DENVER — On a night when the Denver Broncos watched most everything go bad, there is no question that the team’s special-teams unit was the first domino to fall.
A long list of special-teams gaffes came early and often, and they resulted in 24 points for the New England Patriots in what turned into a 41-16 rout of the Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
While the Broncos’ offense struggled in the red zone and the team’s defense surrendered seven consecutive scoring drives to the Patriots, the special-teams troubles stood out as the team dropped to 3-6 with a sixth consecutive loss.
“Twenty-four points, we gave up 24 points on special teams alone,” Broncos rookie receiver Isaiah McKenzie said. “I made a huge mistake, and we ended up giving up 24 points.”
Asked after the game whether he had ever seen a worse special-teams performance in his time in the NFL, Broncos coach Vance Joseph said simply, “I have not.”
Joseph said everything would be evaluated in the coming days: personnel, scheme and coaching.
The Broncos had a muffed punt, had a blocked punt, allowed a 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and had a 12-men-on-the-field penalty that negated a Patriots punt. Those four mistakes led to three Patriots touchdowns and one field goal.
McKenzie, who was named the primary punt returner during training camp, has found the transition to be difficult, as he has had a growing pile of bobbles. On Sunday night, the Broncos’ defense held the Patriots to a three-and-out to open the game, with the crowd at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in a full-throated frenzy.
Then McKenzie dropped the game’s first punt, and the Patriots recovered at the Broncos’ 24-yard line and scored a touchdown two plays later for a 7-0 lead just 2:24 into the game. It was something the Patriots had almost planned to see.
“I should have fair-caught it … the guy was right there in my face,” McKenzie said. “I try to build confidence during the week. I’ve got to make better decisions. Fair-catch it, or just let it go.”
As Patriots coach Bill Belichick put it after the game, “That’s not the first punt McKenzie’s muffed this season.”
After the Broncos answered with a field goal, they allowed Dion Lewis to go 103 yards up the Broncos’ sideline for a 14-0 Patriots lead 6:36 into the game. Early in the second quarter, Riley Dixon had a punt blocked and recovered at the Broncos’ 30-yard line.
Five plays later, that was a Patriots field goal. Then in the fourth quarter, the Broncos gave the Patriots a second chance when a 12-men-on-the-field penalty negated a punt after rookie cornerback Brendan Langley tried to run on the field and defensive end Shelby Harris tried to run off.
Instead of taking the ball, the Broncos had to send their defense back on the field, and seven plays later that, too, turned into a Patriots touchdown in what ultimately was a 16-play, 94-yard drive.
Much of the public ire is directed at first-year special-teams coordinator Brock Olivo, who was hired by the Broncos from the Kansas City Chiefs. With the Chiefs, he was an assistant to the highly respected Dave Toub. Olivo said this past week that there is a transition in going from an assistant special-teams coach to a coordinator.
“That’s on me to get that confidence in those guys and get them to believe in the scheme, get them to believe in their ability,” Olivo said after Friday’s practice. ” … We show them on tape: Look, this is how it’s done correctly, and this is how it’s not done correctly. Make them understand better what’s right and wrong. Again, that’s on me, and I’ve been all talk up to this point. We have to perform.”