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Slow starts put Broncos' play-caller Shurmur under microscope

Fangio: "I have no qualms with Pat other than our results haven't been good enough."
Credit: AP
Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur waits to respond to reporters during a news conference before NFL football practice at the team's headquarters Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021, in Englewood, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Going back nearly a decade ago, when Peyton Manning was his quarterback and the Broncos were winning game after game, life was pretty good for John Fox.

The Broncos’ then head coach, though, would dismiss any suggestions of a job well done.

'When you’re coaching in the NFL," Fox would say more than once to a local reporter or three during one of his friendly pre-practice bull sessions, "you’re always two losses away from disaster."

Those words are reverberating around Broncos headquarters this week. After a 3-0 start, the Broncos have lost to perennial AFC North Division powers Baltimore and Pittsburgh in back to back weeks and the current coach who is now receiving the brunt of the criticism is offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur.

Almost always, it’s the play caller.

Credit: Drew Litton for 9NEWS

A week ago, after quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was knocked out with a concussion against the Ravens, the experts in Broncos Country were deploring Shurmur’s play-calling ability because he wasn’t running the ball enough. So in the Broncos’ first two, and only two, first quarter series against the Steelers, the masses got their way.

Melvin Gordon ran on first down and again on second down. Third and 9. Great. Bridgewater completion for 5 yards, punt.

Next series, after Broncos outside linebacker Malik Reed forced a fumble to set up great field position, rookie Javonte Williams ran on first down and again on second down. Third and 12. Double-great. Bridgewater completion for 10 yards, field goal.

Run the ball? Sometimes it’s about as effective as throwing a punch at a brick wall.

Shurmur was mostly lauded for his balanced and well-designed play calling as the Broncos were winning decisively through their first three weeks. But then came disaster. The Broncos only scored 7 points in losing to the aggressive Ravens defense last week and they had just 6 points through three quarters Sunday against the Steelers while falling behind, 24-6.

RELATED: Bridgewater nearly leads heroic comeback, but Steelers hang on, beat Broncos 27-19

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, left, and head coach Vic Fangio look on as players take part in drills during an NFL football training camp at the team's headquarters Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in Englewood, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

It’s not just the fans and media inside Broncos Country who are concerned. So is Shurmur’s immediate boss, head coach Vic Fangio. While primarily a defense-centric coach, Fangio as the boss pokes his head in all the meeting rooms.

"I've been involved," Fangio said of his team’s offense. "We already met this morning—myself with the offensive staff. We all just have to do a better job. We have to do a better job of coaching these players, and we have to do a better job of playing. We're all in it together.

"I have no qualms with Pat other than our results haven't been good enough. We have to find a way to fix that."

What finally worked for the Broncos’ offense was after they did fall behind 24-6 at Pittsburgh and had no choice but to chuck their offensive game plan and have Bridgewater chuck it around through their 2-minute offense.

Suddenly, the Broncos’ offense got hot. Bridgewater threw touchdown passes on consecutive drives and had first and goal with a chance to tie on the third and final drive.

The offensive line held up. Bridgewater was in a groove. Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick exchanged big play after big play.

"I know that it’s not always perfect, but I think that when you get into 2-minute drills—I would probably say that that’s what you get paid for on Sundays," said right guard Graham Glasgow. "That’s the hardest possible thing an offensive lineman can find himself in, so just being able to hold up—as I said, it’s not always perfect—hold up long enough and make sure that the quarterback has enough time to move the ball down the field. We were on track to come back and potentially win the game there or tie the game there, maybe go into overtime."

It didn’t quite work out as on fourth down from the 3 yard line and 17 seconds remaining, Bridgewater’s final pass to the well-covered Sutton – eating the ball for a sack or throwing it away were not options – was intercepted. The Broncos have lost two in a row. Disaster.

Before signing a rich contract with the Broncos last year, Glasgow played four years with the Detroit Lions, where he must have played in a dozen games similar to the one Sunday in Pittsburgh. To wit: The sad sack Lions down a couple touchdowns when their talented quarterback Matthew Stafford would start lighting it up once the offense went into 2-minute mode.

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos guard Graham Glasgow (61) blocks during an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Matt Durisko)

Run, schrun. Perhaps the slow-starting Broncos, who have scored just 13 points in the first quarter through five games this year, should open up their passing game earlier?

"I can see why you would ask that, and I think that there are some people who would say, 'yes,'" Glasgow said. "But I think that part of a football game in general just also comes to balance. I think you do need to run the ball and I thought that there were some runs that we had yesterday that were pretty good. I think early we had some plays that they had some game wreckers out there. I thought that (Steelers outside linebacker) T.J. Watt did a really good job at the beginning of the game stopping some of our runs and stuff, but I don’t think that that’s a cause to just go and throw the ball 80 times in a game.

"I think that in general in a 2-minute drill the defense just isn’t trying to give up the big play. I think they’re giving us a lot of the completions to move the chains and whatnot. I think that it kind of gives you a false sense of security in why we don’t we just go 2-minute the whole game, but I don’t think you can do that."

Up next is the Broncos’ first AFC West game of the season and it’s against the Raiders, who like the Broncos have lost two in a row after winning their first three. Raiders head coach and offensive play caller Jon Gruden is confronting severe public scorn not because of his team’s lackluster performances the past two weeks but from a racially insensitive e-mail that was dug up from 10 years ago.

If Shurmur is, by Fox’ definition, meeting disaster, perhaps he can be confronted knowing it could be worse.

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur waits to respond to reporters during a news conference before NFL football practice at the team's headquarters Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021, in Englewood, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

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