DENVER — His pass-catcher options pretty much down to Courtland Sutton and little else, Russell Wilson didn't waste his primary option.
Sutton made big catch after big catch, drew mutliple pass interference penalties and helped his struggling quarterback get in a late-game passing groove.
“We started targeting him quite a bit and he made some huge plays,'' said Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett. "That third down play, third and long (for 35 yards in fourth quarter) was absolutely a thing of beauty. That’s what you need. You nee your captain like Courtlandto step up in those situations.''
With all eyes on Sutton, Wilson went the other way and fired a perfect 22-yard touchdown strike down the seam to tight end Eric Saubert early in the fourth quarter to give the Broncos its first lead. A 50-yard field goal by Brandon McManus late in the fourth quarter finished the scoring and the Broncos defeated the Houston Texans, 16-9.
Denver got its first win of the season, ugly as it was, on an otherwise spectacular Sunday afternoon with bright sunshine and upper-70s temperatures at Empower Field at Mile High. After committing 12 penalties for 106 yards in their season-opening, 17-16 loss Monday at Seattle, the Broncos were flagged for another 13 penalties and 100 yards in this game.
The embarrassing penalties are the delay-of-game infractions. The Broncos were so slow getting their field goal team set in the third quarter, a 54-yard field goal by Brandon McManus was nullified by a delay of game and turned into a punt.
The simple operations of getting in and out of the huddle also seem slow. Timeouts were wasted to get a player off the field, or a player on -- like returner Montrell Washington.
"We're going to have to evaluate everything whether the personnel is getting out there or lack thereof and making sure the play is coming in nice and clean and just getting in and out of the huddle,'' Hackett said. "I'll talk with Russ about anything I can do to help him make it better. That's inexcusable. That's on us. That's us hurting ourselves."
It got so bad, Broncos fans -- arguably the NFL's most intelligent -- started counting down the play clock on each play in the fourth quarter to help their offense get the snap off on time. Yes, it was a mock response to Broncos Country witnessing four delay-of-game penalties in a six-day period.
PHOTOS | Broncos vs. Texans
"We got to get better,'' Wilson said. "The good thing is, I've won a lot of football games in my career in the National Football League and not every one of them is easy. But all that matters at the end of the year is that W in that column."
The touchdown by Saubert was his first catch of the young season. Sutton had 7 catches for 122 yards in the game, plus drew two pass interference penalties worth another 52 yards. He had a fourth-and-2 conversion catch for 6 yards and a third-and-16 reception for 35 yards.
“For third and fourth downs, whenever we get in those situations you want to be the guy that Russell is looking for,'' Sutton said. "He gave me opportunity to make a play, and I want to continue to allow him to have that confidence in me to go make those plays for him.''
A sold-out crowd with only 3,108 no-shows gathered to witness the home debut for new Broncos star quarterback Wilson.
He got off to a sluggish start. He was just 6 of 19 for 93 yards in the first half, then opened the second half with an interception that was bobbled off Sutton's hands. The turnover helped the Texans move into their own failed goal-to-go situation, settling for a third Ka'imi Fairbairn field goal and a 9-6 lead.
Wilson did draw three pass interference penalties and a defensive holding infraction against the Texans’ secondary in the first half. Still, the Broncos’ offense through its first seven quarters had managed just 22 points.
"One thing I'm never going to do, I'm never going to blink,'' Wilson said. "That's just not me.''
Starting with 1:32 left in the third quarter, Wilson got hot, completing 5 consecutive passes -- including three in a row to Sutton for 8, 5 and 35 yards. Sutton was then used on a reverse run for 5 yards before Wilson and the beleagured Hackett decided to let someone else touch the ball.
A 6-yard run by running back Javonte Williams helped set up the touchdown pass to Saubert, who ran straight up the seam and caught Wilson's perfect throw against tight coverage near the back of the end zone.
“Russ threw it up—it’s kind of a trust throw—and went up and got it,'' Saubert said. "It’s as simple as that. Just executing when you get a chance.”
Williams had 75 yards rushing off 15 carries. Wilson finished 14 of 31 for 219 yards with a touchdown and interception. Not great but he was at his best late.
The Denver Broncos have opened the 2022 season as a goal-to-go disaster.
They now have five goal-to-go series halfway through their second game.
The result has been zero touchdowns.
Two close-range McManus field goals and a strong defensive performance kept the Broncos in it here Sunday, but decidedly underdog Houston Texans still led 9-6 entering the fourth quarter. It would have been 9-9 late in the third quarter but a 54-yard field goal by McManus was wiped out by a delay-of-game penalty. With hometown boos ringing in his ears, Hackett decided to punt it away rather than attempt a 59-yard field goal in such a closely-contested game.
After failing three times in goal-to-go opportunities Monday at Seattle, the Broncos had first-and-goal at the 2 thanks to a 42-yard pass interference penalty Sutton drew on Houston rookie cornerback Derek Stingley Jr.
It appeared the Broncos had a touchdown on a fade pass from Wilson to Sutton but replay showed the receiver had a foot outside the boundary. Two more Wilson incompletions brought fourth down and McManus out for a 20-yard field goal.
He made it but the home crowd booed the offense’s failure to score a touchdown.
"I don't blame them,'' Hackett said. "I mean heck, I'd be booing myself. Getting very frustrated. Get down to the red zone two times and don't get another touchdown which is unbelievably frustrating. I don't think we scored in there, yet. ... Whatever we're doing we've got to execute at a higher level.''
It was 3-3 after the first quarter with Wilson only 2 of 9 for 32 yards. It didn’t help that No. 2 receiver Jerry Jeudy left the game early with a rib injury. Jeudy had four catches for 102 yards and a touchdown in the opener.
"Obviously Jerry Jeudy going down was kind of a buzzkill there,'' Wilson said.
“We just have to make sure to keep Russ in a rhythm,'' Hackett said. "I think with Jerry, losing him that kind of stymied us a little bit. But I love the fact that a lot of guys stepped up and made some plays.”
Houston quarterback Davis Mills did enough to drive into Broncos’ territory for a second Ka’imi Fairbarn field goal and 6-3 lead midway through the second quarter.
But for the most part, the Denver defense kept the home team in it while Wilson and the offense sputtered. It was a struggle as with pass catchers KJ Hamler, Tim Patrick, Greg Dulcich and Jeudy down with injuries, Wilson’s targets were reduced to Sutton or bust. (Tyrie Cleveland, with two catches for 28 yards, was the Broncos' second-leading receiver Sunday).
But on the other side of the 2-minute warning, Wilson went to Sutton downfield again, who again beat Stingley for a 34-yard completion. Another 11-yard completion to Sutton on a crossing route set up first-and-goal at the 5.
A bad place to be, apparently. Two more Wilson incompletions and a Javonte Williams’ 4-yard run set up fourth and goal. Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett didn’t want zero points. He took the field goal for the halftime tie.
Through their first five goal-to-go situations of the season, the Broncos had:
- 3 field goals
- 2 lost fumbles
- 0 touchdowns
"The thing about the red zone, it comes down to making a crazy catch, a crazy run, a crazy play,'' Wilson said. "We're growing together. And we're going to fix that. That's the great part because once we do that with our defense and how great they're playing with how well we've moved the ball -- there's been some struggles here and there but that's football. They've got good players on that side, too. ... And that's the thing about the red zone, sometimes they're going to make a stop and the next play you've got to make the next one.''
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