Going inside the numbers of Russell Wilson’s early season struggles
Along with the entire Denver Broncos offense under new head coach Nathaniel Hackett, quarterback Russell Wilson is undoubtedly struggling. Though Wilson’s guile and grit were just enough to help Denver muster a grand total of nine offensive points in their nearly unwatchable 11-10 Sunday night victory over the San Francisco 49ers, concerns about the Broncos offense persist, and with good reasons.
One of those is that Wilson hasn’t yet been able to elevate an ineffective offense that’s otherwise almost exactly the same as last season’s underachieving outfit.
Despite an early-season schedule that saw the Broncos playing three teams that new sport a combined record of 2-6-1, Denver’s only averaging 13.7 points per game on offense – a borderline disastrous number given the expectations placed upon the Wilson-led unit. Digging into the early data unveils some of the problem spots that the Broncos’ new signal-caller will have to shore up before Denver’s offense can ignite.
Wilson’s time-to-throw this season is 2.87 seconds, on average, a number that ranks him eighth among qualifying quarterbacks, but it’s down a tick from his last full season in 2020, when he had an average of 2.97 — fifth — in Seattle. The injury-riddled Broncos offensive line is still a work in progress, however, making the minor drop-off understandable. Regardless, time in the pocket hasn’t been Wilson’s problem.
Obviously, Wilson’s numbers are down across the board. He’s on pace to throw only 11 touchdowns this season, and it’s almost impossible to imagine that will be his final number. Better performances from receiving targets not named Courtland Sutton would help, but clearly, the Broncos also need better play from their quarter-billion dollar man.
Even at the age of 33, Wilson still throws as fine a deep ball as anyone in the league, and that hasn’t changed. In 2020, Wilson’s passer rating was 103.0 when throwing more than 20 yards downfield. This season, he’s at 99.0, a drop-off that’s considered minimal.
However, every other passing depth has proved a challenge thus far. From the intermediate range of 10 to 19 yards, Wilson’s fallen from a 115.0 rating in 2020 to a 94.0, and the immense decay in short range is impossible to ignore. From a distance of only one to nine yards, Wilson’s rating has plummeted from 103.0 in 2020 to an ugly 75.0 this season.
In other words, he’s been missing the layups, despite the fact that’s he thrown to that distance this season at a slightly higher rate than he did then, and has had longer to throw — 2.57 seconds, up from 2.35 in 2020. Wilson’s also had almost twice as many attempts at short range to the right side (18) than the left (10) this season, a departure from his usual numbers, and one that indicates that the makeshift right side of his offensive line — Graham Glasgow at right guard and Cam Fleming at right tackle — has forced Wilson to scramble more often than usual, meaning that it’s likely Wilson’s legs, rather than his blocking, that is buying him additional time. That naturally leads to a drop in accuracy, explaining some of the Broncos’ challenges in the short passing game, but Wilson’s been oddly errant on a surprising number of passes this season, as well. This combination has led to the Broncos being in far too many third-and-long situations, and Denver’s middling 37 percent conversion rate ranks 17th in the league.
Corliss Waitman’s 10 punts on Sunday came within two of tying the Broncos’ single-game record. But to hear Wilson explain things, it’s just part of the process.
“We’re still all learning each other; it’s a whole new system,” Wilson said after Sunday’s win. “Everyone is coming together, but there’s so much greatness in store. I can’t wait for it. Everybody just believes in each other. That’s what football is all about. It’s about getting another win in that win column, and we were able to do that.”
Despite the team’s alarming offensive struggles, Wilson’s right. The Broncos are still 2-1, and after a weekend in which every other AFC West team lost, Denver finds themselves tied atop the division with the long-reigning Chiefs and with a chance to bury the rival Raiders with an 0-4 record if they can come away with another victory this Sunday in Las Vegas. Things aren’t necessarily as dire as they seem.
First and foremost, even though it’s the lowest of low bars, at least the plays got called on time. Broncos fans only called out the play clock for the offense one time on Sunday night, after last week’s game against the Texans saw that become a running joke for the Mile High faithful. Wilson noted that speeding things up with Hackett — who rightly took the blame for the slow play-calling last week — was a priority.
“Yeah, we were super-efficient getting in and out of the huddle (on Sunday),” Wilson explained. “All week, we kind of just practiced that; making sure everybody is learning each other… This week, we were able to really focus on that in practice and that translated; we put guys on the sideline and made it like a game every rep of practice, so we got that tempo in and out. That was huge for us.”
There have been moments, little flickers of excitement that indicate that things will get better, but Wilson himself has to be a part of it — that includes much better short-range performance and more use of the whole field. Wilson’s thrown between the numbers at an even lower rate than usual; a problem, given that the book on him is that he focuses on the sideline routes rather than taking advantage of what the defense gives him in the middle of the field.
Wilson’s only thrown 32 percent of his passes between the hashmarks this season, a whopping 18 percent fewer times per game than in 2020. That habit makes him predictable, and in the NFL, predictability leads to losses. Wilson has to not only improve his accuracy, but even more importantly, he has to diversify his game. He may not be the Broncos offense’s biggest problem, but as it turns out, he’s got to be the biggest part of its solution.