In one of the ugliest games we've seen over the past couple of years, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers walked all over the Denver Broncos on Sunday afternoon to the tune of a 28-10 beat down.
Unable to overcome the rash of injuries the team has suffered over the first couple of weeks as well as make in-game adjustments to the heavy pressure schemes of the Bucs defense, Denver was outplayed, outcoached, and outmatched for what seems like the hundredth time since the team won Super Bowl 50 half a decade ago.
Probably the most frustrating aspect to this loss was watching the team compete against two high-quality opponents in their first two weeks, only to see a massive regression in Week 3. Don't get me wrong, this Bucs team is a legitimate threat in the NFC and figures to be a postseason contenders, but so are the Titans and Steelers. Denver got bullied on their own field in embarrassing fashion.
It's hard to come away with anything positive from a game like this. The failure to adjust, acknowledge the weaknesses throughout the roster, and put players in a position to succeed has become the defining theme for this franchise, and it appears as if the recipe to defeat the Broncos has come to the forefront.
So what exactly did we learn from the third straight loss to open the season?
Lock Can't Get Back Soon Enough
The first thing we learned, if we didn't already know, is that Jeff Driskel is not an NFL starting-caliber quarterback. He has enough athleticism to play in this league, but his awareness on the field is highly questionable. Some might say it fails to exist.
Sure, Driskel played admirably when he took over for Lock last week and had the Broncos in position to win a tight contest against the Steelers. But you could see it then, and it was on full display on Sunday.
Driskel has no idea how to identify a blitz, nor does he know where to go with the football when he is under pressure.
This is perfectly highlighted by him taking a sack for a safety in back-to-back weeks. It's perfectly highlighted with him holding the ball for too long when he does see pressure coming. And it's perfectly highlighted by him not adjusting his protection upfront if he does recognize an extra rusher.
So much so, that the Broncos chose to bench him in favor of Brett Rypien in the fourth quarter.
When Rypien was in the game, there was a palpable difference in the rhythm of the offense. Rypien hit his hot reads, safety valves and even checked his protection a couple of times on his first drive.
An ugly interception derailed it in the end zone, but it was abundantly clear that Rypien was in control of the situation. Let us all hope for a quick recovery from Lock, as well as Driskel remaining on the sidelines this coming Thursday.
Cushenberry Isn't Ready — Yet
Speaking of adjusting protection schemes, one of the most important aspects of playing the center position is dictating calls at the line of scrimmage. If those responsibilities are placed upon the rookie third-round pick, they need to be removed immediately.
Sure, your quarterback has the right to be the be-all-end-all decision-maker when shifting the offensive line and adjusting the protection scheme, but your center is the quarterback of the O-line and he has to put his teammates in a position to succeed.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and now the Bucs took advantage of Cushenberry, bringing blitzes on at least 60 percent of their pass rush reps. The rookie center failed to diagnose them as well, and failed to relay the necessary adjustments to his teammates.
Not only that, but his play in the passing game has been absolutely dreadful. Another week, another sack allowed by Cushenberry, this time relinquished to Vita Vea. There were several other pressures allowed up the middle on twists and stunts, including the sack by Shaquil Barrett that resulted in a safety. Cushenberry was burned there as well.
Sometimes, it is a great idea to throw your rookies to the wolves to let them develop in live fire. This might not be one of those situations.
Aside from Garett Bolles, the Broncos offensive line as a whole has struggled mightily over the first three weeks, but Cushenberry has arguably been the worst of the starting five. Maybe it's time to insert Austin Schlottmann into the starting lineup to get a veteran presence at the pivot.
Short-Yardage Play-Calling Snafus Strike Again
I don't have an exact number to give to you as of the writing of this article, but there is an obvious failure to utilize Melvin Gordon in short-yardage scenarios through the first three games. Shoot, there's an obvious failure to use the running game in general (only eight rushes for Gordon in Week 3), but especially when placed in short-yardage scenarios.
Twice the Broncos had a 3rd-&-short against the Buccaneers, and twice offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur went away from his $16 million running back in favor of the pass, including a horrible pass 'attempt' by Driskel that looked more like a fumble than a throw.
These situations have been an issue for Shurmur for a long time, even dating back to his time in New York when he had Saquon Barkley running the ball for the Giants.
Why does he not trust his running game?
I understand that in most of the short-yardage situations he has had as the Broncos offensive coordinator, the opposing defense has sold out against the run. But eventually you have to believe that your men upfront can create a push, especially with a quality back to carry the football.
Go grind out those two yards rather than get cute behind a beleaguered offensive line that has been awful protecting the passer in the play-action passing game with a backup quarterback that has struggled to properly diagnose the blitz and doesn't know what to do when he is pressured.
The Broncos Can't Manufacture Pass Rush
There was a lot of hype coming out of training camp about the lethality of the Broncos pass rush, even after losing Von Miller for the foreseeable future. With Dre'Mont Jones, Jurrell Casey, Shelby Harris and Bradley Chubb all still ready to play, Denver had a myriad of guys that could get after the passer — on paper.
That hasn't been the case at all, though, and with Jones and fellow defensive lineman DeMarcus Walker on injured reserve for Sunday's bout with the Bucs, the Broncos pass rush was again nondescript, just as it's been for the majority of the season to date.
Denver got Tom Brady to the ground three times on Sunday, but all three were examples of quality coverage on the back end of the defense. Shelby Harris notched a pair of sacks, but both were well after the snap and only after Brady held the ball for more than four seconds. Chubb's 'almost' sack from behind (turned out to be a slight gain) was much the same.
Vic Fangio is not known for a heavy-blitz defensive scheme, but he has to figure out a way to manufacture some pressure. His guys are not winning their matchups upfront, and the twist and stunt games Fangio has called have been minimally effective at best.
To be fair, the Broncos have been decimated with injuries along the defensive line. Losing Miller has been a major detriment in this facet. But still, Fangio needs to adjust.
When Will Broncos Exploit Hamler's Speed?
With Courtland Sutton out for the year and Jerry Jeudy playing through the pain of a rib injury, this was the perfect opportunity to see the speed element that KJ Hamler brings to the offense. Outside of a reverse that was blown up because DaeSean Hamilton missed his block on the boundary, Hamler was practically invisible within Sunday's offensive game-plan.
Last Friday on the Dove Valley Deep-Divers podcast, our Erick Trickel opined that the Broncos would be wise to use Hamler in pre-snap jet motion frequently, try to push the ball down the field with Hamler being the target, and run a handful of gadget plays with the rookie speedster.
If there was any way to exploit the Bucs defense, it was misdirection running and speed on the boundary against a lackluster cornerback group. Why not exploit both of those weaknesses by using Hamler's skillset and smaller frame to disguise your intentions?
One play is not a concerted effort in getting Hamler involved in your offensive attack. Much like the disappearance of tight end Noah Fant at times (another discussion presents itself here), not figuring out a way to get your fastest offensive player involved reeks of ineptitude.
Bonus Takeaway: This Team Still has Potential
After three weeks, this team has shot itself in the foot so many times that it's a miracle it's still even standing. Fundamental football has disappeared.
Situational awareness walked out the door as well. Failures to adjust to the personnel left in the wake of catastrophic injuries has the team reeling in it's 0-3 start.
But even so, this team still has a lot of potential. Denver has played three straight games against teams that figure to be postseason participants come January.
I sincerely believe that we have yet to even scratch the surface of what this Broncos team is capable of.
The Broncos have a quick turnaround, heading to MetLife Stadium to face the downtrodden New York Jets on Thursday Night Football. And that game may be the key to turning this season around. The Jets are a bad football team, and if Denver can go handle business in primetime down a handful of players, it can come out of that with new life.
There is a possibility that Lock could return in Week 5, as well as No. 1 cornerback A.J. Bouye and co-starting running back Phillip Lindsay. The schedule eases up a little over the next few weeks, and this 0-3 start could turn into a 3-3 record heading into Week 7, where Denver faces off against Kansas City.
It looks bleak right now, and this Bucs game felt like a game that the Broncos had to win. But it isn't the end of their season.
We are going to have to see some grit, mental fortitude, and a killer instinct, but a return to health for several key players as well as a pseudo-bye week can right this ship before it sinks entirely.
The Broncos are close, despite what we saw on Sunday. Don't give up. Not just yet.