DENVER --Just as it takes all three phases to win, each phase of the game was culpable for the Broncos in a 23-16 loss to the Falcons that ended their nine-game winning streak and knocked them from the ranks of the unbeaten.
"We got our butts kicked today," wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. "We've got to take the butt-kicking and move on."
On offense, the Broncos struggled to find the balance necessary to help rookie quarterback Paxton Lynch in his first start. With little room to roam in the first three quarters, Atlanta held Broncos running backs to just 3.7 yards per carry. Atlanta was able to tee off with its pass rush, and sacked Lynch six times for 40 yards in losses, with the last two coming thanks to downfield coverage.
Defensively, the Broncos were gashed early by a Falcons offense that emphasized its running backs -- both on the ground and as targets in the passing game. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 167 of the Falcons' 267 gross passing yards, and Coleman's 48- and 49-yard receptions in the first and fourth quarters bracketed an offensive performance that kept the Broncos off-balance and allowed the Falcons to control the game even with Julio Jones only catching two passes for 29 yards.
Special teams had some difficult moments, too. Although Brandon McManus was perfect on his placekicks, the Broncos started in less-than-ideal field position after Cody Latimer ran two kickoffs out from the end zone but didn't reach the 25-yard-line. A 69-yard Matt Bosher punt that bounced by Jordan Norwood also was downed at the 1-yard line, setting up a Lynch interception on the next play that led to a Falcons touchdown that put the Broncos in a 20-3 deficit.
"It's about the team. Offensively, defensively, special teams, we just didn't bring our A-game today," Sanders said.
Here's how the three key areas of the game played a role in the Broncos' defeat.
- TAKE WHAT'S THERE**
A failure to get much push off the snap and some misfires that prevented potential completions prevented the Broncos from succeeding at this.
Atlanta's defense was able to generate pressure with a four-man rush, in part because Vic Beasley Jr. won his one-on-one matchups off the edge, working around Ty Sambrailo for three sacks and past Michael Schofield for a half-sack early in the fourth quarter.
For a third consecutive game, the Broncos were unable to get much of a ground game going. In the first three quarters, C.J. Anderson, Devontae Booker and Andy Janovich combined for 42 yards on 14 carries, good for just a 3.0-yard average. Four fourth-quarter carries picked up 24 yards when the Falcons were playing back to avoid conceding the big play.
2. MINIMIZE THE DAMAGE FROM ATLANTA'S OFFENSE
The vast majority of the Falcons' rushing yardage came before contact, but the holes up front were so wide that Coleman and Freeman often reached the second level before contact. They combined for 119 yards on 29 carries, which was enough for the Falcons to control the pace of the game and keep Denver off-balance.
"We had to stop the run. The gameplan was stop the run and stop Julio," outside linebacker Shane Ray said. "We only did half of that, and the score shows that."
While the Broncos limited Atlanta's ground game after contact, they weren't able to minimize the Falcons' production after the catch. Nearly half of Matt Ryan's 267 gross yards of passing came after the catch, including 42 on Coleman's 48-yard catch four plays into the game. Thirty-four of the 48 yards came after a missed T.J. Ward tackle, and even though the Broncos missed few potential stops in the open field, that single miss proved costly in putting the Broncos behind to stay.
Although the Broncos' defense struggled overall, it did do well in the red zone. Just one of four Atlanta possessions that crossed the Denver 20 ended in a touchdown. But the offense's struggles kept the Broncos from being able to capitalize.
3. SLOW THE FALCONS' FAST START
This went hand-in-hand with item No. 2, because when Ward missed Coleman, the Falcons were off and flying downfield, scoring five plays later. Atlanta drove to a field goal on its next series and never trailed.
Denver has now been outscored 34-13 in the first quarter this season. A fourth-quarter rally saw the Broncos draw back within a touchdown in the final seconds, and improved the Broncos' fourth-quarter point differential to 65-16 this season, but the first-quarter woes helped ensure that it was too little, too late.