Denver Broncos: What We've Learned Through Week 3 of the Preseason
It’s that time of year when camp cuts will happen. The Broncos are in a Super Bowl window, and they are trying to find the best 53-man roster they possibly can.
In addition to analyzing players, the Broncos are also getting star players back from various injuries. There’s a delicate balance that needs to be maintained when a player is recovering from an injury, and the Broncos want to properly prepare these guys for the regular season.
The NFL never rests, and this time of year is especially hectic—not only for the Broncos—but for every team in the league.
Here’s what we’ve learned about the Broncos after Week 3 of the preseason.
Don't Mess with Manning
Peyton Manning is at the top of his game. Last year he set single-season records for both passing yards (5,477) and passing touchdowns (55). The future Hall of Fame quarterback is one of the most dangerous quarterbacks to face in the league—and the Texans got torched by him late in the second quarter.
After Texans safety D.J. Swearinger was penalized for hitting a defenseless receiver (Wes Welker), Manning went after him. Welker was helped off the field, and later it was revealed he did have a concussion.
On the very next play, Manning threw a 29-yard strike to Emmanuel Sanders for a touchdown. After the play, Manning sprinted down the field so he could exchange some words with Swearinger. Looking at the replay, at least a couple of “F-bombs” were tossed out between the players.
Manning himself was then penalized 15 yards for taunting.
After the game, Manning said he couldn’t reveal what he said to Swearinger, but he did feel the taunting was in reaction to the hit on Welker.
“I guess so. I’m obviously concerned about Wes and never like seeing him come out of the game with a potential blow to the head. He had one of those last year that kept him out a while. Fifteen yards with five seconds left in the half—it can’t hurt you that much, right?”
Manning is one of the most accurate passers to ever play this game. He’s also one of the most passionate players in the NFL. Messing with Manning is never a good idea.
Montee Ball Is Ready
Earlier this offseason, Montee Ball had an appendectomy and the recovery knocked him out of the first two games of the preseason. He made his preseason debut against the Texans on Saturday night, and the Broncos didn’t waste any time. Ball finished the game with eight touches total, but he began the game with five straight touches—three as a receiver and two as a runner.
Ball ran four times for 13 yards, and he caught four passes for 21 yards against the Texans. After the game, head coach John Fox was succinct when talking about Ball. “We got him in and out quickly.”
On Saturday night, I had a chance to interview Ball on the No BS Broncos Post Game Show on ESPN Denver. Ball felt good about his performance that night. “I just wanted to show the guys that I am ready to play, and I was excited to get back out there.”
Ball is the lead back for the Broncos this year. He should see around 260 carries on the season, and he could catch around 40 passes. The team had no problem moving on from veteran Knowshon Moreno because it felt confident in Ball’s ability to be a workhorse in the NFL.
Any doubts about his availability for the start of the regular season have been squelched. Ball is ready.
There's Good Depth at Running Back
Behind Montee Ball, the Broncos feature young runners in Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson. While they may lack experience compared to other backs around the league, both have had good showings in the preseason.
Hillman is the team’s change-of-pace back. He’s arguably the fastest player on the team, and his speed can be used effectively to create explosive plays for the offense. Hillman is not a pile-pusher, but he’s dangerous in space where he can eat up yards quickly.
Fumbling problems got him into trouble last year in both the preseason and the regular season. This year, Hillman is starting with a clean slate. So far this preseason, Hillman hasn’t fumbled the rock even though he’s been getting a featured role.
Anderson is a power back who loves to make defenders miss. He uses a jump cut and his lateral agility to outmaneuver would-be tacklers near the line of scrimmage. Anderson has a fast 10-yard burst, and he can get to top speed in a hurry.
If there’s no hole available, Anderson has a powerful lower body and he can push the pile for an extra yard or two. This power helps him in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
The lead back for the Broncos is Ball. Hillman and Anderson give the team valuable depth at the position on the league’s most explosive offense.
Juwan Thompson Likely to Make the Team
The fourth spot on the depth chart at running back currently belongs to undrafted rookie Juwan Thompson. Each week in the preseason, Thompson has been featured late in the game. He’s responded by plowing over defenders and racking up big yards.
Over three preseason games, Thompson has 16 carries for 102 yards. The longest carry of the preseason for the Broncos has come courtesy of Thompson as well. In the first preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks, he broke free down the right sideline for a 20-yard gain he emphasized with a big hit on the defender at the end of the run.
Coming out of Duke, Thompson was known as an all-purpose runner. He can bang it between the tackles, but he has enough speed to make the corner if need be.
He’s a good receiver out of the backfield too. Thompson has soft hands and will regularly pluck the ball out of the air with his hands properly extended away from his body.
In addition to his ability as a runner and receiver, Thompson is arguably the best back on the roster when it comes to pass protection. In an offense that features Peyton Manning, the ability to pass block effectively will get you onto the field as a rookie. Thompson is strong enough to stunt oncoming defenders, and he has proper technique when squaring up to block.
Thompson is currently ahead of fellow undrafted rookie Kapri Bibbs on the depth chart. Based on his performances so far in the preseason, Thompson should be able to hold Bibbs off for the fourth (and likely final) spot.
Emmanuel Sanders Will Be a Big Part of the Passing Game
In addition to the return of Montee Ball, the Broncos offense also featured the return of wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. The veteran receiver had been slowed down by a nagging quadriceps injury during training camp, and had missed the second game of the preseason.
The Broncos wanted to get Sanders and Peyton Manning on the same page, and they did just that in the game against the Texans.
Sanders caught five passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday night. He first gashed the Texans on a 67-yard touchdown late in the second quarter. On the next drive, Sanders hauled in a 29-yard touchdown pass from Manning.
This lone game shows what Sanders could be for this offense. There’s a vertical element to the Broncos’ passing game that wasn’t there with Eric Decker. Manning has a stronger arm this year, and he’s not afraid to air it out deep.
The veteran quarterback was elated when discussing Sanders after the game.
“It was good to get Emmanuel out there. I had not completed a pass to Emmanuel in a game yet. The fact that he was able to practice on a Thursday and go in the game I thought was significant. I wanted to get some completions to him. I think you want to complete some passes to a first-year receiver in this offense going into the season opener.” Manning emphasized, “Obviously being able to complete some passes to him early and then get the two touchdowns to him, it certainly makes me feel a lot better going into the opener, as opposed to before.”
The chemistry between Sanders and Manning is so good, it would make Walt and Jessie jealous.
The Door Is Open for Isaiah Burse
Undrafted rookie wide receiver Isaiah Burse was the talk of rookie minicamp. However, since then he’s been outplayed by veteran Jordan Norwood at Broncos camp. With Norwood suffering a season-ending knee injury, the door of opportunity is open for Burse once again.
Burse is lightning fast with the football in his hands. He has the speed to be a threat to score any time he touches the ball. Burse is so fast he has the ability to outrun defenders who have a good angle on him in the open field.
In addition to his speed, Burse also has cat-like quickness. He’s incredibly agile and can make defenders miss in tight space. Burse has quick feet too, and this helps him change direction without losing much speed.
He needs to work on hands and concentration. Dropping passes and muffing punts have been a problem for him in training camp.
In the game against the Texans, Burse did a good job of securing every kick that came his way. He ended the game with four punt returns for 26 yards. Most importantly, Burse held on to the ball.
Burse could one day be a decent slot receiver in the NFL. He’s not making the Broncos final roster because of his ability as a receiver. However, the door of opportunity is open for him if he can impress as a return man for the rest of the preseason.
Marvin Austin Likely to Make the Team
A free-agent move that came and went with little fanfare was the addition of veteran defensive tackle Marvin Austin earlier this year. The former second-round pick of the New York Giants (2011) has bounced around the league, and his fourth stop—Denver—could be the last stop of his NFL career.
Austin has done well playing through this career near-death experience.
He’s showed up to Broncos training camp every day with a smile on his face. “I love this s---!” is what Austin told me after practice one day. He has a passion for the game of football, and he’s staying healthy and showing off that passion on the football field.
Austin could have a bounce-back season like Terrance Knighton did last year. Forgotten in the new celebrity that is “Pot Roast” is the fact Knighton was benched for C.J. Mosley in Jacksonville. Knighton came to Denver to reunite with former Jaguars head coach (and current Broncos defensive coordinator) Jack Del Rio, and he’s flourished in Denver.
Knighton told me earlier in training camp this year, “When you’re on a bad team, you sometimes forget how good you are.”
Now, Knighton is a star—and a key defender—for the Broncos defense. Austin could be that next guy.
Talent has never been a question mark with Austin. Coming out of North Carolina, Austin had top-15 talent but fell to the second round due to character concerns. He’s failed to stay healthy and motivated at stops with the Giants, Miami Dolphins and the Dallas Cowboys.
Austin has turned the corner and now is ready to write a new chapter with the Broncos. He’s been standing out this entire preseason. Austin started out with the third-string defense, but he’s quickly moved up and is getting rotated in with the first-string defense from time to time.
He’s got incredible upside, and Austin looks like a lock to make the final roster after initially drawing little attention as a free-agent signing in Denver.
Von Miller Is Back
The Broncos debuted linebacker Von Miller for the first time this season in the Week 3 preseason game against the Texans. He’s been recovering from the torn ACL he suffered last year in the team’s Week 16 game against the Texans, and Miller has been ahead in the process.
Miller is trying to make a comeback after a disappointing 2013 season. He began last year with a six-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Upon his return, Miller didn’t look like the same impact player who had dominated the league in 2012.
He gained 15 pounds of muscle in order to help himself as a run defender. The weight seemed to slow him down as a pass-rusher, and Miller’s game suffered because of it. He finished the year with a career-low five sacks.
This offseason, Miller has shed the weight in order to regain his quickness. During his limited snaps in practice during training camp, Miller started to look like his old self.
Miller was happy to be in the game against the Texans.
“Yeah, the game is totally different. You always want to [play] a little bit more, with your adrenaline going and everything. We already had these types of situations in practice, but the game is totally different. From the reps I got, I feel confident in everything I’m doing.”
Having Miller back—and pairing him with defensive end DeMarcus Ware—is going to be a huge boost for the Broncos defense. The Broncos picked up Miller’s fifth-year option, and they now have him under contract through the 2015 season. If Miller gets his career back on track, he could be in for a huge payday at the end of his current deal.
The Broncos are glad to help him back on track.
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.