LAS VEGAS — When Denver’s offense finally snapped out of a quarter-plus of doldrums Sunday afternoon and pulled within two points of the Raiders with 7:16 remaining, its defense took the field needing a stop. It was exactly the kind of situation players say they relish.
The kind of situation the best units conquer.
Instead of building on a promising early season resume, the Denver defense staggered and then took a knockout punch to the chin in the fight capital of the world. The Raiders put together a 10-play, 75-yard putaway touchdown drive for a 32-23 victory, dropping Denver to 2-2.
“We knew when we went into this game that we were going to have to knock that run game out early,” Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett said. “They do have a very good run game. I give them so much credit, they came out and had a really good plan. They stuck with it throughout the entire game.
“… They tried to slow the pace down and I thought it was a really good plan from them.”
Tasked with delivering the ball back to the Broncos’ inconsistent offense one more time, the defense forced a quick third-and-6 only to watch Derek Carr pick up yet another first down with his legs.
Then All-Pro receiver Davante Adams slipped a tackle on second-and-13 for a 17-yard gain. Across midfield and in control, leaning on a Denver defense that struggled against the run from the opening minutes, Josh McDaniels — winless in three tries this season — smartly put the game in running back Josh Jacobs’ hands.
Over five straight run calls, Jacobs carried four times for 26 yards and then capped the drive with a 7-yard touchdown rumble with 2:07 remaining.
A fifth straight loss to the Raiders soon followed, with a battered and bruised Broncos team now headed back home to host the Indianapolis Colts in four short days on Thursday Night Football.
“That series when they kind of finished the game on us, we put that on ourselves,” inside linebacker Jonas Griffith said. “We want that pressure. We want to get the offense the ball back and we didn’t get the job done.”
One week after holding San Francisco’s vaunted run game to 88 yards, the Broncos surrendered 212 yards on the ground. Jacobs pounded his way to 144 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 28 carries. Carr picked up 40 of his own on the ground, collecting first downs on all five of his non-kneel down rush attempts.
Las Vegas wasted no time piling up body blows. Its first drive traversed 60 yards but ended in a field goal. So, too, did marches of 54 and 77 yards after a second-quarter touchdown. Limiting the Raiders to nine points for all of those yards kept Denver within striking distance.
“I don’t think the dam broke, I just think we had a few missed tackles and things like that,” Griffith said. “They’re a good team. They capitalized on our missed tackles. … (Jacobs) runs behind his pads. He’s a great running back and he’s the catalyst for that offense.”
Just when quarterback Russell Wilson and the Denver offense finally appeared to be in rhythm in the first half, running back Melvin Gordon fumbled his first carry of the game and saw it returned 61 yards for a touchdown and 16-10 Raiders advantage shortly before halftime.
In response, Wilson engineered a drive that finished with a 28-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Jeudy, capping a first half in which he completed 11 of 12 passes for 149 yards and a pair of scores.
That momentum did not carry to the third quarter, however. After running back Javonte Williams was lost to a right knee injury on the first snap of the second half, the Broncos mustered just one first down during their next four possessions.
Familiar obstacles: Penalties and negative plays. Over those four empty drives, 11 of 15 snaps — including a holding call on Garret Bolles that negated a play — went for 1 yard, zero or negative yardage.
“We can’t go backwards,” Hackett said. … “Those are self-inflicted wounds. Whether it’s a blocking pattern we’re messing up and going backwards or a sack, any of those things, we have to get better.”
Added Wilson, “If we could just stay on schedule in those situations, we’d give ourselves a really good chance.”
Instead, Las Vegas possessed the ball for 18:29 in the second half and 34:52 overall. It out-rushed the Broncos by 127 yards. And converted 7-of-14 third-down tries, one more success than Denver had allowed in its previous 10 quarters combined.
A Denver defense that said it wanted the game in its hands got that opportunity and wilted against a franchise that’s won every game it’s played against the Broncos in Las Vegas. Instead of burying the Raiders in the basement of the AFC West at 0-4, Denver instead sits just a game ahead with Thursday night looming.
“It wasn’t our cleanest game defensively or offensively,” outside linebacker Baron Browning said. “… Obviously we want to be clean all across the board. We don’t want to be a hit-and-miss team or only good in the first half, not good in the second half or vice versa. We want to play four quarters of football. It’s the early season still. It’s only the fourth game.
“We want things to be perfect, but we’re still building and learning. Building our chemistry as a defense, as an offense, as a whole team.”