Broncos Need to Account for Russell Wilson's Biggest Flaw to Get to the Super Bowl
When you have a talented roster and the chance to acquire one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL (who’s only 33 years old), you do it. Barring disaster, it’s hard to imagine the Broncos will regret trading for Russell Wilson.
It would be a stretch to now call Denver the favorites to win the AFC (or even the AFC West). Wilson’s new conference and division are both loaded with good teams and great quarterbacks. But make no mistake, the Broncos will be in the Super Bowl discussion for the next few years with Wilson at the helm.
Wilson Can Still Sling It
His disappointing performance last season has created some doubts about his future. “Was this the beginning of the downside of Wilson’s career?” But his struggles in 2021 were almost entirely due to the injured finger on his throwing hand that caused him to miss 3 games and play most of the season compromised.
Prior to the injury, he looked like the same old Russ:
If you don’t believe me, just look at his numbers pre-injury and post-injury. They were night and day:
The pre-injury Wilson is the quarterback the Broncos traded for and will likely be getting. That version is a natural and extremely talented thrower, capable of making any type of pass.
He can beat defenses with touch:
He can drive the ball and beat them with firm throws into tight windows:
He’s a very accurate passer, especially on deep balls that he consistently drops into the laps of his receivers:
The high trajectory of these deep throws makes it difficult for defensive backs to make a play on the ball, even with tight coverage. The ball hits the receiver at an angle that makes it seem like it’s dropping from the sky. This is one reason why Wilson has consistently been one of the best deep-ball passers in the game. There is no reason to believe that ability will disappear anytime soon in Denver.
Wilson has shown the ability to keep the offense on schedule and play with rhythm and timing. However, it’s not the style with which he consistently plays. And this is the aspect of his game where head coach Nathaniel Hackett will need to provide help.
Wilson’s biggest flaw is generally viewed as his strength - that is, the ability to make plays with his legs. Wilson has an uncanny ability to avoid pressure, make something out of nothing, and either gain yards on the ground or buy time to find receivers downfield for big plays. That trait is a nice one to have, as long as it’s used as a last resort.
Unfortunately, Wilson’s instinct is often to rely on his legs too early in a play. And while that leads to some exciting highlights on SportsCenter, it also leads to potential big plays within the design of the offense being left on the field.
Remember the “Let Russ Cook” campaign during the 2020 season? Wilson’s MVP run that was supposedly derailed by a turnstile offensive line? That wasn’t entirely the case. The o-line play wasn’t great, to be sure. But Wilson often moved early, unnecessarily, and sometimes that created the pressure. It also led to Wilson abandoning potentially successful plays that were open had he delivered the ball on time from the pocket.
This play from 2020 illustrates this point perfectly. Here, the Seahawks ran a post-wheel concept to the 2-tight end side:
The design of the play worked just like they drew it up, with Greg Olsen’s route eating up the cornerback and Will Dissly’s wheel breaking wide open on the outside:
Wilson didn’t hit Dissly, though. As you can see above, he had slight pressure to his right. But this wasn’t disruptive pressure at all. Instead of climbing the pocket and calmly resetting his feet before hitting Dissly for an easy touchdown, he transitioned into play-maker mode and started to take off when he saw daylight in front of him:
Wilson quickly realized Dissly was open, but by then it was too late. He delivered an unnecessarily off-balanced throw that was intercepted:
From the end zone angle, you can see that Wilson had plenty of space to move up and reset without completely losing his throwing base like he did:
Unfortunately, his desire to scramble took over as soon as there was an opportunity, and that cost the Seahawks 6 points.
Below is another example. This was Week 13 last season against the 49ers. First, look at this play from the end zone angle:
From that view, it appeared that Wilson avoided the pass rush and turned nothing into something. From the sideline All-22 angle, though, you can see that he missed a big play because he again instantly went into playmaker mode after feeling the initial pressure.
Below is a screenshot of the instant where Wilson would have been able to find a wide-open seam route to his left had he merely climbed the pocket, reset his feet, and kept his eyes downfield after avoiding the initial pressure:
Instead, he settled for a minimal gain:
It’s this flaw that pops up at times and leads to inconsistent stretches in Wilson’s game. While his play-making ability can certainly lead to lots of great offense and a successful season, inconsistency from the pocket will make winning 3 or 4 games against the NFL’s best in the playoffs that much more difficult.
How the Broncos Can Help Wilson
For Wilson to succeed in Denver, he’ll need to play in a system that keeps him from abandoning the design of the play quite as frequently. He’ll need a system with lots of defined reads and prescribed throws. A passing attack that is heavily based off of the run game and play-action would help. As I said earlier, Wilson is capable of playing within the rhythm of the offense. He doesn’t always do it, though. That’s why the Broncos have to find ways to put up the guard rails.
This all might sound strange for a player as talented at creating 2nd-reaction plays as Wilson. Don’t worry, more structure won’t keep those plays from happening. That ability is too ingrained in Wilson’s DNA as a quarterback. They just need to come more as a result of the play breaking down in key areas, not Wilson breaking down in the pocket.
The good news is that it seems like Nathanial Hackett is the man for that job. He spent the last 3 seasons with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay orchestrating Matt LaFleur’s offense, which calls for more defined throws and utilizes the running game as a signficant component. Similar to Wilson (although to a lesser degree), when Rodgers got himself into trouble prior to 2019, it was mostly because he would too often play outside of the design of the offense. The structure of LaFleur and Hackett’s system helped reel in Rodgers’ game. The back-to-back MVP’s speak for themselves.
Even before his time in Green Bay, Hackett tended to deploy a system built on the run game and more structure. As the Jaguars’ Offensive Coordinator in 2017, his offense led the NFL in rushing play percentage and leaned heavily on play action as a complement all the way to the AFC Championship Game (Maybe you would too if you had the 2nd-ranked scoring defense, Leonard Fournette at running back, and Blake Bortles under center). The point is, Hackett seems to prefer using his entire offense as opposed to being one dimensional by choice and throwing it 45 times a game.
Hackett has the players on offense to be multi-dimensional. The Broncos have tons of talent at receiver in Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, and Tim Patrick. They have a running back in Javonte Williams that the offense can lean on at times. Their offensive line needs attention, though.
In 2021, Denver’s offense was 31st in pressure percentage, according to Pro Football Reference. It’s great to have a quarterback who can evade pressure and make plays with his legs when the protection breaks down. But as illustrated above, even the appearance of pressure can get Wilson to abandon good play design. The Broncos can’t neglect their O-line this offseason, or at any time during Wilson’s tenure in Denver, if they want to hoist the Lombardi.
And make no mistake, that is the goal for this team. You don’t make a trade like they did for Wilson without a championship being the expected outcome.