DENVER — Russell Wilson heard it loud and clear, an unwanted cascade of noise emanating from the stands, a visceral displeasure of loud boos at what the paying customers witnessed from their $245 million quarterback and leader of the Denver Broncos.
It was downright ugly, and it was justified.
Russell Wilson rallies the Broncos, gives pep talk in huddle
Wilson was cold and sluggish for the majority of the game against the Houston Texans, completing just 9 of 23 passes for 116 yards and a 37.6 passer rating through three quarters while trailing on the scoreboard. He completed 3 of his first 11 throws for 38 yards.
Instead of looking like the savior for a football-crazed city hoping for the next Peyton Manning or John Elway after a blockbuster offseason trade, Wilson was in a pronounced slump and looked practically inept. So was rookie coach Nathaniel Hackett, whose head-scratching play-calling has enraged the fans.
Between the penalties and awful red-zone efficiency, this offense is seriously disappointing. It was so bad the Broncos’ fans were loudly calling out the play clock as it ticked down toward zero, which usually just happens at basketball games.
Just when it looked like the Broncos were hopeless and they were headed toward a loss to a rebuilding Texans team that finished 4-13 a year ago, Wilson galvanized them in the fourth quarter to manufacture a 16-9 comeback victory Sunday at Empower Field at Mile High.
Wilson came to life, connecting with tight end Eric Saubert for a perfectly-delivered 22-yard touchdown pass to put the game away. In the fourth quarter, Wilson completed 5 of 8 passes for 103 yards and a touchdown for a 145.8 passer rating.
“All I really care about is the cheers at the end, because we won,” said Wilson, who was 6 of 19 for 93 yards in the first half.
The interception he threw to middle linebacker Christian Kirksey was Courtland Sutton’s fault as he bobbled an accurate throw.
There was a moment where Wilson, a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, took command of the huddle. Before converting a pivotal 3rd-and-16 to spark the comeback, Wilson told his teammates this was a significant moment.
“Going into the fourth quarter, Russell [knelt] down in the huddle and told us, ‘Hey, look, we want to become a championship team, the team that goes deep into the playoffs and win championships,'” Sutton said. “‘These are the situations that we have to be able to master. We have to master these fourth quarters and be able to go out there and have that success.’
“I feel like guys have bought in and locked into a situation. We didn’t have the success we wanted to have in three quarters, but we were able to figure it out and get the win, and that’s the most important thing. We have to go in and watch the film, figure out what we can do better, and come back next week.”
Wilson connected with Sutton for a 35-yard strike. Three plays later, he found Saubert for the go-ahead touchdown.
“Yeah, that was a great one,” Hackett said. “Russ wanted to go over there to Courtland. I thought Courtland made a great catch. It was a heck of a play.”
Wilson evened the Broncos’ record at 1-1 after falling to his old team, the Seattle Seahawks, to open the season as he was outdueled by Geno Smith, his former backup.
Wilson managed to pull the Broncos together when they looked like they were falling apart at the seams. He was calm. He was poised. He was Russell Wilson. He finished 14 of 31 for 219 yards, one touchdown, and an interception.
It was a rough day for Denver, losing wide receiver Jerry Jeudy to a rib injury and cornerback Patrick Surtain II to a shoulder injury.
“It’s the National Football League, there’s going to be adversity,” Wilson said. “There’s going to be tough times. There’s going to be tough games. Guys are going to get injured like Jerry Jeudy, who has been spectacular for us so far. Guys have got to step up and step in. The one thing I’m never going to do, I’m never going to blink. That’s just not me.
“I’m excited because we were able to win a tough game like today, and you need those kind of games, because down the road when it’s a playoff game or it’s late in the season and you need that game, you have something to go back to. I think that was really critical for us to be able to lean on that and to really stick together through that fourth quarter.”
Denver has ‘a lot of faith in No. 3’
The Broncos scored 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, finishing strong against a Texans team that has squandered leads for two consecutive games and has been outscored by a combined margin of 27-0 in the fourth quarter to start the season against Denver and the Indianapolis Colts.
Without Wilson’s experience and composure, that doesn’t happen.
“We have a lot of faith in No. 3,” defensive lineman Dre’Mont Jones said. “I wasn’t really worried about him going out there and not doing his thing. Being a fan and seeing Russ over the years do his thing has been inspiring.
“To see him live with adversity, knowing that things are not rolling, he always kept his composure. It’s a great testament to how he prepares every day. He’s consistent. He’s the same Russell Wilson every day.”
Saubert — the recipient of Wilson’s touchdown — said he felt inspired by the veteran quarterback. And their timing was on point on the score.
“The way Russ leads us and owns us in the huddle, you always have a calmness and a composure with us,” Saubert said. “Just listen to him, trust in him. We all feel good out there, nothing rattle us or made us lose our composure.”
“Seam-route, got the edge on my defender. Russ threw it up, it’s kind of a trust throw, and went up and got it. It’s as simple as that. Just executing when you get a chance.”
Broncos’ red-zone offense is putrid
Hackett acknowledge the fans’ displeasure was warranted. The Broncos won despite 13 penalties that included a delay of game on a field-goal attempt, running out of timeouts, and an inexplicable tight end option play instead of pounding the football with running back Javonte Williams. The Broncos were 3 for 12 at converting third downs.
Hackett can’t help himself. He keeps getting cute and throwing the football in close quarters instead of giving the football to Williams or Melvin Gordon.
Why not run the football more against a defense that clearly couldn’t stop the Broncos? Denver rushed for 149 yards on 31 carries, an average of 4.8 yards per run, as Williams gained 75 yards on 15 carries while Gordon rushed for 47 yards on 10 carries.
Two weeks into the season, the Broncos are 0 for 6 at capitalizing on prime red-zone opportunities. That includes being unable to score touchdowns in two red-zone shots Sunday against the Texans.
“I don’t blame ’em,” Hackett said. “I mean, heck, I’d be booing myself. I was getting very frustrated. This has got to stop. We get down to the red zone two times. Don’t get another touchdown, which is unbelievably frustrating.
“I don’t think we have scored in there yet. That’s something that all of our guys have to step it up. Whether we run the ball more, whatever we’re doing, we just have to execute at a higher level.”
The Broncos’ offense is looking rough, though. They need direction. They need a plan. They need to figure out their identity beyond Wilson tossing it up to Sutton, one of the biggest wide receivers in the league at 6-foot-4, 216 pounds. The loss of Jeudy, a speedster who excelled against the Seahawks, is a setback, but X-rays on his ribs were negative.
Wilson certainly doesn’t sound concerned, even if there is cause for worry with how out of sync he and Hackett appear to be. The Broncos looked so discombobulated against the Texans for the majority of the game.
“I’ve been in so many tough games throughout my career,” Wilson said. “All that matters is that win. Then, taking those wins and understanding, ‘OK, here’s the areas where we can get better.’ We’ll definitely take on that challenge we’re looking forward.”
The Broncos are averaging 16 points per game despite their hefty investment of $45 million annually in Wilson. Their new owners have to be wondering about Hackett, who was hired by the previous regime led by former team president Joe Ellis.
Wilson and the Broncos’ offense are off to a sloppy start
A dozen penalties for 106 yards in the 17-16 loss to the Seahawks. Thirteen more penalties for 100 yards against the Texans.
What is going on? Getting in and out of the huddle is even an issue.
“We’re going to have to evaluate everything whether the personnel is getting out there or lack thereof and making sure the play is coming in nice and clean and just getting in and out of the huddle,” Hackett said. “I’ll talk with Russ about anything I can do to help him make it better. That’s inexcusable. That’s on us. That’s us hurting ourselves.”
In the Broncos’ first five red-zone opportunities of the season, they had three field goals, two lost fumbles, and zero touchdowns.
“The thing about the red zone, it comes down to making a crazy catch, a crazy run, a crazy play,” Wilson said. “We’re growing together, and we’re going to fix that.”