ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Broncos coach Sean Payton runs hot, and on game day, he serves as a bubbling volcano. As he entered the locker room after Friday night's defeat to Arizona, his body temperature appeared to match the 105 degrees outside State Farm Stadium.
Payton hates to lose. But while he is strung tight, there is elasticity in his personality. He did not become a potential Hall of Fame coach by lacking nuance. So, three days removed from the preseason opener, Payton struck a tone that reflected his job as a teacher.
“When you get into the season and you have one of those games that are just fantastic and you come in and watch the film, it’s never quite as good as you thought. Then when you have one of those games that maybe it seems like the sky’s falling, typically speaking, it’s not as bad as you think. As the head coach, you try to point out the things that need to be corrected, and then you try to also encourage the things that were done well,” Payton explained. “We’re in a race. Everyone has played a game now. It’s preseason, but in Weeks 1, 2 and 3, who can improve quickly? That matters a lot.”
The first-string offense finished with a touchdown drive, masking, but not eliminating the protection concerns in the passing game. Wilson was hit five times and pressured 64% of the time. That requires improvement. This is where coaching comes into play. When the Broncos made mistakes last season, they were rarely corrected and there were few consequences.
The breakdowns ran across the line from left tackle Garett Bolles and left guard Ben Powers to right guard Quinn Meinerz and right tackle Isaiah Prince.
“I think we can protect better,” Payton said.
Monday’s practice featured progress. Russell Wilson threw multiple darts for splash plays as tight end Greg Dulcich delivered a strong practice. One thing that will improve the pass security is a better run game. Javonte Williams (knee) is set to make his debut, joining Samaje Perine and rookie speedster Jaleel McLaughlin.
The special teams showed improvement. And that’s part of what left heads scratching on Friday. The Broncos kickers – Brett Maher and Elliott Fry – have performed well in pressure situation in practice. Same goes for Riley Dixon. You would not have known it based on Friday as the kickers went 1-for-4 and Dixon delivered a forgettable 32-yarder on his first punt.
“The kicking game — we didn’t punt it like we thought. We’ve had a good two weeks punting the ball when you guys watch out here. I think he’ll be much better the next game we play. I don’t want to say what you expect when you look at preseason tape, but there were a lot of good things,” Payton said. “The last play of the game is something we’ll get cleaned up. That wasn’t really good from us.”
As Broncos aim to take step forward on Saturday at San Franciso, the side field at Centura Training Center featured a battery of big names. Of the 12 players not practicing, the list included Pat Surtain II, safety Justin Simmons, nickelback K’Waun Williams, receiver Courtland Sutton, nose tackle D.J. Jones and safety Caden Sterns. Promising outside linebacker Nik Bonitto, who hurt his hip on Friday per the broadcast, did not go through drills on the side field. Payton hinted that several of the players would be cleared and ready to go vs. the 49ers.
“I think you’re going to see him this week. I think he’s really close. We have a handful of those guys -- Courtland (Sutton). I think we have a group of four or five guys that you’ll be not asking me anything here in a couple days,” Payton said.
Tackling the issue
Inside linebacker Alex Singleton revealed a secret. He likes preseason snaps. Why? He’s a raider of the lost art of tackling. He was a machine last season, reaching 20 in multiple games.
“To get those live reps and take someone to the ground, that’s the biggest thing, tackling,” Singleton said. “We can work in everything else all day, every day, but until you get a few of those in you don’t know how you will feel after nine months off. You want to make sure it feels good. Which it does. I don’t think there’s anything better than hitting people. But you have to wait until game day.”
A finalist will be announced in the coaches/contributors category for the Hall of Fame on Tuesday. Former Broncos coaches Dan Reeves and Mike Shanahan are in the mix. Payton knows Shanahan well given their college ties. “I think I may be the most biased person only because I went to Eastern Illinois. I know Mike more. Dan had a fantastic career. They both have the credentials to be in the hall. I’m not a voter. Mike is someone who has won two Super Bowls. When you look at his numbers offensively and where he has been — San Francisco. The body of work for Mike is super impressive." ...
Jonathan Harris has been cut five times and bounced around the league. But the defensive lineman is pushing to earn a starting job for the Broncos this summer.
“I have been an underdog my whole career. I am grateful for the coaches and teammates who have had faith in me,” Harris said.