On a cloudy, lazy Sunday afternoon in our Mile High City, it wasn’t easy for the Denver Broncos to find a bright side.
But it was there.
Look at it this way: The Broncos don’t have to worry about a quarterback controversy. They don’t have to worry about managing expectations. They shouldn’t have to ever worry again about overconfidence.
If it’s possible, Paxton Lynch needs to quickly forget his NFL starting debut as his Broncos were whipped by the Atlanta Falcons and their versatile running back duo of Donta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, 23-16, here Sunday at soon-to-be-renamed Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
“I am upset, obviously because we lost,'' Lynch said. "I am kind of happy that I got the first one under my belt. My first start with these guys and having a chance to play with them. If I get put in that situation again I will know how to handle it a little bit better than I did the first time. I am glad I got the experience, but I am also upset that we didn't come out with the win.”
The difficulty of the loss was compounded about 45 minutes after the game when Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak was taken by ambulance from the stadium to a local hospital. The team said Kubiak had been suffering from flu-like symptoms. Still, Kubiak's health is a concern as it's his second medical emergency episode in three years. He collapsed on the sideline as the Houston Texans' head coach at halftime of a November game in 2013.
The Falcons from the NFC are now 4-1 with four consecutive wins. The Broncos of the AFC are 4-1 and will try to regroup in time to play the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium on Thursday night.
While blame can be distributed in various degrees to all 46 players who dressed in the Broncos’ first loss of the season – and first loss in 10 games, dating back to Dec. 20, 2015 – it was clear the speed of an NFL game moved a little fast for the rookie Lynch. He was replacing Trevor Siemian who had been the starter as the Broncos built a 4-0 record but a left shoulder injury knocked him out of this game.
Lynch got little going until he took advantage of Atlanta’s prevent defense in the fourth quarter. The Falcons were up 23-6 before they reverted to a soft zone and Lynch marched his team on a 16-play drive that ended with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas.
At that point, though, there was just 2:38 left in the game. Lynch finished 23 of 35 for 223 yards, one touchdown and one interception. But again, much of that production came in “garbage time.’’
“We have to help him better, us as coaches,'' Kubiak said during his postgame press conference, shortly before he fell ill. "We got down early in the game. We were committed to running the ball today and tried to do that early. We did not run the ball well. We get down by 13, something like that, and were struggling to protect him. We put him in a really tough situation. That’s not the type of game you want to put him in. We battled, we just didn’t play very well. You have to give Atlanta a lot of credit. They came into our place, played with a lot of poise and made a lot of big plays against us.''
Atlanta’s defense entered the game ranked 30th in the 32-team league, in large part because it registered just 4.0 sacks in its first four games. But the Falcons discovered a savory cocktail in Lynch’s inexperience with feeling the pressure of a pass rush and the struggles of right tackle Ty Sambrailo.
Lynch was sacked 6 times in this game alone, with Vic Beasley in on 3.5 of them. Beasley beat Sambrailo much of the day until the Broncos’ coaching staff pulled their second-year tackle in the fourth quarter.
“Ty is playing a lot of football for a guy who didn’t do anything for eight or nine weeks,'' Kubiak said, referring to Sambrailo's right elbow injury in training camp. "We need to help him out a little bit. Obviously that’s tough. When you get down like that, and they’re pinning their ears back, it’s as hard as it gets for a tackle.''
The Falcons got just two catches for 29 yards from star receiver Julio Jones – who had 300 yards receiving last week against Carolina – but this is an offense with multiple weapons.
Including two at running back.
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for a whopping 286 yards from scrimmage on 119 yards rushing, 167 yards receiving and the Falcons’ two touchdowns. Much of their damage was done at the expense of Broncos' inside linebackers Brandon Marshall and Todd Davis.
Credit Falcons' offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the son of former Broncos coaching great Mike Shanahan, with creating the mismatches.
“It’s a great defense, but they just had the linebackers on us and we are faster than them,'' Coleman said. "It was a great call by Kyle to have us run with the linebackers on us.”
For starters, Lynch was put in a tough spot.
The first-round rookie was down, 7-0 before he took the first snap of his NFL starting debut. His counterpart, nine-year veteran starter Matt Ryan, rather easily led the Atlanta Falcons on a 75-yard, game-opening drive that culminated in a fourth-and-goal, 1-yard touchdown run by Freeman.
It was the only touchdown of the first half as the Falcons led Lynch and the Denver Broncos, 13-3, going into the intermission.
With Siemian dressed in shorts, a long-sleeve undershirt and ballcap while standing on the sidelines with his shoulder injury, Lynch played OK in the first half for a first start. Qualifier needed.
There were other times when the speed of the game seemed a little too fast. Lynch was only 3 of 8 for 45 yards in the first half and he was sacked twice. It was striking the difference in decision making between Ryan, a nine-year pro, and Lynch, a one-game starter. Ryan got rid of the ball quickly, although it helps to have running backs operating in open spaces. Lynch took an extra or second before firing -- and sometimes that extra second or two meant not getting the ball off.
Then again Ryan, who was the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year before he hit some tough times in subsequent years, knows playing quarterback ain't easy.
“It’s very difficult, I know that first hand,'' Ryan said. "Today, we had a good plan and got the ball out for the most part and that’s what you have to do. As a young player for sure, it’s tough. I have had many of those days where it doesn’t go as planned. But for a young guy he (Lynch) will continue to bounce back and get better.”
The big play in the Falcons’ opening drive was a clear-out pattern with Jones serving as a decoy and Coleman dragging underneath behind him.
Coleman caught the short pass then ran 48 yards to the Denver 15. Ryan then dumped off to his other running back, Freeman, on the next play for 14 yards, setting up first-and-goal from the 1.
Bang, bang, two plays and Atlanta went from its own 37 to the Denver 1.
Denver’s D stiffened for three downs, but not four.
Lynch came out with a nice out pattern pass to Emmanuel Sanders for 14 yards on his first pass attempt but then the lanky quarterback was errant on his next two pass attempts.
Ryan came right back on the next drive and led the Falcons to within range of a Matt Bryant field goal. Atlanta could have had more had Jones not been called for an offensive pass interference penalty that erased a 19-yard reception to the Denver 12.
Down, 10-0, the Broncos finally got their offense going after they were ignited by Jordan Norwood’s 17yard punt return to the Denver 43. On the first play of the series, Lynch threw his best ball, a 17-yard sideline pass to Emmanuel Sanders to the Atlanta 40.
Although fullback Andy Janovich picked up a first down off a fourth-and-1 plunge and a defensive pass interference penalty set up first and 10 at the Atlanta 18, the drive fizzled and the Broncos settled for a 35-yard field goal from Brandon McManus.
Ryan and his talented running back duo of Freeman and Coleman then muscled the Denver defense on a 7-minute drive, pushing the ball methodically from the Falcons’ own 8-yard line to the Broncos’ 15 before settling for a short Matt Bryant field goal and 13-3 lead.
Siemian, the Broncos’ starting quarterback during their 4-0 start, was inactive because of a badly sprained left shoulder joint, an injury suffered last week in a 27-7 win at Tampa Bay.
"I'm one day better,'' Siemian said after the game. "I'll get in tomorrow and see what Greek (head trainer Steve Antonopulos) tells me, but I'm feeling better and better.''
With Lynch not getting much going in the passing game, the Broncos couldn’t offset with their running game, rushing for only 3.5 yards per carry.
The Falcons essentially put the game away late in the third quarter when Ryan perfectly led Coleman, who had beat linebacker Brandon Marshall, down the left seam for a 31-yard touchdown.
That gave Atlanta a 20-3 lead. The Broncos did score a touchdown and field goal in the final 2:40 to make the game close. Denver attempted two onside kicks but Atlanta recovered both.
“Coming into the game, I said that Devonta Freeman was pretty good,'' said Broncos' linebacker Von Miller, who had one sack in defeat. "You would just look at the film and tell that he is one of the premiere backs in the league. They were blocking pretty good. They were pulling their tackles and tight ends. We couldn’t really get our feet up under us. When we finally did get our feet under us, it was too late.”