Denver Broncos' search for solutions had better include some touchdowns

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- While the Denver Broncos search for answers to their current four-game losing streak, they might want to look under the couch cushions for a spare touchdown or two as well.

Because the high hopes for an offensive resurgence that permeated their training camp have not materialized as Halloween approaches. At 3-4, the Broncos are averaging 20 points per game. That's in roughly the same frustrating neighborhood they've lived in each of the previous five seasons when they averaged 20.2, 17.6, 20.6, 18.1 and 20.8 points per game. Each of those seasons ended without a meaningful game in January.

After Thursday's 17-14 loss to the Cleveland Browns, the Broncos find themselves 24th in the league in scoring and 18th in total offense. And perhaps one of the most glaring numbers is the dismal 31.8% success rate on third down -- now 31st in the league and ahead of only Jacksonville.

Against the Browns, the Broncos ran only eight plays in the first quarter. They had just two first downs in the first half.

"In the first half, we just could not get anything going," said Broncos coach Vic Fangio. "The quickest way to get out of that in the first half or anytime you are in that is to convert some third downs and give yourself a new set of downs, to get a running game going, to get a first- and second-down passing game going. We did neither."

Twenty points per game won't end the team's playoff drought. In three of the past five seasons, just one team has made the playoff field averaging fewer than 20 points a game -- Buffalo in 2017 and 2019 as well as Houston in 2016. None of those teams took a trophy home and there is one playoff win among them.

To put it another way, the Broncos' Super Bowl 50 team sported the best defense in franchise history, and it allowed 18.5 points per game.

Some help could be on the way. Wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, who hasn't played since he suffered an ankle injury in the season opener, is closing in on a return. With Jeudy, receiver KJ Hamler (knee) and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam (hamstring) all on injured reserve, much of the Broncos' speed has been on the shelf. As a result, defensive coaches in the league say they can cheat at the line of scrimmage because they fear fewer big-play attempts from the Broncos.

"Jerry, he will bring a different type of energy to this offense with his big-play ability and his ability to separate from defenders," Broncos quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said. "He is decisive with his routes."

With more traffic near the line of scrimmage, running the ball has been difficult. But the Broncos have struggled to win the line of scrimmage even when defenses have presented a lighter box with six or seven defenders between the tackles instead of eight.

"We just have to stay on the field," said Broncos running back Melvin Gordon III. "We have to convert on the third downs. It is tough when you are getting behind, but we have to figure out a way to be able to run the ball, because when we run the ball effectively, we open up everything."

Playing from behind for virtually every minute during the four-game losing streak has seen offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur move away from a near 50-50 split between Bridgewater in the shotgun or under center. The Broncos have not led at any point in any of the past three losses and led for just 3 minutes, 57 seconds during the loss to Baltimore. In the blowout loss to the Steelers, Bridgewater was in the shotgun on 45 more snaps than under center. Over the past two seasons, the Broncos' have surrendered far more sacks with the quarterback in the shotgun, run with less efficiency and had more turnovers.

Asked after Thursday's loss if he would consider any changes in offensive playcalling, Fangio quickly said, "No."

"We can make it go, we can make it happen," Gordon said. "But it is different when you get behind the chain, you are down, and you are just put in sticky situations -- that is how it has been for us the last couple of weeks, considering us getting down and having slow starts."