Broncos report card: Special teams and costly penalties turn Sean Payton’s debut into a giveaway loss vs. Raiders

Offense — B-

It didn’t take long at all in the 2023 season for Russell Wilson to get cookin’. In fact, he completed 17 of 19 throws for 125 yards and a pair of first-half touchdowns for the Broncos on Sunday against Las Vegas. While he and Denver didn’t pile up yardage, Wilson played efficiently, completed passes to 11 different receivers and looked in command of head coach Sean Payton’s offense. Raiders star Maxx Crosby made an impact, but Denver chipped and helped enough to limit him to one sack. The run game didn’t get going until the second half, though Javonte Williams looked fast and powerful in his return from a major knee injury last year. Denver, though, went three-and-out after Las Vegas took a 17-16 lead, and at the end of the day put only 16 on the board. That’s not going to win many games.

Defense — C-

This unit expects to be one of the NFL’s elite groups under Vance Joseph. It held the line for much of the afternoon against Jimmy Garoppolo and the Raiders, but a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that gave Las Vegas a 17-16 lead with 6:34 to play was far too easy. The Raiders targeted cornerback Damarri Mathis throughout the game and could do so because Denver generated very little pass rush. When the Broncos needed to get home against Garoppolo, they didn’t. That negated a staunch performance against the run in which the Raiders managed 61 yards (2.1 per attempt). The pass rush going forward is going to be a question. Denver’s not getting Baron Browning back for a few weeks at least. Where’s the pressure going to come from?

Special teams — F

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Payton loaded up on coaching experience and Game 1 almost started in spectacular fashion with an attempted surprise onside kick. Instead, the penalty nullifying a recovery started a terrible opening sequence that featured two penalties and a missed extra point from Wil Lutz. Lutz also missed a 55-yard field goal to open the third quarter. Better? Riley Dixon’s first punt as a Bronco checked up at the 5-yard line. Needing a good one to flip the field late in the game, Dixon hit a 37-yarder. The Broncos’ best special teams snap of the game: an incredibly dumb roughing the punter penalty on Las Vegas, one of several gaffes from the visitors.

Coaching — B-

Payton deployed his timeouts expertly in the first half with the Raiders backed up, ensuring his team got the ball back with about 2:30 to go before halftime rather than on the backside of the two-minute warning. His reward? A 75-yard touchdown drive with 12 seconds left for a 13-10 lead.

Not as pretty: Denver’s four early penalties and 10 overall, including a couple of really costly ones. A sloppy effort in the opener in that department. Overall, the staff had a plan to keep Wilson in rhythm and navigate playing without top receiver Jerry Jeudy. Payton coached the game like he knew it would be a low-possession slugfest, and that’s just what materialized. This team needs something beyond good management to forget how to give away close games.

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