SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The final score didn't fall in the Broncos' favor.
But during Saturday's 21-20 loss to the 49ers, plenty else did.
"I was encouraged in a lot of areas tonight," Head Coach Sean Payton said after the game. "I just finished telling those guys [in the locker room], I thought we did a good job of [forcing] takeaways. I thought we ran the ball, I thought we defended the run well. Certainly would have liked to have won, but I was pleased by pretty much most of that game."
Though Denver was unable to hold on to a 20-12 lead with 5:35 to play, the early stages of the game showed a team that took a step forward from last week's performance against the Cardinals.
The most noticeable improvement came on offense, as Denver's first-team unit racked up three first downs and notched a field goal in their lone series with Wilson under center.
"I thought [in] protection, we were better," Payton said. "I thought Russ did a good job of tucking it a few times. Our time of possession was good. And I thought we ran the ball a little bit better than a week ago."
Wilson completed 3-of-6 passes for 24 yards, but he made his biggest impact on the ground. On the initial third down of the drive, Wilson took off to his left on a third-and-6 and picked up 17 yards to move into San Francisco territory.
"I just trust my reads," Wilson said. "Just going through 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 — it's not there, or if there's something [else] there, I can use my legs. It's part of my game obviously, and being able to get the ball out and throw the ball down the field and all that kind of stuff but also it's hard for the defense. It can't account for that part of it necessarily. When all of our guys are doing a tremendous job — our line's blocking the way they do — it gives me a great chance to get some first downs and use my legs."
Two plays later, Wilson would have had another 16-yard gain, but wide receiver Courtland Sutton was whistled for a holding penalty that limited the gain. Denver picked up one more first down, and Brett Maher drilled a 48-yard field goal to even the store.
Denver's success was fueled, in part, by improved play from the Broncos' offensive line.
"I thought we did a great job," Wilson said. "I thought the offensive line did a tremendous job with protection. I thought they did a really good job of keeping the space, and I was able to step up and get the ball out of my hand quickly, get the ball to the right guys at the right time and then obviously scramble for some really big first downs and use my legs. I feel great. Those guys did a great job protecting. It was great to see [wide receiver Marvin] Mims [Jr.] out there make his first catch, too, on a key play. There's a lot of good things. Feel great about it, just where we are and just all the hard work those guys have been putting in, all of us together. It's coming together one day at a time."
The Denver defense, meanwhile, rebounded from a tough opening drive to buckle down in the red zone and hold the 49ers' starting offense to a field goal. After 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy started the drive by finding Deebo Samuel for gains of 25 and 14 yards, outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper slowed the momentum in the red zone. His second-down sack pushed the ball from the 2-yard line to the 10, and San Francisco was held out of the end zone.
"I thought it was pretty good," inside linebacker Josey Jewell said of the first-team defense's performance. "That first drive we had a couple leaky plays and allowed them [to move the ball]. But it was good shutout defense when we got down to the red zone and they ended with three points. Not a good start, but a good way to come back and finish it there."
Denver's first-team defense largely remained in for the rest of the first half and did not allow a point following the initial drive. The Broncos allowed the 49ers to convert on just one of five third-down attempts and forced a three-and-out and two punts. Denver took down Purdy and Sam Darnold a combined three times in the first half.
"I thought inside we were pretty stout," Payton said. "Look, we didn't defend the boots very well early on. We didn't defend receiver screens. We haven't stopped one of those yet. But I thought we defended some of the runs that these guys present and then forced a field goal with the first group. That was encouraging."
The Broncos' improved performance against the 2022 NFC West champions provided another sign that Denver is moving in the desired direction. Especially on offense, Wilson felt the performance against "a great defense, great team [and] great organization" like the 49ers was a positive indication of where Denver stands.
"I know what a great defense that is, and they've done a lot of great things over the years and played in some of the biggest games," Wilson said. "So to go out with our first-team offense and play well and battle and do the things we were able to do, it feels great. It's a good measure of where we can be and where we can go. There's a lot of more work to do, but I'm excited about who we are and where we're going."
And so while the ending of Saturday's game may have felt similar to a week ago in Arizona, the performance felt quite different.
"It's two weeks in a row we give up a drive, this week for a field goal instead of a touchdown," Payton said, "but again, there were a lot of things tonight different than a week ago that I was encouraged with and pleased with."