How an improved Russell Wilson has sparked the Broncos

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Russell Wilson spent much of his first season with the Denver Broncos surrounded by a staff that wanted him to be "comfortable'' under center on the way to his worst season as a pro. This season has been a search for what works best for him, coach Sean Payton and the team. Eleven games in, Wilson and the team have dug their way out of a dismal 1-5 start and onto the fringes of the playoff conversation.

Wilson is a grinding, scrambling, get-it-done quarterback who on one hand sports some ho-hum numbers, but who also happens to be the league leader in fourth-quarter comebacks and among the leaders in touchdown passes. It's all part of the 6-5 Broncos' rebound as they head to Houston to face the 6-5 Texans on Sunday with a five-game winning streak that has placed them squarely in the AFC playoff picture.

"People said a lot of things about Russ, about us, early, about what he couldn't do, what we couldn't do," wide receiver Courtland Sutton said. "We know what kind of player he is, we know what he can do, we know how he goes about his business every day. Those things that were said, they're wrong."

Wilson is tied for fifth with the Chargers' Justin Herbert in touchdown passes (20). He has also been far better than last season in some of the more important accuracy metrics, such as completions over expectation as well as off-target percentage, even as Denver sits in the middle of the pack in scoring -- 14th at 22.4 points per game.

"The guy believes, there is no doubt about that,'' Broncos kicker Wil Lutz said. "He always believes we're going to win the game ... that's the guy you want under center.''

A season after throwing a career-low 16 touchdowns and getting sacked a career-high 55 times, he is ninth in the league in completions over expectation (2.1% over expectation), tucked between the likes of Tua Tagovailoa and Lamar Jackson. He is the fourth-best quarterback in the league among starters in percentage of off-target throws (11.7%). These are categories he finished 27th and 14th, respectively last season.

Wilson and the Broncos have traded safety for impact at times, given they are still 21st in the league in red zone scoring, 17th in converting third downs and 24th in passing yardage (185 yards per game). Those are numbers that likely make Payton grind his teeth a bit -- "we need improvement there.'' The Broncos were, in some ways, more explosive during the dismal start, with five pass plays of at least 41 yards in those first six games.

They have had no such completions since, but Wilson has kept the ball out of harm's way, whether by design or circumstance, and made his mobility an asset again in the winning streak, as he's on pace for his sixth career season with at least 30 touchdown passes.

"The reality is that we have a lot more ball to go,'' Wilson said. "We have to stay humble and hungry. We have a lot more to do. We feel like we're just getting started.''

Sift through it all and Wilson has not only helped the Broncos win, but he has indeed shaped his game to try to fit what Payton wants to do with the offense week to week as well as what the Broncos can actually do in the moment.

He's been more patient, more willing to take the so-called easy money in the passing game rather than force the issue (see: the combined 59 receptions for running backs Samaje Perine and Javonte Williams). That shows in his low yards per pass attempt (6.9) and yards per completion (10.1), but is in stark contrast to last season, when several personnel executives around the league lamented Wilson's many what's-he-looking-at throws into coverage downfield behind shaky protection within Nathaniel Hackett's scheme.

This season, Wilson's yards per dropback -- a metric that accounts for a quarterback's passing yards, scramble yards minus sack yardage -- is also a rather pedestrian 5.99 (21st in the league), but he also has the NFL's best touchdown to interception ratio (5.0, well ahead of No. 2 Dak Prescott at 3.8) and his four interceptions are tied for the league low. Sutton, who has finished with two touchdown catches in each of the previous two seasons, has been the biggest beneficiary and is tied for third in the NFL in touchdown catches (eight).

"I know we have some amazing players,'' Sutton said. "There is heart and confidence on this team. Things weren't going like we hoped early in the year, but we come to work every day. Russ leads that way. It's coming.''

Payton has also put Wilson on the move as a runner more often. Wilson lost at least 15 pounds, according to Payton, in the offseason, and Wilson said throughout the team's offseason workouts and training camp he was moving "like a young guy again.''

Payton praises Wilson's off-schedule work in the pocket to elude the rush and extend plays this season. He has 266 yards rushing and is on pace for just his second 400-yard rushing season since 2018.

In Sunday's win over the Cleveland Browns, Payton had several designed runs for Wilson on the play sheet against the league's No. 1 defense. In the first half Wilson was the team's leading rusher -- he had 37 yards as well as a rushing touchdown before halftime -- and it helped unlock 169 yards rushing in the game for the Broncos overall.

"This was a week that I would've guessed he was going to have good rushing yards because there were a number of good examples of zone reads," Payton said. "The way [the Browns'] ends played and the way they played defensively, we kind of felt like that package of offensive plays that gave him opportunities to run were going to be really good, and they were called [Sunday].''

The Broncos will have questions to face later about Wilson's contract and where he will fit moving forward, pending whatever they make of the remainder of the season. But with six regular season games left, Wilson has kept his word, as 2022 was "not the level I expect to be ... and I'll get it right.''

"If you love winning, that's the part that you love, when it's tight, when it's crunch time,'' Wilson said. "When it's time to play good football ... time to be lights out."