Two years ago, the Broncos began to dig out of an 0-4 crater by defeating the Los Angeles Chargers and Tennessee Titans.
Momentum generated, the Broncos hosted Kansas City in prime time and were blown out of the stadium, 30-7 — the start of four losses in five games.
Last year, the Broncos started a climb out of a 0-3 start by winning three of their next four games.
Hope created, the Broncos lost consecutive games at Atlanta and Las Vegas — the start of a 2-7 slump to finish the season.
Is this year’s Broncos team different? Can they get off the canvas (coach Vic Fangio boxing analogy) after being on the business end of a haymaker from Baltimore last week? Are they outfitted with enough leaders to avoid the start of a losing streak Sunday at Pittsburgh?
“We have no choice,” safety Justin Simmons said before practice Wednesday. “We have to respond. It’s not the loss last Sunday that defines you as a football team, it’s how you respond to the loss that defines you as a good football team.”
To that end, the leaders put their teammates on notice.
“Practice this week needs to be more amped than it has been in weeks prior and it just can’t stop there, it has to carry over to a tough environment in Pittsburgh and finding a way to win,” Simmons said.
The Broncos need that sense of serviceable desperation.
They know the opponents in Weeks 6-7 — 3-1 Las Vegas at home and 3-1 Cleveland on the road in a short week. They know their roster’s injury situation — quarterback Teddy Bridgewater remains in the concussion protocol. And they know the Steelers are slumping (1-3).
“Pittsburgh is always going to play with a sense of urgency,” Fangio said. “That’s just who they are and we have to be ready to have our own.”
Three things will factor in the Broncos flying home 4-1 or 3-2:
1. Big plays on offense
The Broncos are averaging 4.35 yards per rushing attempt (12th) and 10.92 yards per completion (19th). The loss of receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler was felt against Baltimore, when the Broncos were 1-of-8 passing on attempts that traveled at least 16 “air” yards.
Only four of receiver Courtland Sutton’s 18 catches have been “explosive” gains (at least 16 yards).
The Broncos in general and Sutton and receiver Tim Patrick (five explosive catches out of 15) in particular need to get chances to stretch the field vertically.
“We want to be those people,” Sutton said of accepting the pressure to produce. “I use the term, ‘Being the spoon.’ You have regular milk and then you put the chocolate in there and you need the spoon to stir. I do look at myself as a guy who wants to be the spoon and make a play to get the offense going and get some juice going.”
2. Back on takeaway train
The Broncos are 8-3 under Fangio when winning the turnover differential, including wins last month over Jacksonville and the Jets.
Against Baltimore, the defense, while doing mostly solid work stopping the run, could not give a laboring offense a short field to climb back into the game.
The Steelers have five turnovers in four games.
3. Better pass protection
Left tackle Garett Bolles, according to The Denver Post’s game charting, was booked for a half-sack in 15 games last year.
Through four games this year, he is on the hook for four sacks and also one knockdown and four pressures.
Relayed that Bolles had been critical of himself after the Ravens game, Fangio said: “He needs to be better. He should be critical of himself. He didn’t play well enough (Sunday).”
Harsh? Yes. Accurate? Yes. Bolles is paid to be elite. He needs to pick it up.
The Broncos have allowed 43 “disruptions” through four games (12 sacks, 13 knockdowns and 20 pressures).
In Fangio’s first two years, the Broncos had seven multi-game losing streaks. It’s time to avoid an eighth.
“Everybody comes in every day with the right mindset of how we’re going to get better today,” defensive end Shelby Harris said. “You can’t do anything about Baltimore — that’s over. On to Pittsburgh.”
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