GLENDALE, Ariz. — Sean Payton failed to hide his disgust.
Making his Broncos coaching debut on Friday night at Arizona, Payton planned to play his starting offense 15 to 18 snaps. What unfolded demanded an audible.
To some degree we are all of product of where we come from – and Payton did not win 152 games and a Super Bowl by patting players on the back, providing Instagram breaks, Capri Suns, and orange slices. So, it was the first stringers who returned to the field midway through the second quarter with 14 logged plays.
Payton wanted this group to improve, to leave with momentum. Moments later on fourth-and-5 from the 21-yard line, Russell Wilson fired a touchdown to Jerry Jeudy, the defining moment in an uneven Broncos preseason opening 18-17 loss against the Arizona Cardinals in air-conditioned State Farm Stadium.
“We looked at the numbers and we went one more with the offense. I think defense totals. It was a little easier and then I wanted to, shoot I wanted to score and leave with a good taste in our mouths," Payton explained. "It was easy to (go for it) based on where we were on the field. It was really being more aggressive and showing them the confidence.”
Payton’s bravado played well in the locker room. He did not have the appetite for another kick after a pair of missed field goals (one each by Brett Maher and Elliott Fry). And he wanted to send a message that his team is going to be bold. In the end, his decision changed the outlook of the top offense from disappointing to encouraging.
"I thought it was really good how we responded. After the first drive the ball really started moving, the third drive and fourth drive obviously we finished it off," Wilson said. "It was a really great route by Jerry Jeudy. Good job by him just getting open there in a split second. They brought on full pressure and he did a great job winning and getting the touchdown for us and that was big.”
After a three-out first drive and subsequent clumsy marches, Wilson found traction. On the scoring drive, he connected with receiver Courtland Sutton (19 yards) and tight end Adam Trautman (four yards), before zipping the pass to Jeudy. The completion reads quietly on a stat sheet but deserves context. On third down, Wilson scrambled to his right, and tossed the ball to a wide-open Jeudy for a potential huge gain. However, the former Alabama star dropped it. Wilson went right back to him over the middle for paydirt.
"I think he would’ve scored on the first one but the thing about Jerry is, you have so much confidence in all the things he can do," said Wilson.
Added Jeudy, "Shout out to the coaches and Russ for coming back to me. In this game, there's always a what's next play."
Wilson finished 7 of 13 for 93 yards and a 102.3 passer rating. Jeudy posted 40 yards receiving and Sutton produced three catches for 35 yards. If this offense is going to work, the duo must be productive, something the pair has failed to do in their first three seasons together because of ineffectiveness and injuries.
With Javonte Williams (knee) out until next Saturday vs. the 49ers, running back Samaje Perine delivered 26 yards on four carries. He set up the final drive by rushing for 11 yards on the first play.
Overall, it was a pedestrian performance for the starters. The offensive line requires significant improvement after allowing six pressures on Wilson, a staggering number even when allowing for right tackle Mike McGlinchey’s absence with a sprained knee. But the final six plays of the 21 logged left the starters with embers of optimism, though it came against a gaggle of first, second and third stringers.
"We needed to get that touchdown. The first three drives were definitely not to the standard on how we want to operate," right guard Quinn Meinerz said. "It felt good to come together on that last drive. But really the best way to put it is that we can improve on everything."
The defense stood firm despite the absences of top players — cornerback Pat Surtain II (coach’s decision to rest), safety Justin Simmons (strained groin), nickelback K’Waun Williams (recovering from practice injury). Essang Bassey entered the starting lineup for Williams, and delivered the kind of play that sticks out when the depth chart and roster cuts are discussed. He intercepted Clayton Tune and returned it 31 yards, a counterpunch after being targeted in the first quarter.
"That is what we want to go out and do. To continue to get better," said linebacker Alex Singleton of a Broncos defense that finished with five sacks.. "It was our first time going live again. It is good to see that we are going in the right direction.”
Redemption became a common thread in the first half as the Broncos held a 10-0 lead. Not only did Jeudy rebound, but Fry nailed a 55-yard field goal with 11 seconds remaining. Fry missed from 50 yards, and Maher sailed a 47-yarder wide right and had a 52-yarder blocked by Carlos Watkins in the third quarter when there was a breakdown up front.
"We had a blocked field goal and we gave up penetration at left guard with the young player. Coverage units were solid. There were two longer field goal attempts, but that’s not the whole special teams," Payton said. "We obviously have to be better in that unit."
Payton knew there would be mistakes. And the special teams issues and O-line breakdowns should rank at the top. But the starters also did not commit a penalty. These are the type of barometers required when measuring a team.
After one game, it’s fair to begin the Broncos’ evaluation. It was inconsistent with a dose of progress.
Things that we did not see in the second half: Gilligan hats, sunglasses, and offense — at least when Jarrett Stidham was in. Wilson’s backup completed 5-of-15 passes, should have had a pick six, and posted a 16.0 rating. No. 3 QB Ben DiNucci fared better. He led the Broncos on the late scoring drive, which included nice catch and run from Jaleel McLaughlin, a 22-yard penalty, and a McLaughlin 4-yard burst into the end zone.
McLaughlin had his name spelled wrong on his jersey. It featured a "G" in his last name. But there was no mistake on his touchdown.
"That's how my name is pronounced. I thought they were just helping people out," said McLaughlin with a smile,
In a real game, the Broncos would have milked the clock. They scored fast, and the defense wilted in the final 90 seconds allowing a touchdown pass and a two-point conversion with two seconds remaining.
"Regardless of whether it is a preseason game or a regular season game, you can’t stand losing," Payton said. "Especially in that fashion."
No special treatment
The Broncos’ special teams have ranked in the bottom third for the past six years. With new assistant coach Mike Westhoff and coordinator Ben Kotwica on board, the Broncos expect dramatic improvement. Maybe next week.
Riley Dixon botched his first punt, a duck that floated 32 yards right down the middle of the worn field. Then, Brett Maher (47 yards) and Elliott Fry (50 yards) missed field goals on back-to-back possessions. Maher had his second attempt blocked, leaving Denver with one conversion on its first four attempts.
On the sunny side, receiver Montrell Washington received first crack at punt returns and made two good decisions and delivered an 11-yard return. Washington let one kick inside the 10 and bounce into the end zone — that was a problem last season, but he spent the summer working with a JUGS machine at his high school to improve — while another went out at the 20-yard line.
Delayed start for Williams, Surtain, Clark
Payton planned to play his starters 15 to 18 snaps, but that did not necessarily mean every starter. Running back Javonte Williams (right knee), cornerback Pat Surtain II and nickelback K’Waun Williams went through warmups but did not play.
Frank Clark did not start or play, joined by Chris Manhertz (he's been working through an injury on the side field at practice) and linebacker Aaron Patrick, who is recovering from ACL surgery.
Williams said he will make his preseason debut Saturday at the 49ers.
Jonathon Cooper (outside linebacker), Ja'Quan McMillian (cornerback) started opposite of Damarri Mathis and Jonathon Cooper was paired with Randy Gregory at outside linebacker.
McMillian had a couple of busts in coverage in the first half but rebounded with a sack.
With Mike McGlinchey sidelined at least two more weeks with a sprained knee, Isaiah Prince started at right tackle on Friday. Prince has impressed in practice. Cam Fleming has been working his way back into shape, and is penciled in to serve as the swing tackle after starting 15 games for Denver last season. ...
Nose tackle D.J. Jones exited after the first series with a concussion. He tracked down the ball on a run play, then began tapping his head as he jogged to the sideline. He left to the locker room. The Broncos are thin at the position since Mike Purcell (knee) has yet to practice. ...
Defensive lineman Matt Henningsen, the second-year pro from Wisconsin, has had a quiet camp, but like last year, he excelled in the preseason games. Henningsen produced a sack and was active upfront.
On the team broadcast, they said outside linebacker Nik Bonitto (hip) and inside linebacker Josey Jewell (poked eye) suffered injuries. Jewell said after the game his eye was scratched, but he believed he would be OK.