If you are an NFL social media manager, there is a delicate dance to be had when editing and posting highlight videos of a team practice. After all, how can you put the spotlight on a player who makes a tremendous catch or acrobatic pass breakup without also identifying the teammate who was on the wrong end of that snapshot?
Last week, the Broncos posted a 66-second highlight reel of a practice that was closed to onlookers and media members. The crown jewel of the video was an acrobatic catch down the sideline by wide receiver Courtland Sutton, who hauled in the perfectly thrown ball from Russell Wilson despite air-tight coverage from second-year cornerback Pat Surtain II.
“It was a great ball; I was in great coverage and it was just a great throw,” said Surtain, who offered a wide grin when asked if he was aware the highlight had been blasted out into the social media universe. “That’s one of the tendencies that (Wilson) has. You just have to have a next-play mentality.”
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) May 25, 2022
Surtain’s chance for revenge came Tuesday as the Broncos opened their second week of OTA practices, and he seized it in a hurry. During the first play of the opening team period, Surtain jumped a deep sideline route by Tim Patrick, intercepted the deep pass from Wilson and followed a convoy of euphoric defensive teammates into the end zone.
“That was a great reactionary play from him. We’re going to be hearing about that one,” said Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett, who doubles as the team’s offensive play-caller. “It was a hell of a job by him.”
Interceptions of Wilson passes don’t come often. The list of starting active quarterbacks who have a lower interception rate since 2017: Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady. That’s it. In fact, Wilson rarely even commits turnovers during practice. The interception by Surtain on Tuesday, Hackett said, was the first for the defense across four OTA practices.
Broncos players have raved this offseason about the ways in which Wilson’s presence has elevated the competitive spirit in the building. Safety Kareem Jackson said having to contend with Wilson’s mobility and the-play-is-never-over approach during practice “sucks,” but he conceded the benefit of facing that kind of talent in practice will pay major dividends for the defense come September.
“You can’t mimic that when you have to go play against guys like that on Sunday,” Jackson said of Wilson. “You know he’s going to keep the play alive. You know he’s going to make some off-schedule plays. He’s been doing it a lot out here, so for us the mindset of covering for a couple seconds is out the window. You have to stay latched onto your guy for a little longer.”
But Surtain’s big play Tuesday — the latest highlight in what teammates say has been an impressive offseason for the 2021 first-round pick — was a reminder that Wilson, too, has a worthy foil to combat during his first offseason with the Broncos. Surtain was an All-Rookie selection in 2021, finishing with four interceptions and a team-best 14 passes defensed. Early indications this offseason suggest that may have been a just-scratching-the-surface performance from the former All-American out of Alabama. Surtain has been noticeably more vocal during practices. He’s added bulk to an already impressive frame. And the preparation that coaches raved about during his rookie season has only intensified.
“He’s a great technician,” fellow defensive back K’Waun Williams, who signed with the Broncos in March, said of Surtain. “It’s been a joy just watching him work.”
When Wilson began his career in Seattle in 2012, he arguably faced the NFL’s best defense on a daily basis. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll designed practices around the idea that the defense and its myriad of playmakers should put constant stress on the quarterback. Wilson, who won the Super Bowl in his second NFL season — no need to mention the opponent or score here, right? — has said those intense practice battles early in his career only emboldened him when regular-season games arrived. What could be thrown his way on Sundays that he hadn’t already seen from the Legion of Boom all week?
It’s too early to tell whether Denver’s defense under first-year coordinator Ejiro Evero can reach that standard, but Hackett said he’s been thrilled with the way the experienced unit has pushed the offense in practice — a charge that has been led by Surtain on the outside and Dre’Mont Jones, who lived in the backfield once again Tuesday, along the defensive line.
“We’re not game-planning against each other (yet), but it’s a great defense out there,” Hackett said. “It’s just fun to see the guys get out there and challenge each other every day. The defense is coming along really well. Obviously, they’ve played together; they’ve done a nice job. It makes us better, makes me better, makes the whole offense better. It’s great to see that competitive nature out there.”
Surtain may have a bone to pick, though. Hours after the practice ended, the Broncos posted a photo of Surtain, arms spread out like wings as he moved through the end zone following the pick-six of Wilson. The video evidence, perhaps by design, was nowhere to be seen.
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) May 31, 2022
Here are other observations as the Broncos began their second week of OTA practices:
• It is difficult to make any substantial observations about the offensive line during this time of year. Contact on both run and pass plays is limited. Without any pads and with run plays blown dead early, it’s tough to tell who is truly winning their matchups. Still, that hasn’t kept center Lloyd Cushenberry III from making a strong impression on the new coaching staff during this early portion of the offseason.
“We do a lot of different testing (games) with the guys during meetings … and he wins every one of them when the whole group is in there,” Hackett said. “That’s a challenge to all of the offensive guys because we’re trying to find somebody who can beat him. He’s doing a great job. He’s got a great understanding of the system and is getting better every day.”
The game the Broncos play in meetings, Hackett said, is the app-based quiz platform Kahoot, a game the coach learned from his kids wherein a user can create customized, timed quizzes, similar, in Hackett’s telling, to bar trivia. The subject matter in Hackett’s game is the playbook and its various iterations, which have now been fully installed.
“The guys get competitive with it and Cush just dominates,” Hackett said.
As far as Cushenberry is concerned, it’s his job to be at the top of the class.
“A lot of people expect the center to know everything,” said Cushenberry, who creates flashcards to aid in his playbook study. “You don’t get a pat on the back for being smart as a center. You’re supposed to do that. So when I get home, the first thing I do is watch the film, study a little bit, take a little time off and then, before I go to sleep, it’s the same thing. It’s an every-night process.”
• Wide receiver Jerry Jeudy was an active participant at practice after sitting out last week’s open-to-media session due to back tightness. It was also the first practice for Jeudy since the Arapahoe County District Attorney’s office filed a motion to dismiss the misdemeanor criminal tampering charge against him, which stemmed from an judgment earlier this month following an argument with the mother of Jeudy’s infant daughter. The judge in the case agreed to dismiss all charges.
“We have been right there by his side through this whole thing,” Hackett said. “I’m glad that everything has been resolved and it’s time to move forward.”
Jeudy could still be subject to league discipline under the NFL’s personal conduct policy — a spokesman for the league told reporters it is closely monitoring all developments in the case — but such a punishment would seem unlikely given the quick resolution within the legal system.
• Players who were not present Tuesday or did not actively participate in individual or team drills included offensive tackles Garett Bolles and Billy Turner (leg), outside linebackers Randy Gregory (shoulder) and Jonathon Cooper (finger), defensive lineman DJ Jones and running back Melvin Gordon III.
Cooper, who had surgery on his finger last week, is expected to return in time for training camp, Hackett said.
As for players who are healthy but not participating, Hackett laid out his stance Tuesday: “From my standpoint, this is voluntary. We want the guys to want to come out here and work every day, but if people have family things, if people don’t want to come, then they don’t have to. That’s just part of it.”
• The Broncos have spent the bulk of OTAs to this point working primarily on kick and punt coverage drills when the special teams sessions take place. On Tuesday, new special teams coordinator Dwayne Stukes incorporated kick return work, and the primary returners during the half-speed drills were rookie wide receiver Montrell Washington and third-year wide receivers Kendall Hinton and Tyrie Cleveland.
(Photo of Pat Surtain II: David Zalubowski / Associated Press)