Denver — Attempting to overcome a roster severely depleted by injuries and six COVID-19 cases this week, while playing against an opponent riding an emotional wave fueled by the death of a franchise icon this week, the Detroit Lions were overwhelmed by the Denver Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High on Sunday, 38-10.
Buoyed by a strong second quarter for a second consecutive week, the Lions (1-11-1) managed to keep things interesting for a half before the Broncos (7-6) forced four turnovers in the second half (two on downs) and scored the game’s final 24 points to pull away for an easy victory.
Despite seemingly having the deck stacked against them after a trying week leading up to the contest, the Lions left the game more frustrated by their mistakes than misfortune.
“No one feels bad for us,” Lions quarterback Jared Goff said. “No one feels sorry for us, including ourselves. We went out here intending to win and came up short. Don’t care who was on the field. We had the guys that we believe in to win and made too many mistakes.”
Things started about how you would expect with the shorthanded Lions navigating a number of lineup changes, plugging in reserves from deep off the bench and the practice squad.
On the opening drive, after paying tribute to Demaryius Thomas by taking the field with 10 men, the Broncos drove 75 yards on 11 plays, doing much of the damage on the ground. Running backs Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams combined for 48 yards on eight carries, capped by a 5-yard touchdown run for Williams.
Detroit responded by going three-and-out on the team’s first possession. Undrafted rookie center Ryan McCollum, the team’s third-string option who was starting in place of Evan Brown (COVID-19), gave up the sack on third down, leading to a punt.
Denver went right back to work on the ground with five straight Williams’ runs gaining 25 yards before tight end Noah Fant got open deep, beating the coverage of Lions linebacker Derrick Barnes for a 32-yard gain. Five plays later, four of which were runs, Gordon fought across the goal line on a second effort from a yard out to put the Broncos up 14 in the opening quarter.
The Lions got on the board early in the second frame. Goff prevented a second three-and-out, scrambling 13 yards for a first down on third-and-six. He followed that up with a 13-yard completion to Amon-Ra Brown before running back Craig Reynolds, promoted off the practice squad on Saturday, burst through the left side of the offensive line for a 35-yard gain.
“Momentum really wasn’t on our side at that point, and just hitting that run felt like we needed to flip that a little bit,” Reynolds said. “It was early enough in the game, there was a lot of football left. That’s one thing we talk about in the running back room is bringing juice and energy to the team. That’s what that was, just built up (energy).”
Reynolds, in his season debut, was a bright spot for the Lions, rushing for 83 yards on 11 carries and adding 16 more yards on a pair of receptions.
“I thought Craig ran hard,” Lions head coach Dan Campbell said. “And honestly, I don’t think anybody on this staff is surprised. We like Craig. We thought he would do a good job and certainly he did.”
Two plays later, reversing field after faking an end-around handoff, Lions receiver Kalif Raymond got open in the left flat and scooted into the end zone to cut the Broncos lead to seven.
“I believe they were in man coverage,” Goff explained. “Kalif kind of like hides behind the line and goes back the other way. And the guy covering him thinks he’s still running. It’s kinda like a borderline trick play there.”
The Lions further narrowed the gap later in the quarter with a 36-yard Riley Patterson field goal. The key play on the series saw the Lions convert a fourth down near midfield with a quick snap and equally quick throw to Raymond for a 9-yard gain.
That was as close at the Lions got the rest of the way.
The Broncos matched the three points before the half after Teddy Bridgewater steered Denver’s offense into field-goal range. Taking possession with a 1:04 remaining and all three timeouts remaining, the veteran quarterback completed six throws for 39 yards, setting up a 52-yard Brandon McManus field goal as time expired.
The Lions got the ball to open the second half, but coughed it up to Denver almost immediately as running back Godwin Igwebuike fumbled on the second play of the drive, giving the Broncos the ball at Detroit’s 36-yard line.
Igwebuike, a converted defensive back, entered the day with just eight regular season carries under his belt. He admitted after the game he’s still learning the nuances of the position and has to be better about covering the ball with a second hand when in traffic.
“We come out of halftime and we got momentum and we just ran it two plays in a row and did really good, and we fumbled the ball,” Campbell said.
Denver’s go-to strategy of keeping it on ground had to be temporarily put on hold due to a holding infraction. Facing third-and-6 from the 10-yard line, Bridgewater flipped it Williams in the left flat, where the rookie back spun out of a tackle attempt by Lions safety Jalen Elliott before darting across the goal line for his second touchdown on the afternoon.
With the game quickly slipping away, the Lions opted to go for it on fourth-and-2 in their own territory on the ensuing possession, but failed to convert after Broncos defensive lineman Dre’mont Jones batted the pass down at the line of scrimmage.
With excellent field possession once again, and that pre-established ability to effectively run the ball, the Broncos kept it on the ground, handing it off four consecutive times. Williams gained 19 yards on three carries to open the series, before subbing out in favor of Gordon, who put the finishing touches on the drive with a 14-yard scoring run.
“It was pretty disappointing that we weren’t as sound in our gap accountability as we should have been,” defensive lineman Alim McNeill said. “The little things are what you get beat. Something as small as not being in your gap, or jumping out of your gap when you see an opening and the running back cuts back — you’ve got Melvin Gordon who is good with those jump cuts — that hurts you, it gashes you. I don’t know what the total was, but they ran for way too much.
The PAT put the Broncos up, 31-10, midway through the third quarter.
With hopes dimming quickly, the Lions embarked on a lengthy drive, twice converting on fourth down as they marched deep into Broncos territory. But on second-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Goff stumbled and went to the ground after a lineman stepped on his foot, resulting in a 3-yard loss. Two incompletion later, the Broncos regained possession.
“I think it happens probably once a year,” Goff said about his stumble. “And it happened in that situation unfortunately.”
Detroit would turn the ball over in the red zone on their next drive, as well, when Pro Bowl safety Justin Simmons made a diving interception on a Goff pass intended for tight end Brock Wright at the 12-yard line.
The Broncos would drive 88-yards for an exclamation point on the day. On third-and-goal from the 4-yard line, Bridgewater faked a handoff and rolled to his right, connecting with tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, who dove and hit the pylon with the ball before landing out of bounds.
The loss prevented the Lions from scoring back-to-back wins after getting their first victory last week. The Broncos remain in the playoff hunt in the AFC.