Denver Broncos: What We've Learned Through Week 2 of the Preseason
The Denver Broncos played two quality opponents in the first two weeks of the preseason. They opened up the preseason by facing the world champion Seattle Seahawks. Another NFC West team waited for them in Week 2 of the preseason, the San Francisco 49ers.
Denver beat Seattle in Week 1 of the preseason by a final score of 21-16. They had an even easier time with the 49ers on Sunday.
The Broncos beat the 49ers 34-0, which is the third-largest margin of victory in team history for a preseason game and the eighth preseason shutout in club annals. It was not the way the 49ers wanted to kick things off in their new home of Levi's Stadium.
Like the Seahawks, the 49ers have a strong defense with players who can fly to the ball. Denver’s first-team offense has had little trouble moving up and down the field over the last two weeks.
Both the 49ers and Seahawks also feature offenses with a ground-and-pound running game. Denver’s defense held the Seahawks to 94 yards rushing on 29 carries (3.2 YPC) and the 49ers to 47 yards rushing on 17 carries (2.8 YPC).
Denver is putting on quite a show this preseason, but what have we learned through two weeks? Let’s examine the clues we’ve gathered from the Broncos in August.
Peyton Manning's Arm Is Stronger
After missing the 2011 season due to a serious neck injury, Peyton Manning’s status was unknown entering his first season with the Broncos in 2012. Nobody could have guessed that the best was yet to come for the future Hall of Fame quarterback.
Manning has set career-best numbers with the Broncos. In 2013, he set new single-season records for the most passing touchdowns (55) and passing yards (5,477).
His neck is actually stronger than it was pre-surgery because it’s been fused. The main focus of his recovery has been the nerve regeneration in his right (throwing) arm. After his missed season, nobody knew how diminished his arm strength would be.
In 2012, Manning’s arm didn’t quite look the same, and last year it looked a little better. This year, his arm looks stronger than ever before. Manning continues to defy the odds, so it’s not outlandish to think he could be throwing more vertical routes with the Broncos than he has in the previous two years.
Against the 49ers on Sunday, Manning and the first-team offense scored on two of three drives. Manning finished the game completing 12 of 14 passes (85.7 percent) for 102 yards with one touchdown pass. He was was 8-of-8 on the Broncos’ second drive, which was capped by a 17-yard touchdown to tight end Julius Thomas.
Not every throw was a tight spiral, but there was one throw in particular which accentuates the improved arm strength Manning has displayed in training camp.
Early in the game, the Broncos were faced with a 3rd-and-8 situation. Manning fired a pass into Wes Welker that split two defenders (Eric Reid, Jimmie Ward) like a bullet. The actual distance traveled for the pass was around 18 yards, and it arrived in a hurry.
Manning is never going to throw it 70 yards on a rope. However, with a stronger arm we could see more downfield throws to keep defenses even more honest (and concerned) in 2014.
Brock Osweiler Developing Well
The Broncos have an intriguing developmental prospect in third-year quarterback Brock Osweiler. He stands tall in the pocket, has a rocket arm and can make every throw required in the NFL. Osweiler has been sitting behind Peyton Manning for the last two seasons, and he’s been focused on learning as much as possible while waiting for his opportunity to start.
Osweiler is an athlete who can keep plays alive with his feet while keeping his eyes downfield. This scrambling ability has helped him escape pressure regularly this preseason. He was sacked once in the game against the Seahawks, but the 49ers were unable to bring him down behind the line of scrimmage.
They did get close on one play. Osweiler was being taken to the ground by Tank Carradine on a 3rd-and-11, but Osweiler was able to quickly flip it to running back C.J. Anderson for a small gain. This type of heads-up play shows a comfort level we haven’t seen in Osweiler before this year.
"My confidence is at a level I could only dream about two years ago when I got here. I wouldn't be where I'm at today without Peyton [Manning]."
Over two weeks in the preseason, Osweiler has looked good. He has completed 16 of 25 passes for 190 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Osweiler has also scrambled six times for 17 yards.
Osweiler has looked good while working with second- and third-team players on offense. Broncos fans may not see him take significant snaps this year, but he’ll get a huge upgrade at talent around him if he’s working with the first-team offense.
Ronnie Hillman Is Hanging onto the Rock
Last year in Week 2 of the preseason, Ronnie Hillman was the starting back for the Broncos. He fumbled the job away during the preseason with three fumbles, two of which were returned for touchdowns. Hillman’s confidence was further shaken when he lost a fumble near the goal line in the Week 7 game against the Indianapolis Colts.
Hillman is getting a fresh start this year—and he’s responding positively.
Montee Ball is set to be the team’s unquestioned starter this year, but he’s currently recovering from an appendectomy he had earlier this month. While Ball has been out, Hillman has been the lead back for the Broncos in practice and the preseason.
Over the last two weeks, Hillman has rushed 10 times for 34 yards and one touchdown. He’s also contributed with two catches for 11 yards on three targets.
Most importantly—Hillman hasn’t coughed up the rock.
The lone touchdown he’s scored this preseason came from the 1-yard line. Hillman clutched the ball tightly as he banged it through the line for six. In fact, on most every touch Hillman will at some point wrap up the ball with two hands.
He’s clearly thinking about ball security, but Hillman is not overthinking his duty. He has a reputation as a fumbler, and both the Seahawks and the 49ers have tried to strip the ball away from him. Hillman has done a good job of holding onto the ball strongly and not giving up possession.
When Ball comes back, Hillman will likely be the change-of-pace back directly behind him on the depth chart. With the way he’s held onto the rock this preseason, the team might be willing to give him a larger role than some people think.
C.J. Anderson Is Showing Starter's Upside
Behind Ronnie Hillman on the depth chart is second-year running back C.J. Anderson. He was added by the Broncos as an undrafted free agent in 2013, but he quickly earned a spot on the final roster last year in the preseason—in a game against the 49ers.
Anderson runs with power, and he has a powerful lower body to grind down opponents between the tackles. He uses this punishing style to push for the most yardage possible on each carry. Anderson is always falling forward, and he’s difficult to bring down once he builds a head of steam.
In addition to power, Anderson has deceptive quickness when toting the rock. Anderson may have the fastest 10-yard split of any back on the roster currently. He gets up to top speed quickly, and this helps him burst through rushing lanes before they close up.
Anderson has worked hard this offseason to be a better receiver out of the backfield. That hard work is showing through in the preseason as Anderson has looked like a reliable receiver in space. The Broncos are even splitting him out wide on occasion.
He was concussed in the first preseason game against the Seahawks, and Anderson spent a week out of practice as the team followed the NFL’s protocol for dealing with such injuries. When Anderson returned to practice, he immediately was mixed in again with the first-team offense.
In the game against the 49ers, Anderson rushed nine times for 29 yards and one touchdown. He also caught two passes for 11 yards in the contest.
Montee Ball is the clear-cut starter in Denver. However, behind him Anderson is the back most like Ball. He may not be quite as fast as Ball, but Anderson runs with more power. Both are decent options to target as receivers if the play breaks down.
Anderson has told me on more than one occasion that he wants to be the smartest running back in the room. “That’s what Peyton would want,” Anderson told me during an exclusive interview last week.
If something happens to Ball, Anderson could step in and start for the Broncos. If he keeps performing like he’s done during the preseason, the team might not miss a beat with Anderson as the starter.
Jordan Norwood Is on Track to Make the Team
The Broncos have arguably the most talented group of wide receivers in the league. One player who is making a strong case to make the team as the sixth receiver on the depth chart is veteran Jordan Norwood.
An undrafted free agent out of Penn State in 2009, Norwood spent most of his pro career as a reserve receiver with the Cleveland Browns. He played 14 games in 2011, and because of that he doesn’t have any eligibility left for the practice squad.
Basically, Norwood has to make the final roster, or he can’t stay in Denver.
Norwood has always been a sharp route-runner. He knows how to get open against coverage on underneath routes where he can use his quickness to create separation. Norwood can also set up defenders to beat them deep, as he did in the first preseason game against Seattle when he hauled in a 34-yard touchdown pass from Brock Osweiler.
The veteran is currently listed as sixth on the depth chart behind Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Wes Welker, Bubba Caldwell and rookie Cody Latimer. While he’s a good receiver, Norwood’s best bet to make the final roster could be as a return man on special teams.
He’s looking better than undrafted rookie Isaiah Burse as both a receiver and a return man during training camp. In order to make the final roster, Norwood will have to catch most everything thrown his way, hang onto the football and show well as a returner. So far, so good for the veteran.
New-Look Offensive Line Looks Great
The Broncos shuffled the offensive line this offseason. Last year’s starting right tackle, Orlando Franklin, has moved inside to left guard to take over the spot vacated by free-agent departure Zane Beadles.
Franklin’s old spot has now been overtaken by swing tackle Chris Clark. In addition to those two moves, the Broncos get All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady back from the Lisfranc injury that cost him most of the 2013 season.
These movements (plus Clady’s return) have payed off in a big way for the Broncos.
Peyton Manning and the first-team offense have scored on three of four possessions this preseason. Manning has combined to complete 22 of 27 passes (81.5 percent) for 102 yards with one touchdown. During the first two weeks of the preseason, Manning has not been sacked, and there has only been one QB hit registered against him.
The offensive line is also looking good when run blocking.
Over the first two weeks of the preseason, the Broncos have rushed for 203 yards with a 3.55 YPC average. They also have three rushing touchdowns during that time.
They have additional beef up front, especially between the tackles. Right guard Louis Vasquez is one of the best in the game at his position. Center Manny Ramirez has gained experience in the middle and turns in solid performances most weeks. Franklin is a better fit inside at guard, primarily because he’s not facing pass-rushers on the edge anymore.
Clady’s return gives the Broncos peace of mind. He’s a fantastic blindside protector for Manning, and Clady is also a good run-blocker. Clark has an easier time on the right side after struggling in certain contests last year at left tackle while filling in for an injured Clady.
All in all, the Broncos have an upgraded line across the board. They’ll continue to protect Manning from pass-rushers, and their improved run blocking will help give the team the improved balance it wants on offense in 2014.
The Defensive Line Is Loaded with Talent
It wasn’t that long ago that the Broncos had poor defensive line talent and bad depth at the position. That was then, and this is now. The Broncos currently have zero talent or depth issues in the trenches on the defensive side of the ball. In fact, their defensive line is a strength.
They made a big move in free agency when they added future Hall of Fame defensive end DeMarcus Ware. He’s looked spry in training camp, and Ware should be a big part of the team’s pass rush in 2014.
On the other side of the defensive line, Derek Wolfe returns to his starting spot. Wolfe missed about half of the 2013 season as he dealt with seizure-like symptoms after a neck injury that he initially suffered in the preseason. He’s currently 295 pounds, and he looks like he’s ready to pick up where he left off last season.
The middle of the defensive line features both Terrance Knighton and Sylvester Williams. Knighton—aka “PotRoast”—has quickly become a fan favorite because of his size, playing style and sense of humor on the air. Williams, the team’s first-round pick in 2013, has improved his technique and is now even more disruptive than he was as a rookie.
Behind the four starters, the team has plenty of quality depth.
Defensive ends like Malik Jackson and Quanterus Smith could easily be starters on another team. Jackson has improved every year he’s been in the league, and he’s looking to best the seven sacks he compiled in 2013.
Smith missed last year as he recovered from a knee injury suffered at Western Kentucky in 2012.In only two preseason games, Smith looks like he could be the elite-level sackmaster the Broncos envisioned when they selected him in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL draft.
Defensive tackles like Mitch Unrein, Kevin Vickerson and Marvin Austin are competing to make the final roster. Unrein is a team-first veteran who can line up at defensive tackle or play fullback if need be.
Vickerson was a quality starter for the Broncos last year until a hip injury against the New England Patriots knocked him out in Week 11. Austin was added as a free agent earlier this year, and he’s an incredibly talented player who has yet to play up to his potential as a pro.
As you can see, the Broncos are stacked on the defensive line. This rotation of players will help keep the defense strong up front, and it will also help to keep the pass-rushers fresh.
Depth at Linebacker Is a Concern
Last year’s leading tackler, Danny Trevathan, is out for at least the first month of the regular season with a broken bone just below his knee. This means the Broncos have to turn to third-year pro Brandon Marshall to be the team’s starting weak-side linebacker.
Marshall is an aggressive player who has looked good for the Broncos in a limited role. He has a nose for the football, and he arrives at the ball-carrier with natural violence. Marshall is a forceful tackler, and he can regularly bring his man down with ease.
He’s unproven in coverage so far as a pro. Today’s linebackers have to be solid in coverage as they face pass-happy offenses most every week. We’ll see if Marshall is able to cover during the rest of the preseason and into the regular season.
Behind Marshall, the Broncos had rookie linebacker Lamin Barrow. In the preseason game against the 49ers, Barrow was knocked out of the contest with what was described as a knee injury. Barrow is fantastic in coverage, but the rookie fifth-round pick from LSU has to improve as a run defender. There’s no word as of now on the severity of his knee injury.
Against the 49ers, Marshall made his first start for the Broncos at weak-side linebacker and tied for the team lead with five solo tackles. This is a good sign for the Broncos, and they hope that he can continue to play well in the preseason.
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