Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor (5) drops back for a pass in the first quarter against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts on October 2, 2016. Photo by Matthew Healey/ UPI
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — It was the sum of little things that cost the Denver Broncos in Buffalo on Sunday in their 26-16 loss.
It wasn’t only two bad passes by quarterback Trevor Siemian, throws that the Bills intercepted in the second half. They were costly; one came on a first down as the Broncos were driving and already in field-goal range. But the Bills could only turn the turnovers into three points.
It wasn’t only Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s ability to find the gaps in Denver’s downfield coverages and get a little lucky as well; his first touchdown pass skipped off the hands of Zay Jones and into the grasp of Andre Holmes in the back of the end zone for the fortuitous, unexpected score that put the Broncos in their first deficit of the season.
It wasn’t only a failed fake punt that led to a Bills field goal that extended the Broncos’ second-half deficit from four to seven points.
It wasn’t only the Broncos’ 10 penalties, although two of them led directly to a pair of Bills field goals.
One flag, for an illegal-formation penalty on a punt, effectively cost the Broncos 37 yards of field position after Brandon Tate returned the re-kick 17 yards; the Bills were in field-goal range after the return and didn’t even need a first down to score.
But the costliest flag came with 7:38 remaining and the Broncos trying to get the football back with a 23-16 deficit. Von Miller forced Taylor to throw an incompletion on third-and-6, and then held his hand out as though to help Taylor off the turf. He pulled it back. Miller and Taylor laughed as Taylor arose; it seemed like two members of the 2011 draft class just having a good time.
Referee Carl Cheffers didn’t see the humor in it. He flagged Miller for unsportsmanlike conduct. Buffalo kept the football for four minutes, 20 seconds longer, driving down to the Denver 9-yard line, within reach of an easy Stephen Hauschka field goal.
It wasn’t only one of those things that cost the Broncos.
But they all came together for a defeat in a winnable game. Take away one of them, and the result might have been different. Put them all together, and you have a recipe that can cause as much damage as a plate of nuclear hot wings to someone suffering from gastroenteritis.
That’s why the Broncos weren’t panicking Monday. Some of it was within their control. Some of it was beyond their grasp. On a Sunday defined by mystifying results, the Broncos had a head-scratcher that they knew was simply one of those days.
"It wasn’t as bad or terrible as you would think it was after a loss," running back C.J. Anderson said. "There are just some things that we need to clean up as an offense that we know we can clean up."
They’d better, with the Oakland Raiders looming next week.
Given that inside linebacker Brandon Marshall took a knee during the national anthem before half of the Broncos’ games in 2016 to call awareness to issues of social justice, it came as no surprise that he kneeled during the anthem Sunday in Buffalo in the wake of President Donald Trump’s remarks regarding NFL players who protest at a speech in Huntsville, Ala., and subsequent tweets on the subject.
"We talked about the fact that (Trump) called the (neo-Nazis in) Charlottesville ‘very fine people,’ but (players who kneel) are ‘sons of bitches,’" Marshall said. "I think that he has to know that what he said is not going to make people go that way, it’s going to provoke people to bail, so to speak.
"So we all did it and I told (head coach) Vance (Joseph) before the game. Right before the game I said, ‘I don’t want to blind-side you, but some guys are going to go ahead and take a knee.’
"He said he respects my decision. I just didn’t want to blind-side him."
But Marshall wasn’t alone. He was joined by 31 teammates. And they didn’t kneel with him out of obligation.
"I would never ask anybody or pressure anybody to do something that they don’t want to do. A lot of the guys came to me," Marshall said. "So I was like, ‘This is where y’all are at? OK, cool.’"
And Marshall appreciated their support. As he knelt and looked around, eyes locked. Marshall’s teammates knew what their support meant to him — both last year and right now.
"Oh, man, it meant a lot, because they know I went through it last year. I did it by myself eight times. I guess they knew I’d be down for it," he said with a knowing smile.
"Everybody just really came together. They talked about it themselves. I didn’t have a meeting and say, ‘Hey, we all should do this.’ Some guys came to me and then I was like, ‘OK, this is where y’all are at,’ and then another guy came to me, and then I talked to some other people about it, and then everybody was cool with it. I was like, ‘All right, let’s do it.’"
With fourth-and-2 at their own 31-yard line late in the third quarter and a four-point deficit, Broncos head coach Vance Joseph called for a fake punt that failed. He took the blame for it.
"The fake punt is my call solely," Joseph said. "The idea of the fake punt was obviously getting within fourth-and-1 or fourth-and-2. We ran our offensive line off.
It was an unusual call — with an unusual personnel grouping. He kept his offensive line in the game. He used running back De’Angelo Henderson as the punt protector. Henderson got the snap, but went nowhere, gaining only one yard, giving the ball back to the Bills.
"We mixed (the line) in with the punt team and ran those guys back on. We wanted our offensive line versus their punt return team, which is all defensive backs and one linebacker," Joseph said. "We ran our O-line back on."
But one player — cornerback Lorenzo Doss — was late in taking the field.
"We had the perfect look, but we were short one guy. So when (Doss) ran on, it gave them a chance to see what we were doing. Watching the tape last night and this morning, if the ball was snapped at the appropriate time, in my opinion, it would have been a good play," Joseph said. "Now, it didn’t work, so it was a bad play."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "A lot of people, they agree with the President. But a lot of people agree with us." — Broncos inside linebacker Brandon Marshall, who knelt during the national anthem before eight games last year and was one of 31 Broncos to kneel before Sunday’s game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
QB Trevor Siemian threw two costly second-half interceptions Sunday, both of which could have been prevented if he had opted to throw the football away when he got outside of the pocket.
RB Devontae Booker was inactive for a third consecutive game as he completes his recovery from a fractured wrist.
RB Jamaal Charles’ second-quarter touchdown was his first since joining the Broncos this offseason. He finished the day with 56 yards on nine carries.
WR Demaryius Thomas caught six passes for a team-leading 98 yards despite tight coverage and is back on pace for what would be his sixth consecutive 1,000-yard season.
OLB Von Miller had a sack, another quarterback hit and two tackles for losses. He has three sacks in the last two games after going five games without a sack.
ILB Todd Davis had his best game of the season so far, notching a sack, two tackles for losses and 10 total tackles. Davis saw more playing time this week as the Broncos leaned heavily on their base defense after playing in sub packages for most of their win over the Cowboys.
REPORT CARD VS. BILLS
–PASSING OFFENSE: C-minus — Two second-half interceptions helped doom the Broncos and provided a key lesson for Trevor Siemian: that discretion is the better part of valor. Siemian could easily have thrown the football away, but instead fired errant passes that the Bills intercepted, turning one of them into a field goal. Until those picks, Siemian was steady, although his passes floated a bit more than usual, and the pass protection had its best day.
–RUSHING OFFENSE: B — The consistency wasn’t there as the Broncos would have hoped, but Jamaal Charles and C.J. Anderson did combine for 92 yards on 17 carries, with Anderson ripping off a 32-yard run. Charles touched the football on 10 of the 21 snaps he played, averaged 6.2 yards per carry and scored his first touchdown as a Bronco.
–PASS DEFENSE: C-minus — Denver got to Tyrod Taylor for four sacks and four other hits, but Taylor found open receivers downfield, exploiting gaps in the Broncos’ coverage for 213 yards on 20-of-26 passing with no interceptions. Denver’s young safeties struggled in coverage at times, as the Broncos appeared to miss T.J. Ward more than in the first two games of the regular season.
–RUSH DEFENSE: A — If you had told the Broncos that they would limit Buffalo running back LeSean McCoy and quarterback Tyrod Taylor to just 34 yards on 22 attempts Sunday, they probably would have taken that and expected to win. Even when Mike Tolbert’s 41 yards on 11 attempts were factored in, the Broncos dominated at the line of scrimmage and limited the Bills to just 2.3 yards per carry and just 75 yards on the ground. Only one of Buffalo’s 33 attempts went for a double-digit gain.
–SPECIAL TEAMS: D-plus — Mistakes, mistakes, mistakes. An illegal-formation penalty against Jamal Carter effectively resulted in a 37-yard change in field position, as it wiped out a tackle for an 8-yard loss on a Brandon Tate punt return. Instead of starting at the Buffalo 31, the Bills began their next possession at the Denver 32 after the re-kick, and turned the good field position into a field goal. That penalty followed another on an earlier kickoff by Will Parks, who cost the Broncos a chance to have the Bills start at their 11 because of an unnecessary roughness penalty; the Bills built some momentum off the field-position reprieve and marched to their first touchdown after the infraction. A fake punt in the third quarter went nowhere. Brandon McManus was perfect on four placekicks and Isaiah McKenzie and Latimer had solid return days, but their work was not enough to overcome Denver’s self-inflicted wounds.
–COACHING: B-minus — The Broncos’ issues weren’t about preparation, but execution. Denver’s offensive game plan created some wide-open receivers, allowing Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas to combine for 173 yards on 13 receptions. Defensively, the Broncos shut down the Bills’ running game and dared Tyrod Taylor to beat them with his arm. He did, dropping some perfectly placed passes in gaps downfield. Denver got away from the run at times, and a decision to call a fake punt late in the third quarter could come under scrutiny, but the biggest mistake the Broncos’ coaches could make would be to overreact to a road loss that came down to execution, a tip-drill touchdown and a questionable unsportsmanlike conduct call that led to the Bills’ game-clinching field goal.