Playoffs Slipping Away
As much as I hate to say it, the Denver Broncos 2015 season is starting to feel like the final season of Mike Shanahan's regime in the Mile High City, or Josh McDaniels' first in 2009. A promising start fizzling down the stretch.
For the last two weeks, the Broncos have had a lot to play for, but their lack of focus, execution and intensity, especially in the second half, is alarming.
It's gone beyond alarming. It's a four-alarm fire. And it certainly doesn't fit the 'kicking and screaming' model the front office is pining for. The pattern that Gary Kubiak's squad is displaying in the second half of games has become an epidemic. Offensive ineptitude. A defense playing fast and loose. Untimely penalities. Dropped passes in the clutch.
I'm very reluctant to place all the blame at the feet of Brock Osweiler. How can you blame the fourth-year gunslinger when his players are dropping passes when the chips are down? But, I will say that in the Broncos last possession — their last opportunity to come from behind and send the game to overtime — Osweiler threw a couple passes that were straight up head-scratchers and should have been intercepted.
As for the coaches, why can't they coach their players to execute for a full 60 minutes? Why the parity between the Broncos' first half performances and the second? The offense and defense get out to a productive start, but when the opposing team makes adjustments coming out of halftime, Kubiak seems unable to follow suit and answer.
I'm not worried about this defense. They've done about as well as can be expected without T.J. Ward. But with the news that David Bruton broke his leg in PIttsburgh, the Broncos need their starting safeties back on the field. The coaches and players in question are confident that Ward and Darian Stewart will return to action this week.
What I am worried about is that this Broncos team is regressing, rather than progressing down the stretch. That's not what you want to see as the playoffs draw near. The Broncos no longer have a margin for error. They must win this week vs. Cincinnati and the following week vs. San Diego.
Fortunately, both games are at home. Win them both, and the Broncos win the division and secure the AFC's No. 2 playoff seed. Lose and all bets are off.
Missed Tackles Killed The Broncos
I watched in disbelief as the Broncos defense couldn't stay with their man and take him to the ground consistently. Against an explosive team like the Steelers, with high athleticism at the skill poisitions, you have to take the ball-carrier down on the first opportunity.
The Broncos simply could not do it. And Pittsburgh's yards after contact allowed them to march up and down the field, especially in the second half, and take what should have been a win away from the Broncos.
“You always want to play better," Chris Harris, Jr. said Monday. "Really he [Antonio Brown] had a lot of short catches. I just had to make the tackles. I didn't make the tackles. I'm usually a guy that never misses tackles, so I just wasn't myself yesterday. I've got to play a lot better, especially when the team needs me the most.”
It wasn't just Harris. The linebackers struggled, as did Bradley Roby in particular. Against a high-powered offense like the Steelers, you have to execute and out-physical them. The margin of error is slim, and the Broncos defense were uncharacteristically sloppy.
Hopefully, getting T.J. Ward back, their emotional leader, will get them back on track. Because a hungry Bengals team cometh.
The Future Is Bright With Osweiler At The Helm
The moment Brock Osweiler can sustain his first half performances throughout an entire game, the Broncos will a very complimentary NFL team. A top-ranked defense, coupled with a productive offense, makes for a dangerous squad in the postseason.
Osweiler's first half in Pittsburgh was stunning. He is just the third quarterback in Broncos history to throw for three touchdowns and rush for one in the same game. 8-for-8 on third down. And it all came in the first half!
"Nothing really felt different," Osweiler said post-game. "We just couldn’t get into a rhythm for some reason. I think you have to give credit where credit is due. The Steelers and their coaching staff made some great halftime adjustments. Those guys on the field played a great second half for the Steelers."
I really like the skill-set Osweiler brings to the table. His experience starting this year has been invaluable. Osweiler's second half collapses are definitely a cause for concern, but he's received little help from his skill position players and offensive line.
In his defense, Osweiler injured his non-throwing shoulder late in the second quarter in PIttsburgh, but according to Gary Kubiak, it didn't compromise his ability to throw the ball. It just made handing off the ball with his left arm excruciating.
If John Elway is able to keep Osweiler in Denver, the Broncos will have stability at the quarterback position for a long time to come. Osweiler has displayed that he has the leadership qualities and skill-set to become a top-level quarterback in this league.
But, you can believe that teams like the Houston Texans, NY Jets, St. Louis Rams and any other QB-needy team on the cusp of breaking out, will be willing to cough up some major dough to haul in Osweiler in free agency.
Elway better get cracking on that extension.
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Chad Jensen is the Publisher of Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @ChadNJensen.