Denver Broncos: What to Watch for in Preseason Action
The Denver Broncos have their first preseason game of 2014 on Thursday night against the world champion Seattle Seahawks. It’s a rematch of Super Bowl XLVIII, and it’s also a preview of the Week 3 matchup in the regular season.
Even though it’s a preseason game, fans should expect both sides to come out fired up. There is no love lost between these two teams, and their rivalry stretches back to the days when Seattle was in the AFC West.
The Broncos want to prove they can hang with the world champions. They’ll want to show a little bit of “bully” mentality on Thursday night. Seattle has one of the most intimidating defenses in the game today, and the Broncos will want to show they can move the ball against them.
The Seahawks want to show that they are still the team to beat. They’ll try to beat up and intimidate the Broncos on every snap—even when the backups are in.
Here’s what fans should be watching for in the Broncos' first preseason game of 2014.
Is Manning's Arm Stronger?
Peyton Manning has been throwing with more velocity out at practice. The Broncos offense may have a more vertical element this season, and Manning’s stronger arm could be on display early and often in 2014.
Demaryius Thomas lamented dropping a pass during minicamp earlier this year. When asked about the drop, Thomas said it was because Manning’s arm was stronger and the pass came in hot.
Manning commented on Thomas saying his arm was stronger this year.
“I like having that feedback. I can learn a lot off of that.” Manning continued, “So anytime you get feedback, from both players, telling [DE] DeMarcus Ware, ‘Wow, you look quick off the ball’—anytime a player gives you feedback, I take that seriously and hopefully that means making some progress.”
Not only have his teammates noticed the improved arm strength, but reporters out at Dove Valley have taken note.
Farmer made a note of Manning’s improved physique and stronger arm: “One thing I noticed about Peyton is that he looks more sculpted this year than he has in years past. I was talking to his brother Cooper down at the Manning Passing Camp, and he said ‘there’s much more zip, more mustard on his [Peyton’s] passes.’”
Manning will only be in for a drive or two in the team’s first preseason game. It will be interesting to see if the Broncos attempt to go vertical against the Seahawks defense.
Who Stands out in the Backfield?
Earlier this week, Broncos starting running back Montee Ball had to undergo an appendectomy. We’re likely to see Ball out of action for the entire preseason. He should be able to return at full strength for the start of the regular season, but in the meantime the Broncos will give plenty of carries to guys like Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson.
Hillman was listed as the second-string running back on the first depth chart that was released on Monday. The third-year back is looking to bounce back after a disappointing season in 2013. Hillman is the fastest running back on the roster, and his speed has been jumping out at practice almost every day.
Anderson was behind Hillman, but he has a skill set that more closely resembles Ball’s. The second-year back has slimmed down to 215 pounds, but he still runs with his trademark power. The biggest runs of training camp (against the first-team defense) have come courtesy of Anderson.
Hillman needs to prove himself in pass protection. He’s not the biggest back, and protecting Peyton Manning has been a trouble spot for him in the past. Hillman also needs to hang onto the rock. He was the first-string back last year until three fumbles in the preseason cost him the top spot.
Anderson has the ability to be a starter in the NFL. He’s worked hard to be a better receiver out of the backfield, and he wants to be the smartest back on the Broncos roster. His work ethic, size and determination as a runner should be able to shine through with a larger role in the preseason.
Hillman may be listed as the second back, but his role (change-of-pace) is unlikely to change if Ball misses time in the regular season. Anderson is the back who could leapfrog Hillman from third to first if the Broncos need him to fill in for an ailing Ball.
We’ll have a better idea about this competition on Thursday night against a tough Seahawks defense.
Can the Offensive Line Offer Better Protection?
The Super Bowl was a disaster on many levels for the Broncos. The problems for the Broncos started up front on the offensive line.
Many things have changed up front for the Broncos since the Super Bowl.
Left tackle Ryan Clady is back in the lineup. He missed the Super Bowl because of the Lisfranc injury that knocked him out after the Week 2 game against the New York Giants last year. Clady is one of the best blindside protectors in the game today, and his presence will certainly help keep Peyton Manning safer than he was the last time these two teams played.
The Broncos let Zane Beadles move on in free agency to the Jacksonville Jaguars. The left guard spot is now manned by last year’s starting right tackle, Orlando Franklin. The veteran moved inside to guard earlier this offseason, and his size will greatly help the Broncos when they want to move the ball between the tackles on the ground.
Center is still manned by Manny Ramirez. He’s a tough mauler inside, but Ramirez struggles with more athletic defensive tackles. Ramirez will have to prove that he’s more capable at handling active opponents in the middle of the line.
Right guard is still occupied by one of the best in the pro game—Louis Vasquez. The veteran has the size and strength to be a dominant force as a run-blocker. Vasquez also has the athleticism to move well when asked to pass-block for Manning.
There’s a new right tackle this year with Orlando Franklin moving inside. Chris Clark is competing with Winston Justice to be the starting right tackle this year, and he’s ahead in the competition right now. Clark was listed as the starting right tackle on the first depth chart released this year. Clark did an admirable job filling in for Clady last year, and he should have an easier time on the right side.
The Broncos certainly have more beef up front on the offensive line. They’ll need to show well early on in this game against one of the league’s most aggressive defensive units.
The New-Look Pass Rush
The Broncos added future Hall of Fame defensive end DeMarcus Ware this offseason in free agency. He’s coming off a disappointing six-sack season last year with the Dallas Cowboys, and Ware is trying to prove that he still has plenty left in the tank.
So far in practice, Ware looks like the burst and explosiveness off the edge have never left. The elbow injury that slowed him down last season is getting better, although Ware admits he’s not quite 100 percent healthy yet.
Ware gives the Broncos a great combination with outside linebacker Von Miller. He’s coming off a knee (ACL) injury suffered in the Week 16 game last year against the Houston Texans. Miller is not going to play in Week 1 of the preseason, but the plan is to have him on the field to begin the regular season.
We won’t see Miller on Thursday night, and there’s a chance we don’t see much (if any) of Ware either. This means the team is going to have to feature some up-and-coming players on the roster.
A player who should get plenty of opportunity this preseason is second-year defensive end Quanterus Smith.
He missed all of his rookie season last year as the Broncos chose to shut him down for the year. Smith injured his knee at Western Kentucky in 2012, and he wasn’t quite ready to contribute at the end of training camp last year. He’s fully healthy now and could provide the team with a great part-time pass-rusher.
Malik Jackson could be a player who gets a larger showcase in the preseason opener against the Seahawks. He’s improved every year he’s been in the league, and Jackson has worked hard to get bigger/stronger this offseason. In addition to greater size, Jackson has been dutifully picking up pointers from Ware all summer.
Inside at defensive tackle, we could see Marvin Austin get some interior pressure. The 2011 second-round pick has bounced around to four different teams during his pro career. If healthy and motivated, Austin has the skill set to be a disruptive force from the defensive tackle spot.
Broncos fans are going to fall in love with T.J. Ward. The first move the Broncos made in free agency was to add the veteran enforcer to the secondary.
Ward is a hard-hitter and an intimidator in the middle of the field. His presence immediately gives the Broncos more toughness on the defensive side of the ball. The team wants to be tougher on that side of the ball, and Ward will ensure that’s the case in 2014.
He’s been flying all over the practice field in training camp at Dove Valley.
Ward is not only leading on the field with his play, but he’s using his vocal ability to motivate teammates. He’s yet to play a down (even in the preseason) for the Broncos, but Ward has immediately become a leader—if not THE leader—of this defense.
Players respond to his guidance and motivation on the field. Ward knows where everyone should be on every play, and he has no problem moving teammates around before the snap.
In addition to playing close to the line of scrimmage at strong safety, Ward can also be moved to inside linebacker in obvious passing situations.
His presence gives the team precious versatility at the second and third level of the defense. Seattle is likely to come out swinging even though it’s a preseason game.
Ward is the type of player who will swing back.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. Contract and salary-cap information provided by Spotrac.com. Transaction history provided by ProSportsTransactions.com.
Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey
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