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Coulda, woulda, shoulda.
The COVID-19 pandemic took nearly all of the fans out of Empower Field at Mile High, but one thing that didn’t change was the Broncos’ recent pattern of self-inflicted wounds in close games.
From 2007 through 10 games into the 2016 season, the Broncos were 26-13 in games decided by four or fewer points. Since then, they are 6-13, with the latest setback coming Monday night in a 16-14 loss to the Tennessee Titans that felt numbingly familiar.
Yes, the Titans did their best to hand the contest to Denver. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski endured the worst game of his 14-season career, missing three field-goal attempts and hooking a fourth-quarter extra-point try.
Give the Titans those 10 points, and they finish the evening with 26 — and a 2.6-points-per-possession rate that is nearly in line with the 2.5 points-per-possession pace they posted last year after inserting quarterback Ryan Tannehill into the lineup.
But Gostkowski was off to a degree that he had never experienced as a pro. And Titans running back Derrick Henry was not a game breaker; his per-carry average of 3.74 yards is the fourth-lowest all-time for any runner to gain more than 100 yards against the Broncos.
By keeping Henry in check, the Broncos did what is typically required to defeat the Titans. Yet it wasn’t enough.
So where did the Broncos lose it?
FAILURE ON FOURTH-AND-GOAL
You start here, because the Broncos failed, the Titans succeeded, and the net difference was 13 points.
That said, the Broncos had a chance to avoid their failed fourth-and-goal in the second quarter. Two plays earlier, with Denver at the Tennessee 1-yard line, quarterback Drew Lock had tight end Nick Vannett breaking open on an out route at the goal line. But Lock was fading back, off-balance and under pressure from defensive end Harold Landry, who had worked past left tackle Garett Bolles’ outside shoulder. The result was an overthrow. One play later, the Titans stopped Melvin Gordon for no gain from the 1-yard line. Gordon’s earlier second-quarter fumble led to the Titans scoring on a short field.
Going for it on fourth-and-goal isn’t the wrong decision. In fact, unless you are faced with an end-game scenario in which a field goal can win the game, going for it is the analytically correct call. Tennessee defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons had other ideas, blowing up a Lock shovel pass to Jake Butt on fourth-and-goal.
While the Broncos failed on fourth-and-goal, the Titans succeeded when Jonnu Smith broke wide open for a touchdown pass from Tannehill that put them in front, 13-7. Tennessee came out with a two-tight end, two-back, six-offensive-lineman look, and when Smith ran past Jackson, Simmons was caught seven yards away from a wide-open Smith.
“They gave us a really awkward look and it kind of messed up a couple of our reads,” Simmons explained. “That’s why [Jonnu] Smith was open on the seven route, it was a look that we hadn’t seen, so it was just a great play by them.
“I think with cleaner eyes and better technique, it’s something that we could have been able to cover a little better. It was just a great play by them, definitely a play that they drew up knowing we would be confused.”
DROPPED PASSES AND MISFIRES
Tight end Jake Butt had one pass skip off his hands in his return to action after nearly two years on the sideline, but it was the two drops by rookie Jerry Jeudy that will echo. They represent a prime teachable moment for the first-round pick, whose four-catch, 56-yard game debut otherwise promising.
“In college football, you get 90-plus plays, and in the NFL, there’s a minimal amount of plays that you get to run, and you have to bring an extreme focus all the time,” Lock said. “Because I feel like I know Jerry, he wanted to do well so bad, that he kind of forced some things on himself,” said Lock, who noted that he had the same kind of experience in his first game last year.
Jeudy’s second drop was particularly agonizing for the Broncos. It came with 4:02 remaining and the Broncos looking to run out the clock and preserve a 1-point win. He had separation on a quick slant and the chance to easily get the Broncos into field-goal range. Instead, the Broncos punted three plays later.
Lock also had attempts he wanted back. One of them came two plays after Jeudy’s second drop, when he looked for wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton open down the left sideline for a potential touchdown after a double move. But Lock overthrew Hamilton.
Lock’s overall night was statistically solid — 216 yards on 22-of-33 passing with a touchdown, no sacks absorbed and a 95.0 rating. But it wasn’t enough.
“There’s just a lot of little things that we could have done better,” he said. “I feel like it was promising. Made some plays, but we want to be an elite offense. Tonight, with some of the things that we did, including some of the things I did myself, it just wasn’t elite for us.”
THE COSTLY PENALTY
Tennessee gobbled up 6:31 of the clock on its first series of the second half, a drive that followed a quick Broncos three-and-out. But that drive should have only lasted one minute and 59 seconds, as rookie Michael Ojemudia appeared to end it with a diving interception of an underthrown Tannehill pass to Kalif Raymond.
But 29 yards back upfield, near the line of scrimmage, linebacker Alexander Johnson nullified the play with an unnecessary-roughness penalty. Johnson was in coverage on Henry in the flat, but as Tannehill fired downfield, the linebacker surged at Henry and knocked him back.
“Obviously, I was just playing ball, playing within the whistle … but the referee saw something else and it sucks that we had an interception and had to return,” Johnson said. “I feel like that hurt the team right there.”
The Titans ran nine more plays on the drive for 25 yards, converting a pair of third downs and eating another four minutes, 28 seconds of clock time. It was a little thing, but it proved huge later on as the defense appeared to finally show signs of fatigue on the Titans’ game-winning march one quarter later.
You can read more on that here, but in retrospect, the Broncos made a mistake by not starting to use their timeouts after Henry burst off left tackle for 13 yards, moving Tennessee to the Denver 16-yard line.
Thirty-seven seconds drained from the clock before Tennessee ran its next play. That might have made all the difference.