A bad performance in a 17-13 win against Oakland last week brought up old questions. Denver seemed to take a step forward when it scored 31 points in back-to-back games against Indianapolis and Pittsburgh.
"Oh, yeah, very disappointed," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said of the offense's play at Oakland. "Any time you move the ball like we did and commit as many turnovers as we did, very seldom do you win on the road."
The talk early in the season was all about quarterback Jake Plummer. The Broncos scored 17 points or less in each of their first six games and Plummer was criticized. Plummer had three interceptions against Oakland, but the once-reliable running game is now also an issue.
If Javon Walker's 72-yard reverse against Pittsburgh is discounted, Denver has rushed for 106 yards on 48 carries the past two games. That's surprising numbers for any NFL team, especially one that has had a 1,000-yard rusher every year except one since Shanahan took over as Denver's head coach in 1995.
"It's a little bit of everything," Shanahan said. "Any time one phase is not working like it normally does -- pass offense or rushing offense -- it's a combination of a lot of things."
The Broncos are very unsettled at tailback going into this week's key AFC West game against San Diego. Tatum Bell is the starter, Shanahan confirmed, but he is also bothered by two injured big toes. The turf toe problems aren't going away, even after he sat out two weeks ago against Pittsburgh. Shanahan said he regretted playing Bell so much against Oakland because Bell was still obviously hurt.
"I think both toes are bothering him more than he let on last week," Shanahan said. "We'll try to get him well, we'll evaluate him during the week, along with the rest of our backs. We've had a bunch of guys that have been nicked up."
Mike Bell was inactive last week. The rookie rushed for 136 yards against Indianapolis, then started when Tatum Bell sat out against Pittsburgh and gained 28 yards on 17 carries. Shanahan offered some hope that he would get back in the playing time mix by complimenting him this week.
"Mike Bell has looked good," Shanahan said. "The only game he didn't play at the level I was hoping he played at was the Pittsburgh game. But that doesn't mean he's in the doghouse or anything. He's had a number of good games as well."
Damien Nash was signed off the practice squad last week and was Tatum Bell's backup, a sign that Shanahan is searching for answers in the running game. Nash had 14 yards on four carries and mishandled a fumble near the goal line that he recovered. Cedric Cobbs is also a possibility but seems to be sliding down the depth chart. Shanahan said the pecking order might change on a week-to-week basis based on practice.
"We'll evaluate that through the week and try to come up with the best combination on Sunday night," Shanahan said.
The Broncos need the running game to reemerge and for Jake Plummer to play like he did against Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, not like his three-interception day against Oakland. The Broncos aren't used to answering a lot of questions about problems on offense.
"I don't think we've ever won, at least since I've been here, with the offense not being very productive," Shanahan said. "It's always been offense, and the defense there's always been questions about. So it's a little bit different."
--Broncos defensive coordinator Larry Coyer usually heaps praise on the opponent, and he had a lot for Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers this week.
"I hate to use comparisons but he reminds me of (Colts quarterback Peyton) Manning," Coyer said. "The delivery, the way he handles the game, he's ripping that ball in there right now. To me, right now, he's probably the second best quarterback in this league. He's produced those kind of numbers."
--Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said he doesn't mind the flexible scheduling option that is available for NBC this year. The Broncos game against San Diego this week was moved to Sunday night.
"When they were talking about possibly changing it from a Sunday to a Monday that was almost impossible, I don't know how you could do that logistically," Shanahan said. "To have something like this, I think that it is fairly easy and I think it is a compliment to both organizations."
Foster was a first-round pick in 2003 and has been the full-time starter at right tackle since 2004. He has never developed into a dominant player and Shanahan made the switch.
"I'm certainly not giving up on George Foster, because he's one of the most talented players I've been around," Shanahan said. "We've just got to get him playing at a little higher level. And if he does that, he'll be right in the mix."
BY THE NUMBERS: 52.8 -- San Diego back LaDainian Tomlinson's average per game in his five career games at Denver.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "They are tough. We have to realize this is a championship caliber game again and if you want to be champions, you have to play at a championship caliber level." -- Broncos defensive coordinator Larry Coyer on the Chargers.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL Broncos coach Mike Shanahan explained some of his lineup changes last week by saying that sometimes practice weighs as heavy as games. Running back Mike Bell, tight end Tony Scheffler and offensive tackle George Foster all got demotions last week.
Shanahan said at many positions, such as backup tailback and backup tight end, where competition is tight he'll continue to gauge practice as a way of determining which players will see action on game day.
PLAYER NOTES --FB Cecil Sapp continues to split time with Kyle Johnson. Sapp was the primary fullback last week but that could change on a week-to-week basis. Both of them have different strengths they bring.
--WR Brandon Marshall's playing time was limited last week. Marshall appeared to be coming on after catching a couple of passes and a touchdown against Cleveland, but the Broncos have favored David Kircus in three-receiver sets.
--TE Tony Scheffler is talented but inconsistent. He is a rookie and the Broncos expected some adjustment. He was inactive last week but the tight end position after Stephen Alexander is evaluated based on matchups and performance in practice.
--LB Keith Burns leads the Broncos in special-teams tackles. Burns
is a mainstay on the Broncos and is a vocal leader of the unit, which
has covered well this season.
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