ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — In the box score of the Broncos' overtime loss to the Indianapolis Colts, the offensive issues are easy to spot.
Two-of-15 on third down. Zero-for-4 in the red zone. Six drives with no more than one first down.
Those statistics combined to limit the Broncos' offense to just three field goals as they were held out of the end zone for the first time this season.
The third-down woes, in particular, help explain the Broncos' struggles. Denver converted its first third-down attempt of the game before converting just one more third down over the final 67 minutes of game time. The Broncos' average third down required a gain of 9.5 yards to pick up the first down, and Denver faced six third downs that were at least 12 yards to the line to gain.
The solution to the issue, though, does not come with better execution on third down. Instead, as Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett detailed the morning after the loss, the Broncos must find positive yardage on early downs instead of the negative plays that haunted Denver on Thursday night.
"It starts with efficiency on first and second down," Hackett said. "All those third downs, when you look at them, they are very, very long. We're talking seven-plus for all of them and a lot of them in 10-plus and 11-plus. We have to do better on those first downs. We are playing behind the chains, and I feel like a broken record. We've been saying that for the first five games, whether it be a penalty, whether it be a drop, a missed execution — things like that. It starts with me. I have to do better coaching the guys. I have to do a better job at making sure the guys know where to be, when to be there and [getting Russell Wilson] to be able to see it and Russ to be able to execute it. It's across the board, whether it be a run play or a pass play.
"If you're playing behind the chains as much as we are, it's going to be hard to move the ball. And I think that's where it starts on that third down. So we're putting ourselves in bad positions there."
The Broncos' struggles were evident on a third-quarter drive when a 51-yard pass to Courtland Sutton helped push Denver to a first-and-goal at the 9-yard line. On consecutive plays, though, Melvin Gordon III was stopped for a loss of a yard and then Wilson was sacked for a six-yard loss. The Broncos threw incomplete on third-and-16, and the ensuing field-goal attempt was blocked.
"It's a combination of a lot of things," Hackett said of the Broncos' struggles in the red zone. "I think it's a combination of guys getting used to each other down in that region. You can never practice that region enough, and we have to execute better, we have to coach better, we have to come up with better plays. We have to run the ball more. There's so many different things that when we look at it, that we can do a better job at across the board. Again, it's being behind the sticks there, too. … Those things are hard to execute. Any time you're in a third-and-goal from that far out, it's hard. They're all going to sink back into the end zone and you're going to try to do your best to take a shot or have somebody run around and make a play, but those situations, we can't have. We've got to do a better job coaching. It starts with me and getting better plays so those guys can execute it better."
The difficulties on offense have a wider-spanning impact than the Broncos' ability to score points. They also take a toll on the defense, which was forced to play 13 possessions and nearly 35 minutes. The impact may have been evident at the end of the game, as Denver allowed back-to-back field-goal drives after giving up just six points across the first 11 possessions.
"Right now the defense is playing at an unbelievably high level, and I think that from a guy that played defense, I absolutely love watching those guys go out there and play," Hackett said. "Being on the offensive side of the ball, it kills me not to be more efficient and better for those guys and this team. We need to be better in the run game, we need to be better in our efficiency and our drive length, the three-and-outs — we need to take those out — but it starts with not having those self-inflicted wounds [and] getting behind the chains. That's what's so important, and that's what we have to focus on, whether it be a penalty or a lost yard, anything like that. We have to do more high-efficiency plays to get us in those manageable situations so we can keep the defense off [the field]. They're playing too much. When they are out there, they're playing great, but we don't want them to be on the field that much. We have to do a much better job on offense to protect them, and it starts with running the ball."
As the Broncos head into a mini-bye week with 10 days before their next game, Hackett and his staff are determined to find the necessary solutions to help improve the offense and give themselves a better chance at earning wins.
"The fact of it is we're going to work, and we're going to do what we have to do to be able to put the guys in the right position and find the right things to get these guys going and put them in better positions to be open and better positions in the run game," Hackett said. "That's what we want to do. We're here for the whole long haul this season. We've got 12 games left. There's a lot left and a lot of room for improvement. And that's what we're going to be focusing on."