DENVER — After a debut in Oakland in which the Broncos struggled to string together effective drives, the challenge in facing Chicago's defense seemed beyond daunting. Fixing what ails you against an average defense is one thing; doing so against a defense that has Khalil Mack and three other Pro Bowlers is another.
Yet against the Bears, the offense appeared at times to have some of those problems solved. At others, they certainly were not. And in that conundrum lies the ceiling the Broncos' offense must reach and the floor it must move beyond.
There is perhaps no better place to see this than in the Broncos' next-to-last drive, a grinding 16-play, 74-yard march that ended in heartbreaking interception at the 2-yard line. Though the drive that followed would be more successful, this one showed the ability to keep a top-level defense on its heels with a run-pass combination that almost succeeded in tying the game about four minutes earlier.
In the midst of that drive, the Broncos also faced their demons: penalties and struggles in the red zone. They were able to overcome a holding penalty that erased a 13-yard gain and backed them up 4 yards instead, but that problem ended a few of their earlier drives into Bears territory.
"When you're going against a tough defense and you're not having four-play touchdown drives, you're going to have these long drives if you want to score the ball," Joe Flacco said. "You have to make sure that you can stay within yourself and not make mistakes if you're having a 12-play drive, and we're just not there yet."
The penalties prior to that drive were frustrating, to say the least. In these first two games, they've pushed the Broncos out of vital scoring opportunities or taken away big plays that could have had them knocking on the door. Instead, they put the offense behind the sticks and force them to predictably try to make up the yards through the air.
"I've played in plenty of football games, obviously," Emmanuel Sanders said. "Penalties are going to occur. You've got to be able to bounce back from those. But it sucks when you've got a 20-yard gain and then it's a penalty. It sucks when you're in field-goal range and you get a penalty. The penalties that we are having are happening in crucial moments, so we've got to stop doing that."
Still, with the promising play of Flacco and the rest of the offense, there's a little optimism in the air. The Broncos simply must not let it slip away.
"We've got a good quarterback," Sanders said. "We've got a good system. We were moving the ball up and down the field. We can't keep hurting ourselves. … Obviously the past two games, we've been shooting ourselves in the foot. I don't know exactly what it is — whether we're young, or we're not listening or we're not disciplined — but [there's] something going on, because we've definitely got talent. It's just a lack of discipline right now and we've got to get better."
Fangio identified avoiding penalties as a key for the offense, but added that there was more behind the success they were able to have on Sunday — particularly their ability to gain significant yards on first and second down. The Broncos averaged 5.9 yards on first downs, compared to 4.8 yards for the Bears' offense, and had only one three-and-out.
"Not having penalties is one," Fangio said, "not getting into third-and-longs, getting into more third-and-manageables and keep the drive going, because when we get near the 50, we only need a little bit more with our field-goal kicker. A couple of those [drives] ended poorly."
With a trip to Lambeau Field to play the Packers coming up, the Broncos must continue to make meaningful strides on offense. Against Green Bay's defense on Sunday, the Vikings converted just 4-of-13 third-down attempts, were penalized six times on offense for 65 yards and failed to score a touchdown on either of their two red-zone trips — which proved pivotal in a five-point loss.
"You've got to have resilience," Sanders said. "You've got to be able to bounce back. We were able to do that, but we weren't able to close this game out, so it really doesn't matter. We lost. So we're sitting here 0-2, which is very disappointing, and so hopefully we can turn this thing around."
If the Broncos' final two drives were any indication, they'll have a chance.
Photos from Broncos team photographers of Denver's Week 2 game vs. the Chicago Bears at Empower Field at Mile High.