Paxton Lynch struggled, but the Broncos’ biggest issue Sunday was its offensive line

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A Broncos flag waves in the breeze during the unveiling of Broncos Boulevard in front of the City and County Building. Sept. 7, 2016. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) denver broncos; football; civic center park; city and county building; kevinjbeaty; denver; denverite; colorado;

The Broncos lost their first game of the season to the Atlanta Falcons Sunday. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Paxton Lynch made his first NFL start Sunday, and the rookie quarterback struggled in a 23-16 loss the Atlanta Falcons. Lynch was inaccurate on several short, easy throws. He lobbed up a prayer of a pass in the third quarter that the Falcons intercepted and then used to score with a short field. And he hung onto the ball for far too long.

Some of that is to be expected. The Broncos knew they’d have to remain patient with Lynch, who started in place of the injured Trevor Siemian, when they drafted him.

Really, the biggest worry about the Broncos moving forward are the men tasked with protecting Lynch and Siemian: Denver’s offensive line. The unit — minus Donald Stephenson, who is still recovering from a calf injury — let Lynch get beat up and failed to create much of a push in the running game. If Denver’s O-line can’t improve soon, it might not make much of a difference who is playing quarterback.

The Falcons are not exactly known for rushing the passer. Entering Sunday’s game, they had four sacks total. But against the Broncos, they managed to sack Lynch six times and hit him eight times. Lynch shares some of the blame for holding onto the ball too long. Still, it was concerning.

Stephenson’s absence was evident. Ty Sambrailo played right tackle for most of the game and got pushed around by Atlanta’s Vic Beasley. The second-year edge rusher roasted Sambrailo, and later in the game, Michael Schofield, for 3 ½ sacks.

Lynch finished 23 for 35 for 223 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He didn’t receive much help from the Broncos’ ground game either. Denver used 24 carries to go 84 yards (3.5 yards per carry). C.J. Anderson (11 carries for 41 yards) was ineffective for a third straight game.

Poor offensive play and a lack of a running game made it difficult for Lynch to operate, even if he struggled himself. If both of those things continue, it’s hard to imagine Siemian thriving when he returns from his shoulder injury. Neither Broncos QB is a star capable of elevating his supporting cast when they struggle.

The Broncos (4-1) won’t have much time to correct those flaws. They play the San Diego Chargers on Thursday. Asking quarterbacks to overcome poor offensive line play and an ineffective run game is a lot, particularly when they’re rookies like Lynch or in their second year like Siemian.

Until Sunday, Denver looked at least adequate offensively. Will the offense return to form? Or is this going to look like 2015 again, when the defense was asked to carry the load like it was Atlas? 

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