By Chad Jensen
BALTIMORE (247 SPORTS) – The Denver Broncos went on the road to Baltimore, hoping to prove to the NFL that their 2-0 start was more than fool’s gold, but they couldn’t get it done. The Broncos fell 27-14 to the Ravens.
It was a fast start for the Broncos, whose 14 total points were put on the board 11 minutes into the first quarter. Alas, it was all downhill from there. Denver received a monumental contribution from their special teams with a blocked punt and kick, but the lapses in the other two phases proved too much to overcome.
The Broncos fall to 2-1, with the 3-0 Kansas Chiefs next up on the schedule. Before we can look ahead to Week 4’s primetime Divisional showdown, though, we’ve got to extract all the lessons this bitter road loss has to teach.
What did we learn in Week 3? Let’s jump to it.
Keenum not ready to carry Denver
When things are going sideways, true franchise quarterbacks are able to rally, put the team on their back, and rise above the din, especially on the road. The Broncos paid Case Keenum $25 million guaranteed, hoping that he could be the franchise’s answer post-Manning.
Alas, if Denver’s Week 3 road loss in Baltimore taught us anything, it’s that Keenum isn’t ready to carry the load. One of the reasons he was so successful last year in Minnesota was because of how balanced the Vikings were as a roster.
The Broncos thought they too had a complimentary and balanced team, but the early returns rebut that notion. Sure, Keenum has at least been an upgrade over last year’s QBs.
Just in the leadership and moxie department, Keenum has been a clear improvement. But that’s not saying much, considering how bad the Broncos were at the position.
PHOTO GALLERY: Ravens 27, Broncos 14
This Broncos team isn’t good enough across the board for Keenum to just step in and manage the game. Denver needs its QB to be the difference maker, but they’re not getting it. Alas, there’s a reason the Broncos have trailed going into the fourth quarter in three straight games.
Thus far, Keenum has thrown five interceptions to just three touchdowns. He hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass since Week 1.
Two of those interceptions have been redzone turnovers. It really cost the Broncos on the road this week.
Keenum held onto the ball too long in Baltimore, showing poor pocket awareness and no internal clock. It put his offensive line in a bind. If Keenum doesn’t show improvement, this team isn’t good enough across the board to win consistently.
Discipline is an issue
The Broncos were penalized 13 times in Baltimore, which resulted in minus 120 yards. Think about that. For every rushing yard Denver put on the board (120), it was wiped out of existence by the penalty yards.
Yes, the offensive line was the primary culprit here. But as I said, the Broncos big uglies didn’t get much help from Keenum, who held onto the ball too long and broke the pocket often.
Defensively, the lapses in discipline was ugly too. The dagger, arguably, came on the blocked field goal try in the second quarter, which Chris Harris, Jr. scooped up and returned for a touchdown.
Billy Turner was flagged for a block in the back on the return, which wiped the score off the board. The complexion of this game would have been wildly different, had that touchdown stood.
The penalties in the third and fourth quarter cost points, too. All in, the 13 penalties called on Denver cost them not only 120 yards, but also at least 13 points. It’s no coincidence they lost by the same 13-point margin.
The onus is on Vance Joseph and company to lay the smack down, and focus this team moving forward. Denver’s lack of discipline on the road was an eye-opener.
Lindsay’s ejection was unjustified
In the second quarter, Case Keenum executed a play-fake, and strolled out to the right like he was out in the park for a walk with is dog. With no clock in his head, he was blind-sided by big Terrell Suggs, who beat Garett Bolles badley to hit Keenum and strip the ball away.
In the scrum to recover the fumble, undrafted rookie running back Phillip Lindsay dove into the pile. The Broncos would eventually recover and go on to punt. But Lindsay would be ejected for ‘throwing a punch’ in the pile.
A careful viewing of the replay angles show that Lindsay wasn’t going for the ball. He wasn’t being a thug either, just swinging away indiscriminately at an opponent.
He was trying to get a Raven off of his left arm, which was pinned under the pile. And to be clear, if they were ‘punches’, they were weakly-thrown jabs — thrown in the same way one would if swatting away a fly.
The refs interpreted it as aggression in the pile. He was flagged and ejected. The Broncos would have to play two and half more quarters without their brightest spark plug offensively.
It was too much to overcome. The refs were wrong to bounce Lindsay. You can believe Vance Joseph will be having a conversation with the league office this week.
RIP No Fly Zone
I know Chris Harris, Jr. wants to believe that so long as he remains in Denver, the No Fly Zone is alive and well. But it’s time to relegate the NFZ to the history books. It was an all-time unit but it’s over.
Yes, the Broncos secondary was decimated by injuries in Week 3, with Adam Jones not dressing and Tramaine Brock suffering a groin injury in-game by which he would not return. But even at full strength, this secondary has been soft.
Joe Flacco picked the Broncos apart on Sunday, completing 62.5 percent of his throws for 277 yards and a touchdown. He averaged 11.08 yards per completion.
Again the Broncos did not play to their strengths defensively. The pass rush was getting home early, with Bradley Chubb coming up with his first official sack of his career.
And yet, we saw the Broncos playing their soft off-coverage, relinquishing the same 7-8 yard cushion pre-snap that cost them last week against Oakland. A perfect example of how it hurt Denver came in the second quarter. On third-and-10 on Denver’s 43-yard line (not quite in field goal range), Bradley Roby gave Michael Crabtree a full 10-yard cushion pre-snap.
Flacco read the coverage, as did Crabtree, and dumped the ball off underneath Roby’s nose for a nine-yard gain. It wasn’t enough to move the chains, but it was enough to put Justin Tucker in range of a gimme field goal. 52 yards down the gooch.
I wish I had an answer for why Denver’s cornerbacks continue to play so soft. But it’s inexplicable. And the fault lies on Defensive Coordinator Joe Woods.
The Broncos shut down Baltimore’s rushing attack, holding them to just 77 yards on the ground. But the dagger once again was the passing game over the middle and underneath.
Harris himself was targeted multiple times by Flacco. Although Harris did make one nice play, knocking the ball out of Crabtree’s hands, Denver’s top corner allowed multiple completions in coverage. But for the first time this year, Harris did not allow a touchdown.
Between the injury bug and poor execution, it’s officially time to sound the alarm on this secondary. Unless something changes soon, it’s going to significantly cripple this defense’s ability to keep the Broncos in games.
Bolles needs to feel the pain
For every one step forward, Garett Bolles continues to take two steps back. Not only was he dominated by Terrell Suggs, but two holing penalties on Denver’s left tackle cost the Broncos field position in plus-territory, and kind of led to Keenum’s redzone interception (the next play).
Suggs would finish with four tackles, 1.5 sacks and that monster forced fumble that cost the Broncos Phillip Lindsay. What really hurt was the fact that Bolles’ lapses all came in crucial moments, and led to momentum-swinging plays.
It was an unacceptable performance. It was bad enough, that if I were in Coach Joseph’s shoes, I’d make Bolles feel the pain. There has to be some accountability for the magnitude of Bolles’ dereliction of duty.
Give Elijah Wilkinson a start next week, even if Bolles comes in and plays the majority of the snaps. After leading the NFL in penalties as a rookie, the message has to be sent to Bolles right now. And the locker room needs to see it.