ENGLEWOOD — Following the humbling loss at Cleveland — which drove home the point why Denver received only one primetime game — Broncos coach Vic Fangio followed his office sign mantra.
"Don't Worry, Work."
Fangio used Friday through Monday to take a deep dive into his team, examining everything from how they conduct meetings and practice and call plays. He recognized the gravity of the situation and acknowledged responsibility for the underachieving team. The Broncos have been favored in six games and own a 3-4 record, leaving Fangio trying to avoid the indignity of a five-game skid, worst in his tenure.
There has been chatter that he has lost the locker room. That does not mesh with my reporting, but the season is teetering. Lose to a 2-5 Washington team and there's no path back to relevance, no argument for Fangio and his staff surviving after the season.
Fangio met with CEO Joe Ellis, president John Elway and general manager George Paton recently, as he as done during the season. All remain focused on getting the season back on track. Paton has shown that posture this week, acquiring defensive end Stephen Weatherly and inside linebacker Kenny Young. Both will play Sunday, and Young could have a significant role.
There has been no consideration of dismissing Fangio, sources said. If that becomes a conversation — an ugly loss at home Sunday could trigger it — it's my understanding Paton and Elway would talk and make a recommendation to Ellis, making it his decision.
The Broncos want this to work. Paton has a good relationship with Fangio, and has worked well with him. But the results are lacking.
Fangio aims to execute a U-turn, but he cannot double down. The scheme is sound, but there is a disconnect in execution. And there's no denying that sloth-ish first halves and third down issues are dooming the offense. It's past time for adjustments, and it needs to start Sunday.
My Denver7 keys to victory in a must-win game:
Hit The Brakes
At home with Peyton Manning honored, can the Broncos do him a solid and start fast so as not to buzz kill his halftime Ring of Fame ceremony? It starts with a defensive stop. Opponents have scored a touchdown on first drives in three straight games. That cannot happen again if this team wants to change the narrative.
Break Out The Jumper Cables
There are many layers to the Broncos' struggles, not the least of which is a sputtering offense. According to Andrew Mason of DNVR, the Broncos have scored fewer than seven points in the first half eight times over the past two seasons, better than only the Jets and Giants. The Broncos have done it three times during this streak. They have to show variance and balance. The idea of using the first half as a "feeling out process" is misguided. They are not Ali with the Rope-a-Dope. They are the tomato can in the fight right now. Time to throw some punches with nothing to lose.
Hope Jerry Jeudy is healthy
Receiver Jerry Jeudy had a great week of practice until he didn't. He sat out Friday with soreness in his right ankle. He's expected to play. There's no way to overstate his importance on creating easy completions on slants and making life easier for Teddy Bridgewater to get the ball out of his hand more quickly. "He experienced some soreness after working the last few days so we took the conservative route and gave him a rest day and a full rehab day rather than be out here, but we are still optimistic," Fangio said.
Keep It Simple, Stay Aggressive
The Broncos defense has produced six takeaways in seven games, ranking 24th. The number of blown assignments remains mind-blowing. And the same can be said for the missed tackles. Time to get back to basics, return to fundamentals. Keep it simple. Make sure the inside linebackers can function without thinking so much — look for plenty of opportunities for Kenny Young and Baron Browning — and take some burden off Justin Simmons. He looks like he's pressing, trying to cover for multiple issues on the defense. They need him to make plays, not fix all the warts.
Think We over Me
Part of the problem defensively is guys not doing their job, trying to do too much. To stop the run, the Broncos must operate as a clenched fist, not five separate fingers. There's no excuse for not playing better technique given the time off and the emphasis in practice. Make Washington one dimensional by slowing Antonio Gibson, and be aware of quarterback Taylor Heinicke's ability to extend plays with his legs.
Take next step
The Broncos' struggles can also be traced to their best players not meeting expectations. That applies to Garett Bolles. Given a contract as a franchise cornerstone last November, the All-Pro left tackle has slumped this season. He is determined to rebound (he was the last lineman on the field on Friday). If he does, he could help the offensive line start to meet preseason expectations.
Get a good return
The Broncos' punt coverage unit has improved. But the kick returns are awful. They need to hold blocks longer, coordinator Tom McMahon admitted. How much could it help if the Broncos reeled off a 35-yard return instead of starting inside their own 20? Again, it's the small things that have become big things during this slump.
Troy's Prediction: Broncos 24, Washington 20