How the Denver Broncos can show progress in the second half

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Blame George Kittle.

Since the San Francisco 49ers tight end used a late autumn day in 2018 to roast the Denver Broncos' defense for 210 receiving yards -- including an 85-yard catch-and-run touchdown -- the Broncos haven't seen the .500 mark. That was 23 months ago.

The Broncos haven't been remotely in the playoff conversation since their brief stay at 6-6 that season. They lost to the 49ers that day, lost the next three games to finish 6-10, went 7-9 last year and at this season's halfway point sit at 3-5 after last week's chance to nudge back to .500 dissolved in a first-half meltdown at Atlanta.

But even as the Broncos have had far more than their share of injuries, progress could still be waiting in the season's second half. Or they could finish with a fifth consecutive playoff miss, or their third season in the past four with double-digit losses. It's all out there in the next eight games.

Those eight games against seven teams -- they get the Raiders Sunday and in the season finale -- include three teams currently leading their division in the Chiefs, the Bills and the Saints. The seven teams have a combined record of 36-23 entering Week 10.

"It's difficult and when you put it in your head, it's going to be difficult," quarterback Drew Lock said when asked about the 3-5 mark. "... Come out and win the next two, go 5-5, and who knows. We just have to keep playing, man. That's all we can do. There's a lot of football left, and we just have to hit our stride earlier in these games."

The Broncos have five starters among their 13 players on injured reserve, topped by linebacker Von Miller and wide receiver Courtland Sutton, and those players will not be strolling out onto the field anytime soon. The youngest collection of offensive skill players in the league isn't suddenly going to skip the learning curve. And Lock, who will make his 12th career start Sunday in Las Vegas, won't suddenly play like it is his 40th.

So what can the Broncos really get done in the second half of this 2020 season to feel something good?

"I do think that we're getting better, although it's hard to see that when you have a game like we did [Sunday]," coach Vic Fangio said. "We just need to become a more consistent, efficient team -- particularly on offense. We need to be able to cover better on defense and rush the passer better. That was evident [Sunday] where we came up short and I need to do a better job of calling the defense."

And on offense, the first thing the Broncos need to figure out is first down. Denver is near the bottom of the league rankings with an average gain of 4.6 yards on first-and-10 plays -- by contrast the leaders of the AFC West pack, the Chiefs, are averaging 6.7 yards on such plays.

Struggles on first down have cascaded into struggles on third down -- the Broncos are 29th in the league on third-down conversions. Their inability to keep drives going has led to a lack of touchdowns (they're 27th in the league in scoring).

"I think they have a chance to be really, really good, but they have a lot of growing to do also," Fangio said of the youthful offense. "Part of that growing is just playing together. Playing together means practicing. The more these guys can rep together on the practice field and in the games, the better off we'll be."

Defensively, the Broncos have fared well in situational work -- fifth best on third down, second best in red zone -- but they've surrendered plenty of points overall (27.1 per game) and they are in the middle of the pack against both the run and pass.

Some of it is the field position they've surrendered on special teams or turnovers by the offense -- they're 30th in giveaways, with 16. But the group also hasn't consistently slowed any of the front-line quarterbacks it has faced with several more still on the docket.

"I think when you look at it, there's some times that we show that we're a hell of a football team in all three phases and then there's games that we just don't put it all together," safety Justin Simmons said. "... The point is that we've got to be able to play a full game. There's a lot of inconsistencies and as a defense we have to figure out what can we do to start fast and then to keep that momentum so we can put ourselves in position to win football games."