ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — With a cadre of talented players, the Broncos' secondary has the potential to be one of the league's best.
Justin Simmons is one of the game's best safeties. Pat Surtain II is a former top-10 pick and arguably the league's best defensive rookie. Kyle Fuller and Kareem Jackson both have first-round pedigrees, and Bryce Callahan has been among the league's best slot cornerbacks.
But after the last couple of weeks in which the defensive backfield has allowed multiple big gains, the production hasn't necessarily matched the unit's ability.
Against the Steelers, that manifested itself via several key plays. On the first drive of the game, Ben Roethlisberger connected with Diontae Johnson for a 50-yard touchdown over Fuller's outstretched arm. Later in the first half, Fuller was whistled for pass interference on third-and-15, and the ball was placed on the 1-yard line. The Steelers scored a touchdown two plays later.
On Pittsburgh's final touchdown of the game, Roethlisberger's pass split Simmons and Jackson for a 18-yard touchdown to Chase Claypool.
Those problems were also present in the Broncos' loss to the Ravens, as Baltimore connected on three passes of at least 30 yards. In Week 1, Fuller allowed a deep completion against New York, and he was beat for a touchdown in Week 2 against the Jaguars.
Head Coach Vic Fangio said Fuller still looks like the player he was in 2018 when he earned first-team All-Pro honors in Chicago, but he noted that the team's technique and coaching both have to be better for the results to improve.
"We just have to play with better technique all the time," Fangio said Monday of the entire secondary. "You just can't assume that because you're such-and-such player that you can fudge on your technique. When you're going against good receivers and a good quarterback, he's going to expose you. Our technique has to be better across the board. We have to do a better job of coaching them to play that technique."
That seems to be particularly true early in games. Against the Giants, Jaguars and Steelers, Fuller and the Broncos allowed those long passes that resulted in either a substantial gain or a touchdown.
"The urgency defensively — especially on a road game — you've got to be able to pack your defense," Simmons said Sunday. "The offense relies on stuff like that — [the] energy. We've got to be able to be better at starting the game off. That's what we want to do, and we've got to be able to execute."
Despite those plays, all is not lost. The Broncos remain third in total defense, sixth in passing defense and second in scoring defense. And against the Steelers, the Broncos buckled down in the fourth quarter to force a three-and-out and hold a Steelers to a field goal on their other drive in the frame. The last two weeks, though, show the need for improvement. Denver has allowed 25 points per game since Week 4, which would rank 22nd in the league.
The Broncos could regain at least one key player in Week 6 against the Raiders, as Fangio said he's hopeful that Ronald Darby will make his return on Sunday. The team activated Darby on Saturday before the Pittsburgh game, but he was inactive after Surtain was able to play with his chest injury.
"He only had a little bit of practice because the medical people had him on a pitch count last week, which we adhered to," Fangio said of Darby. "He didn't quite feel he was ready and grooved in. We were hoping we didn't have to play him, but knew we'd bring him up this week."
Fangio did not disclose how Darby would figure into the defense if he can return. In Week 1, before Darby suffered a hamstring injury that led to him being placed on IR, Darby played the right cornerback spot and Fuller played on the left side. Callahan played nickel, and Surtain played largely in the dime package, save for a series where he replaced Fuller on the left.
"We'll figure that out as the week goes on and after we get some good looks at 'Darbs'," Fangio said. "Hopefully the medical staff will allow him to practice more than they would last week."
Whoever trots out in the defensive backfield, Simmons and Co. know they need to find a way to improve as they prepare to face the league's fourth-ranked passing attack this weekend.
"It was a tough game on the secondary in general," Simmons said. "I wouldn't put anything just on Kyle. I think as a unit we can be better, and we'll find ways to make more plays."
THE FINAL MOMENTS
After the Broncos' furious comeback attempt led them to a third-and-goal from the Pittsburgh 3-yard line with a chance to tie the game, they took two shots into the end zone. On the first attempt, Teddy Bridgewater looked for Diontae Spencer in the right corner of the end zone. On the ensuing play, Bridgewater tried to fit a pass into Sutton in the left corner, but the ball was intercepted.
"We had some opportunities, but we just didn't make the plays," Fangio said Monday. "Give them credit for getting a stop down there."
The end-of-game scenario carried unique weight, but the Broncos have not been great in red-zone opportunities in 2021. Through five games, Denver ranks 29th in the league in the percentage of red-zone trips in which they've scored touchdowns.
Particularly in goal-to-go situations — at or inside the 10-yard line — the offense has bogged down. That happened twice on Sunday, as Bridgewater was sacked on second down on the team's first red-zone possession.
"I think that when it comes to goal-to-go situations, the field is extremely short," Graham Glasgow said Monday. "I think that it just comes down to every single person on the offense has to execute. I think that the majority of the time, I'd say 10 out of 11 guys are doing it but I think that one out of 11 is kind of biting us in the ass at this point in time. I think that just getting everybody on the same page and making sure that we all can do our jobs to the best of our abilities — if we can do that, I think we can score a lot more often."
The Broncos' offense also faced problems on third down — going 2-of-12 — and Fangio reiterated that Denver needs to be better on early downs.
"Obviously, our first- and second-down offense has to be better — both in the run game and pass game — so we're not in so many third-and-longs," Fangio said. "When you do get in third-and-longs, you have to be able to convert some of them. You can't get shut out. It's twofold there. We have to throw it and run it better on the early downs, and we have to be able to convert some of the longer ones to keep drives going."
Fangio said he met with the team's offensive staff on Monday morning and that the entire staff needs to do a better job.
"We have to do a better job of coaching these players, and we have to do a better job of playing," Fangio said. "We're all in it together. I have no qualms with [Offensive Coordinator] Pat [Shurmur] other than our results haven't been good enough. We have to find a way to fix that."
Courtland Sutton caught the deep touchdown pass on Sunday, but Tim Patrick kept the Broncos' hopes alive with consecutive plays on Denver's first touchdown drive.
On third-and-15 with Denver trailing 24-6, Patrick caught a pass for 10 yards to set up a fourth-and-5. On the ensuing play, Bridgewater went back to Patrick, who dove for the line to gain and extended the ball as he was being tackled. The game paused for an official measurement, and the Broncos were awarded a first down by the nose of the football. Denver scored later in the drive, and the Broncos eventually found themselves in a position to tie the game. Without Patrick's conversion, the team's hopes likely would've ended far earlier.
"That was a great play on his part, knowing where the sticks were and what we had to get," Fangio said. "He did a really good job on that. Tim is a battler. He's going to give you everything he's got. He's a guy that we have to get involved in the offense."
Patrick finished with a season-high seven catches for 89 yards.
PLAN OF ATTACK
A week after Noah Fant was targeted a season-high 10 times against the Ravens, he received just four targets in Pittsburgh — and the first didn't come until early in the fourth quarter.
Fangio said the Broncos' protection plan to slow down T.J. Watt and Co. contributed to Fant's three-catch, 20-yard performance.
"We chipped their outside pass rushers a little bit more than normal," Fangio said. "That's going to limit any tight end's role in the passing game when you use that."
Fant remains on pace for a career high in catches and touchdowns, but his yardage totals have been down in 2021.