The Denver Broncos suffered an 18-17 loss to the Arizona Cardinals in their preseason opener Friday after Arizona converted a two-point conversion with 2 seconds left.
How did that make new Broncos coach Sean Payton feel?
“Regardless of whether it’s a preseason game, regular-season game, just can’t stand losing,” he told reporters afterward. “Especially in that fashion.”
The score, of course, is of little consequence. Here are five observations about things that did matter:
Uneven ride for Russell Wilson ends on high note
The first pass for Wilson, the 12-year veteran, was thrown incomplete behind tight end Adam Trautman. Pass No. 2 was batted down at the line of scrimmage, leading to a three-and-out on Denver’s opening drive of the preseason in just 59 seconds.
On the two drives to follow, Wilson was sacked once and hit a total of five times. Those possessions ended with no points after both kickers competing for the job — Brett Maher and Elliott Fry (more on them in a minute) — missed their first field-goal attempts. The starting offense failed on its first three third-down chances — from 7, 17 and 7 yards.
The Broncos weren’t going to bury all the lingering bad feelings created by their disastrous 2022 season during the first dozen or so plays of their preseason opener — even if it had been a smooth ride. But the start was particularly clunky and concerning for an offense that had made strides in training camp practices over the past week.
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) August 12, 2023
Yet, by the time Wilson’s night ended following his fourth drive, he was 7-of-13 passing for 93 yards with one touchdown and a 102.4 passer rating. He stood tall in the face of an Arizona blitz on his final play — a fourth-and-4 midway through the second quarter — and fired a slant to Jerry Jeudy for a 21-yard touchdown. Wilson finished his first preseason game playing for Payton on a high note, but it came after three drives that featured some of the protection and accuracy issues that felled Denver’s league-worst offense last season.
“I wanted to score and leave a good taste in our mouths,” Payton said when asked why he left Wilson and the first team offense on the field for a fourth drive.
So what did it all mean?
It means the Broncos are still a work in progress. Payton said this week he is pleased with the progress of his offensive line, but it’s a group that is still gelling and played Friday without right tackle Mike McGlinchey, who is dealing with a knee sprain. Still, five quarterback hits on 14 dropbacks is far too many. Wilson, during his worst career season in 2022, was sacked 55 times in only 15 games. He missed two games and was hampered by injuries in several others. The Payton scheme should help. The Broncos will have more quick-hit opportunities. The run game should be improved. All of that should mitigate some of the protection issues that plagued Denver last season. They’ll need to take another step in that regard next week against the 49ers.
But despite the hits he took, Wilson looked fresh and quick Friday. He moved in the pocket and found receivers on the run. His connection with Courtland Sutton (three catches, 35 yards) continues to grow. He helped Jeudy shake off a drop in the second quarter by coming right back to him on the touchdown throw one play later. He left the game with plenty of positives upon which to build.
“He was sharp,” Payton said of Wilson afterward. “He had a good week of practice and we’ll keep working.”
Injuries hit Denver’s defense
Nose tackle D.J. Jones suffered a concussion in the first quarter. Linebacker Josey Jewell got attention from trainers as he walked off the field shortly thereafter. Outside linebacker Nik Bonitto headed to the sideline gingerly early in the second quarter.
Those injuries put a damper on what was otherwise a strong performance from a Denver defense — particularly the first- and second-team units — that played without Pro Bowl players Pat Surtain II, Justin Simmons and Frank Clark and starting nickel K’Waun Williams. Essang Bassey, the replacement for Williams on the top line, intercepted a pass by Cardinals backup quarterback Clayton Tune in the first quarter. Linebacker Alex Singleton ended Arizona’s promising opening drive by rushing into the backfield on third-and-1 and tackling running back Ty’Son Williams for a 3-yard loss, forcing a punt.
Other defensive highlights: Cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian registered a sack of Tune on a well-timed blitz call by defensive coordinator Vance Joseph. Defensive end Elijah Garcia sacked third-string quarterback David Blough twice in a three-play span in the fourth quarter, forcing a punt that preceded Denver’s late touchdown drive.
The Broncos have a defense with strong top-end talent, and training camp has revealed encouraging depth at various spots. But the Broncos still aren’t in position to absorb injury body blows at a high rate. They have already lost linebacker Jonas Griffith for the season with an ACL injury. Linebacker Baron Browning and defensive lineman Mike Purcell have yet to practice in training camp while recovering from knee injuries.
Kicker battle concerning
Fry buried a 55-yard field goal at the end of the second quarter to give the Broncos a 10-0 lead. That was the good news. The only good news.
Fry missed his other field-goal attempt, a 50-yarder early in the second quarter. Maher, the kicker Fry is facing in the competition to replace veteran Brandon McManus, missed both of his field-goal attempts — 47 yards in the first quarter; a blocked 52-yard attempt in the third — and just snuck through his point-after attempt following Jeudy’s touchdown. Fry’s point-after attempt following Denver’s fourth-quarter touchdown wasn’t particularly clean either.
The lackluster performance by Denver’s kickers came following a practice last week in which both players had multiple misses during an end-of-practice drill. Payton has relayed a story multiple times about the Saints orchestrating a competition one offseason during his time as the head coach in New Orleans, only to eventually cut both players and sign an outside player at this position before the season.
The competition will go on for Fry and Maher, but neither player can feel comfortable following Friday’s performance. Yes, the field goal attempts were lengthy. Yes, Maher’s second kick was blocked and most of the fault for that went elsewhere. But the Broncos aren’t breathing easy at kicker yet and a Week 1 opening date with the Raiders is less than one month away.
Still, there were encouraging signs on special teams outside of the field goal attempts. The Broncos were strong in their kickoff coverage, Payton noted afterward, and Montrell Washington had an 18-yard punt return that helped set up Fry’s aforementioned 55-yard field goal at the end of the first half.
Assessing backup QBs
It was a difficult night for Broncos second-string quarterback Jarrett Stidham. He completed just 5-of-15 passes for 50 yards and threw a bad interception in the third quarter after staring down Washington for too long near the sideline. Stidham was also sacked once and was indecisive at times as he faced consistent pressure. There were a few bright spots for the 27-year-old free-agent acquisition, such as his 26-yard completion to wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey up the seam during the second-string offense’s first drive. But Stidham largely struggled and will have plenty to clean up heading into his second outing next week against the 49ers.
Ben DiNucci, Denver’s No. 3 quarterback, had a much stronger performance. Yes, DiNucci, who started a game for the Cowboys in 2020 and played 10 games in the XFL earlier this year, was facing Arizona’s third-string defense. Most players on that unit probably won’t make the team’s final roster. But it was DiNucci’s slow heartbeat in a big spot that stood out most. On Denver’s final scoring drive, DiNucci completed 5-of-6 passes for 55 yards and drew a 22-yard pass interference penalty when he launched a pass near the end zone for Taylor Grimes.
DiNucci took what the defense gave him and took advantage of Grimes’ impressive ability to find space in the defense. He was accurate and calm in the pocket. It was an impressive first outing.
McLaughlin’s big night
Jaleel McLaughlin has been one of the stars of training camp for the Broncos. As offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said recently, the undrafted rookie running back out of Youngstown State is seemingly good for at least one monster run every day at practice.
The same thing apparently applies to game action. McLaughlin was a key difference-maker on Denver’s final offensive drive. On that possession — his only playing time of the game — he gained 32 yards on five touches. One of those was an impressive 12-yard catch-and-run on a screen. He broke multiple tackles on a 5-yard run on the very next play. He then burst into the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown to end the drive, giving the Broncos a 17-10 lead with 1:30 left.
“Overall, I thought it was pretty good,” Payton said of McLaughlin’s night, adding that the rookie did have a fumble that took a fortuitous bounce out of bounds.
McLaughlin, the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher, had to wait until late in the fourth quarter to see the field. Tyler Badie (36 yards on eight touches) and Tony Jones Jr. (13 yards on four touches) got the first reps among the reserve running backs. But McLaughlin made the most of his chances and could see more opportunities in next week’s preseason matchup with the 49ers as the battle for a roster spot behind Javonte Williams (did not play Friday) and Samaje Perine heats up.
(Photo: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)