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Film room: What to expect from Russell Wilson under Sean Payton

Diving into some preseason tape for DEN

Denver Broncos v San Francisco 49ers
Russell Wilson
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

As long-time AFC West rivals, the Las Vegas Raiders and Denver Broncos are no strangers to one another. However, this year’s Week 1 matchup between the Raiders and Broncos features a new key member in Denver’s head coach Sean Payton, who is expected to be the cure for quarterback Russell Wilson’s woes last season.

So, ahead of the season opener, let’s dive into some preseason tape to get an idea of what to expect from Wilson and Payton this Sunday.

A common theme with the Broncos last year that didn’t seem to be fixed with Payton during the preseason is the amount of pressure that Wilson faced. He was the most-sacked quarterback in the entire league last year, going down 55 times, and he was pressured 11 times on 22 dropbacks last month, according to Pro Football Focus.

The clip above is a good example of how that can still impact Denver’s offense despite the change in play-callers.

Payton calls a good play to beat man coverage with Jerry Jeudy—the wide receiver at the top of the screen—running a double-move route and natural pick play with the sluggo/whip route combination at the bottom of the screen. The slot receiver running the whip is open—and so is Jeudy—but Wilson holds onto the ball too long and the left tackle, Garrett Bolles, gets beat in pass protection for a sack.

That’s good news for the Raiders as Maxx Crosby could have a big day if Wilson doesn’t get the ball out of his hands on time.

Now, one big adjustment Payton did make to combat the issue above is having Wilson run a lot of quick game passes from the shotgun. Here, it’s fourth and five and the Cardinals dial up a Cover 0 blitz. This time, the veteran quarterback recognizes the coverage, doesn’t panic in the pocket and hits Jeudy on a slant route for a 22-yard touchdown with a blitzer barreling down on him.

Luckily for Las Vegas, Jeudy tweaked a hamstring and likely won’t play on Sunday but this does highlight one of the dangers when blitzing Wilson.

Play-action is another way Payton combated the Bronco’s offensive line issues during the preseason, and here he takes that another step further as he calls a two-man route and max protection.

While the ball is a little late, wide receiver Courtland Sutton is wide open and Wilson has the arm strength to zip it to him for a first down. It’s going to be very important for the Raiders’ linebackers to get to their depths against play-action on Sunday as that’s a big reason why this is a gigantic throwing window.

To add more context to the previous clip, and this one too for that matter, the Broncos called play-action on 31.8 percent of Wilson’s dropbacks this preseason compared to 21.3 percent during the regular season last year, per PFF.

Specifically on the play above, Wilson has a fairly clean pocket that he can step up in and, again, Arizona’s linebackers are late getting to their drops so Sutton is wide open, this time on an over route against a cornerback playing with outside leverage. It doesn’t help that the backer at the top of the screen takes the cheese on the flat route instead of staying deep.

To reiterate, this play is another good example of how imperative it’s going to be for the Raiders linebackers to recognize the play fake quickly and get depth on their drops.

Here, we’ll see another example of why it’s so difficult to blitz Wilson.

It’s third and six and the 49ers rush six defenders out of double A-gap look where Fred Warner drops into coverage but has his back to the quarterback to get to his depth after starting at the line of scrimmage. Wilson recognizes the coverage, gets to the top of his drop and lets the rushing lane naturally develop before exploiting it for not only a first down but a big gain that crosses midfield.

Denver’s protection scheme also does a good job of picking up the blitz, so it may be best for Las Vegas to sit back and play coverage as much as possible on Sunday.

We’ll end with a clip that highlights what might be the biggest change with Payton now calling the plays in the Mile High City. He’s constantly talked about how the offense will be more committed to running the ball this season, which likely means he’ll use Wilson on read options a few times a game to take advantage of Wilson’s rushing ability.

Here, Denver gives San Franciso’s defense a lot to dissect. The offense essentially fakes a split flow inside zone run to the running back by having the tight end work across the formation, but the tight end leaves the defensive end alone and serves as the quarterback’s lead blocker.

Since the play looks like a traditional zone run, look what that does to the cornerback at the bottom of the screen. The corner gets a little too aggressive and tries to cheat toward the running back, leaving an open lane to the outside for Wilson and making that an easy block for the tight end.

Also, Sutton executes a good crack block on the 49ers’ linebacker at the bottom of the screen and it’s an easy first down or more until Sutton decides to unnecessarily hold for some reason. The Raiders’ backers will need to have their heads on a swivel!