DENVER -- It’s been about a month since linebacker Von Miller stepped awkwardly in an otherwise nondescript Tuesday practice and proceeded to start the cascade of injury dominoes for the Denver Broncos. And now Broncos Lite is fighting the good fight at times, but the team is still 0-3 after Sunday’s 28-10 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with no help on the way.
The Broncos' decision-makers can’t be held responsible for the fact the team’s best player (Miller), its starting quarterback (Drew Lock), No. 1 wide receiver (Courtland Sutton), starting running back (Phillip Lindsay), top cornerback (A.J. Bouye) and a starting defensive end (Dre’Mont Jones) were among the players not in uniform against the Buccaneers. And the fact that’s not even the entire list of those injured for the Broncos makes the current state of affairs almost unprecedented.
But the Broncos aren’t helping themselves much of the time, either. Their special-teams units are now in the business of costing the team points -- their first punt of the game was blocked Sunday, gift-wrapping the ball for Tom Brady at the Broncos’ 10. They continue to be unable to consistently protect the passer when they line up in a three-receiver look, yet they continue to make that their personnel grouping of choice because they're trailing in games. And the expected problem of finding a pass rush without Miller is in full bloom.
The Broncos can’t call in the healing hands to make it all better for the substantial amount of talent that can’t play for them right now, but they can use the guys they have more efficiently to give themselves a slugger's chance.
Two words: Not special.
The play gave the Buccaneers the ball at the Broncos’ 10-yard line, and three plays later, Brady had the first of his three touchdown passes on the day. It also put the injury-ravaged Broncos down 7-0 just over five minutes into the game.
Troubling trend: It is abundantly clear the Broncos face difficult decisions offensively when they don’t have Lock, Sutton and Lindsay in the lineup. But they can’t protect the quarterback in a three-wide set and consistently keep lining up in it, especially in their own territory.
On their first possession of the third quarter, the Broncos lined up in an empty set on first down at their own 8-yard line that resulted in an incompletion, with quarterback Jeff Driskel under pressure yet again. Two plays later, they were in three-wide on third-and-13 from their own 5 and Driskel was sacked for a safety.
And in the third quarter, again in three-wide on their own side of the 50, Driskel was hit as he threw and was intercepted by Lavonte David.
Biggest hole in the game plan: It is a hole the Broncos will have a difficult time filling, but not surprisingly, they are struggling to walk the line between dialing up some pressure on defense and leaving a secondary with two rookies playing much of the time exposed in one-on-one matchups.
Miller has long been the Broncos’ answer to all pass-rush dilemmas. But with him out of the lineup, and until Bradley Chubb looks more like himself in his return from last season’s ACL surgery, the Broncos are left with tough choices.
Choices such as outside linebacker Malik Reed trying to cover Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Godwin on a 20-yard completion late in the third quarter. Later on the same drive, the Broncos saw the other side of the coin when they did generate some pressure with a Shelby Harris sack and Chubb chasing down Brady for a 1-yard gain. Harris had another sack early in the fourth quarter as well.
QB breakdown: The sack shutout the Broncos' offensive line pitched against the Titans in the opener is a long way in the rearview mirror now, as the Broncos have surrendered seven and six sacks, respectively, in the past two games.
Some of that is on Driskel, to be sure, but he’s getting battered and few things create indecision and a struggle with timing for a quarterback, especially one who hasn’t played a great deal, than getting battered.
Driskel struggled to find a rhythm overall, especially since the team has trailed almost every minute he has been on the field, but he has to move the ball more quickly and the Broncos needed to do more to help him do that. At the end, third-string quarterback Brett Rypien entered the game with just under 10 minutes remaining. He was sacked, fumbled (recovered by the Broncos) and threw an interception on his first drive.