Diagnosing Denver’s slow start with Russell Wilson; plus, the driving force behind the surprising Giants
Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today’s installment covers:
— The unit fueling the Giants’ 2-0 start.
— A former MVP quarterback facing a rough beginning to 2022.
But first, a look at the early struggles of an alleged Super Bowl contender …
Russell Wilson spent the first decade of his NFL career finishing every interview with a simple utterance: “Go ‘Hawks.” But the offseason relocation from Seattle to Denver spawned a new signature signoff:
“Broncos Country, let’s ride.”
The catchphrase quickly became meme fodder over the summer, and an underwhelming start to the Broncos’ 2022 campaign has only furthered mockery.
All offseason, Wilson was presented as the missing piece in Denver, the Super Bowl-winning quarterback who would put a talented roster over the top. Combining the nine-time Pro Bowler with a new offensive-minded head coach in Nathaniel Hackett, the Broncos were expected to quickly emerge as title contenders in a division loaded with five-star passers and creative minds.
But in the first two games of the Wilson/Hackett era, the ride has been quite bumpy. Denver (1-1) is averaging just 16 points per game, with mental errors, execution miscues and coaching gaffes significantly limiting offensive output. And there’s no rest for the weary, with the San Francisco 49ers’ stout defense coming to town this weekend for Sunday Night Football.
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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 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 clearly was 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 has not 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.”
With opponents forced to respect the running game, Hackett should put a greater emphasis on the play-action passing game, moving away from some of the dropback concepts that have not been as effective. Although Wilson might bristle at the thought of playing in an offense that is a little more run-centric — remember the whole “Let Russ cook” movement in Seattle? — the truth is that he is a much better player when he functions as a manager instead of a primary playmaker.
Hackett has been forced to undergo some early self-reflection in his first year as an NFL head coach. In the season-opening loss at Seattle, his decision to attempt a 64-yard field goal — as opposed to giving Wilson a shot on fourth-and-5 — raised eyebrows across the football-watching world. To his credit, he admitted the mind-boggling approach was flawed one day later. But that wasn’t the only issue for the first-time coach over the first two weeks of the season. Denver leads the NFL with 25 penalties, including a whopping four delay-of-game infractions that led Broncos fans to begin counting down the play clock in Week 2. Embarrassing stuff. All of this suggests he is a little overwhelmed overseeing the entire team while also calling plays.
“When it comes to the operations, that’s something that we’re talking about quite a bit,” Hackett said on Monday. “There is a lot of things — we have to make sure the communication is clear and concise. I need to do better at making decisions faster and quicker and getting that information to the quarterback and being on the same page with him.
“It has to improve.”
Indeed it does.
Perhaps Denver’s simply working through the kinks that come with a rookie had coach undergoing on-the-job training while breaking in a new franchise quarterback. But in a loaded AFC, the Broncos have to get this turned around quickly. Or else it’s going to be a long, disappointing ride.
Stout D keying Giants’ surprising start
Don’t look now, but the New York Giants are emerging as a viable playoff contender behind a stingy defense that has to make Bill Parcells beam with pride.
While the current version of the G-Men does not feature a collection of gold-jacket players, defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale has masterfully utilized a smoke-and-mirrors approach to befuddle opponents through the first two weeks of the 2022 season.
The veteran defensive architect built one of the league’s most-feared defenses in Baltimore by terrorizing opponents with aggressive blitzes and simulated pressures that left quarterbacks dazed and confused. Martindale’s exotic schemes blended five- and six-man pressures with four-man rushes from unique pre-snap disguises. The constant movement, bluffing and blitzing consistently disrupted the quarterback’s timing and rhythm as a passer and prevented opponents from familiarizing themselves with Martindale’s tactics.
The Ravens led the NFL in blitz percentage during his first three seasons as defensive coordinator (2018-2020) and finished sixth in blitz percentage in 2021. According to Next Gen Stats, the Giants have blitzed on 38 percent of pass-rush snaps through two weeks this season, tied for fifth-most in the NFL.
Furthermore, in New York, Martindale has taken his organized chaos to another level. He has implemented some position-less football tactics in sub-packages that have resulted in safeties playing linebacker and linebackers playing like defensive linemen. The Giants continue to feature the same blitz concepts in their base and sub-packages, but they are executed with different defenders. The combination of aggressiveness, deception and flawless execution has enabled the G-Men to disrupt their opponents’ offensive rhythm by taking away their top offensive players.
sAgainst the Tennessee Titans in Week 1, the Giants held Derrick Henry to 82 rushing yards on 21 attempts (3.9 yards per carry) with a flurry of run blitzes that clogged the holes at the point of attack. Although Ryan Tannehill enjoyed a solid outing (20-of-33 for 266 yards and two scores), the Giants neutralized the Titans’ most dangerous threat and forced a complementary player into a lead role.
Then against the Carolina Panthers in Week 2, the Giants conceded rushing yards while placing a greater emphasis on getting after quarterback Baker Mayfield. Perhaps Martindale’s experience facing his former AFC North rival encouraged him to attack the QB1 instead of Christian McCaffrey. Considering Mayfield completed less than 50 percent of his passes while averaging just 5.0 yards per pass attempt (14-of-29 for 145 yards and a TD), the decision to attack the quarterback paid off.
Reviewing the All-22 tape from each of the Giants’ games, I was amazed by how well the defense played without its top two edge defenders: Azeez Ojulari and first-round pick Kayvon Thibodeaux, both of whom have been rehabbing injuries. Their eventual return to the lineup — which could come as early as this Monday against the rival Cowboys — will be a boon. The duo not only will add more speed and quickness to the unit, but each can create headaches in one-on-one situations. Given Martindale’s desire to blitz from all angles with a variety of second-level defenders (linebackers, safeties and corners), the young edge rushers and beefy interior defenders (Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams) will get opportunities to take unobstructed paths to the quarterback due to blown assignments.
As Martindale continues to confuse opponents with creative blitzes and pressures from a variety of personnel packages and formations, the surprising Giants have a chance to stay in playoff contention behind a defense on the rise.
Is Matt Ryan cooked? Too early to say
I understand why Matt Ryan would be under fire after the first two weeks of his tenure in Indianapolis.
In the Colts’ Week 2 loss to the Jaguars, Ryan put up a disappointing performance that made him look like an aging quarterback well past his prime. The 37-year-old completed just 16 of 30 passes for 195 yards with three interceptions while also taking five sacks on the day. It was a tough way to follow up a season-opening tie with the Texans in which Ryan finished with a 1:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a passer rating of 83.1.
Heading into Week 3’s game against the Chiefs, the Colts are still looking for their first win of 2022. This is not how the script was supposed to read for a team that was widely expected to win the AFC South and perhaps even vie for a top seed in the conference. Ryan was supposed to stabilize the quarterback position after 2021’s failed Carson Wentz experiment, buying the team time to identify its next franchise signal-caller in a future draft.
But while the Colts might enter “wait and see” mode after watching the veteran struggle against an athletic Jags defense with rangy defenders along the front line, observers should remember that Ryan is playing with a short-handed lineup on each side of the ball.
In other words, do not overreact to the team’s early season slump. The former NFL MVP still has a little game left, and there is reason to believe he will regain his mojo when his supporting cast returns to full strength.
Offensively, the Colts missed their top two wideouts (Michael Pittman Jr. and second-round pick Alec Pierce) against Jacksonville. Without any credible threats on the perimeter, the Jaguars were able to focus on containing Jonathan Taylor on the ground. By putting at least one extra defender in the box on early downs, the Jaguars dared Ryan to pass to an inexperienced set of receivers who could not get open. Only two Indianapolis wideouts logged more than three targets in the game: Ashton Dulin caught five of his seven targets for 79 yards and Dezmon Patmon snared two of his six targets for 24 yards, with those outputs representing career highs for both players.
To make matters worse, the Colts’ vaunted offensive line has not played up to expectations. Ryan has taken too much carnage (seven sacks, 18 QB hits), and the constant harassment has certainly impacted his play. Ryan seemed flustered and frustrated against the Jaguars, and he never really looked comfortable against the Texans until the late stages of the game.
As a former NFL quarterback, head coach Frank Reich surely understands his quarterback’s struggles.
“I mean, the protection yesterday wasn’t our best effort. He was under duress a number of times,” Reich said on Monday. “There’s still mistakes that he made, that we all make, but I think overall — listen, I understand how the quarterback position is. You’re really dependent on everybody else on there, but you’re at the center of it, so you have to make it work.
“What I love about Matt is that he takes responsibility. He’s the leader. I could not be happier that he’s our quarterback. He’s an elite leader, and I really believe he can be an elite player in this offense. We’ve all got to pull it together. We all have got to carry our own weight, each one of us, including him and everybody on that offense.”
As a classic dropback passer with limited mobility, Ryan needs his supporting cast to play well to be at his best. Without sufficient protection or competent playmakers, he cannot get the job done at this stage of his career.
Luckily for Ryan, Pittman and Pierce are on track to play in Sunday’s game against Kansas City. Until Ryan plays with his full supporting cast and has enough time to fully master Reich’s system, it is not possible to assess whether the game has passed him by.
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