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Third and Wrong. Broncos' fade in second half of embarrassing loss to Eagles

Melvin Gordon fumble turns tide as Bridgewater's effort questioned
Posted at 5:27 PM, Nov 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-15 07:47:10-05

DENVER — The Broncos promised they were different. They insisted they were prepared to handle prosperity this time around. With all of their goals in front of them, the Broncos could squint and see a Disney-type story unfurling in their future.

Then the clock struck midnight, and their Uber turned into a pumpkin.

There are have been so many crowbar-to-the-shins losses since the Broncos won Super Bowl 50, but this faceplant ranks among the most disappointing. The Eagles skunked Denver 30-13 before an announced crowd of 76,766 angry fans at Empower Field at Mile High.

"We dropped the ball," said frustrated defensive end Dre'Mont Jones. "We got our (butts) kicked."

It started all wrong. For three years, the Broncos have had nightmares about this scenario. Erasing early deficits. They might as well be climbing Mount Evans in Crocs. Under coach Vic Fangio, the Broncos entered Sunday 1-19 when trailing at halftime.

When the Eagles held a 10-point cushion at intermission, it represented a problem. When the Eagles' Darius Slay zig-zagged for a 82-yard scoop and score — which featured confused Broncos and Teddy Bridgewater making no effort to tackle the cornerback — it reframed expectations, casting the Broncos as fraudulent contenders.

Trailing 20-13, the season sank knees back into quicksand. Denver faced a fourth-and-1 at its 23-yard line with 14 seconds remaining in the third quarter. Melvin Gordon took the handoff, lowered his head, then coughed up the ball.

"It just sucked. We gave them life, and you give teams life and you lose games," Gordon said. "There are a lot of games left. We are not saying to hell with the season. We are going to get back on that saddle and ride."

Just when it couldn't get worse, it did. Slay recovered the fumble, dropped it, swerved backward, then headed up the far sideline. The Broncos appeared confused and disinterested. Slay raced in for the 82 yard score with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater making no effort to tackle him despite a clear path.

"Our defense has guys running toward the sideline and we always say the sideline is our friend. I was trying to force him back inside," Bridgewater explained, though it did not land well with fans. "I was trying to force him inside so one of our guys could make the tackle."

The feeling among Broncos Country was unmistakable. They are who we thought they were.

Denver has lost nine of its last 13 home games under Fangio, a number that will be impossible to ignore when evaluating his future.

"We have to learn from this," Fangio said.

It could be summed up thusly: third and wrong. The third quarter proved forgettable, saying something given how awful the first half played out. The defense finally awoke when safety Justin Simmons picked off Hurts. It represented a chance to blemish mistakes after Brandon McManus had a 22-yard field goal blocked.

The Broncos have improved dramatically on fourth down this season. This play fizzled from the start. Even if Gordon had held onto the ball — fumbles have stained his Broncos career — he was likely short of gaining a yard. Had the Broncos turned it over on downs, that would have been forgiven. The effort and execution on Slay's return will not be.

It represented a jarring juxtaposition to last Sunday.

The Broncos provided a blueprint to beat the Cowboys, then spent the first 30 minutes revealing it as an aberration. Denver allowed 270 yards in the first half, gashed by second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts. And he wasn't even the best Alabama player on the field. Receiver DeVonta Smith held that title with two touchdowns.

Last Sunday Denver blended nuance and dominance against the Cowboys. They used cover-1 man principles and matchup zone coverage to dizzy Dallas. It failed to have the same impact against the Eagles on their first drive. Denver was awful on third downs and was blitzed on the ground, allowing 14 plays of at least 10 yards by early in the fourth quarter.

Philadelphia cut through the Broncos like left-out butter, logging 63 yards on 10 plays. Jake Elliott booted a 30-yard field goal to give the Eagles a lead, something Dallas never accomplished. When Hurts connected with reigning Heisman Trophy winner Smith for a leaping 36-yard score, Philadelphia widened its lead to 10 points and spoke to how the NFL remains a matchup league.

The Cowboys owned 109 yards in the first half. The Eagles boasted 143 on their first two drives.

"It was a combination of us not executing and coaching," Jones said after players and the staff accepted blame for the worst loss of the season.

Desperate for a response before a crowd doing its part with throaty screams, the Broncos turned to their cannonball Javonte Williams. The rookie bounced, burst, and barrelled for 20 yards — leaving tire tracks on Slay — and set up Tim Patrick's first down reception that drew a taunting penalty.

As the second quarter started, Gordon took over. He trained in the offseason with a track coach and Zeke Elliott and Derrick Henry. It added strength and bounce. Gordon showed both on a 15-yard spinning gain, before racing in untouched from the 1-yard line. The former Pro Bowler boasts touchdowns in four straight games. though it feels hollow after his fumble.

"I had zero touchdowns as a rookie. That goose egg gave me nightmares. It still motivates me to this day," Gordon told Denver7 after shaving the deficit to 10-7 with 13:38 left in the half.

What happened both delighted and frustrated fans. Bridgewater threaded a short pass to Albert Okwuegbunam, who raced 64 yards, a Courtland Sutton block shy of scoring. The Broncos settled for a 21-yard field goal that grew in significance as the half advanced. The Eagles are not very good, but they remain gnarly on the road, winning all four of their games.

They responded with a clock gorging drive that brought to the surface a gnawing concern for the Broncos, the inability to get off the field. After the Broncos corrected the issue during the previous two games, the Eagles converted five of their first eight. In a field full of Alabama players, no one was better than Smith. He made it look easy when separating from Kyle Fuller in the slot for a 5-yard score.

A Quez Watkins drops off his shoulder pads spared the Broncos a cherry-red face rather than rouge. Denver permitted 20 points, the most in a first half this season.

There is no way to overstate how embarrassing and devastating this loss is for the Broncos. They enter the bye week 5-5, in the mix, but lacking substance. This was the week to prove they were for real. Instead, they plummeted back to earth against the Eagles with a thud.

"We are a gritty, tough team," Jones said. "It's make or break it time. It's not panic. But it's make it or break it time."

No New COVID-19 Cases
A recent outbreak of COVID-19 cases, seven in three weeks and five over the last eight days, created anxiety among Broncos players. Dre'Mont Jones called it "concerning," with Melvin Gordon labeling it "nerve-wracking." All of the Broncos cases were among the vaccinated, including offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who entered the protocol on Friday.

However, there were no new cases reported on Saturday and Sunday, creating a sense of relief. The Broncos added emergency quarterback Danny Etling to the practice squad on Saturday following the COVID-19 cases with Shurmur and backup Drew Lock. Lock is expected to return on Monday.

Broncos safety Justin Simmons faces a potential fine for a hard first-half that left Eagles tight end Dallas Goedert concussed. ...

Baron Browning had a back issue flare up at Thursday's practice. He started, but

The Broncos received a pleasant surprise with rookie cornerback Pat Surtain (sprained knee) active for Sunday's game. Surtain practiced on Friday, providing hope he would play. Malik Reed (hip) and Baron Browning also were active. ...

The inactive list featured no surprises: running back Mike Boone, who was hurt late in the week, cornerback Essang Bassey, cornerback MacMcCain III, safety Jamar Johnson, tackle Bobby Massie, tackle Garett Bolles (he and Massie should be back after the bye) and defensive tackle McTelvin Agim. ...