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DENVER — Home-field advantage in the NFL is typically thought of in terms of a deafening crowd roar when the opposing team faces a critical down. Maybe it’s the comfort of sleeping in your own bed or knowing that a long plane ride doesn’t wait after the game.
Sunday afternoon in Denver, Broncos fans added a benefit to the ledger, albeit perhaps with collective tongues in cheeks.
Their team struggling mightily in the game management department, they figured it couldn’t hurt to count down the play clock when their team was on offense. Maybe they could help the Broncos avoid taking another delay penalty in the fourth quarter against the Texans, especially considering the home team had already used all three of their timeouts by the seven-minute, 38-second mark of the fourth quarter.
“I was telling them, that actually helped us out,” running back Javonte Williams said afterward. “We started clicking once they started telling us the play clock. They might need to keep doing that every game.”
Denver certainly hopes that’s not necessary.
With a little coaxing from the home crowd, a strong defensive outing and a timely fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Russell Wilson to tight end Eric Saubert, the Broncos did indeed manage to notch a 16-9 victory against Houston on Sunday afternoon to improve to 1-1 and avoid a winless start.
NFL WEEK 2: 32 things we learned
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However, for first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett and company, questions have stacked up far faster than answers through two weeks. The crowd let he and the home sideline know that, too, expressing its displeasure several times over the course of the afternoon.
“I don’t blame them,” Hackett said. “I mean, heck, I’d be booing myself. I was very frustrated. Get down to the red zone two times and don’t get a touchdown, which is unbelievably frustrating – I don’t think we’ve scored in there yet – that’s something that, all of our guys have to step up whether we run the ball more or whatever we’re doing, we’ve just got to execute at a higher level.”
That wasn’t the only issue.
After sending out kicker Brandon McManus for a 64-yard field goal attempt instead of trying to convert a fourth-and-5 last week in a loss to the Seattle Seahawks, the Broncos on this day failed two more times in the red zone, drew multiple delay-of-game penalties and committed three false starts en route to 13 infractions for 100 yards overall and heard boos from the home crowd after Wilson went 6-of-19 for 93 yards in the first half and the offense pushed nearly 53 minutes dating to last week without a touchdown.
The two-week totals so far: 25 penalties for 206 yards, no touchdowns in five red zone trips, two total offensive touchdowns and a handful of decisions that looked disjointed in process and in result.
“It’s always great to win, that’s first and foremost, but it’s too sloppy by the offense,” Hackett said. “We just kind of made it hard on ourselves.”
Six days after losing two fumbles on snaps from the opponent’s 1-yard line, for example, Denver on Sunday had the ball in the red zone twice in the first half. In six snaps from inside the 5-yard line, they ran the ball just once, saw Wilson go 0-of-5 and settled for two field goals.
The Broncos took two different delay of game penalties on field goal attempts, the second of which turned a 53-yard attempt into a punt, much to the crowd’s chagrin.
They converted 3-of-12 on third down, including a decision to run what looked like an option play with tight end/fullback Andrew Beck on a third-and-2 that preceded the delay of game-turned-punt.
With the lead finally in hand at 13-9 and set up first-and-10 at Houston’s 26-yard line with 4:36 to go, the Broncos threw the ball three straight times and took less than a minute off the clock before settling for another field goal and a 16-9 lead. Houston ultimately had the ball two more times with a chance to tie the game. The disruptive Denver defense, though, turned back the threat each time and didn’t allow the Texans a touchdown on the afternoon. They have not given up a touchdown now in the last 93 minutes of game time.
“That’s our job,” inside linebacker Alex Singleton said. “It’s fun. We know in a game like that that the defense has to make stops and get the ball back to the offense. We were able to do that.”
Denver has issues outside of the game management department, too. It has already lost standout safety Justin Simmons for at least four weeks to a quad injury – he was placed on injured reserve on Wednesday – and on Sunday saw major contributors wide receiver Jerry Jeudy (ribs) and cornerback Pat Surtain (shoulder) suffer injuries and not return. They were already without wide receiver KJ Hamler (knee) who played 40 snaps last week but, according to Hackett, may miss time on and off early in the year as he recovers from knee and hip surgery and wide receiver Tim Patrick, who suffered a torn ACL in training camp, among others.
On Sunday, the offense relied heavily on standout Courtland Sutton (seven catches for 122) and a cast of reserves including Tyrie Cleveland, Kendall Hinton and Montrell Washington after Jeudy’s injury.
“With Jerry and losing him, I think that stymied us a little bit, but I love the fact that a lot of guys stepped up and made plays,” Hackett said.
Learning on the fly is a tough proposition in the NFL, and Hackett acknowledged that process is a continuing one for him.
“There’s definitely some things that go on once you get down to that unique area and I think I just need to be sure I clean up what I’m hearing, what I’m going with and making sure I’m on the same page as Russell,” Hackett said. “That will make us more efficient on that one there. Especially on the last one where we were debating on whether we wanted to kick the field goal or go for it.
“I’ve just got to be sure that I’m communicating to Russell exactly what we’re going to do in that situation just so there’s not that late timing of getting out there and getting the field goal unit out there. That was unfortunate, that’s on me. I’ll clean that up.”
Next up: A “Sunday Night Football” home game against Jimmy Garoppolo, Kyle Shanahan and the San Francisco 49ers.
The Empower Field at Mile High crowd undoubtedly will be loud again, but maybe progress will be measured by whether it feels the need to count down the play clock or unleash another chorus of boos.