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Broncos' red-faced, red zone offense needs boost

Finding balance at goal line remains critical to improvement
Texans Broncos Football
Posted at 10:53 AM, Sep 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-21 19:32:10-04

ENGLEWOOD — The Broncos hired Nathaniel Hackett for his energy, innovation and offensive mind.

No one disputes that he has caffeinated the building, and the players like him because he genuinely cares about them. But, the NFL remains a sobering business. Exercising patience with Hackett's missteps extends only so far.

He needs to improve:

  • the overall operation — the 25 penalties are the most in franchise history in consecutive games
  • offensive communication issues — the home crowd trolled him last Sunday by counting down the play clock
  • the red-faced, red zone issues as the Broncos have failed to score a touchdown inside the 20

Hackett is bright with a tireless work ethic, driven to pursue answers. Clumsy moments were predictable for a first-time head coach and a first-time offensive coordinator (Justin Outten). Hackett calls the plays, something he hasn't done since 2018 in Jacksonville, and has yet to find rhythm on how he processes information.

"It starts with me and I am doing everything I can to make quicker, faster decisions. (General manager) George (Paton), (assistant GM) Mouge(y) have been spectacular in helping me through that process. This is something that is new for me," Hackett said. "And I think we’re going to have some good answers moving forward."

It is expected Hackett will streamline the conversation flow by limiting who talks in his headphones and for how long. But, assistants must speak up to provide input and create guardrails. As for Hackett, he needs to give quarterback Russell Wilson more time in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage to audible, if necessary.

The Broncos offense ranks seventh in yards per play (6.1) and yards per game (391.5). They are moving the ball, but the issues inside the 20 — which was emphasized on the first day of spring OTAS — remain glaring. They have no touchdowns in six trips, including 0-for-5 on goal-to-go drives.

"There is some good news. It's not all bad news," Wilson said. "We've been down there six times, fumbled twice on the 1. We obviously can't do that. We had a quick fly touchdown to Courtland (Sutton). That could have been good. We had a little flip toss to Beck that should have been a touchdown (if not for a penalty). That can't happen. That's four of the six. That fifth one was that roll out where I hit E (Eric Tomlinson) and it was just barely out. That's how I look at it. It's a game of inches, a game of discipline, a game of doing things right, and that changes the whole perspective on everything."

There are a confluence of factors at work. First, the Broncos lack balance in the red zone, attempting a league-high 17 passes and four runs. Wilson is 8-for-17 for 49 yards in the red zone and 2-for-his-last-9. The Broncos have rushed four times for two yards, and fumbled twice, one apiece from Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon.

Making matters worse, they have three penalties — two false starts and one delay of game — one of which negated a touchdown. They also had two passing scores disallowed after tight end Tomlinson and receiver Sutton were ruled out of bounds after the plays were reviewed.

Viewing from 10,000 feet, the answer appears simple: lean on the ground game more. In the first two weeks, Williams and Gordon boast 22 carries apiece (Yes, dead even again). Williams owns 118 yards. Gordon counters with 105. The pair is averaging 5.1 yards a pop. So, without using the All-22 or a data analyst, it's clear four carries in the red zone is not enough, and working out of the shotgun inside the 5-yard line should be used sparingly.

"We need to be more balanced across the board," Hackett said.

Wilson has targeted six players in the red zone, topped by Williams (five) and Sutton (four). The small sample size demands perspective. As Wilson explained, there have been five near touchdowns lost. Those are not excuses, but a reminder that the team has been close.

The problem with the NFL is that you get zero credit for near misses. The league deals in absolutes. Through two weeks, the Broncos' offense has yet to find traction. And the 49ers are not exactly a get-right game. The 49ers mauled the Seahawks, their defense pitching a shutout as the only score came against their special teams. Like the Broncos, they are allowing 13 points a game. Seattle did not test San Francisco in the red zone. The Bears, however, delivered touchdowns on two attempts, on an 18-yard pass and short run in hurricane conditions.

The Broncos, especially if either or both Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler return, have enough weapons. It's unlikely San Francisco is going to permit Sutton to beat them in the red zone. This is where formation and physicality matter. Going under center and pounding the ball on the ground represent a potential avenue to success, and if relied on, will open up bootlegs for Wilson to use his mobility, which has yet to be displayed.

It's two weeks. That's not a long time. But the NFL waits for no one. It's time for Hackett to show improvement and raise the offensive's play with him.

Pat Surtain II (left shoulder), Jerry Jeudy (rib/shoulder), Randy Gregory (knee), D.J, Jones (ankle) all did not practice. Josey Jewell (calf) was limited and right tackle Billy Turner (left knee) was a full participant. Jewell and Turner have yet to play this season. ...

In a poll of American adults conducted by Morning Consult on Aug. 25-26, Wilson tied Patrick Mahomes as the most liked player followed by Tom Brady and Matt Stafford. Only QBs, RBs, WRS and TEs were included in survey. No defensive players.