CARSON, Calif. --It was the Broncos' first game in Los Angeles County since the days of grunge, and it became something that the Broncos had not experienced since those days -- a shutout.
Denver fell behind early on a 65-yard Travis Benjamin punt return and never caught up, eventually losing 21-0 to the Los Angeles Chargers at the StubHub Center on Sunday afternoon.
"It was embarrassing," said running back Jamaal Charles. "We played poorly. We played like we didn't have any talent on our team today."
Why did the Broncos lose for a second consecutive week?
Because the Broncos couldn't reverse their turnover trend**
For a second consecutive game, the Broncos turned the ball over three times.
It started on the first series of the game, when Trevor Siemian got away from pressure and delivered a 23-yard pass to tight end A.J. Derby. But Chargers safety Adrian Phillips stripped him of the football. Los Angeles' Jatavis Brown recovered at the Denver 45-yard line, and even though the defense would eventually turn in a goal-line stop to ensure that the fumble didn't directly cost the Broncos any points, the field position change helped set up Benjamin's subsequent punt return for a score.
The second turnover cost the Broncos an opportunity for at least a field goal late in the second quarter. With the team marching into Los Angeles territory for the first time in the game, Siemian scrambled under pressure and was stripped from behind by Los Angeles' Chris McCain. Damion Square recovered at the Los Angeles 38-yard line.
The final giveaway helped scuttle any chance of a rally. With a 14-0 deficit early in the fourth quarter, Denver had to go for it on fourth-and-6 at the Los Angeles 31-yard line. Siemian scrambled left out of pressure, but had his running lane to the line to gain cut off, so he threw in the direction of Demaryius Thomas, but Casey Hayward intercepted the pass.
The interception actually cost the Chargers yardage, since they would have taken over at their 31-yard line if Hayward had dropped the pass. But a turnover on downs would have also effectively been a turnover, so the result was the same: a fruitless drive.
Denver has now lost 20 of its last 21 games when it turns the football over at least three times.
"What hurt us was turnovers," Charles said. "We know we've got to fix the turnovers."
Because of a punt that set up Benjamin's long return**
With the offense struggling to generate momentum, the Broncos couldn't afford a special-teams lapse. Unfortunately for them, Travis Benjamin burst up the middle on Riley Dixon's first punt of the game and sprinted 65 yards for the touchdown that put the Chargers in front to stay just 7:27 into the contest.
"It was an awful punt," Joseph said. "It was a line drive. It hit the ground and bounced back to [Benjamin]. The plan was to put the ball on the sideline and kind of trap the guy, because he has great speed.
"Once the punt is bad, the coverage ended up suffering because the punt was so flat. Unacceptable. Can't do it."
The return changed the entire flow of the game.
"That first punt return kind of set us back," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "From then on they had a smart game plan that attacked the middle of the field and worked the tight ends, and we're going to see that every week unless we get up on some people."
Benjamin's 42-yard catch-and-run on third-and-11 with 5:42 remaining in the fourth quarter effectively put the game out of reach, dooming the Broncos to their third loss in four games.
"The last touchdown was basically a four-minute call," Joseph said. "We're being aggressive and they hit us on a [crossing route] and the inside guy got rubbed for a touchdown."
Because the Broncos' longest gain of the season was taken off the board**
With 6:48 left in the third quarter and the Broncos in desperate need of momentum, Siemian hit Thomas up the right sideline for a connection that turned into an 81-yard catch-and-run. It would have put the Broncos at the Los Angeles 10, but it was wiped out by a pass-interference penalty against Thomas back upfield.
"I don't think it was pass interference, to tell you the truth," he said. "We got some calls that shouldn't have been made and some calls that should've been made. As a receiver, I can't do anything. If I tried to stop and catch that ball, the [defensive back] would've ran into me."
Derailed by the penalty, the Broncos would go three-and-out for the fifth time in Sunday's game.
Because Denver couldn't get the ground game going on a consistent basis
Until C.J. Anderson's 11-yard run late in the third quarter, the Broncos had not posted a single double-digit carry since returning from the bye, with a Siemian 8-yard scramble early in the game standing as their longest run of the day prior to that point.
The offense flows from the running game, and without it, the Broncos stalled. Denver's average yardage to gain on third downs was 8.1 yards, contributing to the Broncos' 3-of-14 performance in that statistic.
"[Siemian] is most comfortable when the running game is effective," Joseph said. "That's when he is in his comfort zone. When the running game is effective, he can play-[action] pass and keep us in short third downs. Right now, every third down is eight, nine, ten [yards]. That's a tough spot for a young quarterback to be in."
Because the Chargers' pass rush consistently pressured Siemian
Los Angeles racked up notched five sacks Sunday: two for McCain, two for Joey Bosa and one for Melvin Ingram.
"Those guys are good players, and if you let them, they're going to affect the game," Siemian said.
"We're not blocking well and we're not protecting well," Joseph added. "We had some good plays called today with some guys wide open, and we're not hitting the passes. It's puzzling."
Photos by the Broncos' photographers of Sunday's game against the Chargers. (photos by Gabriel Christus unless noted)