USA American Football
On Sunday afternoon when Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields put on a throwing clinic, Denver needed a disruptor in the pass rush, and second-year outside linebacker Nik Bonitto stepped up to the challenge.
In the fourth quarter, with the Broncos on the brink of overcoming a 21-point deficit, Bonitto burst into the backfield. When Fields turned to his right, preparing to throw the ball, the Oklahoma product forced a fumble. Fellow outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper recovered the ball and scored a 35-yard touchdown to tie the game at 28 with 6:55 remaining.
In the Broncos’ 31-28 victory over the Bears, Bonitto’s strip sack was game-changing. According to Next Gen Stats, Denver’s win probability was 3.5% when it trailed 28-7 with 4:18 to go in the third quarter. The Broncos’ chances jumped to 37.2% after Bonitto’s big play.
“(Bonitto and Cooper) deserve a lot more credit than they’re going to get,” Broncos defensive tackle D.J. Jones said. “They’ll get it when it comes time for a paycheck. Love both of them.”
Bonitto’s forced fumble was one of the biggest plays of the game, but his overall performance created more value for himself. Bonitto, who earned his second career start, finished with four tackles (two for loss) and 2 ½ sacks in a season-high 48 defensive snaps.
Broncos head coach Sean Payton said he decided to start Bonitto over outside linebacker Randy Gregory because the team wanted to look at a different rotation.
“It’s somewhat deceiving,” Payton said. “The starting offense depends on what play we’re going to run. Defensively, we’re in a rotation. We’re trying to do what’s best for our team.”
Bonitto certainly took advantage of the opportunity. On the Bears’ first drive, they tried to execute a designed run with Fields, but Bonitto read it and tackled him for a 1-yard loss. On the following play, Bonitto sped past Chicago offensive lineman Nate Davis before wrapping up Fields for a sack.
Denver’s defense has struggled through four games. The secondary has been middling, while the Broncos have struggled to generate consistent pressure, ranking 24th in sacks (8) and last in quarterback pressures (15). Even though the Broncos held Chicago to seven points in the second half, they allowed 21 points in the first two quarters as Fields completed 15 straight passes.
Despite Denver’s struggles, Bonitto has shown flashes of his potential. This season, he has 13 tackles (six for loss), a team-best 3 ½ sacks and six quarterback pressures.
Broncos defensive end Zach Allen called Bonitto a big-time player with “all the athletic ability in the world.”
“I haven’t played with someone like that since (Eagles and former Cardinals outside linebacker) Haason Reddick. He’s still growing, and it’s exciting to see where he’ll be,” Allen said.
Gregory, who was signed as a free agent in 2022 to add another dimension to Denver’s pass rush, has yet to live up to his large contract. He has nine tackles and a sack, prompting Payton to try a different look Sunday. How the team’s outside linebacker rotation might change after Frank Clark (hip) and Baron Browning (knee) are fully healthy remains to be seen.
Either way, Bonitto has proven that he could develop into an impact player.
“(Bonitto is) getting more reps,” Payton said. “He’s got (to) continue to stay at the level of the quarterback, not behind the quarterback.”
• In addition to Bonitto getting the starting nod, Denver had cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian play more time in the nickel spot over Essang Bassey. McMillian played 43 defensive snaps, while Bassey was in for only seven.
• By leading Denver to a 21-point comeback win, quarterback Russell Wilson has 32 career fourth-quarter comebacks — postseason included — as he moved up to 10th in NFL history in that category. Wilson has nine touchdown passes through four games. Last season, the nine-time Pro Bowler didn’t reach that total until Week 14. He is currently ninth in passing yards (1,014) and has the third-best passer rating (106.7).
“He’s a lot like (former Saints quarterback) Drew (Brees) in this way,” Payton said. “They kind of see the game as a glass half full. At a time when you’re down 21 points, that momentum can swing very quickly. He was certainly feeling that confidence that, ‘Hey just get us the ball and here we go.’ I think that’s somewhat contagious.”
• Running back Jaleel McLaughlin’s 18-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter marked the third time in four games that the Broncos scored on their opening drive. Payton said the team puts together 12-15 plays for the opening drives based on the opponent.
“Yesterday, it was apparent right away (that) we were going to get a lot more Cover 2 (with two safeties deep),” Payton said. “We thought that might be the case with some of the injuries they’ve had. Then, it was just making enough plays. The screen pass on third down was a big play by Jaleel and Russ. It was well-blocked.”
• Denver’s offensive line had its fair share of discipline issues Sunday, committing five false starts. But when it came to pass protection, left tackle Garett Bolles was solid. He allowed no sacks or quarterback hits in 31 pass block snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
“I thought our offensive line did a tremendous job,” Wilson said. “They didn’t blink the whole day.”
Sean Payton already had that feeling as he discussed his first win as Broncos head coach Sunday afternoon that the good vibes wouldn’t last long.
“There will be some tough tape,” he said at one point.
“We’re going to face a lot better teams,” he said at another.
But he did allow a smirk as he encouraged his players to enjoy their first win of the 2023 season, for a few hours at least, before turning their attention to a circled-on-the-calendar Week 5 matchup.
“Then, we get ready to go next week and we can dive into the whole Jets fiasco stuff,” Payton said.
The fiasco, of course, stems from Payton’s explosive comments to USA Today during training camp. He called the 15-game tenure of former Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett — now the Jets’ offensive coordinator — “maybe one of the worst coaching jobs in the history of the NFL. That’s how bad it was.” He suggested the Jets leaned into the Aaron Rodgers hype machine this offseason and could well fall short of expectations. He questioned the way in which the Broncos front office, including general manager George Paton and others he now works with, handled Russell Wilson’s first year in Denver.
So on and so forth.
Then the next day he walked some of it back.
Now Week 5 is actually here. Hackett and the Jets are coming to town Sunday as a team trying to find its way after Rodgers, who called Payton’s comments a signal of insecurity, tore his Achilles tendon four plays into his tenure in New York.
Payton wasn’t actually going to dive in Monday, though.
Asked if he had reached out to Hackett or Saleh since July, Payton said only that he addressed that, “the day after” during camp.
He didn’t, really. He expressed remorse for blasting Broncos brass and said Paton and the ownership group were among the reasons he wanted the Denver job in the first place. But regarding any offense taken in New York, Payton said that he’d reach out to Saleh “at the right time.”
The Jets head coach, though, didn’t seem particularly interested in rehashing the whole order Monday, either.
“From a coach’s perspective, aside from the summer and whatever was said back in training camp, in a football life that’s like 20 years ago,” Saleh told reporters in New York. “So that’s a non-topic.”
What will be a topic, though, is Hackett’s return to Denver. After a 4-11 run as the Broncos’ head coach, Hackett linked up with Saleh and then was reunited with Rodgers, a close friend, before the league-rattling injury on opening night.
Now Hackett’s tasked with helping get 2021’s No. 2 overall pick, Zach Wilson, to a level of play where a stout defense and strong run game aren’t hampered by the game’s most important position.
“For Hackett, obviously it’s going to be a personal feel to go back (to Denver),” Saleh said. “But I think he understands just living it, (being a) coach’s kid and going through this process, he’ll know how to handle himself and he’ll know how to exactly keep his emotions in check and to make sure we do what’s best for this organization and this team as it stands now.
“I fully expect him to be totally fine and level-headed.”
It’s a game full of odd connections in a season full of them for the Broncos. Denver has one former head coach on staff in defensive coordinator Vance Joseph (2017-18). It faced another Week 3 in Miami in Vic Fangio (2019-21). Now it’s Hackett, the most recent.
Not only that, but Hackett was on the other sideline last year when Zach Wilson and the Jets came to town and won, 16-9, despite Wilson finishing 16-of-21 for 121 yards. It was the Broncos’ fourth straight loss and part of a stretch that saw them drop nine of 10.
Each team this year enters the matchup at 1-3 and in need of a win.
For his part, Payton expects a big challenge.
“They’ve obviously gone through an injury at quarterback,” he said. “They’re playing outstanding in the kicking game and on defense. Offensively (Sunday night vs. Kansas City), you saw a much better team in a big moment. They had some brutally tough calls down the stretch. This is a good football team. You can see it on tape. You can see it when you watch them play.
“That’s where our focus will be this week.”
Kiz: At the risk of starting a Twitter war with Jerry Jeudy, is it time for the Broncos to admit Marvin Mims Jr. is the receiver the team hoped Jeudy would be? In the comeback victory against the bad news Bears, did anybody make a bigger offensive play than Mims, whose 48-yard reception set up the game-winning field goal? So why has Mims been targeted only 11 times in four games? Do the Broncos need to trade Jeudy to give more opportunity to Mims?
Glad you got to watch the game from the crib fam https://t.co/GCCypcAyRq
— Jerry Jeudy⁴ (@jerryjeudy) October 1, 2023
Gabriel: My Twitter fingers aren’t all that salty, but might I point out that the Broncos’ leading receiver Sunday was Jeudy (three catches for 52) and that he had receptions of 18 on Denver’s first touchdown drive and then nine and 25 on the third touchdown drive? All the same, Mims’ lack of not only targets but snaps — he’s been between 15 and 17 offensive snaps all four games — is indeed mystifying at this point. With only 48 offensive snaps Sunday, 17 was at least a season-high 35% usage rate for Mims, but all he does when he’s in the game is create big plays (OK, and occasionally struggle to land a block on the edge, but he’s not the only Denver receiver that applies to). Thinning the room might be the route to getting Mims on the field more, but I’m not sure I’d start with Jeudy, at least during the season.
Kiz: I kid Jeudy, who took issue with comments by former Broncos Rod Smith and Phillip Lindsay on social media after the Denver receiving core got off to a slow start in Chicago. But I do think Jeudy has intriguing NFL skills, despite his occasional lapses in focus that can result in a dropped football. That being said, quarterback Russell Wilson needs the best playmakers in the Denver huddle. Call me crazy, but I think coach Sean Payton needs to reward Mims’ big-play ability with more touches, even if it means a reduction in Jeudy’s role.
— Jerry Jeudy⁴ (@jerryjeudy) October 1, 2023
Gabriel: Isn’t Courtland Sutton a more natural candidate for a role rebalance? I get that Mims’ and Jeudy’s skill sets might be more closely aligned, but Sutton isn’t a rugged force or anything. And we’re not talking about a complete change — at least not in this situation. Maybe even just closer to 50-50. But if you wanted to do the Billy Beane from “Moneyball” and say “You can’t start Pena at first. He plays for Detroit now,” I’d wonder about Sutton at the trade deadline even for lesser compensation, then figure out Jeudy this winter. But then again, I just watch games from the press box and, as Jeudy pointed out, Lindsay watches them from the crib now.
Kiz: And speaking of Lindsay, when is rookie free agent Jaleel McLaughlin going to be named this team’s starting running back? OK, maybe that’s a debate for another day. You would think an offensive genius as impressed with himself as Payton could find adequate touches for Courtland Sutton, Jeudy and Mims. On the other hand, I’m not certain Jeudy has ever really felt at home in Denver, and getting a fresh start elsewhere might do his career good. The Broncos need draft picks. What could Jeudy bring Denver in trade?
Gabriel: Three games don’t radically change a player’s trade value, so I’m sure the Broncos won’t back their asking price down from what it was said to be this spring and summer — a top-level pick or a package of picks and players — just because he’s got 11 catches for 158 yards so far this year. At the same time, teams around the league would counter that, by the same logic, a frenzied five-game finish to 2022 doesn’t make Jeudy a true No. 1 receiver.
Outside of a trade-deadline bidding war, something in the third-round range seems like the kind of offer that could materialize. Maybe Jeudy and a fourth-rounder gets them back into the second round after they dealt their own selection away to New Orleans to hire Payton in the first place. The Broncos brass clearly didn’t get the price it wanted this offseason. Does Mims’ start change their view on what’s acceptable?
The Broncos beat the Bears on Sunday, but they didn’t bask in any kind of glory Monday morning.
The workweek started and head coach Sean Payton gave his team a clear message about where it stands heading into preparations for the New York Jets.
“I said this to the team just 15 minutes ago. I said, ‘I’m encouraged that we fought back into that game, but man, let’s not finish today when we’re done watching this tape and feel like we’re content at all with how we played,’” Payton told reporters Monday. “(We have) too many things that still are disappointing or things that we have to clean up.”
Indeed, Denver gave up 471 yards, 26 first downs and 28 points to a winless Chicago team that entered averaging 250, 15.7 and 15.7, respectively.
“Same thing offensively,” Payton said. “We stalled for a period after the first touchdown. We went through a third of the game struggling. That sense of urgency has to exist again this week. We’re going to play against a lot better teams here in the next month, month-and-a-half.”
Allen talks progress. Denver defensive lineman Zach Allen played the past four years in Arizona for defensive coordinator Vance Joseph. On Monday, he said he’s confident the Broncos’ defense will get better under Joseph’s guidance.
“Everybody wants to point the finger at somebody, but at the end of the day, if you watch that Dolphins tape and you watch the first half (against Chicago), it’s guys not tackling or guys not doing the right assignment,” Allen said. “It wasn’t a question of the scheme or anything like that. A lot of people probably don’t understand the big picture. For us that doesn’t really matter. We know what we’re doing and what we’re working on. People can say whatever the hell they want but at the end of the day they’re not in the arena.
“I love him and we’re going to be fine. We’re going to do great things.”
Game balls. The Broncos on Monday morning also handed out game balls. Payton insisted he’s not going to get in the habit of talking about them, but this time around, they went to outside linebackers Nik Bonitto and Jonathon Cooper, running back Jaleel McLaughlin and kicker Wil Lutz.
Bonnito and Cooper combined for 3.5 sacks, three TFLs and teamed up on a scoop-and-score touchdown that tied the game in the fourth quarter. Lutz drove home the game-winning, 51-yard field goal with 1 minute, 46 seconds remaining. McLaughlin stepped in for running back Javonte Williams (hip injury) and had 104 offensive yards and a touchdown on 10 total touches.
“It was good, but I think there’s a lot more I can do out there,” McLaughlin said. “I’ve got to get better and put the team in the best positions to win. There’s some good out there, but I will be better.”
QB Russell Wilson
Wilson threw three touchdowns on 75% completions and played turnover-free Sunday against Chicago. He was sacked five times in the second half against Washington in Week 2, but has been sacked just six more times in Denver’s other seven halves, including once Sunday. That brought his sack rate to 7.6% for the year (10.2% last year). Through four weeks Wilson is tied with Buffalo’s Josh Allen for third in the NFL in passer rating (106.7) and is fourth in EPA/play among quarterbacks. It appears Wilson each week continues to get more and more comfortable playing for Sean Payton. Pretty good stuff so far for No. 3.
K Wil Lutz
Lutz missed a field goal and an extra point Week 1 against Las Vegas in a one-point loss, but he’s been rock solid since. Sunday he made easily his biggest kick as a Bronco, knocking home a 51-yard, go-ahead field goal in the closing minutes. A good response from a veteran who struggled in New Orleans in 2022. There are more close games ahead, and Lutz will continue to have a say in how those swing.
OLB Nik Bonitto
Bonitto’s not a perfect player. He’s been targeted in the running game the past three weeks. But he also plays hard. He makes mistakes fast and he gets to the quarterback fast. Sunday’s 2.5-sack outing is his best yet as a pro and the strip of Justin FIelds that led to Jonathon Cooper’s scoop-and-score is the biggest play Bonitto’s made. He started over Randy Gregory on Sunday and likely will remain ahead of him going forward. He should. He’s got 3.5 sacks and four TFLs so far through four games.
RB Jaleel McLaughlin
McLaughlin’s a touchdown machine. He scored again on an 18-yard screen pass that featured a dynamite cut through a seam maybe nobody else on the roster sees, let alone hits. The undrafted rookie had 104 scrimmage yards (72 rushing) on 10 touches. McLaughlin had four touchdowns in three preseason games and now has two in the regular season on 17 offensive touches. He’s got juice. He’s not the pass protector that Javonte Williams (hip injury Sunday) or Samaje Perine is, so he might not become the overnight every-down back for Denver. But he’s got to play more. What are the odds he leads the backfield in total yards this year? Increasing by the day.
OLB Randy Gregory
Gregory had zero tackles against Miami and then found himself as the third in a three-man rotation against Chicago. When the chips were down late in the game, Bonitto and Cooper played and Gregory watched. He could slide even further down the depth chart when Baron Browning returns from a knee injury — he’s eligible to this week. Gregory hasn’t looked explosive so far this year and might be still trying to get comfortable after knee issues last year. But it hasn’t looked great so far. Gregory’s in the second season of a five-year deal worth up to $70 million, but he’s not overly difficult to part ways with after 2023, especially with a post-June 1 designation. He’s probably playing for his future over the coming weeks.
The first-half numbers the past two weeks are preposterous. Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa and Chicago’s Justin Fields combined to go 32-of-33 for 437 yards and five touchdowns in their respective opening 30 minutes against Denver. Granted, Denver harassed Fields and then turned him over twice in the second half, but even still. The Broncos are getting rolled through the air, allowing an NFL-high 73.5% completions and a league-worst 13 passing TDs so far. Zach Wilson and the Jets are up next, but then Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City twice in 17 days.
TE Adam Trautman
Trautman plays a lot and does some dirty work for the Broncos. But he’s also being asked to be a full-on No. 1 tight end, and the production hasn’t matched the role so far. He didn’t have a catch against Chicago and has five for 34 yards on the year. Nate Adkins and Chris Manhertz have more limited roles. Greg Dulcich is eligible to return against the Chiefs in Week 6. It’s a group the Broncos need to get more out of overall going forward.
Nickel Essang Bassey
Bassey lost his job Sunday to second-year man Ja’Quan McMillian. Bassey had a nice training camp and the coaching staff knows that Bassey knows what he’s supposed to do. He’s just struggled both tackling and in coverage over the first three weeks. McMillian acquitted himself OK over 43 snaps. The Broncos could really use K’Waun Williams back soon from an ankle injury. He’s eligible to return from injured reserve this week but has appeared to be a bit behind safety P.J. Locke and Browning in terms of running intensity on the side field during practice.
CHICAGO — When the Broncos had every right to quit on Sean Payton, proud NFL veterans Russell Wilson and Kareem Jackson stepped up to save this irascible, unlovable Denver coach from another crisis of his own making.
After the Broncos came back from a 21-point deficit Sunday to beat the bad news Chicago Bears, 31-28, franchise owner Greg Penner graciously awarded Payton a game ball to celebrate his long-overdue first victory on the Denver sideline.
“I don’t want to sugarcoat anything. We’re going to play a lot better teams on our schedule,” Payton said, remaining steadfastly true to his Coach Grumpypants nature.
So let’s not sugarcoat it. Payton did not rally Denver against the league’s worst team. The Broncos won in spite of a coach who has been slow to embrace the players in Denver’s locker room as his guys.
You might find Wilson so earnest as to be corny, so scripted as to be robotic and so past his prime as to not be worth anywhere near his big, fat contract extension.
But none of us can deny the obvious: Wilson willed an 0-3 football team on the brink of entering the sweepstakes for the No. 1 pick in the 2024 NFL draft to victory. And he did it on a sunny autumn day when the Broncos often played like an embarrassment to the city of Denver, the color orange and themselves.
With the Broncos trailing by two touchdowns early in the fourth quarter, Wilson entered the Denver huddle and began to quietly preach.
“He looks you dead in the eye and says; ‘We’re going to do this.’ And there’s no reason not to believe him … He’s Russell Wilson for a reason,” Denver offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey said.
McGlinchey then revealed how Denver’s quarterback noted anxiety festering in the eyes of the Bears, causing Wilson to promise: “They can feel we’re going to win this game.”
OK, beating Da Bears is a long way from carrying the Broncos to the Super Bowl. But DangeRuss is not washed.
By completing 21 of 28 passes for 223 yards and three touchdowns, Wilson provided more evidence that he’s still capable of performing like a top 10 quarterback in this league on a regular basis.
While a 51-yard field goal by Wil Lutz with 66 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter provided the final margin of victory, the two biggest plays of the game were made by Denver’s much-maligned defense, which at one very low point in the third quarter was on an almost unfathomably bad streak of surrendering 18 touchdowns and a field goal in a stretch of 25 possessions.
With under three minutes remaining in the final period and the score tied, Chicago eschewed an easy field goal and went for the kill shot, needing 36 inches to move the chains on fourth down, with the football resting on Denver’s 18-yard line.
Broncos linebacker Alex Singleton came up huge in that critical moment, stepping into a hole and stuffing Bears running back Khalil Herbert for no gain.
“You’ve got to hate losing,” Singleton said. “But (bleep), you’ve got to love winning, too.”
That shining moment of hero ball by Singleton, however, could’ve never happened if not for a scoop and score for a 35-yard touchdown by Denver edge-rusher Jonathan Cooper early in the fourth period that knotted the scoreboard at 28-apiece. The tide-turning TD was set up by a strip sack of Bears quarterback Justin Fields by Nik Bonitto, who has thoroughly earned the right to displace Randy Gregory as a starter.
“You get so down and we’ve been so down this year,” Singleton admitted, that it has been a challenge to fight the feeling that all is lost.
So it should be duly noted that during the first half, when by all appearances the Broncos were embracing the idea of tanking this season for the right to draft USC quarterback Caleb Williams No. 1 overall next spring, that Jackson gathered his reeling teammates on the Denver bench and read them the riot act, his hands punching the air to punctuate a passionate message to play with a renewed commitment.
“Every guy on our side of the ball is passionate about it. We’re huge competitors. With that comes pride and ego, when it comes to doing our job,” Jackson said. “When it’s not looking like it should look … sometimes it comes out. I was just trying to be the best leader I can and get guys going.”
Payton is an old-school disciple of Bill Parcells and a believer in the power of making everybody around him miserable by picking a fight or manufacturing a crisis.
Since taking the gig in Denver, Payton has been quick to slam predecessor Nathaniel Hackett for doing one of the worst coaching jobs in league history, but slow to get touches for two rookies, receiver Marvin Mims Jr. and running back Jaleel McLaughlin. Both showed out Sunday with explosive plays against the Bears, showing why they both should be in starting lineup going forward.
Late last week, staring at the possibility of an 0-4 start to his tenure in Denver, Payton said: “We don’t have to worry about creating a crisis if it’s real, right? We have a crisis.”
Let’s not sugarcoat it.
The Broncos remain a team in crisis.
Up next: The Jets and an offensive coordinator named Hackett, who will be anxious to show he’s not as stupid as Payton thinks.
“We can move on to next week and dive into the whole Jets fiasco,” Payton joked.
If he can’t beat one of the worst coaches in NFL history, what would that make Payton?
CHICAGO — The grand opening for Sean Payton’s Denver rendition of “Club Dub” suffered delays and setbacks over the past three weeks.
It was supposed to debut to rave reviews in early September, but the drywall wasn’t up yet.
Then Washington came to town for the premiere and the sound system shorted out.
By the time the Broncos flew home from South Florida, you might have thought the whole thing burned to the ground.
But finally, the celebration arrived as the calendar flipped to October. In Payton’s hometown, no less. Delayed but not muted.
It shouldn’t have been this difficult, really, to find reason to crank the locker room music on an autumn Sunday. But finally Denver did after a wild, 31-28 victory over the heat-seeking-turned-hapless Bears.
“I’ve been lucky enough, the last five times I’ve been here, we’ve won,” said Payton, who mostly grew up just southwest of here in Naperville, referring back to his days as New Orleans’ head coach. “We’ve been in that locker room, talking and listening to music. It’s nice when you come home, even after so many years, to win here. Hopefully it’s the first of many relative to where we’re going.
“We just have a lot of work to do still, but these guys can enjoy it.”
They can enjoy it for the first time this season.
For the first time with Payton as their head coach.
For the first time in a true road game since a Nov. 7, 2021 win at Dallas.
“A win is a win,” Denver defensive lineman D.J. Jones said. “You never take a win for granted. It means a lot getting our first win of the season. … It was controlled anger. People were angry, but it was controlled. It was like, ‘we’ve got to do better.’ Everybody knew we had to do better. And we did.”
Not only did they have to do better after a 70-20 debacle last week at Miami, but also after a disastrous start to Sunday which put the Broncos behind 28-7 with 19 minutes, 11 seconds remaining at Solider Field.
The 24-point run that ensued — two Russell Wilson touchdown passes, a Jonathon Cooper fumble return for a score amid four straight defensive stops and a go-ahead 51-yard field goal from kicker Wil Lutz — staved off the franchise’s first 0-4 start since 2019.
Whether it ends up meaning more than getting to 1-3 instead of 0-4 remains to be seen.
“This is a huge win because this is something that can be a really big turning point for us moving forward,” wide receiver Courtland Sutton said. “This game is a perfect description of how our season’s been so far. We came out throwing punches, but we got down early. We came back in the second half and guys fought. Guys had that ability to show that there’s no give-up, there’s no quit in our team. It was amazing to watch that.”
That any risk of quit or give-up existed as the calendar turned to October speaks to how rough the Broncos’ opening stanza has been. A one-point loss at home to Las Vegas. A blown 21-3 lead at home to the Commanders. An historic blowout at the hands of the Dolphins.
Might a loss Sunday have sent 2023 into a death spiral? Now that question is merely a hypothetical.
Might it lead to an actual turnaround? It’s a considerable leap from here to there, given the Bears might be the worst team in the NFL and for much of Sunday afternoon they dominated.
Corrections and clean-up are two of every team’s favorite post-game “c” words regardless of outcome, but several players admitted Sunday they go smoother following a “W.”
“Obviously the film is going to be the film and you’ve got to get your corrections, but when you’re looking at yourself mess up and all that, it’s a little easier when you’ve got a win in the column,” right guard Quinn Meinerz said.
Cooper’s scoop-and-score tied the game and fully swung its momentum to the Broncos’ sideline, but they don’t win Sunday without a vintage performance from quarterback Russell Wilson. He finished 21-of-28 for 223 yards and three touchdowns, played turnover free and took just one sack.
He hit back-to-back third-down conversions to Lil’Jordan Humphrey for 11 yards and Sutton for a touchdown to bring Denver within seven. Then he threw a strike up the right side to rookie Marvin Mims, Jr., for 48 yards to set up Lutz’s go-ahead field goal. That came one play after Alex Singleton and the Broncos’ defense snuffed out a fourth-and-1 try from the Bears that would have put them in position to win.
Through four games, Wilson is averaging 242 passing yards, completing 67.4% of his passes and has nine touchdowns vs. three turnovers.
After a dart to Sutton brought Denver within 28-14, the 12th-year quarterback unleashed a series of fist-pumps.
“His competitive nature is something that a lot of people don’t talk about or give him enough credit for because of how polished he tries to be and the person he tries to be as a leader,” right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “I’ve been on the other side of those comebacks numerous times. Proud to be his teammate, thankful to be his teammate because that win is just as much about him as it is about anybody else. He put the team on his back in the second half and led us to victory.”
Wilson on the sideline told teammates, “They know we’re coming back. They know we’re coming back.”
The question now is if “Club Dub” is going on tour or if this was a one-Sunday-only type of performance against a team that’s now lost 14 straight games dating to early 2022.
“There will be some tough tape tomorrow and I don’t want to sugar-coat anything,” Payton said after his 153rd regular-season win but first in blue and orange. “We’re going to play a lot better teams on our schedule, and no disrespect to (Bears coach Matt Eberflus) and what they’re trying to do. I’m sure the feeling is the same here.
“But I think the win was important for the group.”
Second wind in the Windy City
Only six times in franchise history have the Broncos rallied from a deficit of 20 points or more, and two have come in the last four seasons. Here’s a look at all six, and where Sunday’s comeback from 21 points down ranks among them:
|Date||Opponent||Score at time of deficit||Final|
|Oct. 15, 2012||at San Diego||24-0, 0:24 left in third quarter||35-24|
|Sept. 23, 1979||vs. Seattle||34-10, 9:25 left in third quarter||37-34|
|Oct. 23, 1960||vs. Boston||24-0, 11:59 left in third quarter||31-24|
|Sunday||at Chicago||28-7, 4:18 left in third quarter||31-28|
|Nov. 1, 2020||vs. L.A. Chargers||24-3, 7:38 left in third quarter||31-30|
|Dec. 12, 1982||at L.A. Rams||21-0, 10:24 left in second quarter||27-24|
Rookie wide receiver Marvin Mims Jr. has a special trait very few on Denver’s roster seem to possess. Whenever he touches the ball, big plays happen.
In Week 2, Mims hauled in a 60-yard touchdown catch against Washington. A week after that, he returned a kickoff 99 yards for a score in Miami. And in the Broncos’ 31-28 victory over Chicago on Sunday afternoon, Mims’ latest burst helped put the “tank for Caleb Williams” discussions on hold.
With the game tied at 28 and 2:52 left in the fourth quarter, Denver desperately needed to make something happen. Quarterback Russell Wilson stepped up into the pocket and threw a deep pass near the sideline to Mims, who maneuvered past one defender and another before getting tackled for a 48-yard gain to Chicago’s 33-yard line. Three plays later, kicker Wil Lutz nailed the go-ahead 51-yard field goal with 1:46 to go.
A fumbled kick return from earlier in the day suddenly seemed like a distant memory.
“I was on the other side of the field when he made that catch and he got up and he was so juiced,” said veteran receiver Courtland Sutton, who had three receptions for 27 yards and a touchdown.
“I told him, ‘I could feel that energy from the other side of the field.’ It’s contagious.”
If there’s one positive to take away from the first four games of the Broncos’ season, it’s that they appear to have struck gold by selecting Mims (two catches for 47 yards) in the second round and signing undrafted rookie running back Jaleel McLaughlin, who had 104 total yards and a touchdown reception.
In the Windy City, both rookies helped the Broncos to turn a potential nightmare into a 21-point comeback win that ranks among the best in franchise history.
“(Mims) brings a spark and some juice to this team,” Sutton said.
Mims, the former Oklahoma standout, was drafted by the Broncos because of his big play ability. Through four games, he has met those expectations and more. He entered Sunday’s contest with a team-best 195 receiving yards on seven catches while averaging 27.9 yards per reception.
As a returner, he’s quickly established himself as an impact player. In addition to his kick return for a touchdown last week, he had a 44-yard punt return against the Commanders, and on Sunday, he added a 25-yard fourth-quarter punt return to his resume.
McLaughin, the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher across all divisions, was one of the shining stars during the preseason with his speed and how well he takes advantage of space. Those traits were on display against Chicago. In the first quarter, McLaughlin caught a screen pass from Wilson then slipped between two defenders to score from 18 yards out and give Denver a 7-0 lead with 5:08 remaining.
In the third quarter, Broncos running back Javonte Williams was ruled out with a hip injury, and McLaughlin met the moment. Trailing 28-7, McLaughlin burst down the field for a 31-yard gain then made an 11-yard reception that helped set up wide receiver Brandon Johnson’s 4-yard touchdown catch that trimmed the deficit to 28-14 with 14 seconds left.
“He was outstanding,” head coach Sean Payton said of McLaughlin, who rushed for 72 yards on seven carries. “He’s hard to tackle, good in space and made some big runs. We will keep expanding his role.”
Maybe the Broncos build off this victory. Or maybe they take a step back and increase their odds in the Williams’ sweepstakes. But there’s one thing that’s certain: Denver has something special going with Mims and McLaughlin.
“It’s fun to watch (Mims) continue to grow and develop into the superstar that he is,” Sutton said.
CHICAGO — At long last, Vance Joseph’s defense showed up in the Second City and made a statement.
This Chicago team is bad. Its offense has been bad. But it was rolling along just fine against the Broncos defense as it scored four touchdowns in five possessions after an opening punt.
Then the script flipped.
The Broncos reeled off the game’s final 24 points thanks to Russell Wilson and the offense, sure, but also thanks to Joseph’s defense. A scoop-and-score fumble return for Jonathon Cooper tied the game. A fourth-down stop with 2 minutes, 52 seconds to go prevented the Bears from running the clock down and kicking a go-ahead field goal — although they could have opted for that on fourth-and-1. Then veteran safety Kareem Jackson intercepted Justin Fields in the final minute to put the game on ice.
“Nobody giving up, nobody saying ‘might’ or ‘maybe.’ We knew we was going to win,” said defensive lineman DJ Jones, who logged a late sack against Fields.
That put in the rearview mirror one of the ugliest stretches of defense in franchise history. When Fields hit running back Khalil Herbert for his fourth touchdown pass of the day at the 4:18 mark of the third quarter, Denver had given up 18 touchdowns and a field goal over a 25-possession span starting with the second quarter of their Week 2 loss to Washington.
In all, they gave up 130 points to the Commanders, Dolphins and Bears in a little more than 137 minutes of game time.
Then they generated four stops in a row against Chicago.
“They hung in there and they fought when it would have been real easy not to,” head coach Sean Payton said.
Simmons out. Broncos safety Justin Simmons missed his second straight game with a groin/hip injury. In his place Sunday against the Bears, second-year man Delarrin Turner-Yell made his second straight start.
Simmons missed much of training camp with a groin strain but played the first two games of the season. Since then, though, he’s missed consecutive games. He spent Wednesday and Thursday as a limited participant in practice but then didn’t practice Friday, casting doubt on his status.
Denver’s other inactives included the trio of veterans ruled out Friday due to injury: OLB Frank Clark (groin/hip), ILB Josey Jewell (groin/hip) and DL Mike Purcell (ribs) in addition to OLB Ronnie Perkins and rookie S JL Skinner and OL Alex Forsyth.
Williams hurt. Broncos running back Javonte Williams left the game in the second quarter with a hip injury and did not return.
Williams, who spent the offseason rehabilitating from a major knee injury suffered in early October last year, had two carries for no yards and three catches for nine before getting hurt.
Most of the work after he left went to undrafted rookie running back Jaleel McLaughlin.
McLaughlin finished with 104 total yards and a touchdown on 10 touches, including 72 rushing yards on seven carries.
False starts. The Broncos offensive line combined for five false start penalties against the Bears.
Right tackle Mike McGlinchey had two and now has flinched four times in the past three games. Center Lloyd Cushenberry, right guard Quinn Meinerz and left tackle Garett Bolles each picked up flags on Sunday, too.
“We’ve got to clean up the penalties. That’s driving me crazy,” Payton said, pointing specifically to a false start on McGlinchey that came on third-and-1. “To go from third-and-1 to third-and-6 is nuts. Even when you get a defense shifting and trying to throw you off, our discipline needs to be better.”
Added Meinerz, “That’s something that’s unacceptable and it’s something we have to clean up right away. Before the ball’s snapped, you’re going backward, which is unacceptable. In this league it’s already hard enough to get first downs.”
Lineup changes. Turner-Yell stayed in the starting lineup, but the Broncos shifted a couple of other jobs around. Second-year OLB Nik Bonitto replaced Randy Gregory in the starting lineup opposite Jonathon Cooper and logged a sack on Denver’s first defensive series.
Second-year defensive back Ja’Quan McMillian replaced Essang Bassey as the top nickel and veteran Fabian Moreau was in as Denver’s dime back.
Offense — B
More of the same for the Broncos against Chicago. In moments, it looks like a unit about to take off. Russell Wilson solved some of the second-half woes from early in the season in throwing touchdowns to Brandon Johnson and Courtland Sutton while erasing a 21-point deficit. Jaleel McLaughlin provided a jolt before and after an injury to Javonte Williams. But then also there’s a veteran offensive line group committing five — yeah, five — false start penalties. There’s the stretch of four straight punts between an opening touchdown drive and a second-half flurry. There’s the Marvin Mims Jr. big play and also the erratic playing time. His 48-yarder to set up a go-ahead field goal proved to be the biggest offensive snap of the game for Denver.
Defense — C
After giving up 70 points to Miami last week, the Broncos should have been able to avoid a performance that allows for, “Which is more embarrassing?” But then Justin Fields (58% completions entering play) completed 23 of his first 24 passes for 285 yards and four touchdowns as the Bears raced out to a 28-7 lead by midway through the third quarter. The Bears hadn’t scored more than 20 points this year and entered averaging 15.7. Finally, a pair of big plays: Nik Bonitto (2.5 sacks) stripped Fields and Jonathon Cooper scooped it and scored to tie the game at 28. Then the Broncos stopped Chicago on fourth-and-1 in field goal range with 2:52 to play to set up a go-ahead field goal, and Kareem Jackson ended the game with an interception in the final seconds.
Special teams — A-
Wil Lutz made the biggest kick of his young Broncos career, banging home a go-ahead 51-yarder with 1:46 to play. Marvin Mims, Jr. made the first big mistake of his young career, muffing a kickoff and getting fortunate to recover it at his own 4-yard line. He also made a big play, though, in generating a 25-yard punt return. His two punt return chances this year have gone for 45 and 25 yards. Riley Dixon had an inconsistent day punting. He’s been working on smoothing out his ball-striking, but the on-field results remain mixed.
Coaching — C
The Broncos had a week to stew on a 70-20 loss and instead of coming out like a team bent on atonement, then turned in a near-disaster performance. The defense started with a three-and-out and then surrendered four straight touchdown drives. The offense started with a touchdown and then did nothing until the third quarter. In the end, though, the team could have packed it in and instead swung back. Vance Joseph’s maligned defense made enough big plays and Payton dialed up a big hitter to Mims at the right time. What will it count for in the long run? We’ll see. But it was enough for a win Sunday. That counts for something.