Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Broncos running into trouble without a passing game

By Lindsay H. Jones
The Denver Post
January 3, 2012

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 01: Quarterback Tim Tebow #15 of the Denver Broncos scrambles and tries to elude linebacker Derrick Johnson #56 of the Kansas City Chiefs at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 1, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Be it short, long, left side, right side or even a trick-play deep flea-flicker, no matter what the Broncos tried to jump-start their passing game against Kansas City, it didn't work.

Coach John Fox was still miffed Monday about his team's horrendous passing game in the 7-3 loss to the Chiefs.

"We do run short passes. They just didn't go so well," Fox said. "We called long ones, and they didn't go very well either."

He doesn't have much time to fix the problem, with the Steelers coming to town for a first-round playoff game Sunday.

With a running game that produced 216 yards and a defense that held the Chiefs to one score, there is little doubt about the Broncos' weak link heading into the playoffs. Opponents are openly daring quarterback Tim Tebow to prove he can beat them in the passing game, often stacking eight or nine players near the line of scrimmage.

"Everybody that is involved in the passing game has to get better," wide receiver Eric Decker​ said Monday. "To make a push in the playoffs, that has to be an emphasis for us on offense."

Tebow completed only 6-of-22 passes for 60 yards against the Chiefs. He also lost a critical fumble in the first half and threw an interception (on a desperation fourth-down, fourth-quarter pass), finishing with a quarterback rating of 20.6, a career low.

But Fox was careful Monday not to blame all of his team's passing problems on Tebow, who has had back-to-back poor performances. A week earlier, he threw three interceptions and lost a fumble at Buffalo.

"He's doing the best he can to help us win," Fox said, "and we had a little bit of a struggle yesterday throwing the ball. That happens sometimes."

Still, Tebow's struggles are alarming.

He appeared to show significant progress as a passer in early December, with 200-yard games against Minnesota and Chicago, and had perhaps his best day throwing from the pocket in a loss to New England three weeks ago. After his four-turnover day at Buffalo, Tebow appeared to be playing with a lack of confidence as a passer against the Chiefs. He seemed less decisive and, at times, hesitant to throw at all.

And, the Broncos all but gave up on the passing game during long stretches. They called only running plays on their opening possession — a three-and-out series — but offensive coordinator Mike McCoy called for a flea-flicker on the first play of the next possession, hoping to capitalize on a Kansas City defense expecting a running play.

Tebow took the pitch back from running back Willis McGahee​ and saw a deep safety helping to cover wide receiver Demaryius Thomas​. Tebow held the ball for a few moments before tossing it out of bounds to the right sideline. Meanwhile, Decker was uncovered to the left.

"They did a good job of eliminating that play," Decker said of the Chiefs. "I don't know what (Tebow) saw."

Decker, who has had only one catch in each of the past two games, said every player understands the passing offense has to improve for the Broncos to have a chance against the Steelers.

"To make a push in the playoffs, that has to be an emphasis for us on offense," Decker said. "You've got to make the big plays, and find ways to complement the running game and take guys out of the box."

That won't be easy against the Steelers, who went 12-4 with the NFL's top-ranked defense in points allowed, total yards allowed and passing yards allowed.

"It's going to look like there are 13 people on the defensive side of the ball," former Baltimore Ravens​ coach Brian Billick​, now an analyst for the NFL Network, said of Tebow's job Sunday. "He's going to have to rely on his instincts and then hope that on his 20 throws, he can convert 10, 12, 13 of those for big plays."

Fox, in his weekly Monday media briefing, described the Broncos' offense as a "work in progress."

That's not an assessment a coach likes to make heading into a playoff game. He is pleased with the running game (with 216 yards against the Chiefs, the Broncos set a season record for total yards rushing) but said the offense is too unbalanced.

"We're doing it (running the ball) against loaded boxes, which is why we need to get the other phase on our offense rolling," Fox said.

It starts with Tebow and whether he can turn his game around after three consecutive losses. In Tebow's career as a starter in college at Florida and in the NFL, he had never lost more than two games in a row — and that happened only once, in 2007.

"He's proven it, that he can do it," wide receiver Matt Willis said. "It's a matter of doing it every game. It can't be one game we do it and another game we don't, and go back and forth. Everyone has to be consistent in making plays for him."

Lindsay H. Jones: 303-954-1262 or ljones@denverpost.com

Streaky numbers

Tim Tebow is averaging the same number of passing yards per game — 146 — in the Broncos' three-game losing streak as he did during their six-game winning streak. But Tebow's completion percentage and touchdown passes are down, and his turnovers and sacks are up.

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