DENVER — As the Broncos head into a short week with an 0-3 record and a still beat-up roster, Shelby Harris doesn't want to hear excuses.
Not about the loss of Von Miller. Not about the loss of Drew Lock. Not about the team's first two games that the Broncos lost by a combined seven points.
"We're not in the business of excuses," Harris said after Denver's 28-10 loss to the Buccaneers. "We're in the business of execution and making plays, and we haven't been doing that. We've got to sit down and be honest with ourselves."
The honest truth is that the road doesn't get easier. In just a few days, the Broncos will board a plane for a long trip east to play the New York Jets on "Thursday Night Football." Harris admitted there likely isn't a player in the league that enjoys playing on a short week, and that may be especially true for a Broncos team that lost just one player to injury Sunday but still has a handful of starters out of the lineup.
"I think the best thing coming off this 0-3 start is that we have a short week," Harris said. "You've got to forget about [the loss]. You just have to go out there and play football. There won't be as much preparation as you usually have. There won't be as much film, there won't be as much practice. You just have to go out and play football. Clear your mind and play the game and everything will work itself out."
Wide receiver Tim Patrick, who caught the team's only touchdown but also was whistled for a pair of penalties, echoed Harris' sentiment of ridding themselves of an 18-point loss.
"We're way too talented to be losing these games," Patrick said. "… Thank God we've got this quick turnaround so we can get this losing taste out of our mouths."
The Broncos have quite the taste to purge after falling to 0-3 in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history.
The trouble started early, as the first possession of the game ended with Patrick O'Connor blocking Sam Martin's punt and recovering the ball on the Denver 10-yard line. Three plays later, Brady found Chris Godwin on a short crossing route, and Godwin bullied his way past Michael Ojemudia across the goal line.
"Well, it's never good obviously to have your punt blocked and give them the ball around the 10-yard-line," Head Coach Vic Fangio said. "We had a chance to hold it to only a field goal. We needed to do that on defense, and we didn't get that done. To be down three-nothing instead of seven would have been a major difference."
The Broncos would go three-and-out on their ensuing two possessions and totaled just 3 yards over the rest of the first quarter. When they did move the ball via a 15-yard completion to Jerry Jeudy and a well-designed 18-yard pass to Noah Fant, Driskel took an untimely sack on second-and-7 that stalled the drive. Brandon McManus drilled a 56-yard field goal — the second-longest make of his career — but the Broncos would fall behind 23-3 before scoring again.
Tampa Bay's 23 first-half points were the most the Broncos had surrendered to an opponent since they gave up 27 in the first half to Brady and the Patriots in 2017.
Driskel guided the offense on a two-minute drill to cap the first half with a touchdown to Patrick, and for a moment the Broncos had life.
"We moved the ball to a great two-minute drive," Patrick said. "We were only down by two touchdowns by the half. Honestly, we had a lot of confidence coming out. The ball just didn't roll our way, and we still had chances throughout the game until it got to that last drive if you really want to look at it like that. We were down two touchdowns. All we had to do was score one and we're right back in the game."
That optimism largely ended, though, when Denver followed an opening stop by giving up a sack in the end zone to former Bronco Shaquil Barrett. The two-point play followed a pair of drops by Noah Fant, and it gave Tampa a 25-10 advantage. Brady and Co. didn't truly need the added points. Denver picked up just two first downs over their first four drives of the second half. When they trotted out for their final offensive drive of the afternoon, Brett Rypien replaced Driskel at quarterback.
"I just wanted to get a new guy in there," Fangio said. "See if he can get it out of his hand a little quicker, direct the protections and see if he could provide a little spark there."
Even Rypien's lone series — which he started 8-for-8 — ended poorly. On fourth-and-1 from the Tampa Bay 13-yard line, Rypien looked for Jerry Jeudy in the end zone but was picked off by Mike Edwards.
"I've been preparing like I'm ready to go at any time and whenever you have your number called, you have to be ready to go," Rypien said. "The drive went pretty well, [but] obviously I wanted to finish it better there on fourth-and-1. I tried to look that safety off, and he didn't really move so I thought I could fit it in there to Jerry and obviously he made a good play on it."
That late drive, though, couldn't hide the Broncos' offensive struggles. The team recorded just 226 total yards, were 5-of-14 on third down and allowed six sacks. Dating back to last week's game in Pittsburgh, the Broncos have allowed 13 sacks in two games.
"I think it was a little bit of everything," Fangio said of the protection issues. "They were bringing a lot of people. Sometimes we weren't on the right people. I think most of the time we were. We were either getting beat or we weren't getting it out quick enough. It was a combination of everything. Until we solve that problem, teams are going to continue to pressure us down after down until we can make people pay for it."
The Broncos were better defensively, as they held the Buccaneers to just five points in the second half and largely bottled up Leonard Fournette a year after he ran for 225 yards in Denver for the Jaguars. Harris tallied two sacks of Brady, four quarterback hits and a pass breakup. Bradley Chubb recorded a near sack, and said after the game he feels close to his pre-injury caliber of play.
"I feel like I'm close. I'm still working on it and still coming back," Chubb said. "At the end of the day, I just have to go out there and make more plays. It's out there for me to do, I just got to get out there and get out of my own head and do it."
Tampa, though, was a highly efficient 8-of-16 on third down and hit on four plays of at least 25 yards. Three of those plays — including a 47-yard pass to Scotty Miller with Justin Simmons draped over him in coverage — spurred scoring drives. The Broncos also did not force a turnover.
"The thing is, it's not like these first games we've lost by 50 points in each game," Harris said. "… The big thing with this defense right now is the big play. We're doing perfectly fine, perfectly fine, perfectly fine, and then a big play. It's always a couple plays each game where it hurt us and we've got to really bounce back and stop all these big plays."
Denver, though, won't have long to reflect on their largest loss of a young season before boarding a plane to the east coast for a game against the 0-3 Jets. Before they go, they'll have to decide who starts at quarterback between Driskel, Rypien and new addition Blake Bortles.
"I'm going to go in and I'm going to watch this game, clean it up and move onto the Jets, because we play on Thursday night," Driskel said. "It's going to come quickly. I'm going to prepare like the starter and I'm going to do everything I can. I hope to be out there, I expect to be out there, but it's not my decision."
As Driskel suggested, the Broncos will soon be back on the field and fighting to improve to 1-3.
That, in Harris' mind, is the only way to prevent this year's rocky start from feeling like last year's 0-4 opening that ballooned into a 2-6 start to the season.
"We're not going to allow it to feel the same," Harris said. "I still think there is a lot of optimism. What you've got to realize is every man in that locker room is still fighting his tail off every day. I have no doubt in my mind we are going to get this turned around."