Pat Shurmur Explains What Happened on Broncos' Failed Four-Play Goal-Line Series
The Denver Broncos are coming off a 16-14 loss to the Tennessee Titans in the season-opener. Although the Broncos entered the game without their No. 1 wide receiver Courtland Sutton and would have to get by in the second half sans co-starting running back Phillip Lindsay, the offense shined at times on Monday Night Football.
But offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur's unit also had a few plays, and a few series, frankly, that he probably wants back. There was a lost fumble by running back Melvin Gordon, and a few three-and-outs, and a botched four-minute offense, but the series that jumps out the most is the Broncos' failed four-play series on the Titans' goal-line in the second quarter.
After Gordon's fumble, Ryan Tannehill and the Titans made the Broncos pay, driving down quickly with a short field and scoring a touchdown, which tied the game at 7-7. On the ensuing possession, the Broncos really needed to answer.
They did, in a sense, as QB Drew Lock orchestrated a 12-play drive that went 73 yards and consumed nearly six minutes off the clock. Alas, it didn't end with the payoff Shurmur and Lock were hoping for.
The fateful four-play goal-line series within a series started with a 1st-&-Goal from the Titans' 2-yard line. The Broncos were in business. But on first down, the give went to Lindsay and he was promptly stuffed for a 1-yard gain. On 2nd-&-Goal, the Broncos ran play-action, and got just the looks from the Titans they were hoping for, but early pressure in Lock's face caused him to fade back and misfire, overthrowing a wide-open Nick Vannett in the end zone.
That brought up 3rd-&-Goal, and Shurmur's logic was, 'Let's give it to our $16 million powerback who thrives on the goal-line.' Alas, Gordon was stuffed for no gain, which brought up fourth down.
Head coach Vic Fangio, who has shown a surprising propensity for aggressiveness, defying the 'defensive-minded conservatism' of his kind, opted to go for it. Coach Shurmur had just the play, or at least, he thought he did.
Despite Noah Fant catching fire in the first half, catching five passes for 81 yards and a touchdown up to that point, Shurmur called a personnel grouping on fourth down that had Jake Butt, who hadn't played a meaningful game since Week 3 of 2018, in has the lone tight end. With Lindsay next to Lock in the gun, with one receiver split left, two receivers to the right and Butt in-line but slightly off-set on the left, the ball snapped to the QB and he rolled right, making like he was going to throw the sprinting outlet to the running back.
Meanwhile, Butt had snuck laterally down the backside of the O-line, and the shovel-pass went to the fourth-year tight end, but he was promptly swallowed up by Titans' defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons short of the goal-line.
Turnover on downs. The Broncos took a nearly-guaranteed three points off the board by not attempting the chip-shot field goal and a couple of misses by way of execution wiped out what should have been a touchdown to reward Lock and company for their 12-play, 74-yard march down the field.
What went wrong? I've got a couple observations but let's hear what Coach Shurmur had to say on the issue.
"First of all, those are all plays that we practice," Shurmur said on Thursday. "Second of all, the first one, we tried to run in. The second one was a pass out of a big formation grouping, where we had a little bit of pressure. We had two guys open, but we missed them. The last one was a play that we felt had a chance. We just didn’t execute it as well."
At bottom, it was a failure to execute punctuated by an odd personnel decision to take arguably the best skill-position player off the field in a crucial situation. Again, I don't know what prompted Butt to replace Fant in the formation (perhaps they were trying to bluff them), but if I'm Shurmur, and I'm going to ask one of my tight ends to take a shovel-pass on the goal-line and possibly take on a formidable trenchman like Simmons at the point of attack, I'm pushing my chips in on the strong and explosive Fant.
On the shovel-pass, rookie center Lloyd Cushenberry got beat by Simmons, or rather, beat himself. Simmons flowed the direction of the play but Cushenberry lost his footing amid the hand-fighting and fell down, giving Simmons an open-road angle to the ball-carrier. From there, the Titans swarmed, gang-tackling Butt. Stuffed.
At the end of the day, all Shurmur can do is learn from it himself, help his guys learn from the four-play faus pax, extract whatever lessons are there to be gleaned, and then move on all the wiser.
A touchdown there, though, would have changed the entire complexion of the game and even an extra field goal would have forced the Titans to push for the end zone on their final possession in the fourth quarter, instead of settling for the chip-shot field goal that gave them the final two-point lead.
“As far as dissecting plays, they are all designed to work," Shurmur said. "When they don’t, you go back, and you look at what happened and you’re critical about it and then you move on. That’s the approach on everything. We called a lot of plays the other night that worked, and we called a few that didn’t. What we have to be able to do is—that’s a situation that puts us with 21 points on the board and that’s very important in the outcome of that game.”
All in, Shurmur's offense was inconsistent on Monday night but keep in mind two things; 1.) it was his first game coaching this collection of players, and 2.) this is an extremely young offense still figuring out how to win in the NFL.
What jumped out to me was how dynamic this unit can be once it navigates the trial-and-error learning curve of truly assimilating Shurmur's playbook on the heels of a truncated offseason missing OTAs and all of the preseason. The rub, however, is that the Broncos are going to have to figure out a way to win while everyone gets up to speed offensively.
That's the obstacle that Shurmur and Lock truly have to overcome. It won't be easy but Fangio's defense will help open the way by keeping games manageable. Live and learn.
The problem for Broncos Country is that over the last four seasons, there's been too much learnin' on the fly and not enough livin'.