The Denver Broncos have a special guest at Dove Valley this week. For the first time since 2009, the Broncos are holding joint practices with another NFL team. In 2008, it was the Dallas Cowboys who came to the Mile High City. This time, the Houston Texans are trying out the mountain air at Broncos headquarters.
These joint practices are becoming more popular around the NFL, and it's something we may see more frequently in future years. There are valuable lessons that can be learned when practicing against a different team.
The Texans have an elite defense, and their 3-4 scheme is something the Broncos don't see every day. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel knows how to craft an effective system that can put pressure on an opponent's offense. The Broncos offense will be better prepared for similar schemes because of this week of practice.
Houston doesn't have an elite offense, and it features arguably the worst collection of quarterbacks in the NFL. This means the Broncos defense isn't going to get much of a test. However, it's still valuable to go up against different players and a "ground and pound" offense.
Here’s a recap of what we've learned from practice, quotes from some players and coaches, plus a prediction of what we could see in the game on Saturday.
One of the stars of training camp has been rookie wide receiver Cody Latimer. He has been making big plays down the field and in the red zone during the month of August. In the second preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers, Latimer hauled in a 33-yard touchdown catch from backup quarterback Brock Osweiler.
After the 49ers game, Osweiler had to praise the budding star.
"Cody's been having a great fall camp for us," Osweiler said. "I just saw a one-on-one matchup there, and there was just a single high safety in the middle of the field, so I did my best to hold him for as long as I could so he couldn't go over there and help make the play, and then Cody just did a tremendous job of running by the corner and making a great catch in the end zone."
During Wednesday's practice against the Texans, Latimer made another deep catch down the right sideline for a touchdown. It ended up being another 50-yard touchdown catch for the rookie. Even if Latimer only plays a reserve role for the Broncos this year, he could catch five to seven touchdowns as a red-zone threat.
The injury bug hit linebacker Danny Trevathan last week. He'll miss at least the first month of the season recovering from a broken bone in his leg. In the meantime, Brandon Marshall should start for the Broncos at weak-side linebacker.
Marshall is an aggressive player, and there is no question he can be a tough run defender because of his hard-hitting style. However, coverage is a big question mark for the young linebacker. At Wednesday's practice, Marshall gave up a touchdown grab to Texans rookie tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz. He'll need to clean up his coverage skills quickly or else opposing quarterbacks will start to pick on him.
The Broncos had the injury bug bite again this week at practice. This time, veteran wide receiver Jordan Norwood was injured going up for a pass in the end zone. As The Denver Post's Mike Klis reports, it's a season-ending ACL injury for a guy who was working hard to make the team as the sixth wide receiver on the depth chart.
Jordan Norwood has torn ACL. Ends what would have been one of NFL's best comeback stories of preseason. http://t.co/MNehzs5H1u— Mike Klis (@MikeKlis) August 20, 2014
This injury opens the door of opportunity for undrafted rookie wide receiver Isaiah Burse. He has dropped many passes and even muffed some returns for the Broncos in training camp. Burse will have a larger opportunity, but he's not a lock to make the final roster.
One of the best matchups to watch during this week of practice has been left tackle Ryan Clady versus 2014 No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney. In one-on-one drills, Clowney did not get the best of Clady. It was a great battle to witness, and afterwards, the rookie showed a sign of respect to the veteran All-Pro.
The Broncos head coach has not been bothered by the increased physicality at practice. "No [fights don't bother him], it was just a little one [fight], which is typical."
The quality of practice from certain players this week could impact how much playing time they get in Week 3 of the preseason, according to Fox. "Yeah it does because it's a little bit up speed of a normal camp when you go against an opponent. We will meet and talk about that the closer it gets to game time."
The offense is getting a great test against the Texans defense this week. A big part of that test is for the offensive line as it goes up against the likes of Clowney and defensive end J.J. Watt.
"I like it for them because it's a different animal for us," the offensive coordinator said. "J.J., Clowney. I mean, the rest of that crew is tough. They are well coached. We've played against Romeo [Crennel] obviously when we were in Kansas City, and I saw him when was at the Cleveland Browns and New England Patriots. Then you go against a defensive line coach like [Bill] Kollar, you know they are bringing it snap in and snap out. It's a great test for our guys to see where we are at and where we can adjust and improve."
Manning was not happy after Tuesday's practice, and Gase gave us insight as to what things are like when Manning is not pleased with the team's performance.
"There were a couple of us that weren't very happy as practice was going on. He's the first one to talk to you guys, so he obviously wasn't real happy about it. When we got inside, we just went back, looked at what happened, retooled, got our guys together [and] had to regroup and make sure we understood what we needed to do next time we went out there. I thought we did a better job today. We still have some errors, but we're headed in the right direction."
Jack Del Rio
The defense has a new mentality in 2014. The team is more aggressive on the defensive side of the ball, mainly due to new additions like strong safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib.
"Well, they are great players, they've already proven that they're great players," said the defensive coordinator. "They've played at a high level in this league, so we just want them to prepare and to be great for us this year. Be great teammates, be great leaders, and then give us that performance on Sundays."
Del Rio concluded, "But they are approaching it the right way because they are working extremely hard right now, and that's really all you can do at this point."
Del Rio believes these joint practices are beneficial. "I think younger guys get the experience. Veteran guys have played in the league against different teams for a number of years, so they have a history of what to expect from different people and how it plays out. So for the younger guys—they've only gone against one NFL team and then two preseason games—to get the additional reps and exposure against different people that you don't know and schemes that you don't know. It's definitely good for them."
The veteran quarterback did not like what he saw from the offense in Tuesday's practice.
"Well, I think it is great to get somebody different. You get to go against different players, different schemes. I thought our offense stunk today. I thought the [Houston] defense totally kicked our butt. I couldn't see what was going on on the other side of the field, so we'll learn from the film, there will be some good things to see."
Manning continued, "Hopefully, we will come out and do a better job tomorrow for our players to uphold doing our jobs of executing. But I think there will be some benefit for them, they are a 3-4 defense, they got some great defensive players and play a lot of different coverages [with] one of the best coaches out there. Overall, it will be a good week for us. We've got to do better than we did today on offense."
The veteran quarterback pulled no punches, and he demands excellence in practice. He's open to any amount of playing time over the final two weeks of the preseason.
"I am up for whatever. The coaches make those decisions, and they have good reasons for it. I think I played a little bit more in the first two games then maybe they expected just because of the repetitions and the way the plays and games flowed. However long they want to put me in there, I will stay in there."
Less than three weeks removed from an appendectomy, running back Montee Ball is back to practicing in pads for the Broncos. While Manning was critical of the offense on Tuesday, Ball felt like the team did better on Wednesday.
"Yeah, a lot better. We brought that attitude that I don't think we had yesterday. It's good that we noticed it and brought it today because I think that's going to make us better."
Ball did admit to some frustration since he's not yet able to practice fully.
"It's frustrating just because it's a job that I love doing. It sucks—sitting on the sideline watching everybody else play and you're not contributing like you want to. We have a great training staff, and they're doing a great job of bringing me along."
The Broncos are looking for veteran defensive end DeMarcus Ware to provide them with an outstanding threat opposite Von Miller in 2014. From what we've seen in training camp and these joint practices, the results could be outstanding for the Broncos this year.
In addition to being a great pass-rusher, Ware can also work as a mentor for Miller. This is something Miller and the Broncos have been missing since they lost Elvis Dumervil to the Baltimore Ravens in "FaxGate."
Ware had positive things to say about Miller's attitude earlier this week.
"When you see a guy that uses the offseason to get himself right, that shows that he can be very serious about the game when nothing matters. Now that you have minicamp, OTAs and training camp, he's out here going over and beyond. That shows his commitment to the team. Having that, and knowing that after each play we're talking to each other and him being focused on small, intricate things, I think that really shows he's really focused this season. This is what it takes—being tough out here, right now when it really doesn't matter, you've really got to get your toolbox ready for the season."
He's currently recovering from the ACL injury he suffered against the Texans last year in Week 16, but Miller is getting closer to full strength at an accelerated pace. He expressed positive thoughts about his health more than once, and Miller had to reiterate the outlook earlier this week.
"I am feeling great. I have probably said it 35 times, but I am in a great spot physically, mentally, and something just feels different about this year. I have a lot of great teammates around me, and I look forward to playing with them again."
Like Miller, cornerback Chris Harris Jr. is also coming back from a knee injury. He suffered a partially torn ACL last season in the playoff win over the San Diego Chargers, and Harris is a few weeks behind Miller in the recovery process.
Harris is out there on the practice field during certain team drills as he gets closer to returning. He was not on the practice field when the final fight broke out in Wednesday's practice. After practice, I asked Harris if it was all "family" after the fight between the two teams.
"No, it ain't all family. It's us against them every day. It's a battle every day."
Harris responded emphatically, “They're not on our team. They're just coming over to practice with us."
We could see the Broncos play the starters two full quarters on Saturday. Manning is the ultimate competitor, so it may be difficult for him to shut it down against the Texans. So long as he's happy with his performance in practice, Manning should understand what is the best move for the team.
The running back position will see first-team reps split between Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson. Against a tough defense like the Texans, Hillman needs to hold onto the rock tightly. Anderson's power could come in handy on short-yardage and goal-line situations on Saturday.
We're unlikely to see Emmanuel Sanders for the rest of the preseason. This means more playing time for Andre "Bubba" Caldwell. He's got the speed to stretch the field, and Caldwell is versatile enough to play any wide receiver spot.
Demaryius Thomas should continue as the favorite target for Manning. Julius Thomas should be able to get open against this aggressive defense, and the team will be monitoring his progress as a blocker closely as well.
The offensive line will get a big test against the Texans. Manning has not been sacked this preseason, and he's only been hit once. It will be a challenge to keep his jersey clean for at least a half against one of the league's most dangerous pass-rushing duos.
The Broncos defense will have an easier time against the Texans offense.
The defense will have to hold up against big backs like Arian Foster or rookie Alfred Blue. The Texans will feature a "ground and pound" game plan, but there will be some play-action passing to mix things up. With quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick as the starter, the Broncos defense could have more than one turnover opportunity.
Week 3 is the dress rehearsal for the regular season. The Broncos should look pretty good as they play their starters more than any other week.
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.