Denver's struggles have largely centered on its offense's inability to do much of anything this season, but in recent weeks, its defensive strength is starting to show cracks, too.
Part of the theme did not change: The Broncos' last two losses again included a lack of production from the league's worst scoring offense. But instead of being able to trust their defense to get one more stop and another opportunity for Russell Wilson and Co. -- regardless of whether it was deserved -- the Broncos faltered on both sides of the ball, allowing Tennessee to overcome a 10-0 deficit in Week 10 and giving up a walk-off touchdown to the Raiders' Davante Adams on Sunday.
The latter score could be blamed on one player (second-year corner Patrick Surtain II), but this sport generally does not boil down to one play and one mistake made by an individual participant -- especially when Denver can point to its offense's mistakes in the final minute (e.g., Wilson throwing an incompletion instead of taking a sack to keep the clock moving) as a reason for its defeat. The recent development is startling, though, especially for a club that has always been able to trust its defense even as its offensive struggles to determine Denver's identity.
"We just need to finish games. It's that plain and simple," linebacker Josey Jewell said this week, via ESPN. "We do well in the first quarter, second quarter, third, and we just need to keep that throughout the fourth quarter. Stay consistent in this game, and we don't even need to bring it to overtime."
Surtain admitted this week Adams got the best of him on the 35-yard score, accurately informing reporters the superstar receiver beat him with a double move. His teammate, safety Justin Simmons, rightfully came to the corner's defense at the same time in which the unit is searching for answers to its new conundrum.
"I'm not trying to be rude or anything, but I know how it can be ... it's not his fault," Simmons said, again via ESPN. "This game is not on one guy, ever. There are 11 guys out there on the field, and we all have a responsibility, especially in overtime, to make a play, get off the field, and give our offense a chance to win the game -- that's first and foremost."
The problem, as noted above, is the offense has wasted most of those chances. Though each of Denver's three wins has required the offense to overcome a fourth-quarter deficit, the offense hasn't shown enough signs of life to inspire hope it'll have a chance in most of its games this season. A change in play-caller didn't help much, either, as Denver lost its first game with Klint Kubiak in charge of the play sheet.
Denver's house might be made of tin and plywood, but the Broncos could always trust the stability of their foundation: defense. With that now showing cracks, the sense of urgency is only heightened. Instead of slowly building toward something respectable, the Broncos appear to be taking steps backward.
The timing couldn't be worse. At 3-7, they essentially need to go on an unbelievable run to salvage this season. After showing signs of life in a win over Jacksonville in London, two straight losses have left Denver in an unenviable position, with both units being forced to answer questions about what's gone wrong.
"At the end of the day, it's just poor execution," Simmons said. "That's what I'm saying, everybody keeps talking about, defense this, defense that. You talk about ratings and all this other stuff that doesn't matter. What matters is how you execute when it matters most. Had the defense been able to get a stop in a two-minute situation and get a fourth down, stop offense on the field, we win the game, point blank, period."
They've only come away winners three times this season. They'll hope to make it a fourth time Sunday in Charlotte, but the Broncos will have to correct their many mistakes in order to avoid sinking deeper into their pit of disappointment.