Broncos enter tilt vs. Cardinals searching for offensive consistency

Dec 15, 2022, 7:47 PM

TEMPE — For the first time in the Russell Wilson era, the Denver Broncos offense resembled something of a competent unit in Week 14.

Wilson turned in arguably his best game as a Bronco, throwing for three touchdowns and 247 yards on 23 of 36 passing (63.9%) while adding 57 rushing yards on four carries. His play helped Denver put up a season-high 28 points, surpassing its previous mark of 23 from Week 4.

But for all the good Wilson and the rest of the offense did against the Kansas City Chiefs, the end result was still much of the same results at the end of the day for this iteration of the Broncos: a loss.

Adding to the team’s fifth straight defeat was the added loss of Wilson, who suffered a concussion and was replaced by Brett Rypien. Wilson’s status is very much up in air as he works to clear concussion protocols, though, he did practice in a limited capacity on Thursday.

Which leads to the question of the week: Will first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett let Russ cook or let Russ sit when the Denver welcomes the Arizona Cardinals to town?

“We don’t know what’s going to happen, so we’re just watching the similarities and differences between of course Russell Wilson and (Rypien) as well,” safety Budda Baker said Thursday.

And while the safety once played against Rypien in high school, making for a full-circle moment on Sunday, there’s not extensive film on the signal caller.

Across three seasons, all with the Broncos, Rypien has played in six games and is 1-1 as a starter. In place of Wilson this past week, the QB went 4-for-8 for 16 yards and one touchdown to an interception.

Regardless of who is under center, there’s still a lot to be desired when looking at this offense as a whole, especially with starting wide receiver Courtland Sutton, whom Cardinals defensive coordinator and former Broncos head coach Vance Joseph drafted with Denver’s second-round pick in 2018, missing back-to-back practices with a hamstring injury that kept him out last week and most of Week 13.

Averaging a league-worst 14.9 points per game, Denver has the sixth-worst offense in the NFL with 315.5 yards per game and just can’t seem to figure things out under Hackett.

Among their biggest issues has been converting third downs. Entering play, the Broncos have a conversion rate of just 28.1%, another NFL worst. You better believe that nugget is circled somewhere within in the walls of the Cardinals training facility.

And while Denver’s run game is slightly better than its passing attack, it hasn’t seen a 100-yard rusher all season, with Latavius Murray pacing the team with 380 yards and three touchdowns on 101 carries in eight games played after Javonte Williams was placed on the injured reserve in October with an ankle injury. As far as the team’s second-leading rusher in Melvin Gordon? He is no longer a Bronco after playing 10 games in Denver — tallying five fumbles in the process — before his release and eventual signing with the Kansas City Chiefs practice squad.

But despite what the Broncos’ stats and record read, there’s no overlooking being done by Joseph and Co.

“The Broncos had their best output last week, so the timing’s not good for us,” the coordinator said Thursday. “Russell played well, (Jerry Jeudy) had three touchdowns. That offense — in spite of what you see on ESPN each week — is right. The first- and second-down stuff is right. The third downs and red zone have had its struggles, but it’s organized and guys are playing hard. Russell’s Russell. He’s making plays.

“Jerry Jeudy is a guy who’s a top-15 pick who’s a playmaker. Courtland Sutton’s … a big guy who’s been in Pro Bowls, so it’s not going to be easy. It’s an NFL offense that has good players and a good scheme. So, if we don’t play well, it can get bad for us. That’s every Sunday, but it’s a good offense that had their best output on Sunday, so they’re confident.”

And while there’s a real chance Denver will enter the matchup down a starter or two, the same can be said when looking at Arizona’s defense, evening the playing field a bit.

On top of the unknown surrounding cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. and his back issue — he has missed the past five games — the team’s second-leading sack getter and defensive lineman Zach Allen is out at least this week and potentially longer with a hand issue that required surgery.

Cornerback Antonio Hamilton was also a surprise addition to the team’s injury report on Thursday due to a back injury, while fellow DB Marco Wilson is nursing a neck injury picked up in Arizona’s loss on Monday.

With so many of the team’s primary corners working to get back to full strength, in addition to the Cardinals’ recent release of CB Trayvon Mullen, rookie Christian Matthew could be tasked with guarding the likes of a Jeudy or a Sutton depending on his teammates’ availability.

That could represent a tall order for the seventh-round draft pick that has 16 defensive snaps, four tackles and a pass defensed under his belt, especially when looking at Jeudy’s six-touchdown, 587-yard 2022 campaign (11 games played) that includes eight plays of at least 20 receiving yards.

Matthew will be just one of the young guns to watch over the last four weeks as he earns more playing time with the season winding down.

“He’s a guy that had the injury that set him back a little bit,” head coach Kliff Kingsbury said of Matthew on Wednesday. “We thought he was progressing nicely. … He’s a long, mature kid. … He’s a little bit older and has handled his business well. Excited to see what he does the last four weeks.”

“Christian has really come on, whether it’s special teams or defense, we like what we’re seeing from him,” the head coach added.

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Broncos enter tilt vs. Cardinals searching for offensive consistency