DENVER — Sean Payton's blueprints for a rebuild by the Denver Broncos and a rebound by Russell Wilson this year began with a $139 million offensive line commitment in free agency to land guard Ben Powers and right tackle Mike McGlinchey.
The return of left tackle Garett Bolles from a broken leg that sidelined him most of last season and the continued growth of center Lloyd Cushenberry III and guard Quinn Meinerz are also crucial for Denver to snap out of its persistent spiral.
Those upgrades face a stiff test Sunday when the Broncos (0-1) host the Washington Commanders (1-0), whose stout defensive line features arguably the top tackle tandem in the NFL in Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, along with edge rushers Montez Sweat and possibly Chase Young (neck).
“I want us to be the most dominant group on the field — like every game,” Payne said during training camp. “We've got the capability to do that. ... We've got all the pieces we need to just take over games, dominate and just lead the team.”
That's precisely what they did in Washington's win over Arizona in Week 1 when the trio minus Young combined for 2½ sacks, a half-dozen tackles for loss, four quarterback hits, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
“That’s a great defensive line,” Wilson said. “They’re real forces, great competitors. I’ve got a lot of respect for them. They move really well, they’re physical, they can stop the run game. They’re really good trying to get to the quarterback, as well.”
Wilson was equally effusive in his praise for his O-line.
“We’ve got a really talented offensive line. We’ve got some really big guards in there and ‘Cush’ in there, as well,” Wilson said. “So, it should be a great matchup. It will be a great challenge and a great opportunity.”
The Broncos protected Wilson better in their opener, but didn't do much with a paltry six total possessions. Jumpstarting the offense against Washington will be a major challenge if they can't get Wilson or their ground game going.
“They create a lot of minus plays,” Payton said of Washington’s defensive front. “Just looking at the cutups — you’ll see second-and-12s. I’m not even talking about rushing the passer. Just within the framework of the run game, they’re really active, and they’re athletic.
“All of those guys have had great college careers. A lot of them are first-round draft picks that are playing well. The defense kind of feeds off that. They're a handful."
The debut of the Payton-Wilson pairing drew mixed reviews.
Wilson doesn't hold the ball as long in Payton's ground-based offense that calls for quick releases. Wilson completed 27 of 34 passes — but for just 177 yards against the Raiders. The Broncos' new backfield duo of Javonte Williams (team-high 52 yards rushing) and Samaje Perine (tesm-best 37 yards receiving) was efficient but not explosive.
Washington QB Sam Howell will be making his first road start in the NFL, fresh off a game in which he was sacked six times, threw an interception and lost a fumble. His half-dozen sacks were a combination of the remade O-line and the second-year pro holding onto the ball too long.
“I mean I’m always going to err on it was my fault just because I think I could’ve done a better job,” Howell said.
The biggest reason the Commanders avoided what would have been an embarrassing loss to the Cardinals is the play of their defense, which forced two turnovers down the stretch, most notably Sweat strip-sacking Joshua Dobbs to set up the go-ahead TD.
While the offense needs time to coalesce under new coordinator Eric Bieniemy, the core of Washington’s defense has been together for several years under Rivera and coordinator Jack Del Rio.
“If I just looked at the goal-line front, I’d say, ‘Ah, Jack Del Rio’s on the staff.’" Payton said.
Bieniemy doesn't have Patrick Mahomes or Travis Kelce anymore, but Broncos star cornerback Patrick Surtain II said he felt as though he was watching the Chiefs when prepping for Sunday's game.
“On film, I see a lot of things they used with the Chiefs last year," Surtain said. "Their play calling and versatility is similar to Kansas City's. So, you know, it's a new quarterback and a new scheme, but a lot of stuff fits in the same category.”