NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As his offensive linemen took turns walking into the locker room with injuries, Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson tried to will his otherwise inept offense down the field for a tying score.
He picked up a fourth-and-5 with his legs. He outwrestled a much bigger Titan defender to recover his own fumble. He drove his team down to the edge of the red zone.
But in the end, Wilson threw a last-gasp fourth-down, last-second interception near the goal line and the Broncos' season became all but finished after they lost to the Tennessee Titans, 17-10, here Sunday before a boisterous gathering of 69,240 on a chilly Sunday afternoon at Nissan Stadium.
"It is definitely frustrating,'' Wilson said. "It feels like we could have won that game. We had some good moments, we had some not so good moments. We were battling.
"I am going to do everything that I can to find a way to answer those moments coming forward. We’ve still got games left. We still have moments where we can be better. The next thing we can do is focus on the next moment."
The Broncos are 3-6 and going nowhere but home for the postseason for a seventh consecutive season. Somehow, the Broncos came off a bye week and became more injured and their offense was even more atrocious.
If a team can’t win or stay healthy after a bye against a team that had just suffered a tough overtime loss at Kansas City and will play again Thursday night, then there’s no way the Broncos are going to beat the likes of the Chiefs, Ravens and Rams on the road.
A season that began with so much promise because of the acquisition of the star quarterback Wilson has become doomed near the halfway just like the previous six losing seasons. More frustrating is the offense continues to regress. It has scored 16 or less points in 7 of their 9 games and their 14.55 points per game is the franchise’s lowest output in more than 50 years.
“We’ve worked too damn hard to have our mindset anywhere but forward,’’ said left guard Dalton Risner. “It can’t be where the season’s headed or it’s over. We can’t be that. We love each other too much in this room. We worked way too dang hard to say something like that. So what we say right now is let’s beat the Raiders at home. It’s an (AFC) West game, let’s go. Anything’s possible.’’
Afterwards, veteran receiver Courtland Sutton stepped up in the losing locker room and delivered a speech. The gist was don’t quit. It was more eloquently put, and by all accounts it was impassioned. Sutton, unfortunately, is experienced with being part of a team that has little hope with plenty of the season left to go. A second-round draft pick in 2018, Sutton has 222 career catches but those have come for a team that has only 28 wins against 46 losses as he reaches the back-half of his fifth season.
“Courtland had a great talk after the game,’’ said linebacker Josey Jewell, who had a game-high 9 tackles. “About not just coming in here and checking the box off. We’re going to come in tomorrow and the next day and we’re going to go to work and we’re going to try to hone our craft the best as possible and keep on grinding every single day and try to get better.”
“Courtland talked to us after the game, really gave a great speech,’’ said once reserve-now-starting outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper. “I think it was exactly what we needed to hear. We’re going to take this week by week. At the end of year we’ll look up and see what we did. But we’re not going to let up on the gas just because things aren't going the way you want.”
A will to win is still there for the Broncos. The ability to win, given another rough game with injuries, is in question.
A flea flicker pass from Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill to wide-open receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine covered 63 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter and gave Tennessee its first lead – it was the second touchdown connection from the duo in the game – was all the home team needed against a battered Broncos' offense that had trouble protecting Wilson in the second half.
The Broncos did have a 10-0 lead until late in the first half thanks to a long touchdown pass from Wilson to rookie Jalen Virgil – who had not been heard from since his surprising preseason performance – and a 39-yard field goal by Brandon McManus.
PHOTOS | Broncos at Titans
But injuries continued to pile up on the Broncos. In the second half, rookie center Luke Wattenberg got his first real action in place of Graham Glasgow, who left in the third quarter with a left shoulder injury. Glasgow was replacing Lloyd Cushenberry, who is on injured reserve with a groin injury.
“You’ve got be ready to step up at any time,’’ Wattenberg said. “It happens all the time in football. You just have to be ready all the time.’’
The Broncos also had elevated practice squad player Quinn Bailey come in to replace injured right tackle Billy Turner in the second quarter. Turner suffered a knee injury. Also out was starting tackle Cam Fleming, who was kept home with a quad injury.
“I’ll tell ya those guys are battling who are going out there,’’ said Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett. “Jalen had that big play. He came in, Bailey came in. Whose ever going out there they’re going to fight and that’s what we ask for. We’re in these games. We give ourselves a chance. Russell’s out there running around trying to do everything he can and we’ve got to find a way to protect Russell and run the ball during this time but I love seeing people go in there and battling.”
Both defenses were having their way until midway through the second quarter when Virgil was sent in to replace Tyrie Cleveland on a second-and-10 play from the Denver 34. Wilson audibled, going up and down the line to make sure the offensive linemen and receivers heard his revised call.
He dropped back and saw Virgil running wide open along the numbers down the left side. Wilson drilled it to the speedy Virgil who raced in with a 66-yard touchdown. The Broncos were up 7-0 with 8:18 left in the first half.
“I had a vertical route. I busted out and I think they lost me for a second,’’ Virgil said. “And Russ hit me at the perfect time. It was amazing, man. It was surreal. It’s something I’ll definitely remember.”
Virgil had dressed for the first time two weeks ago for the game against Jacksonville but did not play so this was his first NFL catch and first NFL touchdown in his first NFL game.
“I gave (the football) to someone on the sideline so I’ll pick it up,’’ said Virgil, who was undrafted out of Appalachian State. “Definitely, get something made with it. Put in a frame for sure.”
Wilson demonstrated inspiring courage. He was sacked six times and was hit 12 other times – no doubt there were coverage sacks but for the most he was a victim of an injury-riddled offensive front.
“He’s somebody you want to fight your tail off for,’’ Risner said. “You see him running around, throwing the ball and taking hits. They were bringing a lot, they were bringing pressure. They were throwing it at us. They knew we were down a few linemen. They knew we were going to pass the ball, too, so that’s where it gets tough but you love having a warrior like Russell who can sit in there take those shot but will do anything he can do to win.”
Wilson returned to his scrambling self while completing 21 of 42 for 286 yards. There were several times during the game when the Broncos’ offense seemed to be little more than, ‘Go Long.’ And Russ would chuck it deep. You know, like in the backyard.
It looked good for the Broncos with a little more than 2 minutes remaining in the first half.
The first score was worth celebrating. Virgil was only playing this game because KJ Hamler suffered a hamstring strain Wednesday in practice and Jerry Jeudy suffered what appeared to be a serious ankle injury on the first play of this game. Per source, Jeudy suffered an injury to the back of his ankle but it does not appear to be to his Achilles. More tests will be conducted Monday.
“I slipped,’’ Jeudy said. “I’m not sure what (the injury) is. We’ve got to get an MRI (Monday).’’
As the injuries continue.
The Broncos’ plan entering the season was to have Sutton, Tim Patrick, Jeudy and Hamler as their top 4 receivers. They now have Sutton and the rest – Kendall Hinton, Tyrie Cleveland, Virgil and rookie Montrell Washington.
Sutton finished with 6 catches for 66 yards and Hinton had four receptions for 62 yards.
Denver defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero was challenged this game with the loss of starting safety Justin Simmons and his top three outside linebackers that began the season – Bradley Chubb (traded), Randy Gregory (knee) and Baron Browning (hip). And late in the game, nickel corner K'Waun Williams went to get his knee X-rayed. Williams said tests won't be conclusive until he gets and MRI on Monday.
To compensate, Evero got creative, opening the game with one outside linebacker (Cooper), one safety (Kareen Jackson) and three inside linebackers (Josey Jewell, Alex Singleton, Jonas Griffith). Evero also essentially used four defensive lineman – with Jonathan Harris elevated from the practice squad to join D.J. Jones, DeShawn Williams or Mike Purcell and Dre’Mont Jones, who stood up on the outside.
“I don’t know about the Derrick Henry effect but it definitely did a good job in stopping the run,’’ Cooper said. “And then you saw all the rotations. It was a good game plan. We took the run away.’’
Besides stacking the box against Tennessee’s star running back Derrick Henry, who finished with just 53 yards on 19 carries – 2.8 yards per -- Evero also mixed in blitzes that rattled quarterback Tannehill, who was just 3 of 10 for 35 yards entering the second quarter.
Tannehill recovered, though, to make an easy throw off the flea flicker to Westbrook-Ikhine, who was open from here to Nashville’s famous Broadway strip, for the 63-yard, go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter. The play started with a handoff to Henry, who got to the line, stopped, turned and tossed back to Tannehill. Meanwhile, Broncos’ backup safety P.J. Locke, who got his first NFL start in place of the injured Justin Simmons, collided with rookie cornerback Damarrius Mathis on the play. Westbrook-Ikhine was wide open and raced in, cutting away from the last man to beat, safety Kareem Jackson.
“I’ve got to get him down there,’’ Jackson said.
“Yeah people need to be able to worry about their assignment on that one,’’ Jewell said. “I’m sure we’ll talk about that tomorrow and get that fixed. We need to just keep doing our job and not try to do too much. I think that’s what happened on that one. If we do that I think we’ve got a great defense still. We’ve got a lot of guys in here that can do their job pretty dang well.”
Despite their nice defense that is ranked No. 2 in the league by most measures, the Broncos are way down in the win-loss columns with eight games to play. They are also down some serious manpower because of injuries. But here’s why injuries can’t be used as an excuse – the Tennessee defense had five starters out with injuries. Five. And it still put 18 hits on the quarterback Wilson.
“It’s never an excuse,’’ Risner said. “We’ve got to be able to overcome it. Yes, losing Graham and Billy made it tough but Quinn Bailey and Luke Wattenberg came in and they did a great job. I’m super proud of them. We all can do things better. It comes to all 11 that are out there on the field to make sure we execute. We just didn’t do it in the second half until the last drive. We just ran out of time, ran out of timeouts. We’ve got to be able to put it together quicker than that. So there’s good things to take away. But I’ve saying that for 10 weeks.”
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