for most of this chilly mid-Atlantic afternoon, effectively needed to draw an inside straight to finally pick the lock and sledgehammer the deadbolt protecting the Broncos end zone.

And when it finally did, one touchdown was all it needed.

“Nobody’s perfect, but we’ve got to play perfect in that situation,” defensive lineman DeShawn Williams said. “We’ve just gotta be better. That’s simply on us.”

Perfection isn’t realistic. But in a world in which the Broncos offense seems perpetually in park-the-bus mode, that’s the reality.

“I know ain’t nobody perfect but one man, and that’s the man above,” Williams said. “But we’ve gotta be perfect. That’s all it is.”

That’s because Denver’s offense couldn’t even reach the red zone, let alone the end zone. One-third of the points generated by the offense came on a Justin Simmons interception that gave the Broncos possession at the Baltimore 40-yard line; it mustered 8 yards to set up a 50-yard Brandon McManus field goal.

That kick came with 3:58 left in the third quarter, and that was it for the feeble offense.

When it nudged past midfield with 6:07 remaining after Russell Wilson made an off-balance, off-platform 30-yard heave to Greg Dulcich, all it needed was 16 yards to give McManus a sub-50-yard field-goal try, which he rarely misses. One more first down a few more yards.

It went backward. Two of the next three plays involved at least trying to get the ball into the hands of Montrell Washington. That didn’t go well last week in Charlotte and it didn’t work out 436 miles to the northeast, either.

Denver punted, and the next time the offense saw the ball, the defense had finally buckled. Just one letup was enough because the offense remained mired in a generational morass.

“There is no margin for error. We know,” edge rusher Jonathon Cooper said. “We hold ourselves to that standard. We consider ourselves the best defense in the league, and in order for that, we have to have no margin for error.”

And that’s not just a conclusion they reached on their own.

“Our coaches have brought that up, and that’s what we have to do,” Cooper said.

***
NOT A SIMPLE PLAN, BUT A SIMPLIFIED PLAN

Meanwhile, this variety of offense struggle was different. This time, the Broncos opted for a game plan that relied on physicality and heavier personnel packages.

Seven of their first 10 plays were in two- or three-tight end packages. The result was a well-constructed, 49-yard drive that chewed up 5 minutes and 57 seconds. It was similar to how the Broncos opened their loss to Las Vegas a fortnight earlier. That time, it resulted in an early touchdown.

“The game plan was, we wanted to be physical with these guys. We knew they were going to be physical, as well,” quarterback Russell Wilson said. “We also wanted to make our plays and stuff down the field if we could.”

Of course, Baltimore’s defense is of a superior caliber compared with that of the Raiders. The Ravens adapted, and after that, no Broncos drive consumed more than 3:11, and only their two-minute drill drives at the end of each half netted at least 35 yards.

Injuries played a part in the conservative strategy, no doubt. For much of the second half, the Broncos were without their projected top four wide receivers, as Jerry Jeudy played under play-count restrictions because of his ankle injury. Tim Patrick and KJ Hamler are on injured reserve. Courtland Sutton became the latest of what is now a dozen Broncos to deal with hamstring injuries this season. And that says nothing about the injuries on the offensive line and at running back.

But that doesn’t entirely explain yet another offensive stinker.

The Broncos paid Wilson $165 million guaranteed to be able to elevate the team around him. To be able to pass and improvise them out of trouble spots. But his current issues are such that in his 12th game, they crafted a game plan that was predicated around avoiding mistakes from a banged-up offense and its struggling QB.

It almost worked, but that’s not the point. The point is that such a game plan was necessary.

In March, that seemed unfathomable.

In December, it was a reality as cold as the breeze from the Inner Harbor.

***
THE LONG SLOW GRIND TO THE FINISH

The Broncos have fewer points through 12 games than any season since 1966. They have fewer touchdowns through 12 games than the same point ar any season in club history.

They’ve lost eight of their last nine games. They entered Week 13 with a franchise season record for losses when allowing 17 or fewer points; Sunday, they added to it by one, taking that total to five games. And per pro-football-reference.com, the Broncos’ five defeats when allowing 17 or fewer points are the most for any NFL team through 12 games since 1993, matching the tally of the 1994 Houston Oilers and 2007 Miami Dolphins.

Those teams went 2-14 and 1-15, respectively.

Denver won’t be that bad, with three wins in its back pocket. The defense made those wins possible. Ejiro Evero’s unit is all that separates the Broncos from perhaps their worst season — ever.

Now, with five games remaining and a sixth-consecutive losing season assured, what happens in the balance of the season is a mere prelude to what really matters: an offseason flooded with questions that the Broncos never thought they’d have to answer.

And those questions exist because the offense leaves the defense in a dreadful spot: where anything short of perfection can equal defeat.

***

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It came down to the Broncos’ defense — because the offense is a tire fire