Matt Ryan, Falcons overwhelm battered Broncos defense early, hang on late

In a season of canceled practices, COVID-19 protocols and a seemingly endless scroll of injuries, the Denver Broncos have kept swinging and grinding, but they officially and unquestionably have run out of next men up.

Especially on defense when, in a 34-27 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the lineup that spent much of the day on the field wasn't in any of the plans in September.

When cornerback Bryce Callahan's ankle injury made him a game-day inactive, the Broncos were missing five players who started on defense in the season opener. And that doesn't even include linebacker Von Miller's ankle injury before the season started.

The total included all three of the starting defensive linemen on Sept. 14 -- Shelby Harris, Jurrell Casey and Mike Purcell -- and both starting cornerbacks (A.J. Bouye and Callahan). In short, the Broncos -- and every other NFL team -- aren't built to handle that type of misery.

But there are no flowers, cards, letters, apologies or hug emojis on the way, and the Broncos (3-5) still have half a season to play.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan feasted when the game was still in doubt -- 216 of his passing yards came in the first half -- as Ryan repeatedly went after Davontae Harris in a relatively undisturbed pocket. The Falcons didn't need much heavy lifting from Julio Jones until he spun rookie corner Michael Ojemudia around for a touchdown catch in the third quarter. Olamide Zaccheaus had a 103 yards receiving by halftime for Atlanta.

The Broncos showed some grit on third down and in the red zone to give themselves a puncher's chance late, but they have a wafer-thin depth chart at this point. Shelby Harris might be back from COVID-19/reserve soon and Callahan practiced with the starters Friday, so he should be back next Sunday against the Raiders as well.

But "maybe" or "should" weren't much comfort once again.

Two words: Slow starts. Sputtering out of the gate seems to be on the first page of the Broncos' offensive playbook these days. In a game in which they had two rookies starting in their secondary (Ojemudia and Essang Bassey) as well as Davontae Harris, the Broncos offense had two three-and-outs in the first half and didn't hold the ball longer than 2:57 on any possession before halftime.

This came against a Falcons defense that came into the game 22nd in scoring defense and 27th in total defense. And trailing 20-3 at halftime Sunday, the Broncos have now been outscored 121-64 in the first half of games this season.

Troubling trend: Tight end Noah Fant's first reception Sunday went for 32 yards. And, yes, Fant injured his right ankle on the play, but a Broncos tight end didn't catch another pass until Albert Okwuegbunam's reception with 5:24 left in the third quarter. Okwuegbunam injured his knee on the play and didn't return, and there's some concern now he might have suffered some ligament damage that will have to be evaluated Monday back in Denver.

But whether it’s Fant, Okwuegbunam or Nick Vannett, the group continues to be underutilized despite being a matchup problem for defenses.

QB breakdown: Consistency is still elusive for Drew Lock, as he missed a potential touchdown pass in the first quarter to Tim Patrick, took an early sack when he retreated -- instead of climbing -- in the pocket when he had some room and threw another back-foot, sidearm interception in the fourth quarter right after the Broncos had just made it a two-score game.

He doesn’t look settled enough of the time and has struggled to find his rhythm before it's fourth-quarter scramble time. Lock continues to show the effects of virtual meetings, canceled practices and no on-field work in the offseason, especially early in games. But that doesn't mean he's powerless to fix things, such as ditching the ball when it makes sense to ditch it and not throwing an interception like he threw to Ricardo Allen, which evaporated the last hopes of a comeback.