Broncos injuries finally caught up with them Sunday

Dec 13, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Oakland Raiders tight end Mychal Rivera (81) catches a touchdown pass as Denver Broncos free safety Darian Stewart (26) fails on the coverage during the second half at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Raiders won 15-12. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Clady down for they year? That’s tough but we have time to make up for it. Derek Wolfe suspended for weeks 1-4? We got depth at defensive line, it will be OK. DeMarcus Ware’s back is out of whack? We got Shaquil Barrett and Shane Ray, no biggie. The Broncos have fought through injuries and suspensions all season and came out relatively unscathed. Nail-biting victories versus the Baltimore Ravens, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Cleveland Browns and more where in large part due to the “next man up” on the depth chart making big plays in starters absences.

Sunday, in the disappointing loss at home against the Oakland Raiders the injuries glaringly influenced the outcome of the game. Sure, the Broncos lost the turnover battle, went 0 of 3 in the red zone on offense and scored field goals when touchdowns were necessary. That is a fact and a one that cannot, and has not been overlooked, but the injuries finally caught up with the Broncos.

The Broncos are not ready to make excuses for the loss to the Raiders and there is not shortage of acceptance of responsibility. When asked about if the mounting injuries played a significant role in Sunday’s defeat head coach Gary Kubiak took the age-old, respectable route.

“That’s an excuse. Hell, everybody has people hurt. We got guys banged up and we’ve won some great games this year with a lot of guys missing and we just didn’t get it done the other day.”

The fact of the matter is the Broncos have squeaked by several times with a lengthy injury list but entering the week with Oakland, even Kubiak side stepped naming all of the players due to its length saying on Dec 10, “That is the longest list that I’ve ever had.” All told there were 22 Broncos listed on the injury report, 12 on offense and 10 on defense.

It showed on both sides of the ball Sunday. The defense played masterfully on all, but 14 and one play of the Raiders 15 drives. It was the small missing pieces that cost them two touchdowns. The Broncos were missing safeties Ward (ankle) and backups David Bruton Jr. (knee) and Omar Bolden (hamstring) at strong safety and as a result, Josh Bush and freshly signed Shiloh Keo were in their place.

The Raiders opening drive of the second half, that resulted in their first touchdown, was largely aided by catches of 29 and 25 yards to tight ends Mychal Rivera and Clive Walford. The safeties were late and the coverage cost them. Later in the game, the Raiders took their first and only necessary lead of the game after Keo blew his coverage on Rivera and he caught a 16-yard touchdown on third-and-long.

Bruton, looking on from the sidelines Sunday, was not ready to make excuses Wednesday. “I feel like there is absolutely no excuse and we just have to play better ball and finish and put points on the board, not just field goals and not give up big plays.”

His teammate and starting strong safety, Ward had a more direct answer to the question of how injuries can catch up to a team.

“At some point, when you start accumulating so many injuries it is going to have an effect. It is ‘next man up’ mindset but you’re in a certain position is this league for a reason, you’re a starter in this league for a reason, because you’re better than the man behind you.”

The offense, which rightfully took the majority of the blame in the loss, were more subtly influenced by injuries. They were obviously missing Peyton Manning for the fourth game this season and the Broncos best option at running back, C.J. Anderson was sidelined with an ankle injury, but it was the players that were working through injuries that stifled the offense.

All five starting players along the offensive line appeared on the injury report all week and their collective performance reflected that. Left guard Evan Mathis basically played just two drives the entire game. Michael Schofield, who has struggled mightily as a pass blocker all season, came in with an ankle injury that limited him in practice and contributed to the four sacks he allowed Raiders outside linebacker Khalil Mack to compiled in the contest. At one point, right guard Louis Vasquez, who was dealing with a groin injury, stayed on one knee like a boxer on the canvas for an eight-count before slowly coming to his feet in between plays.

As a result of theirs and others injuries, the team only ran the ball for a total of 34 yards on 21 carries, 12 of which belong to Ronnie Hillman running on a bum foot and allowing Osweiler to get sacked five times and hit countless others.

The team was so thin across the board that even the special teams unit was impacted. “It effected us on special teams because we had guys go down in the game. [Brandon] Marshall had to step up and help out on punt team and he did a great job,” Shaquil Barrett said Wednesday. “It is encourage to have guys coming back to practice today.”

The Broncos, like any team of competitors do not want to use excuses. There is no doubt in their minds and every Broncos fan’s mind that they should have won the game against Oakland but when games become close you need healthy starters there to finish teams off. Sunday they were depleted to an extraordinary level even for a December NFL contest and it undoubtedly impacted the end result.

The encouraging part for the Broncos is their injuries appear to be subsiding this week. Wednesday’s injury report had 20 Broncos names on it but all but six of them (including Peyton Manning) practiced full or were limited. Of those seven players that did not participate, most if not all of them, could be back on the field Sunday when they take on the surging Pittsburgh Steelers.

“The good news is, for our team right now, we’ve got a lot of guys nicked up and a lot of guys hurt, but we’ve got a damn good chance to getting them all back here in the right way here at some point,” Kubiak said Wednesday.

The Broncos have been walking a fine line all season, winning games late and benefiting from depth and some big plays from the defense all season. They have yet to fall back on easy and somewhat fair excuses to explain disappointing results. With three games left in the regular season and a playoff spot suddenly in doubt, if they don’t get heathy soon all that will be left with in January is excuses, instead of trophies.

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