LONDON — Lined up one-on-one against Jacksonville cornerback Tre Herndon on the first play of Denver’s game-winning touchdown drive, wide receiver KJ Hamler knew the ball was coming his way.
His mindset: Simple.
“Just win. Just win at any cost. Fight to win,” Hamler said after the game. “That’s what we’ve been lacking is the finish. We had to find ways to finish this game and I’m glad we did.”
Indeed, Hamler won and a few minutes later, the Broncos won, too.
GO LONG, @Kj_hamler!
📺: ESPN+ pic.twitter.com/xZaqOTl4Ui
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) October 30, 2022
He ripped past Herndon on a go route up the right sideline and hauled in a 47-yard pass from quarterback Russell Wilson that immediately put Denver, trailing 17-14 with less than four minutes left, into position to at least tie the game with a field goal. The big chunk play also gave the Broncos the flexibility to be in no rush. Six plays later, Latavius Murray churned into the end zone with 1:43 to go to give the visitors the 21-17 lead that would stand as the final margin.
“They called a play that had my name on it, the line protected their butts off, Russ put it in a spot where only I could get it and I had to come up and make a big play when the time was called,” Hamler said. “The opportunities you get, you’ve got to take advantage of them.”
The 2020 second-round pick out of Penn State has done that this season but hasn’t had a whole lot of opportunities. Hamler spent the offseason recovering from knee and hip surgery. He spent much of training camp limited, played 40 snaps in Denver’s opener against Seattle and then only six over the next two weeks as he tried to get to the point where he felt fully healthy.
Now he’s moving toward that kind of form.
Wilson has five completions of 40-plus yards this season in seven games and Hamler is responsible for three of them — a 55-yarder against Las Vegas, a 47-yarder against the Chargers and the 47-yarder against the Jaguars.
“We had talked about that in between the series that we wanted to give KJ an opportunity for a go-ball on that side,” head coach Nathaniel Hackett said of the critical catch. “We got the look that we wanted and he executed it to perfection.”
Hamler has just seven grabs on the season and has been targeted only 14 times, but he’s averaging 23.6 yards per catch and has added 25 yards on a pair of rush attempts in the past two games.
The Broncos and Hamler hope those trends continue in a positive direction. Just a few weeks ago, Hamler slammed his helmet to the turf in frustration after he broke open on a potential game-winning slant route against the Colts in overtime only to see Wilson throw the ball into traffic toward Courtland Sutton. After Denver knocked off the Jags at Wembley Stadium, Hamler jumped onto Wilson’s back with glee as Wilson conducted a post-game interview.
“Personally, I’ve been a lot through this whole offseason,” said Hamler, who in addition to the arduous rehabilitation also lost his grandmother and has spoken about the toll those events took on his mental health. “I’ve been working too hard — I know everybody has, but I went through a whole different process than everybody — it was just frustration at the time. I shouldn’t have (slammed my helmet) on national TV.
“I’ve worked too hard to let this stuff slip away, so we just had to go out there and get a win.”
For Denver’s offense to continue to improve, it’s going to need its top two picks from the 2020 class — Hamler and first-round wide receiver Jerry Jeudy — plus rookie tight end Greg Dulcich to take pressure off Courtland Sutton.
Teams have put an emphasis on limiting Sutton. After a hot start to the season during which Sutton had at least 52 yards and averaged 83.4 yards per game over the Broncos’ first five games, he has just 50 yards over the past three games combined. On Sunday, Sutton had just one catch for 13 yards on four targets and had a drop on the game-winning drive.
“We all know Courtland’s a good football player, so everyone’s going to try to take him away,” Hackett said. “That’s going to open up opportunities for Jerry and KJ and Dulcich. The more people that you have that people are nervous about, the more it’ll open back up Courtland a little more.
“But if they’re going to try to do that, then other people need to step up and make a play.”