ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Week after week, the Broncos have found themselves battling to win close games.
Two game-winning touchdowns in the final five minutes. Back-to-back overtime losses. All but one contest decided by a single score. The Broncos have put themselves in a position to win every matchup this season, and yet they sit at 3-6 with eight games remaining.
Their struggles can be attributed to a number of factors, including an ever-growing list of injuries, but the fact remains that the Broncos have been in every game. Had the team connected on a few extra plays throughout the season, they could be in a very different position — and the knowledge that they continue to come ever-so-close to a different outcome has been a major source of frustration for Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett.
"We're close, but that's not what we're here for," Hackett said Monday. "We're not here to be number one in close games. We're here to win football games. It shows that the men in that locker room stay together, and they battle all the way until the end of the game, which is what I believe in and all those guys that are in that locker room. It shows that we have the potential to win some of these games, but we've got to get this stuff fixed."
Down seven points with just under three minutes remaining against Tennessee, quarterback Russell Wilson and the Broncos' offense had a chance to march down the field and either tie or win the game. They had done so in Week 8 against the Jaguars, but Wilson could not execute his signature late-game heroics in this one, as he was intercepted on a game-ending fourth-down play. He took 18 hits throughout the game, including six sacks, which made it difficult to sustain drives in crucial moments.
"You never want to see your quarterback get hit," Hackett said. "…I hate when he gets hit, but I know that he is doing everything he can out there to try and make a play. He wants to do everything he can from that standpoint. I'll tell you, I don't think it is necessarily one thing. I don't think it was just the offensive line. I think it is us a collective group. That is why we have to evaluate everything — from the guys that are out there, to the coaches, to all of us to be able to be sure that we get the best schemes possible."
OFFENSE NOT MEETING EXPECTATIONS
Losing so many close games has put Denver's offense in a drastically different place than Hackett expected coming into the season. After a strong offseason and training camp, the offense seemed to be on track for a great year — but with injuries and missed opportunities, they have significantly underperformed.
"[My expectations were] definitely not where we're at right now," Hackett said. "Definitely not. I think that there's been a lot of things that have accounted [for] that, but as a staff, as a group, as an offensive group, we want to make sure we put the best grouping out there. We want to put the best plays out there that fit us and fit this offense, and obviously we're still working through that because it hasn't looked like what any of us want it to look like."
Hackett took personal accountability for the offense's struggles, noting that their inability to put points on the board begins with him.
"I think we're evaluating everything," Hackett said. "First, it starts with me. We've got to make sure that the play calls are the right play calls, and the ones that are able to put guys in the right position to be successful. We'll evaluate that; we'll evaluate everything that we do. We're 3-6, we're not where we want to be. Nobody's accepting that, that's not the standard that we want to be [meeting]. We're not scoring enough points — it's that simple. We've got to find a way to do that, so we'll evaluate everything."
As the offense looks to put the pieces together in the final eight games, Hackett said that the offense has to be more consistent in every aspect.
"Unfortunately, it has been a bunch of different things," Hackett said of the struggles. "It hasn't just been one thing. I think we need to be more consistent across the board on the play calling and on how I adjust things for [Wilson] and get him and I on the same page. Then it's just the execution. Something will go well, and then right afterwards, something might not work out the way that we thought it would. There might be something with the route, or there might be something with Russ, maybe protection. Collectively as an offense, we have to be more consistent. That's what we haven't shown — for each play — over and over."
Maintaining consistency is difficult when injuries force different personnel combinations each week, but the receiving corps stepped up to the challenge of playing without Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler. Rookie Jalen Virgil scored a touchdown on his first career reception, and Hackett had enormous praise for Kendall Hinton's contributions.
"One guy I want to give credit to right away is Kendall Hinton," Hackett said. "What Kendall did — he was under the weather. He had not played that position of Jerry's that week because he was getting ready for a different position. For him to miss practice due to sickness and then go out there and play at that position the whole game [was impressive]. He didn't have any mental errors. He went out there and made some plays. He toughed it out, and he did a great job."