By Chad Jensen
(247 SPORTS) – The Denver Broncos had a viable path to the playoffs. Entering the final quarter of the season at 6-6, two of Denver’s four remaining opponents sat at 2-10. The Broncos would have to run the table to make it to January football, but the remaining schedule would be extremely favorable in that pursuit.
The Broncos even got a little help in the AFC playoff picture by Kansas City knocking off Baltimore. However, someone forgot to tell Kyle Shanahan.
Denver went into Levi Stadium — the site of Super Bowl 50’s triumph — looking to extend their winning streak to four games. Shanahan’s 49ers had different designs, though.
The Broncos lost 20-14, dropping them back below .500 once again. Unfortunately, all of the issues that have plagued Denver throughout the Vance Joseph regime reared their ugly heads in team’s seventh loss of the season.
Joseph and his coordinators were out-coached and out-classed by Shanahan and company. No doubt, Joseph was handed a raw deal by the injury bug, losing two Pro Bowl-caliber players to injury over the past week, but this loss had little to do with it.
Kittle goes Krazy
Going into this game, defensive coordinator Joe Woods had one thing to worry about — George Kittle. Kittle entered Week 14 on a record-setting pace, and with all the injuries the Niners had suffered themselves, Shanahan had little else to focus his offensive play-calling on beyond his trusty tight end.
In the first half alone, Kittle would eclipse 200 yards receiving and a touchdown, setting up the Niners for cruise control with a 20-0 lead at halftime. Woods’ defense seemingly had no answer for Kittle in the first half.
Woods tasked a rotation of three safeties to cover Kittle one-on-one, with the occasional off-ball linebacker thrown in for good measure. Kittle made them look like chumps.
Third-string QB Nick Mullens targeted Kittle early and often, telegraphing to Woods that the tight end would serve as the Niners’ tip-of-the-spear. Instead of selling out to stop Kittle — kind of like SF sold out to stop Phillip Lindsay (effectively) — Woods continued to call an ineffectual defense that at times saw Kittle running free uncovered.
It was so bad, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Woods relieved of his duties on Monday morning, which would likely be a harbinger of Joseph’s fate in Denver. The Broncos have struggled traditionally to cover tight ends, but allowing 200-plus yards in the first half went beyond the pale. But wait, there’s more!
Nothing beyond Lindsay
With Emmanuel Sanders going down for the year, the Niners saw one viable threat on Denver’s offense — Phillip Lindsay. San Francisco dialed up their defensive scheme to stop the run, and put the onus on QB Case Keenum to carry the Broncos.
San Francisco DC Robert Saleh‘s plan worked to perfection, as Lindsay totaled just three rushing yards in the first half (on five carries), while the Broncos would punt on five consecutive possession and be shut out through two quarters of play. Lindsay finished with just 30 yards rushing on 14 carries.
OC Bill Musgrave doesn’t exactly have a Hall-of-Famer calling the signals for him, but he did his quarterback no favors with his play-calls. With consistent 3rd-&-long situations, Musgrave doggedly called plays that saw Keenum have to execute a deep drop-back, allowing the Niners’ talented D-line to create pressure consistently, and get Keenum off schedule.
Keenum was the epitome of impotent. It was on him to carry the offense, and the $36-million man could not get it done.
When the Niners finally went to a prevent defense, the Broncos were able to put some points on the board. Musgrave had plenty of opportunity to come back in the second half.
The Broncos went for every fourth-down opportunity they faced, and twice were stopped. Both were 4th-&-3 situations, and both times, Musgrave went to Lindsay. I understand the focus on Lindsay, but he wasn’t in the zone and the Niners answered the bell almost every time.
The first 4th-&-3 was a toss to Lindsay to the right that was bottled up a yard short, and the second was a dump-off pass to the electric RB that was also stopped. Musgrave’s play-calling on both drives and on both fourth-down tries was suspect.
On their final scoring drive, the Broncos would take 14 plays to go 69 yards, which consumed half the remaining clock. Musgrave inexplicably called four consecutive passes from the one-yard line to finish off the drive.
Denver mercifully converted on fourth down on the goal-line, with rookie WR DaeSean Hamilton picking up his first career touchdown catch. It was bizarre play-calling and simply a disjointed performance by Musgrave and the offense. Losing Sanders doesn’t begin to explain it all.
Panic in the clutch
With the Broncos trying to come back from a two-score deficit in the fourth quarter, Vance Joseph made several questionable decisions, including the two aforementioned tries on 4th-&-3, the first of which was on the Broncos’ 44-yard line. I understand the decision to go for it the second time, with the Broncos threatening on San Francisco’s 22-yard line. But the first one completely flipped field position, and set the offense back significantly on its next possession.
Later on in the fourth quarter, Tim Patrick tippy-toe caught a pass that was ruled incomplete on the field. It was clearly a catch, but Joseph oddly chose not to challenge it.
The challenge would have given Denver the ball on the Niners’ 8-yard line with 6:20 left in the game. The Broncos would still score on the possession, but it would take 12 more plays and almost three precious minutes to get it done.
On the ensuing possession, the Broncos needed to get the Niners off the field in three plays, in order to give Case Keenum one last try to close the 20-14 gap. Nick Mullens would begin on his own 20-yard line with 3:51 to go. On first down, Denver bottled San Fran up for a one-yard gain, and Joseph promptly used his first timeout.
On 2nd-&-9, Mullens hit Marquise Goodwin, who hauled in the catch and took a few steps before Bradley Roby closed and knocked the ball loose (which the WR recovered out of bounds). It could have been ruled an incomplete pass, which would have made it 3rd-&-9 and stopped the clock, but the refs ruled it complete for a seven-yard gain.
It was a flash-bang decision by the refs to call it incomplete, but Joseph chose to roll the dice, knowing that if he lost the challenge, it would cost him one of his two remaining timeouts. In fairness, it should have been ruled incomplete to start, but after it was ruled complete, the evidence has to be overwhelming in order to reverse the call on the field.
The officials looked at it, didn’t see enough evidence to overturn the call and Joseph lost the challenge, costing Denver their second timeout. On 3rd-&-2, Denver lucked out when the Niners were called for a false start, putting them in a 3rd-&-7 with 3:39 to go.
Mullens converted (a huge 31-yard pickup to Dante Pettis), but had Joseph not challenged that Goodwin catch, the Broncos would have still had two timeouts, plus the two-minute warning — plenty of time to get a stop and the ball back, even with the Niners now on Denver’s 46-yard line.
Three plays later, the Niners were able to move the chains one more time, and the Broncos ran out of ways to stop the clock. Ball game.
Joe Woods’ ineffectual and oblivious scheme and Joseph’s lack of situational awareness late spelled doom for the Broncos. That 31-yard catch-and-run by Pettis on third down was inexcusable, which was on Woods, not Joseph. But it was also on the players, as the receiver was uncovered over the middle (a theme on the day).
Chickens come home to roost
Mystifying scheme on both sides of the ball. Poor clock management. A lack of situational awareness in the clutch. Questionable decision to challenge and not challenge by Joseph.
It added up to a coaching sum we’ve seen before. Some men are cut out to be head coaches, and can handle the pressure-cooker late in games and not let it phase them. Joseph doesn’t appear to be one of those coaches.
When it matters most, Joseph makes the strangest decisions — and this time it cost his team another loss, hearkening back to Week 9’s debacle vs. Houston. The mistakes that Joseph, Woods, and Musgrave made in San Fran sadly reveal that Denver’s coaching triumvirate have not learned from past mistakes.
Now the Broncos sit at 6-7 and have played their way back out of the AFC playoff race. Just when you thought you might be able to trust Joseph, the Broncos go out and play completely unprepared, lackluster football.
Those who don’t learn from the failures of history are doomed to repeat it, as Week 14 revealed in stark relief. Its just another charge in the indictment of Vance Joseph as head coach of the Denver Broncos.