Down eight and desperately in need of something positive to happen after the New York Jets scored 13 straight points to start the second half, the Broncos got the ball back at their 25-yard line on their first drive of the fourth quarter.
In front of them was an opportunity to retake momentum in a game that had suddenly gotten away from them Sunday afternoon at Empower Field.
Instead, they moved backward.
Jets defensive end Bryce Huff maneuvered past right tackle Mike McGlinchey with a two-handed swim move before sacking quarterback Russell Wilson for a 6-yard loss. On the next play, Wilson couldn’t find anyone downfield, and had to dump the ball off to wide receiver Jerry Jeudy for a 2-yard gain. Facing third-and-14 after that, Jets edge rusher Jermaine Johnson chased Wilson from behind then knocked the ball loose before it rolled out of bounds.
Three plays, 2 yards lost and both edges of the Broncos’ offensive front exposed.
The pass protection issues that plagued Denver in a loss to Washington three weeks earlier had re-emerged against the Jets’ treacherous front seven. A 31-21 loss soon followed, dropping Denver to 1-4.
Broncos head coach Sean Payton was critical about Denver’s pass protection, saying “we could have been a little stronger at tackle.”
With the Broncos set to face a Chiefs defense led by defensive tackle Chris Jones, McGlinchey knows the offensive line has to do a better job at being firm in the pocket.
“I think it’s just a matter of using your hands, taking a proper set angle, and working together as a unit,” McGlinchey told The Denver Post.
Going into the Week 5 matchup, Payton knew the Jets’ four-man rush would present a challenge. The pocket collapsed quite a bit on Wilson. Even though he scrambled for gains at times, New York’s zone coverage led to slower progressions and not being able to find receivers down the field in time.
“(The Jets) rushed well as a unit in terms of all four collapsing. They had a clear plan for keeping Russell inside the pocket,” McGlinchey said. “They also (had) a solid (secondary), so the ball (was) held longer.”
The Broncos have allowed 15 sacks — tied for the eighth most in the NFL through five games. They had allowed just one apiece in losses to Miami and Chicago the previous two weeks. But last Sunday’s effort against New York signified a regression toward issues that cropped up in Week 2 when Washington recorded seven sacks and 14 quarterback hits.
Even though the Broncos, who rank 10th in the league in pass-block win rate, according to ESPN Analytics, have improved their pass protection from last season, their faults are noticeable when facing physical defensive fronts.
“Cleaning that up and understanding where we are in the pocket is going to be important,” Payton said. “We’re going to periodically play a team that decides to be a little bit more coverage-driven.”
Payton believes Denver’s offensive line will have a challenge Thursday against the Chiefs. Kansas City enters the matchup ranked 18th in sacks (13), seventh in quarterback hits (38) and fifth in pressures (50).
Payton said Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo presents multiple pressure looks that keep opposing offensive fronts of their toes.
“There’s quite a bit to cover relative to your protection plan,” he said.
Denver’s biggest issue will be shutting down Jones. The four-time Pro Bowler, who missed the season opener due to a contract dispute, has recorded a sack in each of the past four games.
Last season, Jones totaled seven tackles, including two sacks in a pair of games against the Broncos.
“He presents a challenge for everyone that plays because he rushes a lot on the outside on third down,” McGlinchey said. “You have to know where the help is and when you can change up your set. He’s a great player and earned the reputation that he’s got.”