ENGLEWOOD — A day after the election, the Broncos face another referendum on their offense this Sunday in Nashville.
The first nine eight games served as an indictment of coach Nathaniel Hackett. Even with the progress displayed against Jacksonville, the Broncos rank 30th in points (15.1), 31st in third down conversions (29.2) and last in red zone touchdown percentage (35 percent).
Hackett identified third down success as critical moving forward, which would improve time of possession and keep the gnarly defense rested and more effective.
The offense needs an identity. The Broncos are not running or passing particularly well. While balance remains the goal, Russell Wilson has to play better. He is the team's most accomplished offensive player, and it's not even close.
During the second half of the season, can Wilson and Hackett mesh, showing enough progress to create optimism moving forward and secure the coach's job for 2023?
The Broncos sit tied for last with six passing touchdowns. Wilson is on pace for 13. He established his career low with 20 in 2014. He boasts a 58.8 completion percentage, well below his 2017 nadir of 61.3.
What would would success look like over the final nine games? How about 20 touchdowns while connecting on 64 percent of his throws?
"We have to find more touchdowns. That's just the name of the game, you know," Wilson said. "We need to find more touchdowns and I think there's more opportunities there for us."
For this to happen, the coach and QB must find a better fit. Hackett has looked overwhelmed at times, but in fairness, Wilson has missed multiple open receivers on his progressions. Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner broke down the Broncos last game on his YouTube channel, questioning route concepts — why out breaks and not straight slants for Courtland Sutton? Why not more vertical concepts to create openings on crossing routes? — that he believed prevented easy completions for Wilson.
Pull back the layers of the onion, as friend Nick Kosmider did in his piece for The Athletic, and the problem crystallizes. Wilson succeeds against man coverage — 11 explosive plays — and has been befuddled by zone looks, throwing three touchdowns with three picks. The game-changing plays vanish and sacks pile up.
I asked Hackett about the Broncos', if not league-wide issues, vs zone coverage.
"I think a lot of people — offensive guys are always looking for those big plays. That’s one of our philosophies. We want to find the explosive plays down the field. To eliminate that, you have to play certain forms of zone defense and play often soft. You have to be disciplined enough to be able to get completions and continually move the chains, but you’re always hunting for those explosive plays," Hackett said.
"I think that’s what has happened across the league. People are willing to give up the check downs, willing to give up the intermediate, the first level and second level throws so you don’t get those explosive plays, which we’ve seen in the past a little bit more. I think it’s just a philosophy. Everything goes through cycles. All of a sudden, you’ll see some other kinds of defense’s show up, but right now zone is definitely more prevalent in the league.”
This is where the self-scouting of a bye week should matter. The Titans, this Sunday's opponent, want a wrestling match. They feature toughness that is tangible and real. But they have a clear weakness defensively — pass defense. They have yielded 276 yards per game, ranking 30th.
The Broncos have to find a way to exploit this — there will be opportunities for big plays. The Titans play man coverage roughly 30 percent of the time. They have surrendered 15 passing touchdowns — sixth most — and a 66 percent completion percentage.
Wilson showed flashes of his old excellence against the Jaguars on multiple connections with Jerry Jeudy, K.J. Hamler and rookie tight end Greg Dulcich. All three can create separation against man looks. Those chunk plays cannot be missed in a road game that figures to be low scoring and close.
Wilson, who turns 34 on Nov. 29, has 250-plus passing yards in two of his past three games, and he owns success against the Titans. In three games, he owns six touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 112.2 quarterback rating in three games.
Of course, that was while he was with the Seahawks. For the Broncos offense to burst, he needs to look more like the quarterback he was in Seattle, meshing with Hackett over the final two months, perhaps playing under center more, going uptempo and utilizing play action and bootlegs.
It starts with more accuracy through the air and added mobility — scrambling with purpose — after rushing for at least 22 yards in three of his last four games.
"He did a really good job using his legs a couple of times this past game. I think that’s always important. Watching a lot of the games just this past weekend, you see there are certain play designs that are there and it’s great. Then all of a sudden, a lot of time, it’s not there and they’re able to make plays — different quarterbacks with their legs." Hackett said.
"I think you see when he starts doing some of that stuff, it makes him a major threat being able to convert with his legs and scramble and throw the ball. We just need to be sure he’s completely being efficient and utilizing his legs but at the same time, completing them when they’re there.”
Nothing brewing on contract extensions for Jones, Risner
During the bye week last season, receivers Courtland Sutton (four-year, $60.8 million, $34.9 million guaranteed) and Tim Patrick (three-year, $34 million, $18.5 million guaranteed) received contract extensions. There was educated speculation that defensive end Dre'Mont Jones and left guard Dalton Risner might land extensions while the Broncos were idle last week. It did not materialize.
In the case of Risner, the Broncos declined to engage in talks, leaving his future uncertain with the team after this season. No talks materialized for Jones, either. Jones was asked if he felt like a core player based on general manager George Paton's comments last week that "we want him here for a long time."
"I view my standing with the franchise as, 'This is Dre' going into Year 4,'^" Jones said Wednesday.
Asked if he wanted to stay in Denver longterm he responded, "I am here now."
Jones, who leads the Broncos with 5.5 sacks, has been asked about his contract status since last spring. So it makes sense that he's not going to cede any leverage this close to free agency. The Broncos could also franchise tag Jones if talks don't gain traction, though that number could be roughly $19 million.
Star safety Justin Simmons (knee) worked on the side field and did not practice. The Broncos need him Sunday as one of their best tacklers and playmakers. ...
Strong safety Kareem Jackson always operated as a captain in his time in Denver. Wednesday, it became official. H was named a defensive captain for the remainder of the season following Bradley Chubb's trade to Miami. ...
Baron Browning hopes to play Sunday, but won't have a better idea until later in the week to see how his hip flexor injury responds. He would be missed as an outside linebacker who can set the edge and defend the run. ...
K.J. Hamler popped up on the injury report as limited with a hamstring issue.