Brock Olivo has stepped onto a podium at Broncos headquarters nearly every Friday the past two months and offered a mea culpa.
The first-year special teams coach has shouldered blame for his unit’s inability to make an impact — a positive one, anyway — during the first half of the season. His weekly addresses are spent explaining myriad plays that went wrong in the previous game.
A fake punt gone wrong. A slumping kicker. Kick returns going nowhere. A fumbled punt. Poor kick coverage.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
“I’ve come up short up to this point,” Olivo said Friday during his most recent news conference. “I owe it to the franchise, this staff and this team to get that thing rolling.”
That special teams unit rolled Denver’s season straight into the ground Sunday night. Three different phases — punt return, kickoff return and punt — committed catastrophic errors in the first half that led directly to 17 points for New England and a fifth consecutive loss for the Broncos. A special teams penalty in the fourth quarter on Patriots punt gave Tom Brady a second chance, and he used to add another touchdown.
“You can’t give up 24 points on special teams and expect to win,” Broncos safety Justin Simmons said. “It’s unacceptable. We hurt ourselves more on special teams than defense.”
They were mistakes that overshadowed a rebound effort from a defense that had surrendered 51 points one week earlier. They negated the progress of an offense that produced three scoring drives in the first half. All three of those drives ended in field goals, representing the only aspect of the Broncos’ special teams that weren’t a disaster.
Rookie Isaiah McKenzie began the calamity of errors by muffing a punt at his 24-yard line just 90 seconds into the game. The Patriots scored two plays later on Tom Brady’s touchdown pass to Rex Burkhead.
Two mintues earlier, the Broncos defense had nearly intercepted Brady on the game’s opening drive, settling instead for a quick three-and-out. Denver had deferred upon winning the pregame coin toss so it could put its best unit on the field first, and the defense delivered.
But in the time it took a punt to fly high into the November night, that momentum disappeared. McKenzie watched helplessly as the ball fell out of his hands. Before he could hop on his gargantuan mistake, he was thrown aside by a pair of Patriots players as New England recovered the fumble.
It was the second time in three weeks McKenzie lost a punt on his own side of the field. He made the same mistake in a 29-19 loss to the Chiefs on Oct. 30.
It was merely the warm-up act to the horror show by the special teams. The Broncos mitigated some of the damage done by McKenzie’s gaffe by engineering an opening drive that ended with a field goal. Then, the “one step forward, two giant leaps back” pattern to the Broncos’ 2017 season revealed another chapter.
Dion Lewis caught the ensuing kickoff by Brandon McManus three yards deep in the end zone and burned through a crater-sized hole and up the left sideline. McManus’ attempt to stop Lewis was futile, and when Devontae Booker misplayed his angle toward Lewis, there was nothing left for the Broncos to do but watch the Patriots celebrate in the end zone.
New England led 14-3 and Brady had thrown just three passes. And yet, the Broncos still had more ingredients to mix into a disastrous formula.
“When you play Tom Brady, you can’t spot him anything,” said cornerback Chris Harris.
Trailing 17-6 with 11 minutes left in the second quarter, the Broncos lined up to punt from their own 41-yard line. They couldn’t slow the 5-foot-10, 210-pound Burkhead as he powered through the protection on the left side and blocked Riley Dixon‘s punt before it could leave his foot. Long snapper Casey Kreiter recovered at the 30-yard line, turning another short field over to Brady.
The defense held Brady and the Patriots to a field goal, but the damage was done.
Well, almost. After forcing the Patriots to punt for just the second time, early in the fourth quarter, the Broncos had too many men on their punt return team. The 5-yard penalty extended the drive for New England.
Giving Brady extra chances is always unwise. And the five-time Super Bowl champion responded by tossing his third touchdown of the night.
Olivo lifted the microphone on his headset and walked along the sideline. There was nothing left to say.