DENVER – Three observations from the Broncos’ regular-season opening 23-20 loss to the Oakland Raiders here at Sports Authority Field on Monday night:
1. THIS WASN’T WHAT WAS INTENDED.
Talking about a commitment to the running game is all well and good from Wednesday through Saturday, but when game day arrives and the ground game simply isn’t working, the pragmatic, basic goal — to call plays that give the best chance to win the game — takes hold. Thus, you have the Broncos’ wildly imbalanced run-pass ratio, which by the game’s end included 13 runs — one of which was a 13-yard Kyle Orton scramble — against 51 pass plays.
That translated to 3.9 passes for every Broncos run, a ratio that called to mind the dimmest days of the Josh McDaniels era more than the back-to-basics approach that Fox wanted. The 13 carries were also tied for the second-fewest ever by a John Fox-coached team; only a 37-3 loss to Pittsburgh on Dec. 17, 2006 saw fewer rushes; that day the Carolina Panthers ran just 11 times. (Also worth noting: Fox’s teams are 0-13 all-time when posting 17 carries or fewer, but of those games, the Broncos’ 20 points Monday night were the most in any of them.)
Denver’s running back tandem of Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee only gained 25 yards on 12 carries, good for just a 2.1-yards-per-carry average. But their struggles were hardly of their own doing; holes through which they could run were rare. When they did exist, they closed fast.
“We weren’t running the ball. I think our average was like 1.8 (yards per carry),” said McGahee, who was off in his estimation, but not by much. “How can you expect to run the ball throughout the game with a 1.8 average?”
Realistically, you can’t.
This isn’t the end of the Broncos’ attempt to run the football, but it’s a clear setback.
“We don’t ever give up on anything,” Fox said when asked whether the team conceded the ground game. “It just wasn’t faring very well.”
2. SPEED EXPLOITED.
The Raiders did exactly what the Broncos expected them to do — they ran draws and screen passes to capitalize on the swift, straight-ahead and around-the-flank pass rush provided by Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller on pass-rush downs.
It’s one thing to get beaten by the unexpected, but in this case, the Broncos knew exactly how the Raiders would attack and still struggled to defend it. They did prevent the big plays off the screens and draws, but it wasn’t enough, especially in the first half.
“It’s definitely frustrating, especially when you practiced on it during the week and you knew exactly what was going to happen,” said defensive end Jason Hunter, who replaced an injured Elvis Dumervil in the base defense for most of the game. Guys have got to do their job, and when you see something and recognize it, just react faster and everybody tackle and get to the ball.
“If we tackle and be in our gaps, some of those big runs don’t happen.”
3. A LONG WAY TO GO MEANS YOU CAN’T BLAME ONE PLAYER.
The last thing many Broncos fans want to hear is that the team’s rebuilding project won’t yield immediate results. Four consecutive non-winning seasons and a five-year playoff drought have a way of making a fanbase a tad cranky, and that came out in the boos of Orton and the plaintive, almost desperate chants for Tim Tebow as the minutes wound away late in the game.
But replacing Orton wouldn’t have repaired the offensive line, which buckled and broke under a relentless Oakland front line, allowing five sacks and racking up six holding penalties, four of which were accepted. Both of the declined penalties were on the same disastrous second-quarter play when Chris Kuper and Ryan Clady were flagged. Most of the holds were in desperate attempts to keep Orton from being sacked.
The offensive line, the injury-depleted defensive tackles … these are just two areas where the Broncos aren’t yet where they needed to be.
The Broncos didn’t wind up in need of massive restoration because of one player — and changing one player isn’t going to rescue them from their current state.