LOS ANGELES — Bad habits are tough to break and the Broncos have a few.
They commit too many penalties.
They go boom or go bust on offense.
They struggle mightily in the red zone.
They haven’t shown they can run the ball consistently for four quarters.
They’ve subjected national television audiences to offensively challenged games four times in six outings this season and sent the past two to overtime. Late in the extra session here on Monday night, it was a special teams gaffe that finally put the Broncos away.
Chargers defensive back Ja’Sir Taylor blocked Denver defensive back P.J. Locke into returner Montrell Washington, causing him to muff Los Angeles’ second punt of a first-down free overtime. A hobbled Dustin Hopkins knocked home a 39-yard field goal to lift Los Angeles to a 19-16 victory, dropping Denver to 2-4 overall, 0-2 in the AFC West.
“This is very disappointing,” head coach Nathaniel Hackett said. “We need to have a lot more urgency across the board. It starts with me as a coach. … We had some opportunities there and we’ve got to execute at a higher level. We’ve got to come up with some better plays.”
The Broncos had 11 days to try to solve its myriad offensive issues and the early returns looked promising when quarterback Russell Wilson completed his first 10 passes and hit 12 of 17 for 173 yards and a touchdown in the first half.
Too often, though, the Denver offense goes belly up if it doesn’t hit a big play. And boy did the Broncos go belly up at SoFi Stadium. After taking a 13-10 lead into the half, Denver punted on six of its final seven possessions between regulation and overtime.
The only drive that didn’t end in a punt was hardly a drive at all.
Denver’s defense, leaned on most of the night by a Chargers offense that largely controlled the game with time-consuming drives, made a big play early in the fourth quarter when outside linebacker Baron Browning bluffed a rush on quarterback Justin Herbert, dropped into the middle of the field and intercepted a pass intended for tight end Gerald Everett.
Instead of taking a shot downfield or finding a way to fully capitalize, the Broncos offense — by that time in the midst of another of their long, listless stretches — went three-and-out and settled for a McManus field goal and 16-13 lead with 8:21 to play.
This is the kind of thing that Denver is going to have to solve if it’s going to get on a roll. They know it. They’ve talked extensively about it. It’s not likely to fully reverse course on a dime.
But it is needed nonetheless. The quicker the better. Wilson played better than he did in a head-scratching 12-9 overtime loss to the Colts last time out, but not any better in the second half and overtime.
Wilson went 3-of-11 for 15 yards in the second half. The Broncos mustered just 72 yards in the second half and overtime.
The Chargers tied the game at 16 with 3:58 remaining in regulation on a 35-yard Hopkins field goal after a drive kept alive by a pair of 15-yard personal fouls on defensive linemen Dre’Mont Jones and Mike Purcell and rookie Damarri Mathis’ fourth defensive pass interference penalty of the game.
After that, Denver had three chances to win the game and netted just 21 yards and a single first down on 10 plays.
The Broncos didn’t surrender a first down in overtime and still managed to lose. Safety Justin Simmons rallied his side of the ball before the extra session and gave a quick, passionate message.
“I pretty much was just saying we can’t leave here without a win,” he said after the game. He started a next thought before his answer trailed off. “It’s tough, but.… Yeah.”
Early on, the Broncos generated big plays that led to points. The offense’s first three scoring drives included plays of 37 and 39 yards — back-to-back from Wilson to Jerry Jeudy and then rookie tight end Greg Dulcich for a touchdown — a 21-yard pass interference penalty on an eight-play, 49-yard field goal march that represented the closest thing to sustained offense in the first half, and then the 47-yarder to Hamler before halftime.
The final two minutes of the first half provided a glimpse of the type of aggressive, offensive-minded game the Broncos want to play under coach Nathaniel Hackett. With the Chargers in the midst of a second straight, long, withering drive, Hackett called his final timeouts in attempting to get the ball back in the final minute. He succeeded — and the Denver defense held the Chargers to a game-tying field goal with 53 seconds remaining before intermission.
Wilson responded by hitting Hamler for 47 yards on a moon ball down the middle and, though Denver stalled out in the red zone, the go-ahead field goal represented a win in both game management and stealing points in a quarter that saw the Chargers dominate by every measure. In that frame, Los Angeles ran 29 plays to Denver’s 10 and turned a 10-0 Broncos advantage into a tie.
Late in the game, though, the Denver offense went into a shell.
Denver committed 10 penalties for 151 yards.
Tough to win that way.