Russell Wilson struggles but has one clutch drive to lead Broncos over 49ers

It took a long time, but finally the Denver Broncos could feel OK about their Russell Wilson trade.

Not great, but at least better than they would have felt without a late surge that led to a win.

The Broncos had five points in the fourth quarter and were staring down a 1-2 start to the season when Wilson had his best drive with Denver. It happened in his 12th quarter with Denver, which took longer than Broncos fans would have liked, but at least it happened.

Wilson made some plays happen with his legs, had a couple nice throws and Melvin Gordon scored with 4:10 left to give the Broncos a lead. The 49ers turned it over twice after that and the Broncos, led by the defense and one decent offensive drive near the end of a poor night, had an ugly 11-10 win.

There's a lot to fix with the Broncos' offense. There are fair questions about head coach Nathaniel Hackett's play-calling and if Wilson's talent is fading at 33 years old. It was mostly a bad night. Imagine if it hadn't ended in a win.

Russell Wilson has a rough night

Before that drive in the fourth quarter, the Broncos' offense was miserable. Denver labored for every yard. Wilson never really struggled for a prolonged time since coming to the NFL, but he was off to a bad start into the fourth quarter of his third game. Denver had nine three-and-outs, and that's inexcusable even if the 49ers were magnificent on defense.

The drive that summed up the Broncos' offensive difficulties and Wilson's struggles came after Jimmy Garoppolo dropped back out of the end zone for a safety. The Broncos trailed 7-5.

The Broncos were conservative on that possession. Other than one long pass on that drive that drew a holding penalty, it was all short passes or runs. The Broncos got to the 49ers' 41-yard line, ran twice, then Wilson missed badly to a wide-open Jerry Jeudy on third down. Brandon McManus missed a field goal to add to the Broncos' woes.

It was telling. The Broncos didn't seem to trust Wilson in that moment. And if that was the case, the egregious miss to Jeudy didn't help.

In the fourth quarter, the Broncos were in their own territory facing fourth-and-inches. Hackett decided to punt rather than give his $245 million QB a chance to complete a short pass, or even sneak it forward a foot.

Then Wilson came alive. He made plays with his legs. He scrambled around to find Kendall Hinton downfield for 27 yards on a third-down play. On another third down, he found a lane and ran 12 yards for a first down. Those were glimpses of the Wilson who became a star with the Seattle Seahawks. A great back-shoulder pass to Courtland Sutton set up the Broncos at the 5-yard line and Gordon scored two plays later.

For all the Broncos' problems on offense, they led with a little more than four minutes left. Garoppolo would have a couple more chances to answer.

Russell Wilson and the Broncos struggled on offense for most of their win over the 49ers. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)
Russell Wilson and the Broncos struggled on offense for most of their win over the 49ers. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Jimmy Garoppolo had a shot to lead a win

Garoppolo had a chance to direct a big drive. His safety, when he dropped out of the back of the end zone, was the difference in the Broncos' 11-10 lead.

Garoppolo completed a big third-and-3 on an out to Jauan Jennings that was almost picked off. It was a first down instead. Then Garoppolo tossed an interception. He threw in traffic to Deebo Samuel, it popped up in the air and linebacker Jonas Griffith picked it off with 2:06 left. It was a bad decision by Garoppolo.

Garoppolo had a second shot after another Broncos three-and-out. Instead of letting Wilson try to pick up a first down on third-and-9 inside the two-minute warning, the Broncos ran and punted. The 49ers took over at their own 15-yard line with 1:42 left. After a sack, running back Jeff Wilson was stripped from behind running after a catch, the Broncos recovered the fumble and that sealed the win.

Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan argued the Broncos were offsides before the play that ended with Wilson's fumble, but officials didn't agree.

Neither team looked good Sunday night. Garoppolo's safety ended up being a big factor. The two 49ers turnovers late in the game summed up how both offenses played. At least the Broncos left as a winner.