The Broncos have become a rehab center of sorts during their five-game losing streak. Anything ailing an opponent can be addressed by the team from Mile High Med.
The New York Giants hadn’t visited the win column before they visited Denver in the middle of October. The Los Angeles Chargers had the worst rushing defense in the league before limiting the Broncos to only 69 yards in a shutout victory. The Kansas City Chiefs were struggling to produce turnovers before taking the ball away from Denver five times. The Philadelphia Eagles thought they were hurting without starting tight end Zach Ertz, but backups Trey Burton and Brent Celek combined for 80 yards and a touchdown against the Broncos.
Even the mighty New England Patriots, the defending Super Bowl champions, were in need of a tune-up when they visited Denver on Sunday night. They had scored a touchdown on just one of their four trips into the red zone during their previous game, a closer-than-expected 21-13 home victory over the Chargers.
Tom Brady and the Patriots, of course, found the answers they were looking for while finishing four of their six trips inside the 20-yard line with touchdowns. That efficient conversion rate shined a spotlight on the latest major leak to spring during the Broncos’ miserable 2017 season.
What used to be a bend-but-doesn’t-break Denver defense is broken inside the red zone. The Broncos are tied for 26th in the NFL in red-zone defense, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on 60 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard line. That includes an 8-of-10 success rate for opponents in the past two games.
“We have to make more plays,” Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. “(Sunday against the Patriots) was strictly about matchups, the backs and the tight ends again. We can have a plan to take away one guy, but if it’s one back and one tight end, you can’t take both guys away.”
It took the Patriots only one play to score a touchdown during their first trip inside the red zone Sunday, and the scoring pass from Brady to running back Rex Burkhead featured one of those one-on-one matchups the Broncos are failing to win.
The Broncos were in “man” coverage as the Patriots set up with four wide receivers at the Denver 14-yard line. Burkhead was lined up outside on the far left with safety Darian Stewart in front of him, a matchup that NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth called “a bit of a mismatch.” Burkhead faked quickly to the outside before dragging across the middle. With linebacker Todd Davis and safety Justin Simmons both shading over to help linebacker Shaquil Barrett defend all-pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, Stewart was left on his own and couldn’t stay in stride with Burkhead.
On the Patriots’ second touchdown in the red zone, late in the second quarter, New England maneuvered to get linebacker Von Miller in coverage against tight end Dwayne Allen. Miller, used to powering full steam ahead toward a quarterback, was flagged for holding Allen as he backpedaled in coverage, but even the penalty couldn’t help him prevent an 11-yard touchdown pass from Brady to the tight end.
“Someone has to win the one-on-one, and that’s what it comes down to,” Joseph said. “When we’re in base defense and they’re in base offense, someone has to win the one-on-one. In the matchups with tight ends and backs, we haven’t won. That’s been the issue.”
It’s another new issue for a defense that seems to have hit a wall during the past two weeks. The Broncos were eighth in red-zone defense last season (52.4 percent touchdown rate). Denver will welcome a Cincinnati Bengals team Sunday that has turned only 47.8 percent of its red-zone trips into touchdowns, the seventh-worst mark in the league. Perhaps a trip to Mile High Med will be the proper remedy for Cincinnati.
“It’s tough, but you’ve just got to have pride in yourself, pride in your name and be able to still compete,” Broncos cornerback Chris Harris said. “I’m a fighter. I’m not going to quit, and I don’t expect anybody else on this team to quit.”