DENVER – Paxton Lynch made his debut, and didn’t get hurt. If that sounds like faint praise, it is.
On the bright side, the Broncos don’t have to worry about a quarterback controversy. There’s always difficultly for a rookie winning in the NFL, a task made more challenging when flawed execution litters the Microsoft surface screens on the sidelines.
The Broncos couldn’t pass with injured Trevor Siemian watching, they couldn’t protect the quarterback and they couldn't run or hide from issues upfront. What Sunday’s 23-16 loss to Atlanta brought to the surface is that the Broncos need to be more physical along both of their lines.
"We didn't stop anybody," cornerback Chris Harris said after the Broncos plummeted from the ranks of the undefeated.
Or as receiver Emmanuel Sanders put it: "We have to take our butt-kicking and move on."
Atlanta mauled Denver at the point of attack. A pair of points illustrated their dominance as the Falcons snapped the Broncos’ nine-game winning streak and their 10-game run at home against non-conference opponents. Receiver Julio Jones failed to catch a pass in the first half -- but Atlanta led by 10 points. And Michael Schofield replaced Ty Sambrailo at right tackle to open the fourth quarter as Atlanta had more sacks Sunday (six) than it had all season (four). It was forgettable Broncos' outing across the board, and made more concerning when an ambulance transported coach Gary Kubiak to the hospital an hour after the game with flu-like symptoms.
"We put (Lynch) in a really tough situation. That’s not the type of game you want to put him in. We battled, we just didn’t play very well," said Broncos coach Gary Kubiak about 30 minutes before he was hospitalized as a precaution. "You have to give Atlanta a lot of credit. They came into our place, played with a lot of poise and made a lot of big plays against us. They did a great job once they got us down. Give them credit. They’re a really good football team."
Lynch makes the easy target, and he showed why Kubiak waited so long before ruling out Siemian with a sprained left shoulder. Siemian, who was inactive as Austin Davis served as the backup, will push to be available on Thursday night at San Diego, his health a paramount issue after Lynch’s rugged starting debut. Lynch completed 23 of 35 passes for 223 yards, but didn’t gain traction until Denver trailed by a large margin.
Siemian hasn't ruled out being ready for the Chargers.
"I was pretty close (to playing)," said Siemian, who has a painful sprained AC joint his non-throwing shoulder. "It was a combination of things that kept me out. Again, I'll take it one day at a time and get right tomorrow."
Lynch displayed raw athleticism and toughness. But he was no match for an Atlanta defense that targeted Sambrailo for pressure. The Broncos benched Sambrailo to open the fourth quarter with Schofield shifting outside and Darrion Weems going in at right guard. Lynch held onto the ball too long. He threw an interception from his own goal line, fumbled and, in general, appeared like a player who needs more seasoning.
"I was really confident coming into the game and they didn't really do a lot of crazy stuff that we hadn't seen before," Lynch said. "Obviously you want to win especially it being your first start. Now you have to move on from it and we have a short week and we are going to bounce back from it.”
Lynch salvaged a bit of pride for the offense, completing a 3-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas to pull the Broncos within 23-13 with 2:38 remaining. Most of the sellout crowd heard about it in the parking lot or on their drive home on I-25, long ago convinced of the outcome.
To blame Lynch would be unfair to multiple other accomplices. Denver couldn’t establish any consistency on the ground against a Falcons defense which had allowed 31 points per game, collecting 84 yards on 24 carries. That’s when the Broncos had the ball. The Falcons played keep away. A Shanahan having a great day in Denver is hardly unique. But as legendary Broncos coach Mike Shanahan watched from a purchased suite for family and friends, his son Kyle, Atlanta’s offensive coordinator, played cards like a Las Vegas dealer. Teams have run on the Broncos this season, but it was mainly isolated to quarterback scrambles and a single Jeremy Hill scamper in Cincinnati. The Falcons remained patient on the ground. They gorged up the middle, then went wide, letting the Broncos’ aggression work against them.
The commitment paid off. It opened up the playbook. Shanahan produced the dagger with the perfect call. He isolated running back Tevin Coleman on linebacker Brandon Marshall on a seam route. Coleman outran him down the middle of the field for a 31-yard touchdown pass. It shoved the Falcons ahead 20-3 with 7:53 remaining in the third quarter. Coleman bedazzled the Broncos, who struggled to match up in seams or down the sidelines as linebackers Todd Davis and Marshall struggled in coverage.
Coleman's 132 yards receiving set a Falcons record for a running back. Freeman finished with 123 total yards, including 88 on the ground.
"This offense is definitely clicking better than it ever has," Coleman said. "This year we have such a close bond, and that's what makes us great."
There’s no guarantee the Broncos would have won with Siemian. Given the pressure Lynch faced from the Falcons, it’s hard to believe Siemian would have escaped without further damage to his shoulder. He might play this week. But the short week won’t help.
"He's very close," insisted Kubiak.
There’s no shame in a 4-1 record with critical players – right tackle Donald Stephenson, tight end Virgil Green, outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware and Siemian – sidelined. But this game exposed issues that demand correction if Denver is to make a deep winter run through the postseason. Green and Stephenson’s return – all but a lock this week – could recharge the running game. And Ware hopes to be back for the Monday night battle royale Oct. 24 against Houston.
Some trends need to change regardless if the roster does or not.
The Broncos endured another clumsy start, falling behind 10-0 and 34-13 in the first quarter this season.
"I wish I could tell you," Von Miller told Denver7. "We had two good downs on that first drive, then they had the big play that gave them momentum."
Denver allowed two drives of double-figure plays and was gashed on the ground. As opposed to previous opponents, the Falcons showed patience in the running game. They owned 98 yards rushing in first half and outgained Denver 193-76 in the first 30 minutes. Denver became predictable and unbalanced.
"We need to run the ball better," Thomas said.
One of the keys to the game was minimizing the damage. T.J. Ward's missed tackle cost the Broncos 35 yards on pass to Coleman on the opening drive. Defenders lost coverage as they focused on Jones, leaving Coleman free on the clear out. It foreshadowed a long day. On fourth-and-1, Falcons showed courage. They brought in the jumbo package, and Freeman barged his way into the end zone, giving Falcons a 7-0 lead. If the Broncos possess an Achille’s heel, it’s false starts. They have allowed 24 points on opening drives this season.
"We're not panicking at all," Harris said. "We know what we need to do."
Two things stood out. Broncos missed tackles and missed chances. Cornerback Aqib Talib failed to produce pick after baiting Matt Ryan (15-for-28, 267 yards) into a risky throw. It led to a 46-yard field by Matt Bryant as the Falcons’ bulge grew to 10-0. Denver eventually trailed by 17 at multiple times.
Lynch jogged onto the field for his first series down by seven, and his heart was racing. The Broncos played sloppily on their first two drives. He completed his first pass, a 14-yarder to Sanders, then showed his inexperience. He misfired to a pair of open receivers, was sacked by Vic Beasley and had his best play, a first-down scramble negated by a Michael Schofield penalty.
Lynch running from trouble and Atlanta’s running backs racing down the field provided an indelible image of the Broncos’ loss. The performance ended impressive winning streaks and raised an unnerving question: Will the Broncos have their head coach in San Diego and can they win if they go a second straight game without Siemian?
After Shane Ray recorded three sacks against Cincinnati in his first start, Von Miller went cinematic in his praise of the kid.
“You know that scene in ‘Bad Boys II?’” Miller told Denver7. “It’s where Will Smith tells Martin Lawrence, ‘Now that’s how you are supposed to shoot!’ That’s how Shane is supposed to play.”
Ray appreciates the advice and encouragement, and has learned from it. He produced a second-quarter sack on Matt Ryan on a hustle play after he was knocked down on the play. He has four sacks, tying his total last season as a rookie.
The offense fizzling, the Broncos made a change to open the fourth quarter. Michael Schofield replaced slumping Ty Sambrailo at right tackle. Darrion Weems took Schofield’s spot at right guard. Donald Stephenson remains hopeful he will start Thursday at San Diego after missing the past three games with a strained left calf. … Sunday’s captains were Dekoda Watson, Russell Okung and Derek Wolfe. ... Atlanta's Vic Beasley finished with 3.5 sacks as he terrorized Sambrailo. ... Miller recorded a sack in his sixth consecutive regular-season game, tying his career high. ... Lynch's 23 completions were one shy of a record for a Broncos quarterback in his debut. Brian Griese completed 24 in 1999, a game the Broncos also lost.