And just like that, the Denver Broncos are 0-1. It wasn’t the most fortuitous opening to the 2020 season and it took another final-minute defensive collapse punctuated by some horrendous clock management on the part of head coach Vic Fangio.
But the Broncos fell to the Tennessee Titans 16-14.
Since then, mostly what I’ve seen and heard from Broncos fans — and keep in mind, I manage multiple massive social media accounts totaling close to 100K members of Broncos Country — are too many calling for Fangio’s head and straight-up hitting the panic button.
My message? There are still 15 games left to go. It’s way too soon to jump to conclusions.
In fact, as disappointing, and perhaps alarming (considering Fangio’s snafu), as Monday night’s loss was, I witnessed more encouraging developments from the Broncos than I did those that discouraged me.
In an effort to provide some perspective, here are three silver-lining reasons for Broncos Country to pump the brakes on the panic.
Offensive Talent ‘This Close’ to Busting Out
I know, I know. The Broncos’ offense only managed to put 14 points on the board in the season-opener, which brought out some PTSD tendencies in some fans.
Coaching decisions had something to do with that because at worst, this offense that was without its No. 1 Pro Bowl wide receiver and one of its Pro Bowl running backs for half of the game, should have scored 17 points. If the coaches had decided to kick a field goal on the one-yard line after Melvin Gordon had gotten stuffed on the goal-line, it’s a chip shot score for the newly-paid Brandon McManus.
The Broncos left, at minimum, three points on the board, which would have been the difference between winning and losing a two-point game. And if Drew Lock doesn’t get pressured early on second down in that same goal-line series, causing him to miss a wide-open Nick Vannett in the end zone, or if offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur decides to give that fourth-down shovel-pass to the red-hot Noah Fant instead of the ice-cold Jake Butt, the Broncos would have scored 21 points against an AFC Championship-level defense.
If Lock connects on that deep shot in the end zone to DaeSean Hamilton in the fourth quarter, the Broncos easily defeat the Titans. But none of that happened.
The Broncos were stuffed on the goal-line for a turnover on downs. Honestly, I loved the aggressiveness, but the execution was lacking. Why?
Because this offense is young, people. Football is a game of inches and it takes time for players to master those slim margins.
The margin for error on a week-to-week basis is razor-thin. However, teams learn a lot from their failures and shortcoming in those razor’s edge moments and I’m sure Shurmur and Lock took home their fair share of lessons.
But despite that faux pas, and despite Gordon’s second-quarter fumble, the Broncos were in this game until the very end. Lock and company did enough to win, but the defense couldn’t get a stop like it did in Week 17 last year vs. the Raiders.
I was significantly more encouraged by what I saw from Lock, especially considering the absence of Courtland Sutton and Phillip Lindsay. Sutton has a chance to return this week but Lindsay will probably miss a couple more games. Meanwhile, lightning-fast rookie wideout KJ Hamler should return to the lineup this week on the road at Pittsburgh.
This offense has talent coming out its ears. From the QB to the tight end to the wide receivers. Even Jerry Jeudy, who got a little stuck inside his own head in his NFL debut, was enormously impressive with the amount of separation he was creating with his routes.
Aside from the two bobbled snaps, Lock protected the football, showing great decisiveness. And that hose on his right shoulder, man, on top of the mobility? The kid is a stud but remember, he’s still in chrysalis. He’ll have to develop on the fly like all young quarterbacks but there’s no reason to believe that he won’t.
Fant went off in the first half, catching all five of his targets for 81 yards and a touchdown. If Shurmur doesn’t bizarrely choose to go away from him in the second, we could be talking about a game that took on an entirely different complexion. I guarantee you both Shurmur and Lock learned from that.
Keep in mind, Shurmur is still warming to his players. It’ll come together as the season marches on. And once Lock gets back all three of Sutton, Lindsay, and Hamler, he’ll be loaded for bear on this hunt.
Besides, did you really expect a brand-new coordinator and a second-year QB to create offensive fireworks in their first game together? Give this unit time to marinate, and this OC/QB duo time to percolate, and the results will come. Lock and company were close to producing 28 points in the season-opener. Take some encouragement from that.
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16 Points Surrendered
Fangio’s defense bent but didn’t break until the Titans’ final drive. Up to that point, the combined efforts of the defense and special teams had limited the Titans to just 13 points.
The Broncos kept Derrick Henry in check all game long. Yes, the reigning NFL rushing champ eventually eclipsed the 100-yard mark but it took him 31 carries to get there. Henry’s 3.74 yards-per-carry average on the night was his lowest since the last time he faced Fangio’s defense, which was in Week 6 of last season.
The Broncos are going to have to figure out how to manufacture a pass rush, whether it’s through the combined efforts of the players on-roster or by signing a proven veteran, but this rushing defense is already in mid-season form.
Off-ball linebackers Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell, starting for the first time together, racked up combined 20 tackles while nose tackle Mike Purcell and defensive end Jurrell Casey were immovable walls at the point of attack.
The Broncos lost their No. 1 cornerback A.J. Bouye 28 snaps into the game, and that likely has a little something to do with the success of the Titans’ final drive. But what fans saw from rookies Michael Ojemudia and Essang Bassey should be highly encouraging.
This defense is going to keep each and every opponent in check. Once Shurmur un-Lock’s the right recipe offensively, this team is going to be tough to beat. Only one NFL team has held opponents to 17 points or less more than the Broncos have since Fangio became head coach.
All it takes from here is the offense finding its rhythm and the Broncos could quickly rocket into the stratosphere.
Chubb and Callahan Getting Their Game Legs Beneath Them
One of the silver linings, undoubtedly, of the Broncos’ season-opener was the fact that Bradley Chubb and Bryce Callahan both suited up and played the whole game. For two Pro Bowl-caliber players coming off serious injuries from last season, that is highly confidence-inducing for them.
As the season goes, both will become more confident and comfortable. It’s only a matter of time before their unique talent comes to the surface and impacts the games in a big way. You could look at Monday night through the half-empty glass and think, ‘Yeah, both Chubb and Callahan played but neither made a splash.’
But you’d be wrong. It was a massive moral victory for those two young players, both of whom the Broncos will rely on as cornerstone pieces this year.
You’re going to see Chubb start making those quarterback-affecting plays that were so common in 2018 and you’re going to see Callahan breaking up passes, locking down receivers, and picking off passes. These players, and this includes Jake Butt, by the way, have to crawl before they can walk, and walk before they can run.
It won’t take long before all three are in a full sprint and doing what they do best.
Whatever you do, Broncos Country, keep in perspective the fact that it’s only Week 2. This Broncos squad has room to grow and improve, undoubtedly, but the signs were encouraging that they can.