Taking stock of the Broncos after their 23-10 loss at the Carolina Panthers in Week 12.
WR Brandon Johnson
The undrafted rookie played 70% of Denver’s offensive snaps on Sunday, trailing only Courtland Sutton and Kendall Hinton among receivers. Not only that, but the former UCF standout caught his first NFL touchdown in the fourth quarter. Johnson has impressed since rookie minicamp in May, but he suffered an ankle injury in the team’s final preseason game, which prevented him from making the team’s initial 53-man roster.
RB Latavius Murray
Entering Sunday, the longest rushing play from a Broncos running back on the season was 18 yards by Mike Boone. Murray changed that in his first start with a 52-yard burst and finished with the best performance of the season by a Denver running back (13 carries for 92 yards). With Melvin Gordon released, Murray goes forward at the top of the room with Marlon Mack or Mike Boone, if he’s healthy enough to be activated from injured reserve this week.
Offensive line continuity
Denver didn’t have much in the way of answers for Carolina edge rusher Brian Burns and it’s certainly fair to question why he was left one-on-one at times, particularly in obvious passing situations. At the least, though, the Broncos front line rolled out the same group for a second straight game and appeared to make it through healthy. Lloyd Cushenberry (groin) will likely be back before Billy Turner (knee), but at the moment this group appears to be one that’s creating a little bit more room in the run game and is getting healthier, too.
DL Mike Purcell
The veteran defensive lineman found his way into the spotlight Sunday due to an exchange with Russell Wilson as he came off the field in the fourth quarter, but he’s quietly had a solid season on the Broncos front line. It was not the defense’s finest day, to be sure, but the seventh-year man deserves a nod for his play on the field over 11 games. Purcell is a no-nonsense type. He doesn’t say a lot, but is straightforward. When he talks – or gets after a quarterback – it’s notable because most of the time he lets his work in the trenches do the talking.
QB Russell Wilson
One week after Wilson found rhythm in the passing game early on against the Raiders, he and the Broncos passing game backtracked at Carolina. From a first play that was doomed from the start and went backward from Denver’s own 4-yard line through the Broncos’ final series, a four-and-out on which Wilson fired four straight incompletions, it was a disjointed day for him and the offense. He’s operating with a mishmash of wide receivers and running backs, but at some point it’s on Wilson to elevate the players around him. This isn’t going to be a 30-point-per-game offense with three undrafted guys playing receiver, but it has to be better than it was Sunday.
Head coach Nathaniel Hackett
Another tough weekend overall for the first-year head coach, who was hoping the move to Klint Kubiak calling plays would continue to progress in its second week. Instead, a flat performance from the Broncos offense, a conservative approach to the end of the first half and the inabiltity to figure out Denver’s continued issues – penalties, empty third quarters and third-down woes among them – all conspired to make this one a parituclarly brutal Sunday. If these problems aren’t showing at least modest signs of improvement by now, when will they?
It shouldn’t be surprising that teams have caught on to the early work of rookie Greg Dulcich. After missing the early part of the season with a hamstring injury, the former UCLA standout racked up 182 yards and a touchdown in his first three games. In three games since Denver’s bye week, though, he’s got seven catches for 52 yards. Against the Panthers; Two grabs for 11. It’s also probably not a coincidence that Dulcich did some of his best work when operating in tandem with KJ Hamler, who’s out with a hamstring injury. None of the Broncos’ other tight ends caught a pass in Charlotte and they’ve combined for three catches for 28 yards over the past three weeks, all from Eric Saubert.
This is more a matter of injury accumulation than anything in particular that happened Sunday against the Panthers. Players like Essang Bassey and P.J. Locke are filling in capably, but it’s clear the Broncos miss the impact that K’Wwaun Williams made from the slot position. They could also use Caden Sterns on the back end in certain situations, if not full-time. Williams (knee) has dealt with wrist and elbow issues, too, and Sterns is on injured reserve with a hip issue. Randy Gregory’s extended absence after a knee injury is also being felt with each passing week that Denver’s pass-rush remains stuck in neutral following the trade of Bradley Chubb.