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How several Broncos rookies can use Week 2 struggles to spur future success

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — It was inevitable.

In any young player's career, there are always games with less-than-stellar play. The jump from college to the NFL is too great not to expect some sort of turbulence during a player's rookie season.

And when a team features as many rookie contributors as the Broncos, those mistakes are sometimes amplified.

Following Week 1, first-round pick Jerry Jeudy's late drop was identified as a key reason for Denver's season-opening loss. On Sunday in Pittsburgh, several other rookies had tough days.

Cornerback Michael Ojemudia had a potential interception bounce off his hands, was beaten for an 84-yard touchdown by Chase Claypool and gave up another score to Diontae Johnson.

"He struggled," Head Coach Vic Fangio said Monday. "He had a tough day like a lot of young corners have, but I'm confident Michael will come back and learn from this, and it will be hopefully a game that he looks back on in his long successful career that he learned a lot from and grew from."

Center Lloyd Cushenberry III, meanwhile, was part of an offensive line that allowed 19 quarterback hits and seven sacks.

"A lot like Michael," Fangio said of Cushenberry's play. "He had a tough day out there. He got singled up a few times, and he got beat a few times. Again, I hope that when we look back through his long and successful career, this is a game that he learns something from, improves from and proves to be very valuable for him."

Second-round pick KJ Hamler caught an impressive three passes for 48 yards, but those receptions represented less than half of his targets. He also made a poor decision to return a fourth-quarter kickoff to the 13-yard line, which began a series that ended with a fumbled punt snap for a safety.

Jeudy also failed to haul in a couple of tough passes, but he did post a team-high four catches for 62 yards.

Those positives are undoubtedly important to focus on when evaluating young players. While Ojemudia was beaten a couple of times, he made a nice play to put himself in position for the potential interception and he was a physical tackler in coverage against JuJu Smith-Schuster. And after the loss, he didn't make excuses.

"Yeah, I think this is one game I can improve on," Ojemudia said after the game. "There's a lot of plays for me out there, and my name was called a lot in this game. It's going to be a long season. I've got to be better, and I will be better."

The Broncos have certainly seen their young players respond in recent years. Courtland Sutton — who suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Steelers — had a tough four-game finish to his rookie season. He responded by posting a Pro Bowl-caliber season in Year 2.

Noah Fant struggled early in his rookie campaign before posting a pair of 100-yard games and setting franchise rookie marks at the tight end position. Drew Lock responded from a poor loss in Kansas City last year by leading the Broncos to two home wins to close the season.

The list goes on — and it's likely that players like Ojemudia, Cushenberry, Jeudy and Hamler will see similar improvement. There's no shame in early struggles. Now, the Broncos' rookies will aim to prove they respond the right way.


After missing much of training camp, Hamler's three catches for 48 yards were a needed addition for the Broncos' offense. He and Jeudy combined for seven catches for 110 yards, and they likely will be even more of a focal point as Denver moves forward without Sutton.

"I was happy to see Hamler get out there and get going," Fangio said Monday. "He's a good player and has a great future for us here in Denver. Hopefully, we'll be able to play him more now."


Starting right tackle Elijah Wilkinson certainly had a hand in a few of Pittsburgh's 19 quarterback hits, but Fangio said the Broncos were not considering a switch at the right tackle position.

"Elijah had a lot of good plays, but then he had some plays where he was inconsistent in his sets and protection," Fangio said.

Asked whether Demar Dotson may take over for Wilkinson, Fangio said the team hasn't "had those thoughts yet."

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