The Denver Broncos started off the preseason with a pretty solid performance against the Chicago Bears. The defense didn’t have to face Matt Forte or Jay Cutler, but they limited the familiar trio of Jason Campbell, Brandon Marshall and Michael Bush.
Peyton Manning threw seven passes in his first game action in over a year. Mentally, Manning proved he’s still the same guy he was 18 months ago, but physically he looked tight and wasn’t as accurate as you would expect him to be. His arm strength doesn’t appear to be 100 percent, but it was adequate to get the ball to his short and intermediate options.
As you might expect, the tight end was one of Manning’s favorite targets, but he also targeted Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas.
There is more to the team than Manning, just none more important. The defense was improved last season, but questions remain after injuries to Jason Hunter and Quinton Carter, and with the six-game suspension of linebacker D.J. Williams that could be extended to eight or 10 games based on his recent DWAI conviction.
The preseason is always interesting because the most interesting battles are between players on the same team that are fighting for roster spots. Once the 53-man roster is finalized and the regular season arrives, the game previews shift to scheme and individual battles. For now, there are still 90 players fighting for 53 spots, and there is still plenty to be determined in Denver.
Although Manning managed to answer a few questions last week, there are still several questions that must be answered. Almost every question about the offense revolves around Manning.
Can Manning take a big hit with no ill-effect on his play?
Manning didn’t take a hit last week. The offensive line did a good job of keeping the Cardinals from getting to Manning, but they will be without Chris Kuper for a few games and also will want to eliminate the holding penalties. The first hit could come against the Seahawks…or not.
Is Manning healthy enough to productively throw the ball deep?
Manning didn’t successfully complete a deep pass against the Cardinals. If his arm strength will not allow him to throw accurately to the deeper part of the field, it could limit Demaryius Thomas' offensive output in 2012. Manning’s arm might never be 100 percent if it isn’t already, so he needs to show he can air it out a little bit against the Seahawks.
Can the offensive line protect Manning consistently?
Manning protects himself by getting the ball out quickly and smartly, but his productivity has a lot to do with the protection from his offensive line. If the offensive line continues to protect Manning, the offense could be extremely productive. The Seahawks have a better pass rush than the Cardinals, so they will be tested a little bit in this preseason game.
Will the running game be good enough to keep the defense from putting all the pressure on Manning?
The running game in Denver is interesting. The team has big plans for Ronnie Hillman, but he’s been out for a while with a hamstring injury, and Willis McGahee is 30 and not a very good receiver out of the backfield. Lance Ball, Knowshon Moreno, Jeremiah Johnson and Xavier Omon are all competing for the last spot. Each player has different strengths and weaknesses.
Who will emerge as Manning’s favorite target?
Jacob Tamme has the most history with Manning, but he’ll need to develop a relationship with an outside receiver as well. All signs point to Eric Decker, but Demaryius Thomas could also sneak back into the conversation with good production against the Seahawks.
Derek Wolfe had a good game against the Cardinals, and that’s a welcome sign for the Broncos because Justin Hunter is probably out for the season with a torn triceps. Wolfe might have to compete with Robert Ayers for the starting spot, but it’s looking more and more like the rookie will be the starter. Wolfe needs to continue to produce against the Seahawks to separate himself from Ayers.
That’s not to say Ayers couldn’t become a starter if he performs significantly better than the rookie. Ayers and Wolfe will be in the rotation, but their specific role and snap total could depend on preseason performance.
The most interesting position group in Denver is probably the linebackers. D.J. Williams' suspension hurts this group more than the Broncos are willing to admit. Wesley Woodyard came in for Joe Mays last season on passing downs, but he will have to play in place of Williams for the better part of this season.
Woodyard was much better in pass coverage than Mays, and the Broncos will have to be smart schematically to keep Mays out of pass coverage.
The Broncos have a few young linebackers who the team needs to step up and demonstrate they are ready to be in the rotation, but they will have to prove it in the preseason before Jack Del Rio starts to trust them.