ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — When the Denver Broncos’ bid for a comeback victory against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 1 last season ended in a 64-yard missed field goal and an avalanche of second-guessing, it was a sign of the late-game misery to come over the next three-plus months.
Denver was 4-9 in games decided by seven or fewer points in 2022 and lost five of those games by a field goal or less. Those nine losses — tied for an NFL single-season record, according to Pro Football Reference — included a slew of final-drive meltdowns by quarterback Russell Wilson and the team’s offense. The end-zone interception at home against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 5. Blown chances in regulation and overtime against the Los Angeles Chargers one week later. A promising late charge against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 13 stalled by unforced errors. A Chris Jones sack of Wilson that spoiled an upset bid with less than two minutes left in a Week 17 game at Kansas City.
The list was long.
“We’re going to be in these close games,” Wilson said Tuesday. “Obviously, last year, we felt like we didn’t really capitalize on some of those. We have a great opportunity to establish how we’re really going to go about it.”
Against the backdrop of last year’s failures, the most encouraging part of the offensive surge that has taken place for the Broncos over the last three or four training camp practices of is that it has been highlighted by a pair of impressive two-minute drives that ended in touchdowns. On Saturday, Wilson ended practice by moving to his left and unleashing a deep ball down the sideline for Jerry Jeudy, who caught the 47-yard pass in the end zone despite tight coverage from cornerback Damarri Mathis. On Tuesday, the simulated situation had Wilson’s offense trailing by six points with less than two minutes remaining as they began a drive 73 yards from the end zone. The veteran quarterback slid out of the pocket and hit rookie wide receiver Marvin Mims for 40-plus yards to begin the series. Wilson then completed three more passes to get Denver down to the 14-yard line, where he threaded a pass up the seam to Courtland Sutton for a touchdown.
“We’ve started going to some more game-like situations, running substitutions off the sideline and radioing the calls in, picking up the tempo,” offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said. “We’re operating like they know the offense a little bit better.”
When Sean Payton called film of Denver’s 2022 season “hard to watch,” it was clear that the pre-snap penalties were a major source of his disdain.
— The Athletic NFL (@TheAthleticNFL) August 5, 2023
Nobody who is a part of Denver’s offensive operation is spending too much time celebrating a couple of touchdowns during two-minute periods in early August. The Broncos are a little more than a month from their Sept. 10 kickoff against the Las Vegas Raiders — a team they have not defeated since 2019 — and are still installing aspects of their scheme and situational blueprints. But ever since the Broncos’ disastrous start in two-minute work last Friday — two pre-snap penalties and a pick-six off a tipped pass — Wilson and the offense have looked far more comfortable navigating those critical situations. They haven’t reached the level of muscle-memory command and poise Sean Payton wants to ingrain in his players, but meaningful progress is evident.
“We’re all understanding what Coach Payton wants and how we want to go about it as players, our thought process,” said Wilson, who also ended a red zone period earlier in Tuesday’s practice with an on-target 6-yard pass to a leaping Kendall Hinton for a touchdown. “At the end of the day, you have to have the right mentality when it’s, let’s say, 1:30 left on the clock and now you’ve got to go 75 yards. It’s your mentality and how you go about it — and looking forward to those opportunities and obstacles.”
The emphasis Payton has placed on two-minute scenarios in training camp includes detailed walk-throughs that take on the look of an outdoor lecture. The whole team gathers around as Payton talks through various situations that have occurred at the end of halves or games that have swung outcomes. For example, he’s spent time drilling down the finer points of angles to take toward the end zone on Hail Mary plays. The reason for spending valuable chunks of the training camp clock on these scenarios, in such painstaking detail, comes down to math.
“I want them, more than just learning the plays, to learn and understand the situations that arise in two minutes,” Payton said. “Every half ends in a two–minute (drill), for the most part, and then more often than not, the games do. The circumstances with each two–minute, there can be a hundred. At the end of the half, you’re thinking, ‘Hey, let’s get in field goal range.’ Maybe you get more aggressive if you cross the 50 and there’s still enough time on the clock. Then, at the end of the game, all those situations that take place relative to timeouts — if you have them, if you don’t have them — what are the ways that you get down the field? And then what do you expect defensively?”
The Broncos were a situational football disaster last season. In addition to the late-drive flameouts, Denver ranked last in the league in third-down efficiency (29.1 percent). During their 3-6 start, the Broncos were also last in red zone efficiency with touchdowns on only 35 percent of their drives. Wilson last season ranked 25th among NFL starters in EPA (expected points added) per dropback during the final two minutes of regulation. Any bid to resurrect a long-sagging offense has to begin with better efficiency in those areas.
It’s part of the reason Wilson, entering his 12th NFL season, said he is eager to play alongside other offensive starters in the preseason, beginning with the exhibition opener at Arizona on Friday night.
“You get to figure out who you are as a team in a lot of ways,” he said.
If the Broncos are going to be the team they want to be offensively in 2023, they have to be far better in the hurry-up situations that pop up in the majority of NFL games. If they do make a turnaround in that area, they may be able to look at the flashes of two-minute success in a stretch of August practices, led by the accurate downfield passing of Wilson, as the foundation.
“For August 8,” Lombardi said of Wilson, “I think he’s in a really good spot.”
The tao of Sean Payton’s tempo is setting new foundation for Broncos offense
• Right tackle Mike McGlinchey and wide receiver Brandon Johnson were both injured early in Tuesday’s practice. Both players walked under their own power to the locker room and did not return. Johnson’s injury appeared to be to his lower left leg and occurred when he slipped during a one-on-one drill against cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian. McGlinchey appeared to be rolled up on from behind during a nine-on-seven, run-the-ball period.
There was no immediate update on either player at the end of practice and Payton was not scheduled to talk to reporters.
“I don’t know what happened to him,” Lombardi said of McGlinchey. “I saw him go down, but I don’t have any details.”
• Safety Justin Simmons missed practice for the second straight day as he continues to nurse what Payton called a “tweak” to his upper leg. Other veterans who didn’t participate Tuesday: safety Kareem Jackson, left tackle Garett Bolles, tight end Chris Manhertz, defensive back K’Waun Williams and outside linebacker Aaron Patrick.
(Photo of Russell Wilson: Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)
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