The Broncos have taken up residence at the bottom of many of the NFL’s offensive rankings for the majority of the 2022 season. That has turned most weeks into a search for silver linings, a hunt for reasons to believe a punchless attack might finally be finding life.
The latest shred of optimism comes in the form of quarterback Russell Wilson’s completion percentage in last week’s 22-16 overtime loss to the Raiders. The veteran connected on 24 of his 31 pass attempts, a 77 percent rate that is by far his best mark of the season. That efficiency helped Denver produce its first opening-drive touchdown of the season, an eight-play, 92-yard march that featured three Wilson completions of at least 15 yards and another attempt that targeted wide receiver Courtland Sutton and yielded an 18-yard pass interference penalty.
That drive was the first with quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak serving as the play-caller in place of head coach Nathaniel Hackett, and it seemed to inject life into the league’s worst offense.
“It seemed like we had a rhythm,” Sutton said. “It definitely led to us having better numbers in terms of percentages. We just have to finish it at the end of the day.”
The Broncos didn’t finish, of course. For all the optimism produced by a first half that included 11 first downs and a brilliant line from Wilson (13-of-15 for 147 yards), the Broncos still managed only 16 points against a Raiders defense that ranks last in DVOA. The offense failed to score in the third quarter for the eighth time in 10 games. Denver converted only three of their 12 third-down attempts, and one of the nine misses was an incomplete pass on third-and-10 after the two-minute warning that gave the Raiders time to drive for a game-tying field goal.
“Of course, you’re incredibly frustrated in the sense that we know we can be better,” Wilson said after Sunday’s game, a rare acknowledgment from the 11th-year quarterback of the toll the unending offensive struggles have created. “We know our record (3-7) should be better. We know where we should be right now — a lot further along than where we are. That’s probably the part you struggle with the most.”
That has also been the biggest question surrounding the Broncos this season, which will almost certainly become Denver’s seventh in a row without a playoff appearance. Why do the brief flashes of success — the stretches in which Wilson looks the part of the quarterback who made nine Pro Bowls in his first 10 seasons — almost always fizzle out? Why have the Broncos been unable to build on their glimpses of offensive efficiency, even from half to half?
The final seven games of the season for the Broncos have to be all about fixing Wilson, who in September signed a $245 million contract extension that practically guarantees he’s Denver’s quarterback through at least 2024. The Broncos’ remaining game plans have to center around finding an effective system for the quarterback Wilson is today.
But what does such a system look like?
Wilson has never sat in the pocket and gone through his reads as they are taught, and at 5-foot-11, he rarely throws over the middle of the field. But at his peak, he had the arm talent to make difficult passes downfield, effortlessly maneuver the pass rush and create outside of the pocket.
At 33 years old, though, Wilson’s worst habits are being magnified as his mobility disintegrates. His inability to function within the structure of an offense was on display even in last week’s game against the Raiders, and it should have the Broncos concerned.
2:56 remaining in the second quarter, third-and-12
The Raiders only rushed three on third-and-12, and the Broncos had six in defense, plus a tight end chipping defensive end Maxx Crosby. The pass concept had three routes that went past the sticks, but Wilson should have had plenty of time given the Broncos were using a six-man protection against a three-man rush.
Wilson had a clean pocket, but before the routes could fully develop, he dropped his eyes and decided to run as soon as he got to the top of his drop.
A couple of years ago, Wilson might have had the speed to reach the marker, but here he was stopped well short of it. It appears Wilson’s loss of quickness is causing him to drop his eyes quicker so he can locate the pass rush, rather than maneuver around it while keeping his eyes downfield. Fortunately for the Broncos, the Raiders were flagged for unnecessary roughness on this play, which kept the drive alive.
Now that Wilson’s ability to get outside of the pocket is compromised, he has to take advantage of throws over the middle of the field because he can’t just roll out and throw to the sidelines. But after nearly ten seasons in the league, is this a skill he can learn?
1:59 remaining in the second quarter, first-and-10
Later in the drive, the Broncos called a deep-shot play-action concept featuring Courtland Sutton running a post from Wilson’s left.
After the fake play, the free safety bailed outside and the underneath defender was late dropping back after biting on the fake. This throw is a little more difficult than the image makes it look, but this is an NFL throw that Wilson can and has to make. Wilson was looking right at Sutton but declined to throw.
Instead, Wilson went to his checkdown for a one-yard gain. In this game, it almost seemed like the Raiders’ safeties were challenging Wilson to throw to the middle of the field.
Wilson’s process — where his eyes are and how he moves from reading to reading — has always been questionable. With how conscious he is of the pass rush now, it’s become even more noticeable.
0:42 remaining in the third quarter, third-and-5
The Raiders were in man coverage, so the Broncos had a rub concept called. The idea is to run a slant underneath one or two verticals to create a natural rub. This is a concept that Wilson ran for years in Seattle — it’s actually the one that resulted in his interception in Super Bowl XLIX. Here, Wilson had the choice of going to the three-receiver side (left) or two-receiver side (right).
To the three-receiver side, the Broncos had three-on-three, but to the two-receiver side, the Raiders had double coverage on Sutton. This should have alerted Wilson to throw to the three-receiver side. Wilson initially looked in that direction, but as soon as the slant broke open, he turned to the other side. Nothing was open, Wilson took a sack, and the Broncos settled for a field goal.
Later, with the Broncos up three points and the Raiders out of timeouts, Wilson had a shot at ending the game if he could convert on third-and-10.
2:00 remaining in the fourth quarter, third-and-10
The Raiders played 2-man (man-to-man with two deep safeties). In this coverage, defenders typically want to protect their inside because they have no inside help. They want to funnel the receivers outside, where they have deep safeties waiting.
Backup corner Tyler Hall allowed Kendall Hinton to release inside. With both safeties bailing fast outside, the middle of the field was wide open, but Wilson broke the pocket instead of hanging in it to make this throw.
The Raiders used a concept called “Odd Mirror,” which the Seahawks used successfully to defend Wilson in Week 1. The idea is to invite Wilson to rush outside by having Crosby rush inside. Once Wilson broke the pocket, a spy (Clelin Ferrell on this play) would be waiting for him.
The above image was taken right as Hinton broke open. Wilson’s right tackle was still in between him and Crosby. Wilson felt the pocket closing in and took the bait. The Broncos were forced to punt, and the Raiders were able to tie the game.
Wilson got the ball back with one timeout and sixteen seconds left. It wouldn’t have been easy to get into field goal range, but the Raiders’ defense gave Wilson a chance.
0:16 remaining in the fourth quarter, first-and-10
The Raiders were in a soft Cover 2 zone, and the Broncos called a 989 concept, also known as three verticals. Against Cover 2, the middle receiver splits the two safeties, and Wilson should be looking to this route first.
Diagram from Saints’ 2015 pass installations
This is a difficult throw that has to travel about 30-35 yards downfield in a hurry. But both linebackers were flat-footed, there was space in between them, and both safeties gave too much of a cushion. This is a throw an elite quarterback makes. Wilson checked the ball down instead, and the game went into overtime. The Raiders got the ball first and scored a walk-off touchdown.
Without his escapability, there doesn’t seem to be a system in which Wilson can function well. Maybe if the Broncos build him a great offensive line and get him more weapons, he can play better, but that’ll be hard to do after the Broncos invested so much money and draft capital into acquiring him and extending him.
The Broncos are stuck with Wilson whether they like it or not, and unless they find a way to revitalize his legs or he learns how to play in structure, this could prove to be a $245 million dollar mistake.
(Top photo: Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)