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Broncos camp observations: Russell Wilson shows promise of 2-minute offense

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The first true two-minute drill of training camp for the Broncos offense, which came during Tuesday’s practice, ended with Russell Wilson on his backside. The new franchise quarterback wasn’t hit and wasn’t in any real jeopardy, but the busted play that ended with a de facto Wilson sack was a microcosm of the day’s struggles in the hurry-up offense. The Broncos’ first-team unit failed to cross midfield during two separate, end-of-half, need-a-field-goal periods, and generally looked out of sorts.

None of it was a surprise — or a concern — to first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett.

“I was telling (general manager) George (Paton), two-minute is typically one of the hardest things to get going for a brand new offense,” Hackett said. “You’re just trying to get everyone on the same page because everything is happening so fast and you’re trying to process all those situations.”

Fast forward to the offense’s second chance at the two-minute drill, which came at the end of a sweltering Thursday practice that was at least 15 minutes longer than any of the seven that came before it. This time, it was an end-of-game situation, the offense trailing by four points with 1 minute, 48 seconds on the clock. The unit had two timeouts to use on a drive that started at its own 20-yard line.

After a first-down completion on a slant to tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, Wilson threw wide for Courtland Sutton on an out route near the sideline and, after a false start penalty, was nearly picked off by linebacker Jonas Griffith as he threw for Okwuegbunam up the seam. On third-and-15, Wilson threw a slant to Jerry Jeudy, who was generously credited with an 11-yard gain. It was now fourth-and-4, the clock ticking near a minute with the offense still parked on its own side of the field. It appeared another clunky, hurry-up series was destined to go the defense’s way.

Instead, Wilson hurried to the line, spotted Sutton in one-on-one coverage with cornerback Ronald Darby, quickly called for the snap, shuffled to his left and delivered a deep ball down the sideline for his top outside receiver. Sutton, who had arguably his best practice of camp, caught the ball over his shoulder as he jumped above Darby, netting the offense a drive-saving, 35-yard gain.

“We had something we wanted to get to there, and there was a little miscommunication that turned into a different play we didn’t know was going to happen,” Hackett said of the deep ball for Sutton. “That’s sometimes how great plays happen. But Courtland ran a beautiful route. I love how he flattened it and Russ did a great job. We had great protection up front, he stepped to his left and we got an explosive (play).”

Seemingly as soon as Sutton was giving Darby a hand up following the catch, Wilson had the offense back at the line of scrimmage, moving at the kind of high-octane tempo he and members of the offense conducted during their throwing session in San Diego last month. Wilson audibled the call as he located a soft spot in the middle of the defense, and the 18-yard slant pass for a touchdown to wide receiver Trey Quinn that came next couldn’t have looked much easier.

Just like that, an offense that has experienced its fair share of ups and downs during the last week displayed its quick-hit promise, led by a quarterback who has orchestrated 32 career game-winning drives.

“To see that happen during only the second time we’ve done it, and the first time at the end of the game, was really great,” Hackett said. “It was great watching Russ through that one. He called that last play, which was absolutely fantastic, and hit it for the touchdown. It’s just one of those things where you always want to see progress. You want to see guys getting better, slowly but surely. We have a long way to go, but that was good to see.”

The buzzword around Broncos headquarters since the pairing of Hackett and Wilson was formed in March has been collaboration. There is hardly a detail about the offense the two don’t dissect in their conversations together — between plays, in team meetings and virtually anywhere else — and that’s particularly true of a two-minute philosophy that seeks to grant Wilson freedom, Hackett noted Thursday, within the confines of a loose script.

“It’s a combination of both of us,” Hackett said. “It’s one of those things where I try to plant some of those seeds in his mind. We’ve got some plays we’ve collaborated on, a list of things we want to accomplish and plays we want to run, especially in a situation where we’re trying to get down the field in large chunks. So I give him those, we talk about and he runs with it. I’m always in his ear, but it’s his choice on how he’s feeling.”

The end of Thursday’s practice showed that the two-minute offense, for all the thrills it provided on the aforementioned 80-yard touchdown drive, remains a work-in-progress with more than a month still left between now and the Sept. 12 opener in Seattle. With the offense down by one point, starting from its own 27-yard line with two timeouts and 53 seconds left on the clock, Wilson and the 10 other players on his unit were tasked with creating a field-goal opportunity. But the quarterback threw incomplete to running back Javonte Williams against a heavy rush, Jeudy couldn’t corral a ball that zipped through his hands, and a deep third-down pass attempt for Montrell Washington came up empty, bringing up a fourth-and-10 with less than 30 seconds left on the clock.

Hackett called practice after the latter play because safety P.J. Locke was shaken up after chasing Washington, but the drive had already been doomed. Then again, with Wilson at the helm, maybe it wasn’t.

Extra points

• Safety Caden Sterns missed practice after receiving an injection in his hip, Hackett said. He’s expected to return for Saturday’s practice. Defensive tackle D.J. Jones also missed practice as he and his wife await the birth of their first baby. Veteran safety Kareem Jackson had a rest day — “I could just say old,” Hackett mused — and rookie outside linebacker Christopher Allen was also given a maintenance day as he continues to work his way back from a knee injury he suffered last season at Alabama.

Wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland continued to miss time with a throat injury that Hackett said includes cartilage damage. The injury is not believed to be serious, but the Broncos are making sure Cleveland, who has been attending practices, is fully healed before he returns to the field. Wide receiver Kendall Hinton also missed practice with a left leg issue. Lastly, safety J.R. Reed was helped to the locker room during practice, but there was no immediate word on his injury.

Darrius Shepherd, the free-agent wide receiver the Broncos signed Thursday to fill the roster created by Tim Patrick’s move to the injured reserve list, wasted little time making a strong first impression. During his first rep during the second unit’s first team period of the day, Shepherd hauled in a 50-plus-yard touchdown on a beauty of a deep ball by Josh Johnson.

“That play right there is an option for the receiver to either stop or go,” Hackett said of the touchdown to Shepherd, who spent the past two seasons as a reserve receiver in Green Bay, where Hackett served as offensive coordinator. “My man Shep decided he was going. He wasn’t thinking about anything else. … That was his first play and everyone was mad, saying, ‘He needs to do some more dirty work.’”

• The best defensive play of the day came courtesy of rookie cornerback Damarri Mathis, who made a diving interception on a Brett Rypien pass near the sideline early in practice that was intended for Kaden Davis. It was an emphatic stamp on what has been a strong week for the fourth-round pick out of Pittsburgh.

• Rookie tight end Greg Dulcich continues to make progress after being relegated to individual, side-field work at the start of camp. On Thursday, Dulcich took a few reps during team drills for the first time, most of which came in the red zone. During one of those, the third-rounder out of UCLA caught a touchdown pass from Wilson, who moved to his right as he ducked around pressure and hit the tight end on the run.

“We’re trying to slowly work him in,” Hackett said of Dulcich, who suffered a hamstring injury in workouts shortly after being drafted. “We don’t want him running all over the place and blocking, but it was great. He had the touchdown on the play Russell made that was awesome. I’m going to hear it from the defense because they are going to think they sacked him, but they definitely didn’t. But it was definitely a great feel for (Dulcich). That’s the thing with him right now. He’s understanding the playbook because he’s been using so much mental time to understand it, but then you go and watch him make a natural play, where he was covered and kind of ran to get open and find a sweet spot. I didn’t know that was going to happen. That was just him playing ball.”

Dre’Mont Jones may have turned in the quote of camp thus far when the defensive end was asked how he and nose tackle D.J. Jones complement one another.

“I think we complement each other great,” Jones said. “He’s a bull and I’m kind of a, uh, deer.”

Dre’Mont Jones was asked whether he had shared that description with D.J.

“I just made it up,” he replied.

• You didn’t think the Broncos were going to give up on holding camp quarterback competitions just because they have a franchise starter, did you?

Hackett on Thursday said of the backup battle between the journeyman veteran Johnson and third-year player Rypien: “I don’t think anything has been solidified yet.”

Still, it seems as if Johnson’s experience — he has played professionally since 2009, including eight seasons in the NFL — would tip the scales in a close competition.

“Both those guys are doing a fine job,” Hackett continued. “It’s about competition right there. Ryp has great days. Josh does great things. Josh has game experience and has been in this league. I think he’s almost as old as me. He’s a great guy to have in the room either way. That’s what you’re looking for, someone who can support Russ and support all of us and not have to practice a ton because he’s seen so much and can go in the game at any time and play.”

(Photo of Russell Wilson: David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

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