By Nate Winkler
Cold Hard Football Fact Broncos Beat Writer
The Denver Broncos executed their Week 3 game plan against the Tennessee Titans almost flawlessly. Unfortunately it was that "almost"....those 3-4 plays that they just weren't able to make, that proved to be enough for them to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory for the second time in three tries this season. In a hard fought game that came down to the final drive, the Titans were able to make one more play when they needed it, notching a 17-14 victory. The Broncos are a team that clearly has a fighting spirit and toughness they lacked under the previous regime, but as they showed Sunday at LP Field in Nashville, they aren't quite ready to take that next step just yet.
Here are 5 Things We Learned:
1. Titans punter Brett Kern & RB Chris Johnson each had 21 rushing yards. Wait...What?
In what has to be one of the most bizarre stats of another unpredictable week in the NFL, CJ2K was bottled up all afternoon by a "Crush-worthy" Broncos run defense, gaining just 21 yards on 13 carries. Kern's yardage came in one chunk, a 4th down conversion on a bad punt snap after Denver forced a 3 and out just before halftime. The long run & conversion sparked a Titans field goal that gave them a 10-7 lead at intermission, and proved to be the final difference. Despite the big play and a couple other lapses, it was a valiant effort by a shorthanded Denver defense. The Broncos allowed only 38 total rushing yards on 23 carries (1.7 YPC), with 8 of those resulting in tackles for losses. DE Elvis Dumervil & CB Champ Bailey were both inactive for the second straight week.
2. John Fox going for it on 4th & Goal early in the 4th quarter was the right call, but he frosted the rock with the play call.
Fox second guessed himself, calling a timeout and yanking the field goal team off the field instead of taking the gimmie FG and a 17-10 lead. The message he sent his team by going for the killshot speaks volumes about where this franchise wants to go;
"Fourth and not even a full yard, I will do it again next week," Fox said. "We have to be able to get that and execute that, get that in and unfortunately we didn't."
Changing the culture to make winning an expectation is the first step, and making calls like that will get you there. Unfortunately, he let his players talk him into trying to stuff a tired Willis McGahee down the Titans' throats, despite the Defensive Hogs
being stacked against them. Letting players influence in-game decisions will get you somewhere, too: the unemployment line.
3. The "Tebowner" the media & fans have will reach blue pill status after Kyle Orton failed in the clutch once again.
The argument for Tebow is he's a "gamer" and a playmaker. Time will tell if he can cast his magic in the NFL, but one thing is becoming clear: Kyle Orton, now 12-21 as Denver's starter, does not have the "it" factor that is so highly coveted among NFL signal callers. He continues to be brilliantly mediocre (24/39, 174 yds, 4.4 YPA, 67.6 QBR), and although his teammates may be behind him as everyone insists, continuing to get the bad bounce will eventually erode that confidence.
Sunday it was a tipped pass intended for Brandon Lloyd that was intercepted with less than 2:00 to go that did Orton & the Broncos in. It was his second chance in the last 13 days to lead his team on a game tying or winning drive in the final minutes, and he's now 0-2, after also coming up short against Oakland in Week 1. The calls for Tim Tebow will go from whispers to screams, and Kyle Orton may be holding a clipboard before the halfway point of the 2011 season, if not sooner. Going to Lambeau field to face the defending champs isn't a prescription for prosperity either, but that will be the task at hand in Week 4.
4. Denver's injuries on defense were too much to overcome for a second straight week.
Titans QB Matt Hasselbeck finished the game with a 119.1 QB rating, going 27/36 for 311 yds and 2 TD's, including the game-winner to former Broncos TE & Colorado native Daniel Graham. The Titans converted on key 3rd downs, going 8-15, and most impressive was Hasselbeck did the
majority of the damage without his #1 target, WR Kenny Britt, who entered Week 3 as the AFC's leader in receiving yards with 271 but managed only 3 receptions for 18 yards before being lost with a knee injury in the 2nd quarter, fumbling in the process. Reports after the game are Britt will require season ending surgery.
The Broncos were able to apply pressure consistently, but when Hasselbeck had time in the pocket he exposed a secondary that was badly missing shutdown corner Champ Bailey. Replacements Cassius Vaughn & Jonathan Wilhite routinely got caught out of position on pass coverage, but Wilhite showed he is a dangerous blitzer from the nickel spot for the second week in a row. The defensive secondary looked to be Denver's weakest link.
5. Good teams make the bad guys pay, but Tennessee was granted clemency by the Broncos.
In the immortal words of Dennis Green, "They are who we thought they were!"
. As in, the Broncos, namely Kyle Orton, accused the Titans of being a dirty, cheap squad after last year's meeting between the teams, calling out Cortland Finnegan in the process. This game also had it's share of post-whistle activities, but the Broncos were unable to take full advantage of the Titans' 11 penalties for 80 yards (Many on 3rd down to extend/end drives). Finnegan was a non-factor most of the game as well.
Denver's defense was able to force two turnovers, both fumbles, but finished even in the turnover battle after Orton gave up the rock on two tipped passes that resulted in INT's. Turnovers and 3rd Down % are age old keys to success in the NFL; Denver battled to a draw in both categories, but needed an edge in one to get the edge on the scoreboard.
The bottom line is the Denver Broncos are a team that doesn't know how to win yet. Vanilla QB Kyle Orton may never get them there, but there's still a rocky road ahead if, and when, it becomes Tebow time.