Battling with the Cincinnati Bengals last December, the Broncos and backup quarterback Drew Lock had fought their way to the 9-yard line, looking to score the touchdown with 11 minutes left.
A win and the Broncos would be 8-6 and their playoff hopes would be alive and well.
But on a second play, Lock tried to evade Bengals defensive lineman Khalid Kareem. Instead, he fumbled and Cincinnati picked up the game-changing takeout. The Broncos lost 15-10, the start of a four-game losing streak to end the season that sparked sweeping changes.
The play — and possession of the empty red zone — was emblematic of the Broncos’ failures inside the 20-yard line during their six-year playoff drought. Four times they have finished 26th or lower in touchdown percentage – a direct correlation to finishing 22nd or lower in points per game each year.
Enter coach Nathaniel Hackett and quarterback Russell Wilson.
Hackett led the NFL’s second red zone offense in 2017 with Jacksonville and also served as Green Bay’s coordinator when it finished eighth and first in 2019 and 20, respectively.
Wilson had 194 touchdowns in the red zone and just 12 interceptions in 10 years with Seattle.
Adding the play design and play calls of Hackett and the moxie of Wilson to a mix of talented returning players, the Broncos feel like they’ve found a red zone elixir. To finish.
“We can field just about anyone and be effective,” running back Melvin Gordon said.
First, Hackett calls it the Gold Zone.
“That (term) had been played out and we had talked about it as a family and it was very present around the kitchen table in Kansas City,” said his father, former NFL coordinator Paul Hackett. “But Nathaniel is the one who took it to a new level. He went crazy. It’s very successful.
Exhibit A was during training at boot camp. Working around the 10-yard line, Hackett’s play had routes that crisscrossed and interchanged and when the Broncos’ first-team defense didn’t have their communication in order, Wilson threw a touchdown.
As a first-time player with Buffalo in 2013-14, Hackett’s offenses finished 29th in red-zone touchdown rate. Three years later with the Jaguars, Hackett used rookie Leonard Fournette’s killer run (five rushing touchdowns) and tight end Marcedes Lewis’ 6-foot-6 frame (five catches, four touchdowns) to score at a clip of 64%. Quarterback Blake Bortles had 18 touchdowns and no interceptions in the red zone.
Two years later, Hackett started working for Matt LaFleur, calling him the Packers, and it was a wake-up call. Earlier this month, Hackett was asked about Wilson’s red zone effectiveness. After the press conference, he gave homework to a reporter.
“Look for the Green Bay Packers red zone in 2019 and 2020,” he said.
Examining the stats showed why the Packers won 13 games in Hackett’s three seasons as coordinator (he didn’t call the games) who ran red-zone setup meetings during the week.
In 2019, the Packers were a red-zone running team and Aaron Jones led the league with 14 inside-20 touchdowns.
In 2020, defenses felt the need to adapt and quarterback Aaron Rodgers was ready. The Packers have converted 80% of their possessions inside 20, the highest mark since the NFL began keeping the stat in 1999. Rodgers has 35 touchdowns (six more than Wilson, the highest passer close) and no interception.
The breakdown of Rodgers’ 35 touchdown passes shows the bandwidth Hackett gets to practice with Wilson. Rodgers was in the shotgun 22 times and under center 13 times. He made play action on the 14th. And the Packers used mostly 11 (three receivers, a tight end and a running back) on 27 snaps. It helped to have receiver Davante Adams (14 touchdowns in the red zone), but tight end Robert Tonyan had seven touchdowns.
Now Hackett gets to work with Wilson.
“He doesn’t mind those tight quarters,” Hackett said. “We have to embrace those narrow windows. He has such a quick release and such a strong arm that he can definitely get it in.
Wilson’s main key in the red zone is both concrete and essential to his success.
“Not forcing the ball,” he told the Denver Post. “Sometimes you have to, but you pick and choose. Give the guys a chance.
Wilson debuted with a 107.5 red zone passer rating in 2012 for Seattle. The only time his score was below 90 was last year (83.5). He completed 341 of 637 attempts (53.5%) from inside the 20-yard line. His best seasons were 2012 (18 touchdowns/zero interceptions), 2017 (22/1) and 20 (29/3).
Wilson wants to play smart but knows aggression is also needed.
“I never play scared,” he said. “I try to play ball the right way and do everything I can. That’s what I believe in.
The Seahawks’ receiving duo of Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf kept Wilson focused on more than one target. Like the match against Lockett, he went there. Thinks he has the advantage with Metcalf, he went there. In 2020, Lockett had eight touchdowns in the red zone (tied for fifth in the league) and Metcalf scored five times.
Wilson’s career-high for red-zone completions is 52 in 2020 and he’s thrown to 11, led by Lockett’s 12 catches. The Broncos’ skillful players suggest a similar level of variety, even without receiver Tim Patrick (out for the season with a torn ACL). Last year, four players had at least five catches in the red zone, led by six apiece by Sutton and running back Javonte Williams.
“The point is, you can have the system, but not the guys to make it work – and we have the guys,” Gordon said. “We have a jump ball guy at Courtland. We have a separation guy in (Jerry) Jeudy. We have a gadget guy, speed guy in Montrell (Washington). And we have running backs and tight ends that can do it all.
No teammate has known Wilson longer than Gordon, who were together in Wisconsin. He knows the No. 3 game and why he is top notch in the red zone.
“You have to open up guys and take risks. You’re going to have good ones and bad ones, but with (Wilson), nine times out of 10 it’s probably going to be a good one.
The Broncos count on it.
The misfortunes of the red zone
During the Broncos’ six-year playoff drought, they failed to finish in the top half of the NFL’s red zone touchdown percentage rankings. A comparison to Russell Wilson’s last six years in Seattle:
|Year||Broncos rank (pct.)||Seattle Ranking (percentage)|
|2016||26th (46.8)||27th (46.4)|
|2017||32nd (39.6)||13th (55.6)|
|2018||19th (56.8)||8th (65.5)|
|2019||28th (47.6)||9th (63.3)|
|2020||27th (53.3)||4th (73.2)|
|2021||22nd (54.7)||3rd (64.6)|
Wilson in the red zone
A year-by-year look at Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson’s passing stats in the red zone for Seattle:
* The Seahawks have made the playoffs in every season except 2017 and 21.
Hackett Red Zone History
A look at Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett’s six full seasons as offensive coordinator and how those teams fared in the red zone. Hackett was the point guard for Buffalo (2013-14) and Jacksonville (’17):
* Competed in the playoffs