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Broncos forced to get even younger thanks to injuries in opening loss

DENVER — The Denver Broncos spent most of August trying to get one of the NFL’s youngest rosters ready for the regular season despite a compressed offseason. By the time the 2020 season was all of two quarters old Monday night, a Broncos defense already without linebacker Von Miller saw cornerback A.J. Bouye leave the game with a shoulder injury. Then an offense already without wide receiver Courtland Sutton saw running back Phillip Lindsay leave the game with a foot injury.

What was left of the Broncos scraped, clawed and dug in, but did not have enough to overcome a team that played in the AFC Championship Game this past January, losing 16-14 to the Tennessee Titans at Empower Field at Mile High.

The Broncos had to toss rookie cornerbacks Michael Ojemudia and Essang Bassey into the defense; Bassey made the team as an undrafted rookie free agent. Coach Vic Fangio had said he wants the young guys ready to play, but now necessity is the mother of an even bigger youth movement, at least in the near term. The two leading receivers for second-year quarterback Drew Lock against the Titans, after all, were second-year tight end Noah Fant and rookie wideout Jerry Jeudy.

Game in two words: Youth movement. The Broncos made a concerted effort to retool the offense around Lock this offseason. The early returns, even without rookie KJ Hamler or Sutton in the lineup because of injuries, were that they can move the ball against even a skilled defense.

Lock showed composure, Jeudy bounced back from two drops — including one on what would have been one of the biggest plays of the game — and the line, along with Lock’s mobility, did not give up a sack. A team that is on its fifth offensive coordinator in the past five years actually looked like it had some comfort level with the plan that was in place. And that is a significant step for all involved.

Troubling trend: It’s not the two drops from Jeudy, who didn’t have them as an issue during his college career. It’s the cornerback position. Entering the game, the Broncos were thin at cornerback, but the injury to Bouye stretched them. At least for one night, Bassey and Ojemudia were up to the challenge.

If Bouye had one of his shoulders pop out and pop back in again, he won’t miss too much time. If an MRI reveals something bigger, much like last season, the Broncos’ plan at cornerback will take a significant hit.

Last season Bryce Callahan didn’t play a down because of a foot injury and the Broncos spent the better part of 2019 trying to make do. And with quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Cam Newton on the docket over the next four weeks, the rookies are going to find themselves on the hot seat even more than they were when Titans veteran Ryan Tannehill was seemingly going after them on every throw.

Biggest hole in game plan: Look, not all of the plays are going to work and hindsight is 20/20. But a shovel pass to tight end Jake Butt on a fourth-and-goal from the Titans’ 1-yard line was more than a little puzzling when so many other things had already looked promising in the game.

Red zone offense was a sore spot last season for a team that scored 16 or fewer points nine times. The Broncos did show they learned their lesson a bit when they simply handed it to Melvin Gordon for a touchdown the next time they were that close.

Pivotal play: Ojemudia was flagged for a pass interference penalty with just under two minutes to play on a second-down incompletion. It moved the ball into field goal range and the Titans’ Stephen Gostkowski, who had missed three field goal attempts and an extra point in the game, kicked the winner five plays later.

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