ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Denver Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett calls the football real estate inside the opponents’ 20-yard line the “gold zone.’’
Two games into his tenure, however, there hasn’t been much gold in those hills. The Broncos, who haven't averaged more than 21 points per game during their six-year playoff drought, haven't topped 16 points in either of their first two games and have scored zero touchdowns in six trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.
“We're just going to have to be sure we evaluate everything,’’ Hackett said after Sunday’s 16-9 win over the Houston Texans.
“We have to fix it, simple as that,’’ Broncos wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland said. “When we are down in the red zone, we have to get seven points instead of three.’’
The struggle in the red zone boils down to two items -- the Broncos make too many mistakes on the doorstep of the end zone that have nothing to do with the opponent's defense, and they have been ineffective throwing the ball in the goal-to-go situations.
In their six red zone trips, quarterback Russell Wilson is 5-of-14 passing with no touchdowns, the Broncos have had three penalties (two false starts and a delay of game) and fumbled the ball away twice. Both fumbles were out of run plays that began with Wilson in the shotgun.
“Whether it's getting the personnel out there … making sure the plays are coming in nice and clean, and just getting into the huddle and out of the huddle,’’ Hackett said. “So, we just have to keep talking about that. I'll talk with Russ, find out anything that I can do to help him make it better. That's inexcusable. That's on us, that's us hurting ourselves.”
To put it another way, the Broncos have lined up inside their opponents’ 10-yard line for 18 plays in their two games. They have yet to score a touchdown on any of those plays and are 0-for-8 on their last eight pass attempts from inside the 10, including 0-for-Sunday inside the Texans' 10.
With a list of high-powered offenses and some of the league’s most accomplished quarterbacks -- led by Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert in their own division alone -- lined up down the schedule, the Broncos’ can’t afford to be a 16-points-per-game team.
And they are currently in the move-the-ball trap, because they stop doing what they've done to get into scoring position when they are in scoring position. They do indeed have 783 yards worth of offense in two games -- fifth best in the league at 391.5 per game -- but that has translated to 26th in the league in scoring because they can’t make their football free throws.
“When you think about the red zone, it comes down to making a crazy catch, a crazy run, a crazy play, that’s what it is,’’ Wilson said. “… We just have to make those plays. That’s what it comes down to. It’s not overly thought.’’
Over three decades ago, long before the NFL set up passing offenses to succeed by tipping the rule book and making things defenses do “points of emphasis’’ in officiating, former Steelers offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt said “you throw to score, run to win.’’ But these Broncos, at this point in the introduction of a new offense, may need to run to score so they can win. With Wilson under center, with play action and a bigger variety of options available to running backs Javonte Williams (5.4 yards per carry in two games) and Melvin Gordon III (4.8 yards per carry in two games).
The Broncos are ninth in the league in rushing and tied for seventh in the league for yards per carry (4.9), but do not have a rushing touchdown. They do have two fumbles on run plays -- both out of the shotgun -- in the four rushing attempts in the red zone thus far this season.
“There were definitely some things that we liked in the pass game because of how they put everybody in the box,’’ Hackett said after Sunday’s win. “But in the end, we have to be able to run it down there, we have to run down the hill, and might have to run over somebody.’’
“It's upon us to not give up on upon the situation because we understand what we can do as an offense,’’ wide receiver Courtland Sutton said. “We understand our strengths and the things that we do very well. We're going to become a dominant team in the red zone. This is on us. We have the plays, (we) have the players. It’s just one of us on executing those plays to be able to put the points on the board.’’