ST. LOUIS --Injuries piled up for the Broncos Sunday, but by the time they began losing players, they were already deep into digging a hole from which they could not escape in a 22-7 loss to the St. Louis Rams.
Denver emerged from the game without tight end Julius Thomas because of an ankle injury, running back Montee Ball due to a groin problem -- in his return from a Week 5 groin strain -- and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders because of a concussion suffered on a third-quarter hit from Rams safety Rodney McLeod.
"We don't make excuses. Obviously, it didn't help our cause," said Head Coach John Fox.
See all the action from Sunday's game in St. Louis.
When Sanders and Thomas exited, the Broncos lost two players who combined for more than half of their offensive touchdowns this season (19 of 37). Their absences knocked the offense off-kilter. After McCleod drilled Sanders, the Broncos' next five plays over two possessions included two incompletions, two carries for three yards and an incompletion wiped out because of a holding call.
The Broncos never regained the momentum they had prior to Sanders' injury.
"For whatever reason, right after that play, I think we went three incompletions and weren't able to get that drive (going)," said Manning. "So that was a disappointing drive to start the second half and we came away with no points and no points the entire second half."
It was the Broncos' first scoreless second half since a 2009 loss at Washington, when Chris Simms relieved then-starter Kyle Orton, and the seven points scored by the Broncos were their fewest since Jan. 1, 2012 in a 7-3 loss to Kansas City -- the last regular-season game before Manning's arrival.
The game went awry, but it was not just about the injuries, as a look back at the pregame Three Keys reveals.
1. PROTECT PEYTON MANNING.
The Rams made their opportunities for pressure count. St. Louis hit Manning five times, with those plays resulting in two sacks -- including one on fourth down -- an interception, a holding penalty against Ryan Clady as he tried in vain to contain Rams defensive end Robert Quinn and a 4-yard completion.
Denver tried to adapt, mixing in some fronts with Paul Cornick as an extra tackle after Thomas' injury. But the lack of an efficient running game gave St. Louis no reason to play the Broncos honest, and the Rams attacked with impunity.
"We've got to do a better job of running the ball, even when we're behind," said tight end Jacob Tamme. "I think we've got to do a better job of staying two-dimensional and opening up some holes so we can show some run, even when we're behind there. But we're fighting an uphill battle the whole second half, and we didn't do a good job of fighting it."
2. DON'T LET SHAUN HILL GET COMFORTABLE.
A 102.7 quarterback rating on 20-of-29 passing reflected the 34-year-old veteran's effectiveness. After exploiting Denver's single coverage with no safety help for a 63-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Britt, Hill settled in, took the underneath options and focused on methodical possessions.
Instead, Hill fell on the football at the St. Louis 45, and the Broncos subsequently took possession two plays later at their 17-yard-line, making a comeback from the then-19-7 deficit nearly impossible. In general, that play showed Hill's ability to play within himself and the situation; when he got pressured, he isn't exacerbate the situation.
"He's a guy that can make good decisions when he's down in pressure and he made his key plays this week," said Ware.
3. WITHSTAND A RAMS SPURT.
As they did in previous home games against Dallas, San Francisco and Seattle, the Rams burst from the gates, grabbing a 10-0 lead by the end of the first quarter and extending it to 13-0 before the Broncos finally responded with Sanders' 42-yard touchdown catch late in the second quarter.
The Broncos never had an answer for the Rams' opening punch, and trailed from start to finish as a result.