CLEVELAND — Vic Fangio has been a fine NFL coach for many, many years who at times has drawn plaudits as one of the league’s best defensive coordinators.
But in recent weeks – four weeks to be exact -- there has seemingly been a disconnect between whatever message Fangio has been sending to his players regarding the start of the game.
Too often, the team on both sides of the ball doesn't look ready to play until it's too late.
The Broncos lost their fourth consecutive game, this time to the injury-riddled Cleveland Browns, who behind backup quarterback Otto Graham, err, Case Keenum, held on for a 17-14 victory before a wind-chilled, but energized, Thursday night crowd at FirstEnergy Stadium.
"Guys are just too good for us to start slow,'' said Broncos' running back Melvin Gordon III, who had just 18 yards rushing on 8 carries, but made a nice play in stretching out for an 8-yard touchdown reception that started a second-half comeback. "In this league you have to come out on fire. Trying to rally back, in some cases you might be able to do it but it’s too hard of a league to have slow starts. We have to as a group collectively figure that out.”
Throughout the four-game losing streak, the Broncos trailed at halftime. In this game, they were down 7-0 before their first snap and 10-0 before their fourth play.
The Broncos didn't quit. It looked ugly early, but they fought back to make it a game. It just took far too long for the Broncos to put up their dukes.
It was 10-0 after the Browns' first two offensive series. The Denver defense tightened up from there while quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and the Broncos' offense finally got going with a sustained touchdown drive to start the second half. Bridgewater hit Gordon out of the backfield for an 8-yard touchdown pass, drawing the Broncos within 10-7 midway through the third quarter.
But Keenum and the Browns' strong zone-blocking rushing system -- where they can plug-and-play any running back without losing a step (sound familiar, longtime Broncos fans?) -- answered with their own 13-play drive that ended with a 1-yard touchdown pass to fullback Johnny Stanton IV.
The key play was fourth-and-3 at the Broncos' 6. Browns coach Kevin Stefanski bypassed the field goal and Keenum scrambled 5 yards to set up first and goal at the 1, setting up the short touchdown flip to the fullback for a 17-7 lead.
The never-panicky Bridgewater then led the Broncos on a 17-play drive that ended with a 10-yard screen pass to running back Javonte Williams with 5:17 remaining to close the score to 17-14.
But when the defense needed a stop, it couldn't get it done. The Browns finished off the final 5 minutes, 17 seconds of the game with a long drive to the Denver 12 yard line, at which point they killed the remaining few seconds on the clock.
"You look at the final score and it’s 17-14 and you’re going to think we played good defense if you hold an NFL team to 17 points,'' Fangio said. "But we didn’t play good enough defense, either. And obviously we needed to score more points.”
Fangio and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur -- who made a great call on the third-and-goal screen touchdown to Williams -- have received the brunt of criticism from Broncos fans, who are tired of losing and at wit's end with below-average offensive football. The Broncos' offense had just two first downs at halftime -- then piled up seven first downs on their second half opening drive.
“It’s all of us,'' Gordon said. "We can’t circle out the head coach or Pat Shurmur. It’s all of us. Whether it’s receivers got to do better at getting open. Running harder. The line blocking harder. We make the plays go. It’s on us to get the job done whether it’s a good play or a bad play, we’ve got to make it a good play always. We have to play harder for each other.”
The Broncos began 2021 by going 3-0 in the preseason and looking good doing it -- and then 3-0 in the regular season, and won all three decisively.
But then the schedule toughened and the Broncos have not responded well. They lost 24-7 to pass-happy Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. They fell behind 24-6 before losing to the Steelers and not quite washed-up quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. They were down 31-10 last week to the Jon Gruden-less, but not Derek Carr-less, Raiders.
And they are now 3-4. What happened to that 3-0 Broncos team, injuries? Stronger opponents?
"All of the above,'' Fangio said. "There’s never one reason that you lose four games in a row.''
Through two defensive series Thursday night against a Browns’ offense that played without quarterback Baker Mayfield, running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, and right tackle Jack Conklin, the Denver D quickly fell behind 10-0.
The Browns -- again without the injured Chubb, Hunt, and Conklin -- had 46 yards off their first four carries. On the first drive, a running back named D’Ernest Johnson ran as if the Denver D wasn’t there, running for 20 yards, 10 yards to first and goal at the 4, and then a 4-yard touchdown. His runs were set up by a play action completion by Keenum, then a 34-yard tight end screen to Austin Hooper. A former Bronco, Keenum played well, completing 21 of 33 for 199 yards and a touchdown.
The 5-play, 75-yard game-opening drive was ridiculously easy.
To start their next drive, another no-name Browns running back, Demetric Felton, rushed for 12 yards on his first carry. A third running back, John Kelly, who was just signed this week, rushed for 11 yards on his first carry.
Johnson finished with a career-best 146 rushing on 22 carries and added 22 yards receiving off two catches..
“Their running game -- let’s say it’s here,’’ Broncos safety Justin Simmons said on Tuesday while raising his hand to shoulder level. “Then with (Nick) Chubb and Kareem Hunt -- they’re great players, so they elevate it. Their running game is still here overall in the system with their o-line and the backs that they have. Really whoever’s in the backfield, we know they’re going to have great blocking, and we know that they’re capable of running the football well. As a defense, you’ve got to be able to be a force in the run game and stop that, and that’s what it’s going to take.”
No doubt the Broncos miss their two starting inside linebackers, Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell, who are both finished for the season because of pectoral tears. And one of their replacements, Micah Kiser, left with a groin injury during the second defensive series, which ended with Cleveland’s Chase McLaughlin booting a 52-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead.
For most of the game, the Broncos’ inside linebackers were Curtis Robinson, a practice squad player most of the season, and Justin Strnad, who was supposed to be a third-down coverage linebacker until injuries hit.
Still, the Denver D could have put up a better fight early.
Von Miller, the Broncos’ star pass rusher, tried to inspire his team by guaranteeing he would play well and was going "to kill" the right tackle he didn’t know (Blake Hance). Miller had a hit on Keenum but no sacks. And he left the game late in the first half with an ankle injury. He did not return.
For every Joe Namath who makes good on a public guarantee, there are four more Fred "The Hammer" Williamsons who have to eat their words.
"Coming in at half and checking it out, I felt like I could have got back in there,'' Miller said. "But they wouldn't let me go back in. Honestly I feel like my pride is hurting more than my ankle. I talked a lot of stuff before this game and I did that intentionally. I wanted to make this game personal. I wanted the animosity. I wanted that to bring out the best in us. It’s humbling to go out there and lose.’’
It was Broncos' defensive tackle Shelby Harris who delivered inspiration late in the first half when he sacked Keenum and then blocked a 41-yard field goal attempt that would have given the Browns a 13-0 lead.
To the Denver D’s credit, it did stiffen after the first drive. But it didn't come close to winning the game. In fact, as the offense got going and needed the ball back one more time, the Denver D couldn't deliver.
Bridgewater tried to answer with a heroic effort, if not performance. Battling a foot injury all week, Bridgewater made it to the game, then made a beautiful 31-yard throw to the crick of Courtland Sutton’s right elbow to put the Broncos in field goal range. But after the change of field to start the second quarter, his throw into the end zone for John Brown was easily picked off by Browns safety John Johnson III.
Bridgewater and the offense got little going after the pick. At halftime, the Broncos had just two first downs, beating their previous low for inefficiency when they had just three first downs in the first half against Pittsburgh.
Bridgewater heated up in the second half and was 23 of 33 for 187 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
"I thought Teddy toughed it out,'' Fangio said. "He got into the game and once got rolling I never felt like he was laboring at all or favoring his injuries. Teddy’s a tough guy and he’s our quarterback.”
Again, the Broncos didn't have much of a running game as Javonte Williams (4 carries, 20 yards) and Gordon (8 for 18) combined for just 38 yards on 12 carries. Sutton led all receivers with 5 catches for 68 yards.
The most important stat, though, was that 3-0 team suddenly went 0-4. How? Why?
"I don’t know,'' Miller said. "Can’t really worry about it too much. We’ve got a lot of good teams coming up. We’ve got to continue to work. Continue to put our pride first, continue to make it personal. We’re all pros and this is the top of our profession. We want to win games. It’s not about losing. We’re not going back to a losing team. We lost four straight but we’ve got a lot of football left. If we continue to put pride first, I feel confident in the way this team is going.”
But that 3-0 team that became an 0-4 team.