DENVER — In a wild 11-10 win over San Francisco, the Broncos relied on an unlikely hero: field position.
Special teams is often the forgotten unit in football, typically only receiving acknowledgment when things go wrong. But in the Broncos' "Sunday Night Football" showdown against the 49ers, special teams played a major role in earning the victory.
Corliss Waitman, who won the punting job in the preseason, had a much larger responsibility in the game than he likely anticipated. In a contest that was not kind to either offense, Denver and San Francisco combined for 17 punts — 10 of them coming from Waitman.
With the bright, prime-time lights shining down upon him, Waitman rose to meet the challenge. The second-year punter totaled 476 yards on the night, averaging over 47 yards per punt. Six of them were downed inside the 20-yard line — including two inside the 5-yard line — which consistently gave the Broncos' defense great field position throughout the game.
"Punting is a very important phase, especially with field position and everything," Waitman said. "I try to just do my job and put my team in the best position."
One of the game-changing moments of the night was a safety in the third quarter, as defensive lineman Mike Purcell pressured quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to step out of the end zone as he prepared to release a pass. This was possible because of a key play on special teams; Waitman unleashed a 47-yard punt, and running back Mike Boone made an athletic play to down the ball at the 2-yard line, effectively pinning the 49ers against their own goal line.
In a one-point win, those two points were the difference in the game — and it all began with the Broncos' punting unit.
"[The safety] really started watching Corliss," Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett said. "Corliss punting that ball back there, pinning them back continually throughout the game, giving them such a long field."
Waitman received a game ball from Hackett after the game, honoring his exceptional contributions to the team's victory. Having never received one before, this award came with extra meaning.
"It's my first one, so I'm just very grateful for it," Waitman said. "Grateful for my teammates, my coaches, the whole organization."
While the Broncos' offense was not thrilled to consistently relinquish the ball to the punting unit, the success of special teams kept them in the game long enough to put together the eventual game-winning drive. Left guard Dalton Risner expressed his appreciation for Waitman and the entire special teams unit, who stepped up to keep the team's chances alive.
"One thing I think we did really well is, we played complimentary football when it mattered most," Risner said. "Obviously there [were] a lot of struggles in that game, but this game of football, there's going to be a lot of ups and downs. It's going to be a roller coaster, and even though we had to punt it 10 times — we don't like that as an offense — [Waitman] got the job done. He got his job done. [Special teams] got their job done as a unit when it mattered most. They put the 49ers in a lot of tough situations."
This kind of performance from the special teams unit has been a long time coming for the Broncos, who ranked 27th in longtime Pro Football Hall of Fame voter Rick Gosselin's special teams rankings in 2021. Under first-year Special Teams Coordinator Dwayne Stukes, this phase of the game has the potential to become one of the Broncos' strengths.
Safety P.J. Locke, who has been a core special teams player for Denver over the last three seasons, pointed to the group's success against the 49ers as the result of a new mentality in 2022. Recognizing the areas in which they needed to improve, the special teams unit made adjustments in the offseason that are already coming to fruition.
"Just coming from last year, how we were as a special teams [unit], we just came in with a mindset of improving and just nipping [issues in] the bud one by one," Locke said. "At the end of the day, I'm just so excited for our special teams players. We played a hell of a game tonight — I just want to build on it."
View exclusive photos of the Broncos' game vs. the 49ers by team photographers.