It’s always a mistake to try to glean too much from an NFL preseason game. It’s not uncommon to see teams play well in the preseason and flop in the regular season. You never know if individual preseason performances will carry over to the regular season or if that preseason all-star will even make the 53-man roster.
For a team like the Denver Broncos that everyone expects to contend for a Super Bowl in 2014, the preseason is more about staying healthy than anything. The Broncos could probably bench all their stars for the preseason and it wouldn’t affect them much when the regular season starts.
Except the Broncos didn’t bench all their stars, so we got our first glimpse at a team that is vastly different than the one that lost the Super Bowl four months ago. The peak at the starters and the play of the reserves only confirmed what we already suspected—the Broncos are ready to contend with the NFL’s best in 2014.
The Broncos have to face the NFC West and the AFC East in 2014, divisions that include at least three Super Bowl contenders and numerous ones that could make the playoffs. If the Broncos can stay healthy, they look like a team that will be tough for even the best teams in the league to beat.
Because the Broncos return quarterback Peyton Manning and most of a record-breaking offense, it’s easy to think that it’s the same team when in fact it’s a very different team. The Broncos shuffled the offensive line for the better, the group of wide receivers is deeper, and they have turned their running game over to talented youngsters.
The return of left tackle Ryan Clady from injury enabled the Broncos to move Chris Clark to right tackle and Orlando Franklin to left guard. Essentially, the Broncos upgraded three offensive line spots just because Clady has returned. It was clear Thursday night that the new-look offensive line would be able to protect Manning in the pocket even against a team with a talented front seven.
Manning was able to stand in a clean pocket and pick apart a good secondary, just as we’ve seen him do throughout his career. Manning finished the night 10 of 13 for 78 yards and had no trouble finding wide receiver Demaryius Thomas.
If the goal was to prove a point after last year’s Super Bowl loss against the Seahawks, the Broncos did just that. Manning was efficient and the running game proved to be a worthy compliment to the passing game. Running back Ronnie Hillman filled in admirably for the injured Montee Ball, even if the stats say he averaged just 2.5 yards per carry.
On defense, the Broncos played it safe by sitting pass-rusher Von Miller and cornerback Chris Harris Jr., but their offseason additions made their presence known. Pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware looked healthy and disruptive and was constantly pressuring Russell Wilson. Ware picked up a sack before his night was done.
Strong safety T.J. Ward was active, physical and had a sack on a blitz. Cornerback Aqib Talib made a big tackle in the run game and had no noticeable coverage lapses. The defense as a whole was much faster and more physical than any defensive unit the Broncos threw out there in 2013.
The Broncos also received solid play from their backups. Defensive tackle Marvin Austin, who has been getting rave reviews during training camp, continued to impress. Austin got consistent pressure and had a sack. Defensive end Quanterus Smith also looked quick off the edge and showed why he was a favorite of the draft community a year ago.
First-round draft pick Bradley Roby, who figures to play a key nickel or dime cornerback role for the team in 2014, had a forced fumble and a team-high four solo tackles. Cornerback is a tough transition to make from college to the NFL, but Roby’s ability to make plays may get him on the field if he can build off his performance.
When running back C.J. Anderson exited the game with a concussion, Juwan Thompson proved that the Broncos have plenty of depth at running back. Thompson had six carries for 59 carries before leaving the game with an injury, but he was cleared to return by team doctors.
Other than Anderson, who will be out until he can pass the league’s concussion tests, the Broncos made it through the game without a significant injury. Even though they weren’t operating at full strength without Miller and Harris, the Broncos can feel good about what kind of team they will be when everyone is healthy. The Broncos also have to be happy about the depth they added this offseason, as there wasn’t a noticeable dip in play once the starters took a seat.
It was just a preseason game, but the Broncos proved they have the top-flight talent and depth that is so crucial for a successful season against a tough schedule and a deep postseason run. The team that loses the Super Bowl often takes a step back the following year, but all signs point to the Broncos taking a step forward instead.