DENVER — As the Broncos approach the midway point of their season, they'll return home for a chance to earn a critical win.
Desperate to snap a four-game losing streak, Denver enters a matchup with the Washington Football Team that could do more than lessen the sting of a though "Thursday Night Football" loss to the Browns. A win would also return the Broncos to .500 as the bye nears and potentially give the Broncos some momentum to make a second-half surge.
At UCHealth Training Center, players and coaches alike are aware of the opportunity at hand — and the needed urgency that accompanies this contest against a 2-5 football team.
"The pressure is real, and this is reality," Von Miller said Thursday. "We've lost four games in a row after winning three. We can't lose too many more if we want to be the team that we set out to be at the beginning of the year. If we want to go out and win games later on in the postseason, the time is now. The time is now to win."
In their attempt to earn a recently elusive victory, Denver could regain one of its top offensive players in Jerry Jeudy, who could drastically impact the team's offense. But the Broncos will also need to solve a pair of defensive issues that have lingered over the last several weeks.
If they can do so, the Broncos may be able to do enough to earn a Week 8 win.
These are the questions that will determine if the Broncos can get back in the win column.
CAN JERRY JEUDY PROVIDE THE SPARK THE BRONCOS NEED?
Jerry Jeudy followed up his rookie campaign with an impressive offseason, training camp and preseason, and he appeared poised for a breakout sophomore season. His performance early in the Broncos' Week 1 win over the Giants only bolstered the odds of an impressive statistical season. Through hardly more than a half of play, Jeudy recorded six catches for 72 yards, which led all Broncos. On his final catch, though, Jeudy suffered a gruesome-looking ankle injury that has sidelined him for the past six weeks.
"Good thing is it wasn't as bad as it looked," Jeudy said Thursday.
As the Broncos aim to snap their skid, one of their top offensive weapons could return to the field — and for Denver, that news couldn't have come at a better time. During the team's four-game losing streak, the Broncos have averaged just 16 points per game, and Denver has particularly struggled in the first half. Over the last three weeks, Denver has averaged 4.3 points in the first half.
Denver's struggles have stemmed, in part, from an inability to sustain drives. The Broncos ranked 27th in the league on third down entering Week 8, and they too often have faced third-and-long. Jeudy's return, though, could help turn things around. In Week 1, the Broncos converted 6-of-10 third downs with Jeudy on the field, including several third-and-longs. After his injury, that number has plummeted to just over 20 percent on the season. Jeudy's quick release and ability to create separation should help in crucial situations, and he should also free up players like Courtland Sutton, Noah Fant and Tim Patrick to make plays.
"He'll be very helpful with just his ability to win," said quarterback Teddy Bridgewater this week of how Jeudy will help on third down. "I would say his deceptiveness in his route running—that stands out. It'll open some things up for everyone in this offense [by] having a guy like Jerry back. We're excited that he's going to be out there."
Jeudy did not practice Friday, but Fangio said he remains "optimistic" that Jeudy can return vs. Washington.
"He experienced some soreness after working the last few days," Fangio said. "So we took the conservative route and gave him a rest day and a full rehab day rather than be out here. We're still optimistic."
If Jeudy can play and turn in a performance that's anything like his start to the season, the Broncos offense could realize its potential and break the 24-point barrier for just the third time this season and the first time since Week 3.
WILL THE BRONCOS' RUSHING DEFENSE RESPOND?
A week ago in Cleveland, the Broncos' secondary got a handle on its proclivity to give up deep passing plays. After allowing deep shots against the Ravens, Steelers and Raiders, Denver's defense did not allow a pass of more than 34 yards and gave up no other passes of more than 18 yards. The Broncos' defense, though, fell victim against the Browns' ground game. Cleveland, despite missing its top two running backs, rushed for 5.5 yards per carry and 182 total yards. On the final possession, with the Broncos desperately needing a stop, Cleveland salted away the final 5:12 of the game, culminating with an eight-yard run on third-and-7.
As Washington arrives in Denver, the Broncos must be better against the run. The Washington offense hasn't been explosive in 2021, but the team's run game has been the bright spot, as the group has averaged the 13th most rushing yards per game. Second-year player Antonio Gibson has battled a shin injury, but he showed his potential in 2020. The former third-round pick posted a pair of 100-yard games and 11 touchdowns a season ago.
The Broncos' struggles against the run in Cleveland were largely based on a shortage of available players. Denver lost Alexander Johnson for the season against the Raiders, and Baron Browning was ruled out ahead of the game with a concussion. Reserve player Micah Kiser went down during the first half, which placed Curtis Robinson in a tough spot. The Broncos, though, have since received reinforcements. Browning should return to the field after clearing the concussion protocol, and Denver acquired Kenny Young in a trade with the Rams. Fangio has yet to name a starter, but the Broncos should have the personnel for a bounce-back performance.
CAN DENVER'S DEFENSE SET THE TONE EARLY?
The Broncos' ability to stop the run could also help determine whether the team is able to slow Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke and the WFT offense early in the game. The last several weeks, that's been a problem for this Denver defense. In each of the last three weeks — and four times on the season — the Broncos have allowed an opening-drive touchdown.
Against the Steelers and Raiders, the first-possession scores came as the Broncos allowed touchdown passes of 50 and 48 yards, respectively. Even with a backup quarterback, the Browns saw a potential advantage — and they took it. Cleveland won the toss and chose to receive the opening kickoff. The Browns then proceeded to piece together a five-play, 75-yard scoring drive to start the game.
As safety Justin Simmons said this week, the Broncos must take that decision — and the ensuing result — as a personal affront.
"That's obviously a statement like we talked about," Simmons said. "If a team decides to take the ball, that's obviously a show of 'OK, well we need to take advantage of the fact that his team hasn't been able to start fast.' That gives [them] all the momentum in the world when they answer that bell. I just think that that's a shot at what you're doing. You've got to take that personal and be upset about it. I love our guys in our room, man. I do a lot, and we've got to find a way to answer that."
Simmons explained the inability to get off the field has varied from week to week, but he knows the team must get it fixed.
"There are always the what-ifs," Simmons said. "If we get this one play stopped, now it's second-and-10 instead of second-and-3. The whole drive changes. Within every first drive, there's a story. There's also the [point of] we just didn't play nearly as good enough as we have in the past on those first drives, or for that matter the rest of the game — alluding to the Jacksonville game. That first drive was not good at all, then the rest of the game, guys were settled. We found ways to match energy and things like that. Those are the things that you need to be able to do from the jump. Whatever that is, we need to match the sense of urgency, and maybe the sense of urgency isn't there. Guys need to be comfortable in whatever the case may be. That needs to be addressed. Those are some of the things I was talking about behind closed doors that we're talking about, and we need to figure out. Obviously, everyone knows that that's been a problem, so those are the things that we need to get corrected."
With an early stop — and a potential first-quarter score for the Broncos — Denver could gain control of the game in the opening minutes and take the lead for the first time since the early moments of the second quarter against Baltimore. If the Broncos allow another first-drive touchdown, though, it will only increase the difficulty of earning a win.