The Denver Broncos' first-team offense played a lot for a first preseason game. That was good because it allowed Russell Wilson and the starters to salvage what was looking like a rough Friday night against the Arizona Cardinals.
Wilson, in his first game under new head coach Sean Payton, completed 4 of 9 passes for 49 yards through the team's first three series. Few teams have their starters on the field for four series in a preseason opener, but Payton said the starters would play 15-18 snaps. Denver hadn't reached that number through three series, mostly because the offense kept stalling, so the group went back out for a fourth series.
Finally, it clicked. Wilson got in a bit of a groove. On fourth-and-5 the Broncos went for it. The Cardinals blitzed, Wilson recognized it and hit Jerry Jeudy over the middle for a 21-yard score. Jeudy had dropped a nice pass from Wilson the play before, and he made up for it on fourth down. It was a positive finish to the night.
That was a relief. Because before that drive, it hadn't been pretty for Wilson or the offense.
The main question facing Payton in his first season with the Broncos is can he can fix Wilson. The QB was a star with the Seattle Seahawks, but last season he looked lost in Nathaniel Hackett's offense. Wilson trying to turn things around is a big reason the Broncos' starters played so much Friday night.
The start to the 2023 preseason looked a lot like the 2022 regular season for the Broncos' offense. On the first play Wilson rolled right, threw late and behind tight end Adam Trautman for an incompletion. After a short run, Wilson's pass was batted down at the line on third down. The Broncos went three-and-out.
The Broncos got good field position after an interception from cornerback Essang Bassey. Starting at the Cardinals' 41-yard line, Wilson hit Jeudy over the middle for 19 yards. But then after a gain of no yards, Wilson faced pressure from his left, was hit and fumbled. He recovered but it was third-and-16. A shovel pass by Wilson under pressure was incomplete. At least they got a first down, though a field-goal attempt by Brett Maher was missed.
The third possession had a nice run from Samaje Perine and then Wilson hit Courtland Sutton for a 13-yard gain, followed by a short tight end screen to Trautman for 14 yards. Then the drive stalled. Sutton caught one for 3 yards, Wilson threw one away under pressure and against a blitz on third down, Wilson threw deep and it was nowhere near Sutton. It seemed like Sutton stopped on what should have been a deep route to the end zone, which caused a bad miss. Then Denver missed another field goal, this one by Elliott Fry. Denver, who surprisingly cut kicker Brandon McManus this offseason, has a competition between Maher and Fry for kicking duties and now that's a concern.
Payton said earlier in the week the starters would get 15-18 snaps, which was plenty for a veteran team on the first week of the preseason, and Denver's offense was at 14 snaps after three series. So the offense stayed on the field. Payton likely wanted to see something positive before the offense was allowed to take a seat. Wilson had a nice completion to Sutton for 19 yards to start the drive, and it ended with the Wilson-to-Jeudy score on fourth down. After that, the backups came in.
It ended up being a good thing that Payton kept his offense on the field for that fourth series. Otherwise, it would have been a long week answering about struggles that looked a lot like last season.