ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — There are times the past few weeks, it seems like it would be easier for the Broncos to pass a kidney stone than pass the ball downfield.
Denver sits at .500 after 12 games, defining mediocrity with aspirations of legitimacy. For the Denver to snap its streak of four straight losing seasons and five years without a playoff berth, the offense needs to become caffeinated.
The Broncos have proven they can run the ball effectively — Javonte Williams should win Rookie of the Week honors and Melvin Gordon returns this week as well — but they are not finishing drives. The Broncos rank 17th in yards per play at 5.5 yards. They sit 12th in rushing (118.0) and 18th in passing (225.9). So, why do they average 19.8 points per game — they have yet to reach 21 points per game since Peyton Manning retired — this season?
They rank 24th in third down conversions (36.8%) and 27th in red zone touchdown rate (52.5%).
"Our whole passing game has to improve a little bit," admitted coach Vic Fangio on Wednesday in preparation for the Detroit Lions. "We never got into a rhythm last week in our last game. The week before, we didn’t have a lot of the yards either. We just need to get our passing game, as a whole, in a better rhythm.”
Entering the Chiefs game, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater boasted a streak of four straight games without a turnover. He has proven he can take care of the ball, posting 16 touchdowns with seven interceptions and a 67.3 completion percentage.
However, he has not shown he will consistently take chances to help get his receivers more involved. The Broncos' receivers have one touchdown in the last six games. Worse, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and Bridgewater have been unable to get Sutton and Jeudy going simultaneously.
In the six games the duo has played together this season, Jeudy has zero touchdowns — also his season total — and Sutton has 10 catches for 124 yards and no scores.
“You just do it within the system. We have plays that are dialed up to get guys the ball specifically. We might come out of the huddle and say we want to throw the ball to ‘Court’ here, and they play a coverage that takes ‘Court’ away. Now, Jerry gets an opportunity to catch a pass. That’s just how it works. You might call a play for Tim [Patrick] and the ball might go to ‘Court.’ You might call the play for Jerry and the ball might go to Javonte," Bridgewater said. "Teams are aware of the guys that we have, their skill sets. So, we’re just trying to create ways to get them the ball and allow them to do what they do best.”
A confluence of factors are at play. Bridgewater's conservative nature, the play-calling at times and the inability of Sutton — who is in his first season back from ACL surgery — and Tim Patrick to create quick separation off the line. An argument can be made that both are open when covered and that Bridgewater should trust them with 50-50 balls or in traffic. I asked him about it Wednesday.
"You pretty much saw that the other night. We took chances and things like that. Eventually, if we keep taking those chances, they’ll fall in our favor. Like you said, we’ve harped on protecting the ball. We’ve done a good job of that this year. One of the turnovers was unfortunate, you can’t control a tipped pass. But for the most part, we’ve done a good job protecting the ball while also trying to be aggressive," Bridgewater said. "The more shots we continue to take, we’ll end up hitting them more than pass interference calls, and things will work in our favor.”
The reality is stark. The Broncos need a boost from their offense. It's not enough to run the ball well or protect it. To win four of their final five games — the likely number needed for a playoff berth — it will require more explosive plays through the air.
There is no margin for error left on either side of the ball. The rubber band has reached its elasticity.
"Me personally, talking with DBs and preparing to talk with the team, it’s a must win," safety Justin Simmons said. "It’s playoff time. One loss and your chances are drastically down the drain.”
Linebacker Bradley Chubb, who has experienced a lost season, did not practice because of a shoulder injury sustained against the Chiefs. He had a tackle for a loss in the game, but clearly needs time to shake off the rust.
Cornerback Bryce Callahan (knee) returned to practice, leaving the Broncos 21 days to decide whether to activate him.
Running back Melvin Gordon (hip) returned to practice in a limited capacity.