The Broncos are more functional under Sean Payton — but familiar issues remain

DENVER — You could almost see the entire scenario being painted inside Sean Payton’s head.

With the clock reading two minutes and 53 seconds left in the second quarter of Sunday’s Week 1 opener against the Las Vegas Raiders, the Denver Broncos’ new head coach took his second timeout of the first half. His team trailed, 10-6, and the Raiders and veteran quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo faced a third-and-6 at their own 21-yard line.

As soon as Payton began working with his new team in the spring, they drilled what came next, down to the final detail. How they would get the third-down stop and use the final timeout on the plus side of the two-minute warning. How they would begin a drive at their own 25-yard line and march down the field without timeouts. How quarterback Russell Wilson would spread the ball around, manage the clock and guide the Broncos to a touchdown, leaving no time for the opponent to respond.

And that’s exactly how it unfolded inside Empower Field on Sunday, the Broncos expertly navigating an end-of-half scenario, rolling out a smooth operation and executing the basics in a way that was all too infrequent during a nightmare 2022 season.

And, yet, when the game ended, the result was the same. Exactly the same. The Broncos lost their regular-season opener, 17-16, the identical losing margin Denver had when it opened the 2022 season 363 days earlier against the Seattle Seahawks.

“That’s the most frustrating part,” outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper said afterward. “This has happened before. We’ve seen this before. We have to break this cycle. We have to break this cycle where we play well the entire game and then, when it gets down to the nitty-gritty, we don’t finish.”

A cloudy afternoon in Denver showed that Payton has already helped this team raise its core competence. That was evident as the Broncos walked to the line with an abundance of time on the play clock, allowing them to dictate tempo and allowing Wilson to find an efficient rhythm. He completed 17 of his 19 pass attempts in the first half — one of the incompletions was a clock-stopping spike — for 125 yards and two touchdowns. He didn’t have a game with two touchdowns last season until Week 4 and finished with only three such games overall.

“We felt like we should have won that game,” said Wilson, who has been part of the last three losses in what is now a seven-game losing streak for the Broncos against the Raiders.

The Broncos didn’t win because, while they are clearly more operationally functional than a year ago, they still have a painfully thin margin for error. The Raiders committed a stream of back-breaking penalties Sunday, including a roughing-the-punter infraction that helped the Broncos extend a drive in the fourth quarter. But in moments that mattered they still had Maxx Crosby, who picked up his 11th sack in the last seven games against Denver and was a disruptive presence throughout the game. They had Davante Adams, who had six catches for 66 yards, seemingly every grab in a must-have moment. They had Josh Jacobs, who was held to 48 yards on 19 carries but had a critical first-down run as the Raiders melted the clock down on their final drive.

The Broncos didn’t have those same obvious answers. Right now, they are seemingly missing from the roster.

Jerry Jeudy was unable to play Sunday due to a hamstring injury. Tight end Greg Dulcich suffered a hamstring injury of his own and didn’t play in the second half. For all Denver’s hard-earned success on offense in the first half — their two touchdown drives totaled 25 plays, 161 yards took a combined 11 minutes and 2 seconds off the clock — Denver’s lack of available talent caught up in the second.

A perfect example came with just less than six minutes left in the fourth quarter. The Broncos, trailing by one, had a third-and-11 at their own 24. Payton drew up a play that gave tight end Adam Trautman a free release into the flat. Wilson delivered the ball immediately to Trautman, who appeared to have the space to reach the first-down marker. But Raiders safety Trevon Moehrig quickly closed the gap, bringing down Trautman three yards short. The Broncos punted and never got the ball back.

Pointing out one play is certainly not meant as a knock on Trautman, who had a team-high five catches Sunday and was pressed into extra duty after Dulcich’s injury. But the sequence was a reminder of how little this team can afford, after two straight drafts without a pick in the top 60, to be without its top playmakers.

“We felt at halftime this was going to come down to a (single) possession,” Payton said. “We didn’t make enough plays.”

There are plenty of what-ifs the Broncos will agonize over in the wake of Sunday’s loss, their third season-opening defeat in the past four seasons. Wil Lutz, the kicker the Broncos traded for less than two weeks before Sunday’s game, missed a point-after attempt following the Broncos’ opening-drive touchdown and later missed a 55-yard field goal. The Broncos cut Brandon McManus in the spring and had Elliott Fry and Brett Maher on the roster at various points in the offseason. It was a winding road to get to Lutz, who lost his job in New Orleans to undrafted rookie Blake Grupe, so perhaps it’s no surprise his debut wasn’t a smooth ride.

“It’s tough right now, obviously,” Lutz said. “It’s going to be a hard 24 hours. But I know what I’m capable of and why I’m here. The hard part is this team put us in position to win the game and I wasn’t able to do my part. Confidence isn’t an issue. The bottom line is I have to figure out what happened today and move forward.”

Wil Lutz looks on following an unsuccessful field goal attempt in the third quarter against the Raiders. (Ron Chenoy / USA Today)

Lutz was also involved in Payton’s bold, yet unsuccessful opening gambit — a sneak onside kick to begin the game that the Broncos recovered, only to be flagged for an illegal touching when referees ruled the ball did not travel 10 yards before Tremon Smith first contacted it. Payton, whose 2009 Saints team famously recovered a sneak onside kick to begin the second half of their Super Bowl win against the Colts, said the decision to start the game that way against the Raiders was the result of an opening the staff had identified during film preparation.

“We felt like we saw a leverage opportunity and it’s something we wanted to take advantage of,” Payton said. “Obviously, we didn’t want to contact the ball before 10 yards. But it was kind of being aggressive and we felt like we came to win a game. It was something we discussed. If we won the toss, we were going to defer. Obviously, we wanted it kicked over on our sideline. It was one of those things where, percentage-wise, we felt good about the odds.”

Still, the Broncos were in position to win the game. Leading 13-10 to begin the fourth quarter, Denver, which had only six possessions Sunday, spent more than eight minutes driving to the doorstep of the end zone. On first-and-goal, Wilson found Trautman for a three-yard gain. But his second-down pass for Brandon Johnson was broken up at the goal line. Raiders pressure blew up Denver’s third-down play, forcing Wilson to throw the ball away. The Broncos settled for a field goal and a 16-10 lead.

The Raiders then went 75 yards in just six plays — buoyed by a roughing the passer call on Essang Bassey — and reached the end zone on Garoppolo’s six-yard touchdown pass to Jakobi Myers, which held up as the winning score. The Raiders’ new quarterback showed a strong grasp of Josh McDaniels’ offensive system, the one he learned as a backup with the Patriots to begin his career. The Broncos were rarely able to pressure the 31-year-old and never sacked him. Needing one more first down to melt the game away on the Raiders’ final possession, Garoppolo dropped back on third-and-7 on the Denver 31-yard line and was able to scamper eight yards for a first down.

“Going into the game, if you look at Jimmy G, it’s very well known he gets the ball out quick,” said Broncos first-year defensive end Zach Allen, who was frequently competed against the former 49ers quarterback while playing for the NFC West rival Cardinals the past four seasons. “He’s very smart. He knows where the ball’s going before it’s even snapped. Obviously, you can’t get frustrated. I think there were some good (pass-rush) wins out there, but we can definitely improve in that aspect.”

The Broncos also were crippled by defensive penalties, including personal fouls by veteran safeties Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson. The latter play erased a would-be third down stop on the Raiders’ final drive when Jackson was flagged for lowering his shoulder to the head/neck area of Myers, who needed medical assistance to get off the field afterward.

“A lot of times, bang-bang plays, it’s just an unfortunate situation,” Jackson said. “Not really sure if I got him with my shoulder or head-to-head. … Hopefully, he can come back healthy.”

There were encouraging developments during the first game of the Payton era. Wilson, whose two touchdown passes came as he escaped pressure on threw on the run, looked comfortable running the new scheme. Running back Javonte Williams, in his first regular-season game since tearing his ACL last Oct. 2, gained 52 yards on a team-high 13 carries. Samaje Perine added 41 yards and also caught four passes for 37 yards. The Broncos scored on three of their six possessions and missed a field goal on another. They were balanced. It’s an offense that seems capable of avoiding some of the pitfalls that made it arguably the most inefficient unit in the league last season.

Yet, there the Broncos were Sunday, 16 points on their side of the scoreboard and another loss on the ledger.

“Every weekend, the exceptions are the games that aren’t close, really,” Payton said. “Playing these one-score games, in the end, you’re trying to get a stop, trying to use the time. It was frustrating that they were able to run the clock out with a third-down conversion and a penalty behind it. Obviously, we had our opportunities offensively as well. Those close games aren’t going away.”

And until the Broncos become closer to perfect in those situations, and until they can eventually add more speed and playmaking talent to their roster, the pain may not be going away either.

(Top photo: RJ Sangosti / Getty Images)

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