The Denver Broncos offense has a Russell Wilson problem

Russell Wilson and the Broncos' offense are struggling early. What exactly has gone wrong in the Denver passing attack through three weeks?

Russell Wilson broke the mold of NFL quarterbacks. The Seahawks’ 75th pick in the 2012 NFL Draft was shorter than the mold. He was a mobile QB who thrived outside of structure and threw one of the prettiest deep balls in NFL history.

Ten years later, and just months removed from a messy divorce with Seattle, we’re seeing that maybe we overestimated what we’d get from the Super Bowl champion. The Broncos’ offense is disjointed, and while Wilson isn’t the only culprit, he is the primary concern.

What’s wrong with Russell Wilson?

If Denver is to contend in the AFC West, he must start playing better. As impressive as the defense has been, they’ve played the Seahawks, Texans, and 49ers in Jimmy Garoppolo’s first start of the season.

Unfortunately, we’re in “where do I even start” territory. Big plays have buoyed his statistical output. Wilson ranks 10th in Expected Points Added per play (EPA/play) through three games, a very respectable pace. However, he ranks 29th out of 32 eligible quarterbacks in dropback success rate (40.5%).

Drops have been an issue for Denver, but they account for only about 7% of his attempts. His new surroundings in Denver have exacerbated the problems we saw in Seattle with Wilson. Things should sharpen up as the season progresses, but he still has a long way to go.

Timing issues abound

The frequency in which I was screaming at my monitor in real-time for Wilson to just throw the football just about induced an aneurism. It’s not completely fair since I’m watching these concepts unfold at 30,000 feet (this isn’t Soldier Field All-22). However, I am also not an 11-year veteran QB making nearly $50 million per season.

Receivers don’t get as open as Courtland Sutton is in the below clip very often. Wilson isn’t throwing high 80 mph fastballs. He has the heat to fit passes into tight windows, but this isn’t one of them.

As Sutton hits the top of his route, Wilson is in one of the prettiest pockets an NFL QB will receive. The Apex (slot) defender is already even with Sutton and is carrying his momentum into the flat, just as the offensive concept aims to do. The switch release between the two receivers matches Sutton against the safety with the whole field as his route-running oyster.

So what, exactly, is Wilson waiting for here? Fred Warner is one of the most dangerous coverage linebackers in the NFL, but he’s in no position to make this play, particularly if Wilson throws this pass toward the numbers and away from the safeties inside leverage.

Timing and placement issues also show up in the quick game.

These are the margins at the NFL level. All it takes is 18 inches of difference. While this seems like a miss from Wilson, he’s really just respecting Warner in the coverage. He throws this pass low and away to keep it safe from the linebacker’s grasp.

The above play is impossible to assign blame to if you’re not in the room with the team. The tight end could have taken this route a yard too deep. He could have drifted a foot too far inside, which is why he had to stretch so much for the ball here. But the Broncos need to capitalize on these plays because Wilson’s quick game prowess isn’t particularly strong.

Above is a variation of “stick.” The No. 3 receiver to the strength of the formation runs a stick-and-nod, while the No. 2 runs a stick and then slides inside away from the flat defender. In any stick variant, the No. 2 is the primary read, with the No. 3 being the secondary read and the backside No. 2 as the tertiary read.

There’s no problem with Wilson peeking at the backside vertical route to start because that is a matchup he could take advantage of within this call. The Shanahan tree tags that a “premier look.” But the Seattle defense takes it away immediately.

Not trusting his eyes

Below, Wilson gets his eyes back frontside, but he comes off the stick and nod to look at the slant backside. It’s almost as if he’s freestyling his process here.

Did he skip straight to the nod and want to attack the seam? If he did, he would have seen the Hook and Apex defenders both carrying up the seam, which by default makes the primary read open.

If you slow things down, you can see him glance at KJ Hamler, but he immediately comes off it. Wilson needs to start trusting his eyes, getting the ball out of his hands, and taking completions that are being given to him.

Downfield inaccuracies

The one thing nobody can take away from Wilson during his time in Seattle was his downfield passing ability, particularly with Tyler Lockett. Through three games with Denver, that rapport has not been there with Sutton, Jeudy, and Hamler.

Even Jeudy’s long touchdown grab against Seattle was grossly underthrown. But he was very open, came back for the ball, and let a missed Seattle tackle and his own speed do the rest.

The above throw wasn’t even his worst attempt from the Seahawks game. He threw another deep ball toward the left sideline that drifted yards inside and saw Quandre Diggs almost pick it off.

We’ve seen Wilson make more difficult throws than this on the regular. Sutton does an outstanding job of stacking the cornerback and giving Wilson room to work with toward the sideline. But Wilson leaves this pass inside, and Sutton almost makes an outstanding play through the cornerback, but the ball falls harmlessly to the turf.

Other issues so far

The Broncos receivers must learn to play Wilson’s game. The QB thrives playing outside of the natural structure of an offense, making big plays downfield as receivers freestyle their way toward separation.

But Wilson must also let that freestyling come naturally as a play breaks down. Too often early this season, we’ve seen a completely inconsistent internal clock and pocket management. He’s either leaving clean pockets or holding onto the ball so long that he’s taking an unnecessary sack, like in the first video where Garrett Bolles’s defender sacks Wilson after many seconds.

All the left tackle could do was shrug. Denver made their bed. Their only course of action is to be patient with Wilson. He has to figure this out on his own. One thing that could help is more play-action, particularly bootlegs that give Wilson a high-to-low read on an outside vertical concept and multiple crossing patterns.

Allow Wilson to create outside of the pocket. Give him easy completions on TE sift block releases to the flat. And obviously, give him play-action, max protect shot plays as he builds a rapport with his receivers downfield.

Wilson and the Broncos’ offense has been bad so far. Their red zone offense must improve, and that is more a product of play-calling and untimely penalties than Wilson’s play. But when your average annual salary is nearing $50 million, you can’t command an offense that fails to score 20 points three weeks in a row.

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