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Next-Day Notebook: Drew Lock shows improvement vs. Chargers, but Broncos looking for more red-zone success

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Broncos' offense had its share of chances.

In Denver's 34-13 loss to the Chargers, the Broncos had their opportunities to stay in the game. Trailing 10-0, the Broncos capitalized on a 44-yard pass to Courtland Sutton and worked the ball to a first-and-goal from the 2-yard line. 

Denver, though, couldn't punch the ball in, as Albert Okwuegbunam was tackled for a loss and two Javonte Williams runs were stuffed before a fourth-down trick play to Drew Lock came up short of the end zone.

Later in the game, trailing 20-3, the Broncos had a touchdown on a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line overturned after an illegal formation penalty.

The inability to punch the ball into the end zone thwarted the pair of 70-plus yard drives, and it highlighted Denver's need to improve in the red zone, where the Broncos were 1-of-3 on Sunday.

"We need to find the right combination of plays that can get us in there, especially when we're in there tight," Head Coach Vic Fangio said Monday. "We had two great chances. The one [where] we lined up in an illegal formation which nullified a touchdown. The other one, we didn't get enough in the run game. The pass that we tried on the first-down play didn't work well enough, and then we tried that trick play for the fourth-down play. It was open but it was too much pressure there on Kendall [Hinton], and he couldn't get the throw effectively to Drew, but there's no doubt we've had our ups and downs in the red zone all year. 

"We've had some really good games and some games where it wasn't good enough. Yesterday was one of those, but it's definitely an area we place a lot of emphasis on, and we will continue to."

In the loss, Lock posted one of his best statistical performances, as he completed 18-of-25 passes for a touchdown, no interceptions and a 116.2 quarterback rating. 

"I think he's improved these last couple of weeks incrementally from game to game, and that comes with practice, that comes with reps and playing in the game," Fangio said. "I thought he made some good throws yesterday. He had some good reads [and] some that weren't. He shows his mobility and arm strength. I think it's hard to compare last year to this year because this year was choppy for him in that he came in midstream in a few games and then played in a game where there wasn't much practice, but I do see improvement being made. The talent is there, [and] I still think he can be an NFL quarterback."

Denver, though, must find a way to convert those opportunities into points. The Broncos have scored just 13 points in each of the last two weeks with Lock under center, and they'll need to be better to finish the season on a high note.

For that to happen, the Broncos must rediscover their success on the ground. After leaning on Melvin Gordon III and Javonte Williams for much of the season, Denver has totaled 101 combined rushing yards over the last two weeks. The Broncos posted 147 rushing yards against the Chargers in Week 12 and just 83 in Week 17. And while Denver had some strong gains on the ground, the Broncos also had a handful of runs that resulted in no gain or negative yardage.

"As [far] as the run game goes, I thought we had some good runs yesterday — some good efficient runs," Fangio said. "We didn't the week before. I think it's a little bit of everything that we always have to examine. Sometimes it's just a guy not making a block here and there or maybe a poor read by the runner, [or] maybe the team is loading up on us. We definitely have to find a way in this last game to get our running game back to where it was to being very, very effective and building off of that with our passing game on early downs."

The Broncos will likely need to rely on their run game in their final game of the season — but they'll need some explosive plays from Lock, as well. In their last five games against the Chiefs, the Broncos haven't topped the 16-point mark and they've scored less than 10 points in three of the meetings.

As the Broncos move forward — both into Week 18 and into 2022 — they'll need to find more consistency on that side of the ball. The team has found success at times, but Denver's 19.4 points per game rank 23rd in the league.

"I think we've had some good stretches offensively," Fangio said. "When Teddy [Bridgewater] was in there, we had some good games and some good run of games as far as winning and losing. Drew has been put in some tough spots, [and] we've lost a little bit of a rhythm with our offense — both in the run and passing game. We just haven't been able to get over the top here of late. We haven't scored a lot of points. We haven't had rhythm in either the running game or the passing game on the early downs, and we haven't been able to convert the third downs at a good-enough clip."

Fangio, though, remains convinced the Broncos will get things right.

"It's been a little difficult," Fangio said, "but I'm confident that with [General Manager] George [Paton] here we're going to find the answers to that moving forward."

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