3 Takeaways from Broncos' Week 7 Loss
The Denver Broncos are on a downward spiral powered by poor offense and questionable defensive play.
Vic Fangio's team did not have an answer for Cleveland's rushing attack, led by third-string running back D'Ernest Johnson, and it could not muster a proper response through quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
Denver played from behind for 57 minutes and 40 seconds, and it did not get on the board until midway through the third quarter.
The Broncos have 10 days to evaluate everything that has gone wrong over the past four weeks. There is some respite in the schedule, with three NFC East teams coming up before the Week 11. But if Denver can't beat a Cleveland offense with its backup quarterback and third-string running back, it could be hard to find wins against the Washington Football Team, Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles.
Defensive Line Was Overpowered in Rushing Game
Denver should not have been caught by surprise that Cleveland's offensive line opened up gaps for D'Ernest Johnson. Cleveland offensive line coach Bill Callahan has been around the NFL for multiple decades, and the Broncos should have been prepared for a scheme that was suited to a third-string running back.
Even if the Broncos struggled at the start, they should have made the proper adjustments in the second half to stop Johnson from beating them. After all, Fangio is one of the best defensive minds in the NFL. Instead, Johnson ran for 146 yards on 22 carries and did not give the Broncos any chance of pulling off a come-from-behind win in the fourth quarter.
Denver had a small window open in the fourth quarter, when Johnson's game-clinching run on third down was called back by an illegal motion penalty. That foul did not hurt Cleveland since Johnson scampered eight yards for a first down to finish off the game on the next play. That was just one of the examples of Denver's front seven being bested by Cleveland's offensive line over four quarters.
The Broncos had no answer for Johnson from the start. Cleveland's third-stringer began the contest with runs of 20 and 10 yards before he opened the scoring on a four-yard run.
Denver has now allowed more than 100 rushing yards in three of its past four games. It started the season by holding three opponents to 75 yards or fewer on the ground.
After Thursday, it is evident that Denver's 3-0 record was a product of facing the New York Giants, Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets to open the campaign. The Broncos have looked awful against teams not battling for a top-five NFL draft pick.
Quarterback Play Is Not Good Enough
Teddy Bridgewater has led the Broncos to an average of 16 points per game during the four-game losing streak.
Bridgewater's play has gotten worse during the losing run. He has five interceptions in the past three games. And he has been sacked at least twice in each of the team's seven games to open the 2021 campaign.
Thursday also marked the third time in the losing skid when Bridgewater completed under 70 percent of his passes. He completed 76 percent or more of his passes during the three-game winning streak in September.
Most of Bridgewater's 187 passing yards came in the second half as the Broncos were chasing the game. He had a touchdown pass to Melvin Gordon III in the third quarter and another to Javonte Williams in the fourth quarter. In fact, a majority of Bridgewater's touchdown passes have come in the second half over the past four games. Denver scored two first-half touchdowns during that span.
Bridgewater can't just keep putting up numbers in come-from-behind or garbage-time efforts. He needs to be much better in the first half or else his job could come under question, which has been a familiar refrain in Denver since Peyton Manning's retirement in 2016.
Running Back Tandem Is Working
Gordon and Williams have played well in their split time at running back.
Both backs showed off their versatility in the passing game by recording a receiving touchdown each Thursday.
The Denver running backs were Bridgewater's best targets in the second half because Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick were shut down by Cleveland's defensive backs. Sutton had 12 receiving yards on Denver's last scoring drive.
Gordon and Williams found a way to contribute to the offense on a night when the ground game was not effective. Denver rushed for 41 yards on 14 carries. The Broncos abandoned the run in the second half as they chased the lead.
Williams was the better of the two backs on the ground Thursday, averaging five yards per carry on his four ground touches. Gordon had eight carries for 20 yards.
Through seven weeks, there is a small difference between Gordon and Williams in the rushing categories. Williams has more receptions, but Gordon leads by 10 receiving yards.
If Denver figures out its passing game, it could have one of the best-balanced offenses in the league because of how well Gordon and Williams are performing in split time.
Statistics obtained from Pro Football Reference.