Sean Payton literally kicked his tenure for the Denver Broncos off in eye-catching fashion, opting to go for an onside kick on the Broncos’ opening kickoff of the game on Sunday night.
Despite the ball ending up in the Las Vegas Raiders’ hands anyway due to an illegal touching penalty, Payton laid down a marker early against a division rival.
The first half followed a similar trend, while the second half failed to ever get going with mistakes by both teams often extending drives in agonising fashion.
With that said, here are seven key takeaways, both positive and negative, heading forward.
- Russell Wilson’s first half
Russell Wilson’s performance levels heading into this season were a big talking point, and if his week one performance levels are anything to go off of then he’s getting back to his old ways under Payton’s reign. Wilson managed 17/19 for 125 yards and two passing touchdowns in the first half. In the second he threw for only 52 yards off of 15 attempts completing 10 passes. It wasn’t the flashiest of games but a promising performance to kick off 2023 after his 2022 showing.
- Running back duo
After the Broncos’ offseason additions it was clear Payton would be bringing a run-first approach to the offence, two blocking tight ends made the 53-man roster and the offensive line was bolstered. To backup up their gameplan Javonte Williams and Samaje Perine had a good day on the ground, both consistently picking up yardage on their rushing attempts without ever truly breaking out a huge run. Once they can get undrafted rookie Jaleel McGlaughlin involved consistently they could become one of the league’s more under-the-radar rushing attacks.
- General offensive performance in the first half
Somewhat a combination of the first two points, the general offensive improvements from last year’s levels were pleasing to see for Broncos fans. On the contrary, it was noticeable that the Broncos only went deep on one play in the entire game, a trend that was perhaps highlighted due to Jerry Jeudy’s absence this week.
Greg Dulcich’s curtailed afternoon also impacted the passing game in the second half, lacking a dynamic vertical threat like the second-year Cal, tight end. One would hope that as Jeudy and Dulcich regain their fitness, Payton will be able to mix in their run attack while sprinkling more explosive passing downs into their drives.
- Damarri Mathis targeted
Unfortunately, there were negatives to discuss as well, and ironically, they came on defence, something not too familiar to Broncos fans in recent years. While the offence was efficient and relatively effective, the defence couldn’t get off the field. Garoppolo was able to dissect Vance Joseph’s coverages comfortably and in particular, he targeted second-year cornerback, Damarri Mathis who struggled to contain Jakobi Myers.
Myers scored two touchdowns on the day and while Patrick Surtain II and Essang Bassey contained Davante Adams and Hunter Renfrow respectively, Myers was often found in open space registering nine catches for 81 yards. After a promising training camp, the Broncos will be hoping to see Mathis bounce back in week two when he’ll be given the challenge of covering the Washington Commanders’ Curtis Samuel and Jahan Dotson.
- Sterns injury
After the optimism of the onside kick came the agony of an injury for the Broncos. On the opening drive of the game, Joseph’s defence lost one of its best training camp performers in safety Caden Sterns. Sterns was looking to have a breakout season in his third year out of Texas but will now have to endure rehab on his season-ending knee injury instead.
- Pass rush lacking
Perhaps the most alarming takeaway from Sunday’s loss was the lack of pressure that the Broncos managed to generate from their front seven. Despite blitzing the Raiders on 31% of their dropbacks (12th in the league) they only pressured Jimmy Garoppolo on 13.8% of his dropbacks (the lowest in the league), the next lowest was Jordan Love who was pressured on 20% of dropbacks against the Chicago Bears.
The numbers are as alarming as the film looks, none of the front seven consistently beat their opposing lineman and they struggled to ever get to Garoppolo. Going forward, Joseph will have to figure out a way to generate consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks, with the likes of the Bills, Dolphins, Chargers and Chiefs on their schedule later this season.
- Lutz misses
Finally, Will Lutz’s misses on both an extra point and field goal, inevitably costing the Broncos the game has to be discussed. Extra points should be automatic for kickers in the NFL and a missed field goal from 55 yards stings when the final score was 17-16 to a division rival in your own house sinking your head-to-head against the Raiders to 7 straight losses. Hopefully, being a veteran, Lutz will be able to put the misses behind him and come back stronger to make some crucial kicks later in the year.