ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — When the Broncos traded for Russell Wilson in March, General Manager George Paton spoke to Wilson's arm strength, accuracy and big-play ability.
Paton also highlighted Wilson's ability to extend plays and to create for himself when the initial options break down.
"You watch him off schedule — his eyes and his instincts and the play-making ability," Paton said in March. "The 'It' factor that all great quarterbacks have, Russ has. He's the best in the biggest moments."
During a 10-year career, Wilson has turned in a pile of highlight plays that started with apparent disaster. When his first and second reads weren't available and the pocket started to break down, Wilson scrambled around to buy time before firing a pass to an unlikely option down the field.
It's a trait that many of the NFL's great quarterbacks possess, and Wilson is as good as any at making plays that can crush a defense's spirit.
The tendency to extend plays, though, can also lead to holding the football — and that can lead to sacks. In Seattle, Wilson took his share of hits, as no quarterback has been sacked more than Wilson since he entered the league in 2012. Matt Ryan, who has been sacked 365 times in that span, is closer to the fifth-ranked quarterback than he is to Wilson's 427 sacks.
In Denver, there's reason to believe that will change. An offseason evaluation of the offensive line suggests that the Broncos will boast a top-10 unit, which shows a marked improvement over expectations for Seattle.
Just as important is Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett's scheme, which prioritizes getting rid of the football on time. And with the Broncos, that should help Wilson balance his ability to create big-time plays while also keeping himself safe and the team on track.
"For us, we talk about the intention of the play, what we're trying to accomplish and what we're trying to attack and why," Hackett said. "So that he knows when to throw to that number one [read] or progress on to two. As a coach, you always plan on never getting past two. But the reality of it is, sometimes that happens. The idea is to limit those as much as possible. We don't ever want him to get touched."
There's reason to be encouraged about keeping Wilson's jersey clean. The first-team offensive line hasn't seen game action, but Hackett has been pleased with his team's overall performance in pass protection.
"I think up to this point, the past two games, I think we gave up one sack, and it was that last play of the game versus Buffalo," Hackett said. "So the line has done a good job, the quarterbacks have done a good job of getting the ball out. We want that to carry over for Russell. We want to get that ball out. We want him to understand the intention. We want to protect him, and then we want him to do what he does when it breaks down. But if it doesn't break down that way, we want the ball out."
Though the Broncos don't have yet game tape to evaluate how successful they'll be in that area, Hackett said Wilson has been "great" in a practice setting.
"Yesterday, you saw him get the ball out a lot," Hackett said. "He scrambled a couple times, because that is realistic. I think that it's just one of those things that I don't think that he wants to live in that world. I don't think anybody does. We want him to play 10 years here, 12 years, 15 years. The way you do that is by extending it, by running the ball and protecting the quarterback. Those are the two most important things, and I think that he understands that and sees that. Throughout my past, that has always been part of the West Coast philosophy, is to be able to be efficient and understanding of the play that you're calling.
"Up to this point, he has been doing a great job, so we'll find out when we get to live action."
PRESSURE IS A PRIVILEGE
Third-year center Lloyd Cushenberry III acknowledged Tuesday that playing alongside Wilson comes with a higher level of expectations, and he said he embraces that standard.
"You can look at it as a challenge or look at it as pressure, but it's just great to have a future Hall of Fame quarterback behind us," Cushenberry said said. "It's high expectations, but we wouldn't want anything else. Of course, we want to have these expectations of being in the Super Bowl and making to the playoffs. That's what comes when you have a guy like that. It's been great so far. I feel like we've lived up to the challenge in practice, and now we have to bring it to the season and put it all together."
As Cushenberry rises to the mental demands that may come with playing with Wilson, he feels poised to take his game to another level.
"Overall in my game, I feel like I'm in great shape," Cushenberry said. "Not that I wasn't last year, but just in better shape. I feel more confident — not that [I've] struggle[d] with confidence in years past, but just going into Year 3, I've seen everything. I've seen [what] a defense can give me; I've seen everything [and] played against great players. I know what to expect week in and week out, and I know what works for me. Those things are big for me going into Year 3. I have my own routine and my own things I do now every single day to give me ready to play every day."