Ten things we learned from the Broncos-Cowboys preseason opener
DENVER — An interminable start to Saturday’s preseason opener quickly gave way to a dominant performance by the Broncos’ understudies in a 17-7 win over the Dallas Cowboys.
Just three first-teamers played in front of the 64,541 onlookers on hand. Unfortunately for the Broncos, one of them, ILB Jonas Griffith, didn’t make it beyond the second play. He suffered what turned out to be a dislocated elbow — first reported by KMGH’s Troy Renck — and he walked straight to the locker room with team medical personnel.
Griffith’s injury overshadowed the game that followed, although there was still plenty to take from the win — besides Dallas’ prodigious accepted-penalty tally of 17.
1. WHAT TO DO AT INSIDE LINEBACKER?
Depending on the final severity of Griffith’s injury, the Broncos could have him back early in the regular season. Dislocated elbows are typically 4-to-6-week injuries. But in the meantime, reserves like Alex Singleton and Justin Strnad will have to step up. Singleton had four total tackles; Strnad logged seven.
That said, the Broncos could re-examine the position in the coming days.
The Broncos worked out seven-year veteran starter Joe Schobert two weeks ago. They also had reported interest in ex-Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr before he signed with Dallas. So, it’s clear the Broncos are looking for more at inside linebacker.
2. “HAVE NO FEAR, ‘BB’ IS HERE”
What Marvin “Bad News” Barnes announced to his befuddled Spirits of St. Louis teammates in the mid-1970s could be said for edge rusher Baron Browning. Saturday, the converted outside linebacker showed that his strong training camp was not a fluke.
Browning finished the night with a sack, a pass breakup and a tackle for a loss. Not bad for a guy playing his first full game on the edge as a pro.
“His acceleration off the ball, his ability to bend on the edge is really good to see,” Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett said. “He came out and played free. I thought it was awesome to see.”
He played long, too — and not just because of his length. Surprisingly, Browning played into the fourth quarter. But it didn’t irk him.
“I liked it, because I need as much reps as I can get,” Browning said. “I’m still new to outside. I don’t know everything. Every day, I’m still learning, I’ll take any opportunities I can get.”
But Browning saw space for improvement.
“I could have had better lower pad level at times,” Browning said. “Just being consistent. The small things, and not letting the moment distract me. And being perfect in the small things that I do well in practice.”
3. BACKUP QB BATTLE: JOSH JOHNSON WINS THE NIGHT
Johnson started the night with 6 incompletions in his first 9 attempts. From there, he completed 13 of his next 14 attempts. A deep, 40-yard pass down the left sideline to Brandon Johnson — no relation — unclogged Johnson and the passing game.
Josh Johnson completed the pass despite getting drilled by Dallas DT Trysten Hill. Two plays later, he found Seth Williams in the left side of the end zone on a fade route for a 1-yard touchdown, and Denver had a lead that it would never relinquish.
“I thought he was really patient with his footwork,” Hackett said. “He was able to get the ball out on time, and the wide receivers were able to get just enough separation to get some catches,” Hackett said.
Rypien entered at the start of the third quarter. He, too, found success deep, hitting Jalen Virgil for a 42-yard strike down the left sideline. He later connected with Virgil again on a 30-yard pass.
“Ryp, on that go ball, that was awesome to [Virgil] down on that left side,” Hackett said. “He kept battling back.”
But Rypien struggled in a third-quarter goal-to-go situation. Dallas nearly intercepted each of his third- and fourth-and-goal passes. On the fourth-and-goal attempt, Kyron Brown lunged at the pass. Had he completed the interception, a 98-yard touchdown return was his to lose; he had nothing but grass and a tunnel in front of him.
Johnson finished the night with a 120.2 passer rating; Rypien logged a 65.3 figure.
4. TOUGH DECISIONS COMING ON THE BACK END AT WIDEOUT
It’s just preseason, but the clamor for veteran help at wide receiver could be ebbing as Brandon Johnson, Kendall Hinton, Seth Williams, Montrell Washington and Jalen Virgil all built on their solid training camps by making plays Saturday night.
“All those guys, I thought, did a fine job,” Hackett said.
Rookie Brandon Johnson didn’t catch a touchdown pass, but he did lead the Broncos in the first half with 64 receiving yards. Kendall Hinton ran a perfect go route and got under a Josh Johnson pass for a 24-yard touchdown; he averaged 17.7 yards per catch. Williams beat a Dallas defender for a second-quarter touchdown on a fade route.
Meanwhile, Virgil had a dynamic second half with the two deep receptions from Rypien.
For the moment, the Broncos seem to have options for replacing Tim Patrick — and getting by without KJ Hamler if his rehabilitation hits a snag.
“When something like [Patrick’s torn ACL] happens, it creates opportunity, and you love watching guys step up for that opportunity,” Hackett said.
5. RUN GAME: “NOT GOOD ENOUGH”
Whether it was Montrell Washington getting crushed on a jet sweep or Dallas defenders engulfing Broncos runners in the backfield, Denver got nothing going on the ground. Washington and four Broncos running backs combined for just 38 yards on 19 carries — a meager 2.0 yards per attempt. Denver finished without a single rushing first down. The team’s longest run was a paltry 6 yards.
Among the first-team offensive line, only Calvin Anderson played. But Dallas’ defense was comprised of backups, too.
“That run game was not good enough. It’s that simple,” Hackett said. “I’m not happy with that, and we need to evaluate that, both what we’re doing, how we’re blocking it, who’s blocking it, and I think that’s something that we’re not going to be able to consistently win without getting that run game going.”
And the Broncos’ protection scheme also struggled in pass protection. One drive ended when Albert Okwuegbunam missed Dante Fowler Jr. on fourth-and-2. Fowler quickly clobbered Josh Johnson, forcing an incompletion.
Eventually, the Broncos protected their quarterbacks better. But creases never formed for the running backs.
6. SOME UNDER-THE-RADAR DEFENSIVE STANDOUTS
Browning got the glory, but others jumped out:
- Matt Henningsen had a hit of Dallas QB Cooper Rush that led to a P.J. Locke interception. Henningsen also had pressure that set up a Jonathan Kongbo sack in the game’s final moments.
- Marquiss Spencer and McTelvin Agim each broke up passes at the line of scrimmage.
- Barrington Wade got his hand on a Bryan Anger punt on special teams. He also had a tackle for a loss.
7. GOOD END-OF-HALF GAME MANAGEMENT — HOW ‘BOUT THAT?
With second-and-10 at the Denver 41-yard line, Browning sacked Cooper Rush.
Referee Alex Kemp blew his whistle and stopped the clock.
At this point, 74 seconds remained in the first half. Dallas still had third-and-22 … but Hackett was willing to bet that his Broncos could get them off the field, leaving a chance for his offense to score in the two-minute drill before halftime.
It was the two-for-one scenario that Hackett loves: two consecutive drives bracketing halftime.
“Any time you can steal a possession is what you’re always trying to do,” Hackett said. “At the end of the half — especially if we have the opportunity to receive the kick in the second half — you want to try to do everything you can to be able to end that first half with one [more possession].”
Denver took over at the 10-yard line after Kaden Davis called for a fair catch of Bryan Anger’s punt. But Hackett didn’t flinch. He came out passing on first down. He passed on second-and-8 after an illegal-shift penalty had the Broncos back at their 12-yard line.
It took good execution and a 23-yard strike to Kendall Hinton to get the Broncos into field-goal range.
But it started with Hackett calling timeout when he should — and having faith to attack from deep in his own territory.
8. MONTRELL WASHINGTON: ELECTRIC … BUT HE TOOK SOME PUNISHMENT
Here’s the good: Washington’s 18- and 27-yard punt returns. He neither dillied nor dallied. His decisiveness set up those solid runbacks, which turned punts caught at the Denver 14- and 10-yard lines into possessions that began at the Denver 32 and 37, respectively.
“That’s one of the reasons why we drafted him. He’s done some great things as a wide receiver, but to see him go back there, catch those things and get some positive yards [was good],” Hackett said.
But one can’t help but wince every time the 170-pounder gets hit, whether it’s after a stray pass or on a jet sweep. He lost 4 yards when Tarell Basham poured through the line and drilled Washington to the ground on a second-quarter rushing attempt.
9. PUNTER COMPETITION: NOT MUCH SEPARATION, IN THE END
Both Sam Martin and Corliss Waitman had a pair of punts. For each, one was on point, and one was less than ideal.
Martin’s first punt sailed 52 yards, ending in a fair catch. But his second punt, a low line-drive attempt, ended in a 10-yard return after it hung in the air for just 3.63 seconds. Martin also punted in full-field situations, which Waitman did not.
- Net average: 45.5 yards
- Gross average: 51.5 yards
- Average hang time: 4.12 seconds
- Inside the 20: 1
- Touchbacks: 0
Both of Waitman’s punts were within five yards of midfield. His first punt — from the Denver 45 — covered just 34 yards and was fair-caught at the Dallas 21. But Waitman dropped his second punt at the Dallas 10-yard line; the line of scrimmage was the Denver 49. That 41-yard punt was exactly what the coaches wanted to see.
- Net average: 37.5 yards
- Gross average: 37.5 yards
- Average hang time: 4.30 seconds
- Inside the 20: 1
- Touchbacks: 0
10. FOURTH-DOWN BLUES
As we all know, Hackett is aggressive. So, he reasserted that Saturday, going for it on fourth down three times — all in McManus field-goal range. Denver went 0-for-3, including the fourth-and-2 that saw Okwuegbunam’s missed block on Fowler.
“We wanted to evaluate the offense,” Hackett said. “… We know Brandon can kick field goals, so, we don’t necessarily need to see that.”
That said, when it counts, it might look different.
“We are going to be aggressive, but at the same time, we’re going to be smart — but we want to be aggressive,” Hackett said.