ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When Denver's offense was on the field Sunday against New England, its execution left little to be desired.
The problem was that the unit only had 24:11 of the game's 60 minutes to work with. With the Patriots racking up 35 first downs and nearly 36 minutes of possession, quarterback Peyton Manning, who threw for 345 yards and three touchdowns, spent much of the afternoon on the sideline. New England's edge in time of possession was a result of its offense converting on 11-of-17 third down attempts.
"It was very evident that they were playing 'keep away' from our offense, and our inability to get stops on third down, along with some of our first-and-10 run defense allowed them to do that," Head Coach John Fox said. "Those conversions on third down are obviously an area where we need to improve, but let's not forget: They're not bad at converting them. We haven't been either. The problem has been getting the ball back to our offense. We have to do a better job."
Denver's difficulty defending third downs has been an issue in each of the team's three losses. Against Pittsburgh, the Broncos allowed the Steelers to go 11-for-19 on third down, and both the Falcons and Texans prevented comebacks with crucial third-down conversions in the closing minutes. The struggles on third down Sunday were even harder to stomach because they happened despite favorable circumstances.
"At the end of the day, our third downs have been a bit of a bugaboo throughout this portion of the season," Fox said. "Probably the most disheartening thing about that is that they weren't all third-and-1s. Third-and-10-plus, there were five situations, and they converted four of them. We needed to execute much better than we did."
In addition to being outperformed on third down, the Broncos also lost the turnover battle to New England, 3-1.
The struggles in that department were familiar for a team currently minus-six on the season in turnover margin. With the defense forcing less than one turnover per game and the offense leading the NFL in fumbles through five games, Fox said he will continue to emphasize both creating turnovers on defense and ball security going forward.
"We've only taken it away four times, two fumbles and two interceptions," Fox said. "Something that's said at the beginning of every season, if you catch every one you get your hands on, you'll lead the league in interceptions. We've not scratched the surface of that yet. We had an opportunity in the game last night, but it's something that we continue to work on, and I know we practice it. We practice it for five minutes every day. You guys are out there, you watch it. It's something I can promise you will get better, and it'll get addressed."
"As far as the other side of the ball, we've had an issue with fumbles," Fox continued. "It's not one guy. It's another area we'll stress vigorously this week, is ball security. Everybody in the league practices it, but the reality is you've got to see the results of it on Sunday."
MAKING STEADY PROGRESS
The Broncos' upcoming trip to San Diego for a Monday Night showdown with the Chargers will be important for two reasons.
For one, a win would get the team's record back to .500. Defeating San Diego would also put Denver in a tie for first place in the AFC West. Fox said the team is taking the schedule one game at a time, but acknowledged that divisional contests take on added significance.
"Each one of these is an opportunity, and there's only 16 of them," Fox said. "It's very similar to where we were after the Houston game, in that we're facing a division opponent. Obviously, division opponents are very critical. We'll remain focused. Our guys will remain positive, despite all the noise on the outside. We have another opportunity, is all I can say, against a division team."
After starting the season against five teams with a combined record of 12-5, including a pair of games against undefeated squads in the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans, just four of the Broncos' remaining 11 games are against teams currently above .500. But Fox said that every opponent in the NFL demands respect.
"As I've mentioned many times, there are no cupcakes," Fox said. "You just look around the league. I know it's a cliché, 'any given Sunday,' but you see it every week. A lot of the people on the outside look at the records. We look at all the tape, so we realize that every one of these teams has talent, and every one can exploit your weaknesses. The reality is, we're 2-3. We can't change that. All we can change is what's going forward."
With just five of 16 regular season games behind them, the Broncos still have a long season in front of them. And they're steadily becoming the team they want to be as the year progresses.
"I think we're very close," Fox said. "We'll just keep banging away and trying to get better every week. I thought we made some progress the week before. We kind of reverted in some areas this past week. We'll just continue to work to get better and highlight those areas that have been problematic. That's all what this league is about."