ENGLEWOOD — There remains no path around this. The past two weeks hurt Broncos Country, who yearn for a winning season and a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
Losing to the Baltimore Ravens, getting pushed around in the process, amounted to rubbing a cheese grater across their shins. Falling to the spiraling Steelers was akin to throwing Sea Breeze on their shins as they curdled on the ground.
At 3-2, the Broncos face arguably a must-win game at home against the Las Vegas Raiders, whose coach Jon Gruden resigned in disgrace on Monday night following exposed emails that revealed racist tropes and homophobic and misogynistic language. The Broncos hold the seventh and final AFC spot after five weeks, peering up at the sixth-seeded Raiders. With the belief the Chiefs will rebound — their defense is allowing more yards per play than the Rams' Greatest Show on Turf averaged — there is no way to overstate the importance of this game for the Broncos.
The Broncos' goal of a winning record and postseason could hinge on how they play against Las Vegas this season. Lose to this team without a coach, and it will be an indictment of the Broncos staff.
The first step toward rebounding starts on third down. The Broncos have converted 5 of 26 offensively the past two weeks, part of their overall last place ranking (28.6 percent). They allowed 14 of 29 third down conversions by the Ravens and Steelers, unable to get off the field in big moments.
"Defensively we had too many third and shorts, third and three-minus. And then even on the seven-pluses we gave up the 50-yard touchdown pass. We gave up the other touchdown pass in the red zone and the PI. We need better technique. All three of those are stoppable with what we were in and what they ran," coach Vic Fangio explained when I asked him about the issues.
"Offensively, we have had too many third and longs. You have to convert some of those. Lately we haven’t been able to do that. We did that in the first weeks. The last few weeks, I don’t know if we have gotten any. We have to get in more manageable third downs, and no matter what third down we are in we have to convert."
Offensively, I humbly suggest sprinkling in uptempo concepts and becoming less predictable. The Broncos have not scored on a touchdown on their first drive in 24 straight games. Last Sunday, they ran on the first two plays on each of their first four drives.
I asked quarterback Teddy Bridgewater if he felt comfortable being more aggressive. He threw for 177 yards in the fourth quarter against the Steelers as the Broncos rally from a 24-6 deficit fell short. Bridgewater remains on pace to throw for 4,012 yards with 24 touchdowns and three interceptions. He has brought improvement to the position. But the Broncos need more early in games, to reverse the ugly trends of the last two weeks.
"It’s whatever it takes. You watch us. We have been pushing the ball down the field down early this year," said Bridgewater, citing long throws at Jacksonville, among others. "It’s whatever is needed and however the game is called. We have to go out there and execute at a high level and give ourselves a chance.”
The Raiders pass defense has been stingy — ranking fourth overall — but Las Vegas has been gashed on the ground for 134.4 yards a clip. Can the Broncos find a better pass-run balance? This represents an ideal week to rebound with Cleveland looming a week from Thursday.
"We always have high expectations for ourselves," rookie cornerback Pat Surtain II said. "We gotta look at the corrections we need to make, focus on that and playing better all around."
Fangio: 'No place' for what Gruden wrote
The Raiders arrive in Denver without their head coach and offensive coordinator as Jon Gruden left in shame Monday. In emails leaked to the New York Times, Gruden made racist remarks about NFLPA boss DeMaurice Smith, homophobic remarks about former Rams linebacker Michael Sam, misogynistic remarks on women officials and vulgar remarks about commissioner Roger Goodell.
Gruden stepped down on Monday.
“I just think there’s no place in the world, let alone our league, you know, for the opinions that were expressed then. Especially the words used to express those opinions," Broncos coach Vic Fangio said. "Myself and the organization are definitely against that and it was obviously a bad situation.”
Added Broncos safety Justin Simmons, "We definitely talk about it (as players). It can be concerning at times. Because you just don’t know people’s intentions and people’s thoughts and their motives and their heart posture. We’ve been talking about it or at least putting a spotlight on it the past few years, especially with the NFL. We have logos on the back of our helmet and in the back of end zones. I think that’s why it's important to have different cultures in those positions so we are not getting it from one set of any type of person.”
Ronald Darby (hamstring) will return this week. Fangio told me he would know better on Friday if Darby will start and who might replace if he does. Kyle Fuller is the obvious candidate to be replaced given his struggles. ...
The Broncos added speedy WR John Brown to the practice squad. He is wearing No. 17. It's unclear whether he will be activated this week. ...
Kendall Hinton received the football from his first touchdown. The team had it painted up. ...