BRONCOS

When it mattered most, the Broncos got the Russell Wilson they expected

Oct 30, 2022, 1:59 PM | Updated: 1:59 pm
Russell Wilson...
(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

If the Broncos’ season had gone the way most expected, a 21-17 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars wouldn’t move the needle.

After all, it’s what a good team is supposed to do against a chronic loser. The loss was the Jaguars’ ninth consecutive defeat in one-score games, including a fruitless 0-6 record this season. It was Jacksonville’s 35th setback in its last 41 games.

The Jaguars don’t know how to win.

But the Broncos, for all of their issues, have a better idea than the Jaguars.

And in all three of their wins this season, Russell Wilson led a touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. Each time, he did it by showing the traits that led the Broncos to make the biggest bet in club history on him.

In Week 2 against Houston, it was coolness under pressure — and a pinpoint strike to Eric Saubert down the seam. Seven days later against San Francisco, it was by moving and making two key third-down conversion beyond the structure of the play.

And at Wembley Stadium, it was by going deep.

***
IN THE CLUTCH, WILSON WASTED NO TIME

Trailing 17-14 with 3:54 left Sunday, Wilson stepped onto the field in circumstances that seemed unfathomable.

Few thought the Broncos would need a late-game drive to save their season before Halloween. Or that they would be at the brink of their seventh sub-17-point game in the first eight weeks with Wilson at quarterback.

The previous three drives ended in the same, familiar way: three-and-out. But on the third of those, Wilson looked deep, saw KJ Hamler and Greg Dulcich down the left sideline — and just missed a game-changing play.

So, Wilson tried it again.

That’s Wilson’s game, when it comes down to it. The explosive, deep shot. And with Hamler in particular, Wilson has the makings of a productive collaboration. Wilson has five passes of at least 40 yards this year. Three are to Hamler, including the 47-yard connection in the final moments Sunday.

“KJ, I told him on the sideline, hey, be ready. I’m going to hit you down the field,” Wilson said. “Sure enough, he ran right by his guy, hit him down the field.”

Three plays later, with the Broncos facing third-and-5, it was Wilson who got the job done. Despite a partially-torn hamstring, he left the pocket, scrambled for 10 yards and kept the drive alive.

Three handoffs later, the Broncos had what proved to be the game-winning score.

No one expected great offense immediately from the Broncos. Or at least, no one with reasonable expectations anticipated that.

But it was fair to expect flashes of brilliance while the unit found its way. In the first seven games, the flashes were infrequent; the poor execution rampant.

A game like Sunday’s, meanwhile — three touchdowns and 5 three-and-outs in 11 non-kneeldown possessions — might not have been optimal. But it’s more along the lines of what realistic expectations were.

If this were a typical performance, the Broncos wouldn’t be 3-5. At minimum, those numbers would be transposed.

“We’ve hurt ourselves,” Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett said. “So, it’s about us continually learning to not hurt ourselves to give us a chance to win the game.”

If Sunday’s offensive output becomes the norm, that might be enough for the Broncos to salvage the season.

***
THAT BEING SAID …

Just as one area looks better, other issues create cause for concern as the Broncos prepare for the second half of the season.

First, Denver still has a predilection for penalties.

After the officials flagged the Broncos 12 times for 81 yards in infractions, Denver now has a franchise record for penalties and penalty yardage after eight games: 70 infractions for 601 yards. Denver is the first team since the 2019 Browns and Jets to have at least 70 penalties in the first eight games of the season.

Some of the infractions were debatable. Simmons’ 15-yard taunting penalty was ticky-tack. But it was also within the Broncos’ control.

“We can’t do that. It’s just that simple,” Hackett said.

However, the Broncos took two delay-of-game penalties on special teams, too.

“They have to learn from it, and we can’t do it because, again, those are those self-inflicted wounds, and we don’t want to keep battling back from those,” Hackett said.

Second, in the last two weeks, a new concern arose: defending the run. A week after Breece Hall galloped through the Broncos for a 62-yard touchdown, Travis Etienne Jr. sliced up the Broncos for 156 yards on 24 carries — a 6.5-yards-per-carry clip.

Third, the afore-mentioned three-and-outs. Denver had five in total Sunday. The offense spent long stretches of the first and second half short-circuiting. And now, with Lloyd Cushenberry nursing an injured hip, further change could be coming to the offensive line.

But Sunday, their embattled quarterback showed Sunday that he still knows how to win.

And as inconsistent as Wilson has been, the fact that each victory featured a game-winning, fourth-quarter touchdown drive shows again that the Broncos will go as far as their $165-million man takes them.

***

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When it mattered most, the Broncos got the Russell Wilson they expected