After four games, there is plenty of concern that Denver's defense, which is now ranked 30th in yards per game allowed and 29th in points per game allowed, could hold the team back this season. Tampa Bay, which has shown it can move the ball running or passing, is the next opponent that gets to take aim at the Broncos defense.
Denver started 3-0, but in two of those games the Broncos allowed more than 30 points. The offense played very well in both games. When the offense slipped against Kansas City, the defense's problems couldn't be shrugged off so easily. Denver was upset 33-19.
Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan defended the defense, saying that the offense's four turnovers and problems in the red zone were the real reason for the loss.
"People will point to the defense, and it's so far from the truth," Shanahan said. "You turn the football over four times and you're 1-for-4 in the red zone, you're not going to win football games."
Chiefs running back Larry Johnson ran for 198 yards against the Broncos, which wasn't expected. Denver had been solid against the run in the first three games, but had allowed big games to San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers and New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees in back-to-back weeks.
Johnson ran for a 65-yard gain when linebacker Jamie Winborn slipped in the hole, but Shanahan argued that was Kansas City's last long drive until the fourth quarter. After the Chiefs' first drive, they had nine straight drives of 38 yards or less.
"When you go against a guy like Johnson and you give up a couple big plays and then all the sudden you take a look at those stats, but those are not always indicative of how we played," Shanahan said.
The Broncos did allow three scoring drives in the fourth quarter, which put the game out of reach. That was the reason Shanahan didn't completely let his defense off the hook for last week's performance.
"We've got to play better," Shanahan said. "You still don't want to give up those plays in the fourth quarter; you've still got to make them. But we can work on that. Most of them were some missed tackles and missed assignments, and Larry Johnson seems to do that to people every once in a while. We've got some work to do but it's not quite as bad as it looked.
The Broncos are still struggling to find a consistent pass rush, and they have given up too many big plays this season. The team doesn't have many major personnel changes it could make, although Karl Paymah was benched as the team's nickel cornerback in favor of rookie Jack Williams
For now, the Broncos are confident the issues can be fixed.
"For whatever reason, we didn't come with our 'A' game," safety Marlon McCree said. "The good thing about a loss like that is it humbles you and makes you refocus and tighten up the screws a little bit. We'll come back next week and be ready."
SERIES HISTORY: 7th meeting. Broncos lead series, 4-2. The Buccaneers are the only NFL team not to play at Invesco Field at Mile High, which opened in 2001. Each of the last four meetings has been decided by seven points or less.
--The Broncos will host Buccaneers quarterback Brian Griese, a former starter in Denver. Griese was best known as the man who replaced John Elway. Although Griese made one Pro Bowl, he wasn't the long-term answer and was let go after the 2002 season.
Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said he didn't have anything against Griese, who will be making his first start against Denver.
"I've always enjoyed Brian, and I have had a chance to speak with him a number of times in the offseason and he is as smart as they come," Shanahan said.
--Broncos fullback Spencer Larsen has opened eyes with two huge special-teams hits on consecutive weeks. Shanahan said Larsen's hit on a Saints blocker two weeks ago was the hardest he had seen in the NFL. Last week, Larsen knocked off Chiefs kickoff returner Dantrell Savage's helmet with a crushing hit.
"It's like when you hit a baseball real pure, on the sweet spot," Larsen said. "You don't feel anything. But the coolest sensation is hearing the crowd reaction. You hear the "Ooooohs,' and that's the most fun about it."
--Broncos coach Mike Shanahan was fired after 20 games as Raiders coach in 1989, and the same fate fell on Lane Kiffin on Tuesday. Shanahan joked that he was upset about being beat out by Kiffin.
"I was a little disappointed, to be honest with you," Shanahan said. "I was there 582 days. Lane Kiffin was there 616 days. What that really means is Al Davis liked Lane more than he liked me. I don't think it's fair. I won three more games, yet he got 34 more days of work. It doesn't seem right."
BY THE NUMBERS: 8-1 -- Broncos coach Mike Shanahan's career record against Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden, including a 7-1 mark when Gruden was coaching Oakland. QUOTE TO NOTE: "We didn't come out and do the things we were supposed to do." -- Broncos safety Marquand Manuel on the defense, which allowed more than 30 points for the third straight game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
When Cliff Russell was put on injured reserve, the Broncos turned to another receiver with knowledge of the offense who can step in and play right away. Glenn Martinez, who spent all last season with the team and was often the third receiver while Javon Walker was hurt and Brandon Stokley took his spot, was signed. He was cut after the preseason.
Russell suffered a sprained neck against Kansas City. He was released from the hospital after tests but the Broncos couldn't afford to be short at receiver with Darrell Jackson battling a calf injury.
--S Marlon McCree is new to the defense, as is Marquand Manuel, but coach Mike Shanahan said he had no problem with the Broncos' safeties. He acknowledged they were still learning the defense but was pleased with both of them.
--RB Michael Pittman could see more playing time if Andre Hall's wrist injury hinders him. The Broncos have shown they trust Pittman in all situations, and he has been effective.
--WR Eddie Royal is the only player in the NFL with two games with nine or more catches. He leads all rookies with 27 receptions.
--LB Nate Webster leads the Broncos with nine tackles per game. He has also made some big plays and has been a good fit back at the middle linebacker position.
--K Matt Prater has a chance to break the franchise record for 50-yard field goals in a season. He already has three, and the team record is five, which has been done three times.
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