Broncos’ first-half struggles continue to weigh down a team trying to get back into contention
A lot has been made about the Broncos’ inability to finish games under coach Vic Fangio, but much of the team’s struggles this year stem from ice-cold starts.
The inability to find a first-half rhythm was on full display Sunday, when the Chargers dominated Denver early, building a 14-3 lead by halftime. That margin grew to 24-3 in the third quarter. While the Broncos were able to erase that with an improbable fourth-quarter comeback, the slow start continued a trend. The Broncos have faced double-digit halftime deficits in three of their four losses.
So what gives for the poor starts, especially with the offense? Fangio doesn’t believe it’s an issue of mindset.
“Our guys come out ready to play,” Fangio said Monday. “It’s a little bit of everything (that’s the issue). As it relates to the offense, I think it’s the third-down stuff, too… Eventually when you’re running it well, you’re going to have to convert some third downs. That’s been a big problem for us. We got that solved in the last quarter-and-a-half yesterday. I don’t know that it’s solved permanently, but it’s a big part of what’s been holding us back (early in games).”
Even after quarterback Drew Lock & Co. found their mojo late against Los Angeles, registering touchdowns on four of their last five drives, Denver (3-4) ranks 30th in the NFL in third-down conversions at 36.3%. The team is also third-worst in first-half points scored with 61 — far below the league average of 97.
The rushing game that has helped the offense settle in at various points — including Phillip Lindsay popping off for a 55-yard third-quarter touchdown to spark Denver’s comeback — was non-existent early on against the Chargers.
Fangio credited Lindsay’s touchdown — as well as a third-and-8 conversion via an 18-yard pass from Lock to DaeSean Hamilton that set up the scoring run — for shifting the momentum at Empower Field.
“It was third-and-8, if we don’t convert that and we punt, then the whole tone of this conversation would probably be different,” Fangio said. “It just takes one play. That was a big, big play and we had a big run there by Phillip and all of a sudden, we’re back in the game. We still got a lot of work to do (at that point), but there’s some light at the end of the tunnel.”
Now, the question becomes whether the offense can get that “one play” sooner rather than later. The Broncos have a minus-40 point differential (26th in the NFL), a subpar ranking indicative of the team’s inability to start fast.
Here’s a look at the specifics of those first-half struggles as seen in four of the Broncos’ seven games this year.
Week 2 — at Pittsburgh (L, 26-21)
Denver trailed 17-3 at halftime, having been outgained by the Steelers 213-154. The Broncos were 1-of-8 on third down and had two turnovers. Lock also went down with a shoulder injury in the first quarter.
Week 3 — vs Tampa Bay (L, 28-10)
Amid the domination by Tom Brady, Denver trailed 23-10 at halftime and had been outgained 197-125. The Broncos were 2-of-7 on third down with no turnovers. The Broncos’ first punt was blocked, leading to an easy Tampa Bay touchdown.
Week 7 — vs Kansas City (L, 43-16)
The Broncos trailed 24-9 at halftime as the Chiefs outgained them 230-159. Denver was 3-of-9 on third down with two turnovers, including a pick-six by safety Daniel Sorensen that blew the game open.
Week 8 — vs Los Angeles (W, 31-30)
Trailing by 11 at halftime, the Broncos were getting booed by the home crowd as they jogged into the locker room. The Chargers outgained them 250-60, and Denver was 1-of-7 on third down with two yards rushing.
Injury updates. Cornerback A.J. Bouye is in the league’s concussion protocol after a friendly fire hit by safety Kareem Jackson knocked him out of Sunday’s game. Tight end Nick Vannett was limited to 11 snaps because of a foot injury. Fangio said reserve center/guard Patrick Morris sustained an arm injury, likely on the final extra-point attempt.
Wideout Tim Patrick (hamstring) missed the Chargers game and Fangio said he’s “hopeful the chances are better this week,” for Patrick to play Sunday at Atlanta. “With it being a hamstring, he (could) go out there (against the Chargers) and maybe play a little while and get up to full speed and have a setback,” Fangio said. “It was possible (he could have played), but in my mind, unless he looked really, really good (in warmups), I wasn’t going to play him.”
The Broncos have scored double-digit points in the first half three times in seven games this season, winning two of those three contests. On Sunday, it took a miraculous comeback to save Denver from yet another slow start.
|Week 1 vs. Tennessee||201/122||59/48||142/74||7/7||Lost, 16-14|
|Week 2 at Pittsburgh||154/165||61/43||93/122||3/18||Lost, 26-21|
|Week 3 vs Tampa Bay||125/101||26/16||99/85||10/0||Lost, 28-10|
|Week 4 at NY Jets||186/173||45/72||141/101||17/20||Won, 37-28|
|Week 6 at New England||187/112||86/49||101/63||12/6||Won, 18-12|
|Week 7 vs Kansas City||230/181||121/56||109/125||9/7||Lost, 43-16|
|Week 8 vs LA Chargers||60/291||2/106||58/185||3/28||Won, 31-30|
— Kyle Newman, The Denver Post