DENVER — Deep down the field, when the ball was in the air, the Raiders made plays.
And the Broncos didn’t.
In a 34-24 loss in which the Broncos trailed by as many as 21 points, there was plenty that plagued Denver.
Turnovers. The offensive line. The run defense.
But the simple, unifying thread in Sunday’s loss that handed the Broncos their third consecutive loss and fifth straight division loss, the difference between a win and a loss was clear.
When Raiders quarterback Derek Carr looked down the field, he found his receivers again and again. And when Teddy Bridgewater aimed deep, he did not.
“I think that was a major point in the game,” Head Coach Vic Fangio said. “When they threw it down the field deep, they made the plays on both sides of the ball. … We didn’t make them on offense when we had our opportunities, and they made them with their offense when they had their opportunities. I think that was a big part in the game.”
On defense, the struggles against the deep pass came early and often. On the first drive of the game, Carr found Henry Ruggs III down the field for an opening 48-yard score with cornerback Ronald Darby in coverage. Safety Justin Simmons was a step late, and Las Vegas took an early lead.
Late in the second half, the Raiders used a pair of completions of at least 30 yards to score a touchdown before the half and take a 10-point lead into the locker room. Perhaps the most critical Raiders completion came on third-and-12 late in the third quarter as the Broncos tried to cut into a 14-point lead. Carr again found Ruggs working against Darby, and the second-year player hauled in a 40-yard completion that set up a touchdown that put the Raiders up by three scores. On that play, Darby tried to swat the pass away but mistimed his jump.
“I’m not going to give myself no excuses,” said Darby when asked if rust played a factor after not playing since Week 1. “I just need to finish on the ball. That’s easily fixed. Especially the last one, I’m right there. I just made the mistake of jumping too early. That’s on me. I just need to finish it. That’s something [that] easily can be fixed.”
Both of the deep passes against Darby came on third down, when Denver had an opportunity to get off the field. So, too, did a 51-yard fourth-quarter pass to Bryan Edwards with Bryce Callahan in coverage.
In all, Denver gave up seven throws of at least 25 yards and five passes of at least 30 yards. And perhaps most troubling is that Sunday’s struggles were a continuation of a trend.
In the last three weeks, the Broncos have given up touchdown passes of 49, 50 and 48 yards.
“It can definitely be fixed,” Simmons said. “The things that happened today can be fixed. My thing is I feel like I said that almost every week. At a certain point, you can’t just say it. It has to be fixed.”
Offensively, the team didn’t have much success on the deep ball, either.
Bridgewater misfired on several deep passes, including a second-quarter pass that would’ve been a walk-in Courtland Sutton touchdown if not overthrown. Later in the game, Bridgewater attempted a deep throw to Tim Patrick that was nearly intercepted. Patrick had to work back to the ball and break up the pass to prevent the turnover. Bridgewater was later picked by Tre’von Moehrig on a deep attempt to Sutton.
On deep passing attempts, Bridgewater finished 2-of-7 for 52 yards and an interception. Denver had just two passes of 25 yards or longer all afternoon, though the team also drew one pass-interference penalty on a deep attempt.
“Today we just missed,” Bridgewater said. “We had some 50-50 opportunities, we came up short. If we could just hit the big one earlier in the game to ‘Court,’ I think it gives us a ton of momentum.”
Tight end Noah Fant, who was on the receiving end of the only completed deep passes, said the Broncos’ offense knows it must find a way to correct the lack of downfield success.
“Obviously from the offensive standpoint, we’ve got to figure out a way to make those happen,” Fant said. “That’s the only explanation for it. The opposing team is figuring out how to do it, we’ve got to figure out how to do it. There’s no explanation for it. We have to be able to convert those. We have to be able to connect on those and make those happen and catch and run and all those things. Got to go back to the drawing board and make sure we’re working on those things in practice and making sure that those things stick. When we get into the game, we’ve got to have those. That’s the only explanation I got for you.”
In Sunday’s loss to the Raiders, the disparity in deep-passing success was really the only explanation needed.