ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Some of the theories advanced this week: Losing their coach in disgrace could galvanize the Raiders. Employing a new offensive coordinator who hasn't called plays in years will make them unpredictable. Derek Carr will benefit from more control at the line of scrimmage?
Let's make this simple: If the Broncos get outcoached by a team without a coach, it becomes an indictment of Vic Fangio and his staff. When it comes to sports, there exists a fine line between reasons and excuses. There are reasons the Broncos have dropped two straight games — ineffectiveness on third down, breakdowns in the secondary and costly penalties. And there are excuses. The refs, the travel, the challenge of playing the unicorn that is Lamar Jackson or the future Hall of Famer in Ben Roethlisberger.
Perhaps, the Ravens are just better than the Broncos. No explanation required. But losing to the Steelers, who are not considered a contender? That is hard to reconcile. If we allow for a mulligan, that is it. That means this Sunday represents a must-win game.
If the Broncos fashion themselves as a contender this season, they have to win games like this against an AFC West rival at home. Future Hall of Famer Von Miller did not hide from the truth on Thursday.
“We've just gotta win. I have to think about my approach in how I label some of these games. Maybe labeling the Ravens game a playoff game was too early for our team. Maybe some of the things I said about the Pittsburgh Steelers and the type of game we need to play, maybe it was too early," said Miller. "It's definitely not too early for the Raiders. We have to play well from start to finish. This is a huge game for us. We’ve got to win this game.”
There are so many reasons why his explanation rings true. The Broncos are at home. They have been punched in the throat twice the past two weeks, unable to get off the ropes. They face the Browns a week from today. So falling at home to a disjointed Las Vegas team sets up the Broncos to fall to 3-4. Ordinarily that would suffice for a team on the uptick. Then dig deeper into the schedule, and it represents a problem. The Broncos finish the season at the Raiders and Chargers and home against the Chiefs.
Win Sunday, and elasticity appears. Lose, and those last three become must-wins with less-than-favorable odds.
For the Broncos, they must become more dynamic offensively and create takeaways defensively. The Broncos have scored one touchdown in the first quarter this season and none on their first drives in the past 24 games. They appear reactionary, waiting to adjust to what they see rather than putting the opponent on its heels. Defensively, third downs have become a problem — 14 of 29 converted in the two losses — and there have been too many communication issues leading to big plays against the league's highest-paid secondary.
For the Broncos to succeed, they need more adaptability in their schemes and their best players must step up. Ideally, it starts this week against the Raiders. Maybe take a hint from coach Mike Shanahan, who enters the Ring of Fame on Sunday.
He went 21-7 against the Raiders. It was personal.
"Mike didn't do or say anything differently," said defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, who worked with Shahanah. "But it was a credit to his players to how they played in those games for him."