Sports

Sean Payton, Russell Wilson have turned around Broncos season

An 18-week NFL schedule creates a plethora of nexus points where the season diverts from its expected path. Aaron Rodgers tearing his Achilles four plays into the season, the New England Patriots crashing, CJ Stroud flying out the rookie gates, Frank Reich being fired after 11 games and two rookies leading the entire NFL in passing yardage are prime examples of unexpected plot points. However, the Broncos have been an M. Night Shyamalan pitch come to life.

From starting 1-5 to subverting expectations a second time by releasing high-priced defensive players Frank Clark and Randy Gregory before embarking on a five-game winning streak, the NFL writers assigned to Denver have afflicted us all with whiplash. The Mile High City has seen more ups and downs this season than a skylift operator. Bad elevator jokes aside, the Denver Broncos have rebounded from a start that would make a grown man cry Knowshon Moreno tears. Early in the season, they were a strictly first-half team that never fully returned after halftime.

The nadir of the Broncos’ depressing start to the season was their 70-20 shellacking at the hands of Mike McDaniel and the Dolphins. Denver was slammed for being unprepared and for fielding one of the worst defenses in decades.

But as painful of an experience as that was, only BountyGate compares to the hits Sean Payton took after Zach Wilson and Nathaniel Hackett pulled together an inspiring performance to avenge Payton referring to the Jets offensive coordinator’s lone season at the helm as “one of the worst” coaching jobs he’d ever seen. Even Kevin James had to be ashamed of having an association with Payton.

Since then, the Broncos have done an about-face, morphing into one of the most advantageous defense-first teams in the league while grinding out wins. However, the Broncos haven’t told anything close to the story we expected them to. These Broncos aren’t double agents. They’re double-double agents.

Russell Wilson left Seattle with the intention of becoming the deus ex machina of an aerial attack that would vault him into the upper echelon of quarterbacks. The inaugural Russell Wilson experiment of placing him in Hackett’s Aaron Rodgers offense and expecting similar fireworks ultimately revealed his limitations. Wilson’s high release prevents him from getting balls batted down across the middle, but his sight line is restricted. Too often, he essentially forfeited throwing across the middle of the field, but he also appeared unwilling to put his boots on the ground and step outside the pocket.

DangerRuss became the dominant persona last season as he became a hindrance to his own offensive production. This year, Wilson showed up looking less like Chunky Soup era Donovan McNabb and noticeably slimmed down. Wilson and Sean Payton haven’t unlocked a top-5 passing offense analogous to the one he deployed with Drew Brees in New Orleans for over a decade. If we’re finally honest with ourselves about Denver, we have to admit that the offensive personnel was never built to be a juggernaut. Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf are ethereal downfield threats compared to the weapons Wilson and Payton have at their disposal.

Instead, these Broncos are a middle-of-the-pack unit that doesn’t rely on gadgets and whistles to create chunk plays. That type of play-calling shenanigans can go awry in the wrong hands.

For his part, Wilson has a 20-to-4 touchdown-interception ratio. Most importantly, the Broncos are dominating the turnover battles. Their plus-13 turnover differential since Week 7 leads the league and their Expected Points Added off of turnovers in the past six weeks nearly equals what Dallas and San Francisco totaled as the league leaders last season. The running game initiates their attack and Wilson checks and chucks. He checks it down to allow receivers opportunities to gain yardage after the catch, and chucks it downfield when the window opens.

Next week’s showdown against the Houston Texans presents Denver’s latest challenge in a subversive season. Defensive turnovers that the Broncos’ defense has capitalized on are also a fickle faucet that can shut off at any moment. There’s a good chance they won’t be able to rely on that against Stroud, who has a blow torch behind the line of scrimmage, lighting up any defense and scoreboard in his proximity.

The defense has been the impetus, but eventually, Wilson may have to have a throwback game that reminds everyone why Denver forked over $250 million to him. The winds changed a little slow for comfort in Denver, but at least they’ve put themselves in position for a furious postseason push.

Follow DJ Dunson on X: @cerebralsportex 




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