Diagnosing Denver’s slow start with Russell Wilson; plus, the driving force behind the surprising Giants

Maybe we should have expected early-season struggles from a team with new faces at quarterback and head coach. It takes time to develop the trust and chemistry needed to perform at a high level. And that’s especially true when it comes to the relationship between the quarterback and the head coach/offensive play caller, given their crucial responsibility of handling schematic adjustments and tactical plans.

As the offensive architect, Hackett has a vision for how he wants his offense to look, but he must tailor his system to suit the quarterback’s talents. Although some tweaks are made in the offseason, after watching OTAs and minicamp practices, the best play callers continue to tinker with their offense throughout the regular season.

“When it comes to Russell and I, it’s just going to be a continual growing process,” Hackett said at his press conference on Monday, in the wake of an uninspiring 16-9 win over the Houston Texans. “It’s all about Russ. We want to be sure that he’s comfortable, he’s feeling good, and I’m getting a play as fast as I can to him. We want to do what is right for him. I think that’s going to be something that we’re going to grow as the season goes on.”

Hackett appeared to build a system that suits Wilson’s skills as a mobile playmaker. These Broncos feature a variety of concepts ranging from bootlegs and movement passes from under center to run-pass options from shotgun formations. With a few traditional dropback passes mixed in, Denver’s offensive menu was clearly created with Wilson in mind.

As an athletic playmaker with a baseball background, Wilson excelled at throwing on the move throughout his 10 years in Seattle. Whether evading pass rushers on impromptu scramble tosses or turning the corner on designed bootlegs, he was always capable of throwing darts rolling to his right or left. With A+ arm talent, Wilson established himself as an exceptional deep-ball passer with a combination of arm strength and anticipation that enabled him to throw over the top of the defense on go-routes down the boundary. He also routinely hit on deep overs. All of this stretched defenses vertically and complemented Seattle’s power run game.

But studying the All-22 Coaches Film from Wilson’s first two regular-season games in a Broncos uniform, the veteran just hasn’t played up to his standard. His completion percentage (58.9) and passer rating (86.5) are both well below his career marks entering the 2022 campaign (65.0 and 101.8). Although he is averaging 7.7 yards per pass attempt, he’s thrown just two touchdown passes against one pick, and has struggled mightily in the red zone. Wilson’s accuracy woes have prevented the Broncos from cashing in when they reach the shadow of the goalpost. Denver has been to the red zone six times this season. The results: four field goals and two lost fumbles. In fact, the Broncos have failed to score a touchdown on their first five goal-to-go drives of the season. In the past 25 years, according to NFL Research, that ignominious streak has only been equaled by two other teams: the 2007 Falcons (who finished at 4-12) and 2001 Lions (2-14). As detailed by ESPN’s Jeff Legwold, the Broncos’ offense has lined up for 18 plays inside the 10-yard line, with none resulting in a touchdown. Wilson’s last eight pass attempts inside the 10 have fallen incomplete.

That isn’t exactly the kind of production you’d expect from an offense led by a quarterback who just signed a $245 million extension at the beginning of this month. When Denver hits the red area, Wilson should be able to get his team into the end zone pretty routinely. But early on in the QB’s Broncos tenure, that just isn’t the case. At age 33, Wilson seems to be more of a reluctant runner. He is no longer a dangerous threat on read-option plays. And his ball-placement issues have shown up on tight-window throws when the field is condensed. Until Russ makes some plays with his feet or threads the needle on some hero throws, Denver’s offense will continue to struggle in the red zone.

With all that in mind, it’s on Hackett to recognize his veteran QB’s current struggles and quickly map out a plan that enables the Broncos to work around these deficiencies until Wilson works his way out of this slump. The running game could emerge as the solution to Denver’s problem. The team ranks ninth in rushing (126 ypg) and is tied for seventh in yards per carry (4.9). The dynamic 1-2 punch of Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon gives the Broncos smashmouth prowess when Hackett commits to running the ball between the tackles.

“When it comes to Javonte, both he and Melvin have been unbelievably efficient. They have made some very good plays,” Hackett said Monday. “The run game is doing really well right now. We need to continue that, and we need to keep giving them the ball.”

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