BRONCOS

Five things that actually matter in the Broncos’ preseason trip to Buffalo

Aug 19, 2022, 12:03 PM | Updated: 12:04 pm
Josh Johnson...
(Photo by Andrew Mason / DenverFan.com)
(Photo by Andrew Mason / DenverFan.com)

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Another preseason week, another game with few — if any — of the Broncos’ starters.

While Nathaniel Hackett didn’t explicitly state Thursday that this would be another rest game for his first-teamers, he’s made his point on preseason abundantly clear in recent weeks. He doesn’t like it — by his own admission — and there’s a deep-seated loathing of the August warmup games. That sentiment even predates his three seasons with the Green Bay Packers, where Sean McVay acolyte Matt LaFleur treated preseason work for his starters like a contagious illness he wanted to avoid rather than a necessity in any way.

And can you blame LaFleur — or Hackett, too? Green Bay won more regular-season games in the last three years than anyone else. Sure, they had a first-ballot Hall of Famer in Aaron Rodgers flinging passes. But with Rodgers seeing preseason cameos in the Mike McCarthy years, the Pack’s production fizzled to the point where the team had back-to-back losing seasons in 2017-18.

Josh Johnson is expected to make his second consecutive start at quarterback, and his play is where a look at Saturday’s game begins:

1. CAN JOSH JOHNSON CEMENT THE NO. 2 ROLE?

If he can do reasonably well against a Bills defense expected to feature plenty of first-teamers, it seems like he will seize the job. Johnson’s experience certainly helps, but so did his resilience last week after the offense lurched from the gate against Dallas.

But that said, Johnson could concede any advantage he has if he has a mistake-strewn performance.

“The idea is who can we get the most consistent? We want to be sure that we’re not turning the ball over, we’re making smart decisions and moving the chains,” he said.

That said, Johnson and Brett Rypien will be in trouble if the Broncos can’t get more done up front.

2. CAN THE BLOCKING IMPROVE?

It’s not just the offensive line. Albert Okwuegbunam’s missed fourth-down block in the first quarter last Saturday ended a promising series. Further, it led to further questions as to whether the third-year tight end can improve enough in pass protection to be an every-down, every-situation tight end.

Offensive coordinator Justin Outten noted what he wants Okwuegbunam — and others — to improve.

“The pre-snap awareness and understanding defenses and their stances and just kind of seeing the structure of pre-snap. That goes not just for him, but for a bunch of guys. [It’s] just seeing what the defense could do to me to hurt me on this play. What’s my plan and how can I execute my block or my assignment? That was one that we’ve definitely harped on and worked in individual and also the team setting in walkthrough.

“We just have to get him used to it and kind of see the feet of the defense and get a plan.”

As for the run blocking, Dallas stacked the box last week. But Hackett wants to see better execution, because he knows an effective run game is one that can generate yardage when the defense expects it to be emphasized.

“In the end, the run game was not good enough,” Hackett said. “We have addressed that. We’ve talked about that, and we have to be able to adjust on the fly if things happen.”

3. POTENTIAL BACKUP CORNERBACKS WILL BE TESTED

Ronald Darby’s return to practice this week — and a strong day of work Thursday — was a reminder that the Broncos are in good 1-2-3 shape at cornerback and the slot. The questions come after that. Fourth-round pick Damarri Mathis’ strong camp has him pushing Michael Ojemudia for the top backup spot outside. And seventh-rounder Faion Hicks was up-and-down last week in the preseason, but had a pick-6 to close Thursday’s practice and has drawn praise from Hackett as he battles with third-year veteran Essang Bassey to be the backup slot.

“Both those guys have exceeded my expectations,” Hackett said of Mathis and Hicks. “Anytime you have rookies coming in, you always have second guesses as a coach on how much they’re going to be able to contribute to your team.

“I think both those guys, both on special teams and defense, have shown that it’s not too big for them and they can compete at the highest level.”

Saturday could offer the sternest test for both. They might get beat, no doubt. But Hackett wants to see their resolve.

And, in advice straight out of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” … don’t panic.

“You never want a guy — whether it’s a double move, whether he’s down the field — you never want to see him panic and shut it down or anything,” Hackett said. You want to see him finish through the play and trust their speed.

“… . So, I think their confidence levels are going up. They are starting to understand the system, too, and you see they definitely make flashes. There has been a couple of good plays across the board for both of those guys.”

Elsewhere on the defense, the newly-signed Joe Schobert needs to show that he’s in game-day shape after signing with the team Monday. Also, rookie defensive lineman Matt Henningsen hopes to build on solid game in which he generated plenty of pressure on Cowboys QBs, but didn’t quite finish.

4. SPOTS UP FOR GRABS AT WIDE RECEIVER

Barring injury, you can put Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler and returner Montrell Washington in Sharpie on the roster. That leaves two — maybe three — spots open to be claimed.

Kendall Hinton is the most proven of the bunch. Rookie Jalen Virgil could have the most vertical speed. Second-year receiver Seth Williams can body up and make a leaping catch with a defender plastered on him. Trey Quinn gets open underneath. Darrius Shepherd knows the scheme from his years in Green Bay.

And undrafted Brandon Johnson continues to impress. He punctuated his week with a two-minute drill reception from Russell Wilson late in Thursday’s practice.

Looming over the competition for spots at the back end of the depth chart is Tyrie Cleveland. The third-year wide receiver is recovering after absorbing a shot to the throat early in training camp.

Special-teams coordinator Dwayne Stukes reiterated Thursday that he wants Cleveland to be one of his “core” special-teamers. However …

“He is getting evaluated as a receiver, also,” Stukes said. “That’s going to play a part into it.”

And if the others show more Saturday and in practice, Cleveland could be squarely on the roster bubble.

5. THE PUNTER COMPETITION CONTINUES …

And it will continue through the preseason finale, Stukes indicated Thursday.

“We have two more games to evaluate those guys,” he said. “They know how important it is for both of them to get the ball to the numbers and outside of the numbers. They know how important it is [regarding] hang time.”

And what Sam Martin and Corliss Waitman need to do is why they are in Denver … instead of, say, Matt Araiza, who will punt for Buffalo.

A sixth-round pick of the Bills, Araiza — colloquially known as the “Punt God” blasted an 82-yard punt last week — 62 yards net, since it was a touchback. But in April, Stukes downplayed the notion of drafting the San Diego State product,

“Our system is a little bit different,” Stukes said in April. “In our system, we’re not just looking for a guy to bang the ball 50 yards, 60 yards deep. That’s not what we’re doing. When you punt the ball or kick the ball in the middle of the field, you give your opponent more ability to score, whether it’s a kickoff return or a punt return.”

Placement is what Stukes wants. And even though Martin had better net and gross averages against Dallas, their placement was relatively equal, which is why this competition remains very much in play.

AND ONE MORE THING …

When I asked Hackett on Monday what he took from the film review, one of the things he noted was mental errors.

“It was just one guy here and there that had a mental error. Usually, you get about one a game, potentially, at the most,” he explained. “That just added up, and I think that we just all have to be on and it more — coaching and players.”

And then, when he recapped the offense’s struggles Thursday, one of the issues he cited was “some mental errors.”

It’s only preseason. This is the time to remedy such hiccups. But there is little doubt that Hackett wants to see crisper mental work from his team in Orchard Park.

***

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Five things that actually matter in the Broncos’ preseason trip to Buffalo