Looking for answers to slide

A porous defense and an offense that often put up plenty of yards but not enough points led to a slide for the Denver Broncos that gave coach Mike Shanahan his second losing season with the franchise.

Since Mike Shanahan took over as Denver Broncos coach in 1995, the franchise has not dealt with losing very often.

In 1999, after two straight Super Bowl wins and John Elway's retirement, the Broncos went 6-10. That was Shanahan's only losing season until this year.

"I think nobody thought before the season we'd be where we are now," Broncos left tackle Matt Lepsis said after Denver's losing season was clinched with a loss to San Diego.

Denver began with two wild wins, on a scrambled last-second field goal at Buffalo and an overtime win against Oakland. That turned out to be the high point of the season.

A porous defense and an offense that often put up plenty of yards but not enough points led to a slide. The Broncos go into the offseason knowing that after a busy offseason, which included the additions of cornerback Dre Bly, tight end Daniel Graham and running back Travis Henry, they were outscored by division rival San Diego 64-6 this season. That means the Broncos have to make a lot of improvement before next season to be a viable contender for the AFC West title.

What went right: Offensively, the Broncos weren't perfect but they put up some solid numbers. Jay Cutler passed for more than 3,000 yards and Brandon Marshall had 102 catches and 1,325 yards. That duo of second-year players is part of the young nucleus Denver can build around in the future.

The Broncos got a jump on next season, albeit out of necessity. Many young players filled in for injured veterans. Although Broncos coach Mike Shanahan would never use the term rebuilding, it's clear the team got younger as the season went on. That should help. Players like end Elvis Dumervil, center Chris Myers and running back Selvin Young got much needed experience.

What went wrong: The conversation begins with the defense. Assistant head coach/defense Jim Bates' scheme didn't take for whatever reason. A lot of that has to do with personnel problems -- Bates' defense has worked before with other teams -- but some of that falls on Bates as well. Players like Sam Adams, brought in to fit his scheme, didn't work out. After the run defense had so many problems stopping anyone the first few weeks, the scheme was overhauled and an eighth player regularly moved up in the box to support the run.

The Broncos' inconsistency on defense was apparent in the final game. They played very well for the first three-and-a-half quarters, and had a 19-3 lead. Then the Vikings got hot and tied the game with two touchdowns in the final six minutes, with Denver looking helpless to stop them. Denver recovered in overtime to force a fumble that set up the game-winning field goal, but the up-and-down nature of the defense has been frustrating.

Denver's special teams also cost the team a huge game. Chicago's Devin Hester returned two kicks for touchdowns and a punt was blocked in an overtime loss to the Bears in late November. Although the special teams played pretty well after a tough first month under new coach Scott O'Brien, that loss was a critical turning point in the season.

PLAYER NOTES

--WR Brandon Marshall caught 10 passes against Minnesota to reach 100 for the season. He is the third second-year player in NFL history to reach 100 catches in a season.

--S John Lynch said he thought about the possibility of Sunday's game being his last in the NFL. Lynch said he will meet with his family before determining if he'll be back for a 16th season. A neck injury he suffered earlier this season might be a factor in his decision.

--OT Matt Lepsis said he won't talk about the future, but he could retire this offseason. He played this season after coming back from major knee surgery, and didn't have his best season.

--WR Rod Smith will need more surgery on his hip, and his career is probably over. One of the possibilities is hip replacement surgery. Smith said his hip has gotten worse over the past few weeks and now feels worse than when he had his first surgery in February.

--RB Travis Henry didn't touch the ball and didn't play in the second half against Minnesota. He never fully recovered from a knee injury. The Broncos will have to decide whether to bring him back or go with Selvin Young as their featured back.



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