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Broncos seek first road win in U.S. vs. slumping Rams

Can Wilson build off Chiefs game and keep offense moving forward?
Russell Wilson
Posted at 1:19 PM, Dec 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-23 17:36:41-05

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The question arrives sporadically on my Twitter timeline.

Does coach Nathaniel Hackett have a chance to save his job? A narrow path exists over the final three weeks. Can the offense maintain its momentum, averaging roughly 20-to-24 points per game, building off the outings against the Chiefs and Cardinals? And will quarterback Russell Wilson look comfortable?

Wilson delivered his best performance as a Bronco against the Chiefs before getting concussed, passing for three touchdowns and rushing for a season-high 57 yards. That was Seattle Russ, a player capable of winning games with his legs and throws outside the pocket.

If Wilson succeeds down the stretch and the Broncos follow suit, it offers hope for Hackett in the name of progress and continuity. However, the body of work cannot be ignored when evaluating the coach. Hackett was brought in to revive the offense — yes, it would have worked better had they acquired Aaron Rodgers, but that was never a certainty — and Denver ranks last in points per game (15.6) and third down conversions (28.6 percent). Also, the Broncos are the league's most penalized team (101), a direct reflection of coaching.

For Hackett to make a compelling case, it starts Sunday. You have to beat the Rams. No excuses. Los Angeles is 4-10, and missing its best two players, defensive tackle Aaron Donald and quarterback Matthew Stafford. The Broncos have not won a road game on American soil this season (their one road victory came in London before a partisan Denver crowd). If you can't beat the Rams, then who can you beat?

So let's take a look at the Denver7 things to watch in the Slimetime Game on Nickelodeon.

Will Wilson look good?
Russell Wilson sat out last week against his wishes, the team prioritizing his safety even though he cleared the concussion protocol. Wilson must run to be effective, and he told me that he has no trepidation using his legs on Sunday. He moved significantly better vs. the Ravens and Chiefs, an indication that his nagging hamstring injury had healed. But, Wilson must be smart. He has rushed 41 times for 215 yards, but has hurt himself three times running (his shoulder in Las Vegas, his hamstring at Chargers and his head vs. Chiefs).

Heavy lifting
It's critical for the Broncos to run the football with heavy personnel. They did that vs. the Seahawks, and again last week opposite of the Cardinals. If running becomes the identity of the offense, it opens up play action, bootlegs and scrambles for the 34-year-old Wilson. Over the past three games, opponents have rushed for 393 yards on 95 carries — 4.1 per pop — against the Rams. The Broncos are averaging 5.1 yards a clip the past two weeks, compared to 3.9 in the previous 12 games. Lean on Latavius Murray and Marlon Mack.

Take the layups
If the run is successful, it will set up the screen game and the checkdowns. Wilson has to take the easy shots in this offense to create more manageable third downs. This is where Chase Edmonds, returning from an ankle injury, enters the picture. Can he emerge as a third-down weapon as planned when acquired from Miami?

Don't forget about Jerry
There will be an airing of the grievances Festivus style on Monday if the Broncos don't target Jeudy at least seven times. He has been the team's best receiver over the past month. In his last four games played — I am excluding the Titans contest because he hurt his ankle on the first snap — he has been targeted 29 times with 25 catches for 277 yards and four touchdowns. The return of Courtland Sutton will help distract some coverage off of Jeudy, who likely will get a steady diet of Jalen Ramsey. But Wilson must resist the temptation to favor Sutton. The former Pro Bowler has not been the same since tearing his ACL two years ago. He has one touchdown in his last 23 games and boasts a career-high nine drops this season, tied with for most in the league, per pro football reference, along with the highest drop percentage per target.

Keep an eye on the outside
If Randy Gregory doesn't play because of right knee soreness and the game on turf, which is likely, it offers more opportunities for Jonathon Cooper and Nik Bonitto. Gregory must deliver next season, the last year of his contract with guaranteed money. But these last three games offer an opportunity for Cooper and Bonitto to emerge has key figures entering next season.

Hold the line
The Broncos offensive line could feature as many as three new starters next season. The only players certain to return appear to be left tackle Garett Bolles and right guard Quinn Meinerz (Meinerz will play with a clear shield on Sunday after suffering multiple corneal abrasions in his right eye when poked vs. the Cardinals). Dalton Risner has shown toughness and reliability, but there have been no talks on a new contract. And it's likely Denver will seek new faces at center and right tackle. All that considered, it would be nice to see this group continue to play physical as it did vs. the Cardinals.

Secondary to none
Of the biggest surprises this season, count defensive boss Ejiro Evero near the top of the list. In his first stab at the job, Evero has equipped Vic Fangio's scheme with fangs. The Broncos blitz effectively, and own 19 takeaways and 35 sacks. The secondary is the reason: Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson, K'Wuan Williams, Damarri Mathis and Pro Bowl starter Pat Surtain are doing work. Can they add to the team's 14 interceptions against Baker Mayfield? The answer is yes.

RENCK'S PREDICTION: Broncos 20, Rams 16.