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Broncos offense faces challenge of rebounding vs. gnarly Commanders defense

Can Wilson find more explosive plays vs a team tough on third down?
Cardinals Commanders Football
Posted at 10:28 AM, Sep 13, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-13 15:58:26-04

ENGLEWOOD – The scoreboard became an ugly reminder of recent history.

Despite all the change – new coach, 40 percent roster turnover – the Broncos produced 16 points. That’s the same number they scored in last season’s opener. And the same total they averaged a year ago, a campaign that Broncos Country wishes fell under the scope of selective amnesia.

Dig deeper and there were encouraging signs with Sean Payton calling plays and Russell Wilson running his third different system in as many years. Wilson went 18-for-20 for 125 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. The vision for the offense was starting to come into focus.

Then it went dark.

In the second half, the Broncos collected 99 yards on three drives, including 52 passing. The lack of explosives proved problematic – there was one play over 21 yards, and Phillip Dorsett stepping out of bounds negated a potential big gain – as did the inability to finish in the red zone.

Wilson remains optimistic about improvement, and while tight end Greg Dulcich (hamstring) will be out for multiple weeks, receiver Jerry Jeudy (hamstring) could return. He is needed, but the Washington Commanders’ defense is no one’s idea of a panacea.

While acknowledging Washington faced Arizona, a team that acquired its starting quarterback two weeks ago, the Commanders showed their fangs. They finished with three sacks, allowed 210 yards and 114 through the air. This is a team that stiffens when it matters most led by a defensive line that includes Jonathan Allen, Montez Sweat and Daron Payne.

Per The Washington Post, Washington hasn’t allowed an opponent to convert more than four third downs in their last eight games, dating to last season. Washington ranked first in third down prevention a year ago.

The Broncos must find balance. They surprisingly passed more than they ran in the opener – 34 to 22. Javonte Williams and Samaje Perine showed potential – combined for 93 yards on 21 carries and eight receptions for 42 yards – but no big plays. Could those unfold with more use? If nothing else, Denver must remain patient with the run game to keep the Washington front honest. Washington yielded 96 yards rushing to the one-dimensional Cardinals.

“I feel it was a decent debut. It would have been great to get the win and there were, of course, some things we need to clean up,” Perine said Monday. “But there were a lot of positives to take away from this game and I am just excited to see how we keep moving forward.”

Payton indicated that the lack of gash plays in the pass game were connected to the Raiders’ shell zone coverage. Watching the film, it’s obvious that the Raiders were not worried about getting beat deep. Wilson only attempted two passes of 20 yards or more. The return of Jeudy could help take the lid off as could an expanded role for the speedy Marvin Mims Jr. The other factor? The Broncos need more yards after the catch. It’s not uncommon for teams to rely on short and intermediate passes, while turning their playmakers loose in space. The 49ers are the best example of this with Deebo Samuel and Christian McCaffrey.

For the Broncos to chip away at Washington’s defense, it must include stealing yards through broken tackles with backs and receivers. Wilson connected with 10 different targets against Las Vegas. That is an indication that the offense is layered. But it won’t work without bigger chunks. Perine led the Broncos with 37 yards receiving.

 “I thought we did a good job of guys catching it and making plays. A bunch of guys caught the football (vs. the Raiders). It’s a good thing with the running game up front with our backs and what they can do is really exciting,” Wilson said. “We’re just going to keep getting better.”

The Broncos will place Caden Sterns (knee) on injured reserve and promote receiver Lil'Jordan Humphrey to the 53-man roster.