Ten things we learned from the Bills’ preseason beatdown of the Broncos
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — It looked exactly like what you’d expect when a Super Bowl favorite’s starters worked against the backups of a club with five consecutive losing seasons.
Bills 42, Broncos 15. And one can argue that the game wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.
Denver allowed touchdowns on Buffalo’s first six drives, and the 42 points amassed by the Bills matched a 2018 preseason game against the Vikings for the most surrendered by the Broncos in the preseason since 1975.
Now, it appears likely everything will be different for the Denver Broncos when it matters. Maybe not to the point where they’re pushing for the Bills for a No. 1 AFC seed that appears to be Buffalo’s for the taking … but enough to where this might not be the Broncos’ last trip to Buffalo this season.
But what can we take from this game?
1. IT’S NOT TIME TO WORRY ABOUT DEPTH … YET
And here’s the reason: This wasn’t about playing without one or two starters at a position group. That happens in the season. But when it counts, coaches tweak tactics and teammates adapt to pick up the slack to account for what the lineup lacks.
Denver used just four players currently listed on its first team: Calvin Anderson, Quinn Meinerz, Albert Okwuegbunam and DeShawn Williams. And Anderson could find himself back on the second team once Billy Turner is up to speed at right tackle.
Barring a historic injury outbreak, the only realistic chance of seeing a lineup like this again this season is if the Broncos have clinched a top seed in the playoffs before Week 18.
Would the Broncos have liked to have seen more players flash early on Saturday? Yes. But in the regular season, a reserve cornerback will likely have Justin Simmons upon home he can lean. A third-team left guard would have a recent All-Pro, Garett Bolles, on his left flank. And on and on.
2. DIFFERENT COMBINATIONS ON THE O-LINE
Quinn Meinerz started at right guard after not playing last week. But his day lasted just one series, as the Broncos began shuffling their offensive line.
Right tackle Calvin Anderson started and played three series before yielding to Cameron Fleming. Graham Glasgow started at center, then moved to right guard on the third series. Luke Wattenberg played all three interior O-line spots, trying to make his case to be a swing backup.
As for Meinerz, Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett not only felt that Meinerz needed the work … but that the second-year player also wanted it.
“Every guy’s a little bit different. Some guys, they need that. They want that. Quinn hasn’t played a lot of football, and we talked about it,” Hackett said. “He really wanted to get a couple of snaps and he was really, really happy with that first drive. Then we took him out.”
It probably wasn’t a coincidence that the Broncos ran the ball reasonably well on the first series. Mike Boone averaged 4.3 yards per carry — 13 yards on 3 attempts — on the opening drive, and did so despite stumbling in the backfield on one play.
He lost two yards on his final two carries, both of which came after Meinerz left.
Which means …
3. THE RUN GAME IS STILL A PROBLEM
Lines and ground games composed of mostly reserves have been ineffective to this point in the preseason. Denver running backs — and fullback/tight end Andrew Beck — have a meager 2.1-yards-per-carry average through two preseason games.
Denver didn’t muster a rushing first down after its first possession, when it had three. This comes atop having no rushing first downs at all last week against Dallas.
“Alignment assignment is always the most important thing,” Hackett said. “We want to make sure that they know what they’re doing. Then you go to their technique, how they’re doing their technique, and then just simply if they’re getting physically outmatched.”
At times Saturday, it appeared as if the last part of that statement was true.
Postgame thoughts from the field. pic.twitter.com/7rnzcijd6c
— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) August 20, 2022
4. THERE WAS HOPE ON THE FIRST DRIVE
Mike Boone looked comfortable, picking up 26 yards on four touches. (It helped that defenders didn’t meet him in the backfield as he received handoffs, as Dallas’ front-seven players did on each of Boone’s three carries last week.
Josh Johnson coolly pulled the Broncos out of a first-and-20 and kept the drive moving with a bubble screen, a Boone reception that yielded a missed tackle and a third-and-1 Andrew Beck plunge. A pass-interference penalty on Buffalo’s Dane Jackson helped, too.
But none of it would have been possible without Montrell Washington, who absorbed a solid hit from Buffalo safety Jaquan Johnson across the middle … but held on to the pass fro 19 yards and a first down. Washington has a proclivity for taking ferocious hits, but so far, he’s popped back up and has held onto the football.
The drive stalled, ending in a 33-yard Brandon McManus field goal. But for a moment, there was hope that the Broncos’ reserve Davids could handle Buffalo’s Goliath. Alas …
5. THE BILLS BLASTED THE BRONCOS’ FRONT SEVEN
Whether it was Buffalo’s first- or second-teamers, their offensive line manhandled Denver’s front throughout the first half. Buffalo averaged 10.1 yards per play and 8.0 yards per rush in the first half, mainly because their runners had massive creases through which to attack.
There was movement up front. But it was mostly backwards.
“I felt like we were moving at the line of scrimmage. And when you’re getting movement on the line of scrimmage and those backs are not touched until later, it’s hard to be able to stop them right out of the gate,” Hackett said.
What Buffalo didn’t get through the holes, it accumulated after contact, as missed tackles dogged the Broncos.
“Technique, you know what I’m saying?” noted edge rusher Malik Reed. “That’s fundamentals of the game, and that’s something that we need to put an emphasis on going into this upcoming week in practice, making a concerted effort to make sure you’re in the right position, make sure we’re wrapping up.
“All the things that are part of being a good football team, we have to get back to those fundamentals.”
6. THE OFFENSE FOUND A RHYTHM LATE …
… it was too little, too late, of course. But with a pair of long fourth-quarter drives — including one for the Broncos’ only touchdown of the day — Rypien and the reserves with whom he worked found something to which they could cling.
“The scoreboard — it is what it is,” Rypien said. “But in these preseason games, I tell these young guys all the time: You never know who’s watching. You always want o go out there and put up good tape, and I thought they did a good job. We challenged them to win in man coverage in the second half, and they did that.”
With virtually no run game to provide support, Rypien hit 22 of his 26 passes for 191 yards and finished with a 110.1 rating.
“We were we getting the ball out quick,” Rypien said. “Guys were winning in man coverage. We were hitting the underneath stuff when we needed to.”
7. JALEN VIRGIL: “HE’S A GAMER”
And while Brandon Johnson, Kendall Hinton and Seth Williams got bogged down in the offense’s early-game struggles, rookie Jalen Virgil and veteran Trey Quinn flashed late. Quinn had a 27-yard catch down the right side to set up Eric Saubert’s touchdown catch, while Virgil had an explosive play for the second consecutive week, grabbing a 20-yard pass down the right side despite tight coverage.
Virgil finished the day with a 19.5-yard average on two receptions and has a 24.4-yard per-catch average so far in the preseason. All of his five receptions came on Rypien throws.
So, what has helped Virgil stand out?
“I think 4.3 speed helps,” Rypien said. “But he’s got a good feel, man. He’s a gamer. He’s going up and he’s making plays. That’s what you want to see from a young guy that’s trying to make a roster spot. He’s doing a good job competing there. He knows the playbook.
“You can trust him to be in the right spot. And as a quarterback, when you’re out there late in the game, it’s very comfortable knowing that you have guys like that.”
8. TIGHT ENDS PLAY DEEP INTO THE GAME
Albert Okwuegbunam started. Eric Saubert entered quickly on the first series. In the fourth quarter, they were still out there.
“I think we need to get them more involved, as much as we possibly can,” Rypien said.
Okwuegbunam showed last week that he needed extra work in pass protection. But on Saturday, it was as an open-field pass catcher where he stood out
“He needs some reps,” Hackett said. “… He vertically stretches down the field.”
9. SPECIAL TEAMS: CREASES FOR THE RETURNERS
Well, Dwayne Stukes got to see plenty of his kickoff-return unit, at least. Until Quinn’s third-quarter fumble, Virgil, Washington and Boone combined to average 28.0 yards per return, with all but one covering at least 27 yards.
Sam Martin’s pregame injury gave Corliss Waitman all of the work on punts. Neither of Waitman’s punts were returned, and he punctuated his day with a 63-yard blast that came close to falling dead at the 3-yard line before it spun into the end zone for a touchback.
Although ex-Bronco Isaiah McKenzie sliced a 29-yard kickoff return through the Broncos’ kick-coverage team, the positives outweighed the negatives for Stukes’ phase.
10. VON MILLER SEEMS LIKE A MAN WHO MISSES DENVER
He popped on the KTVD-Ch. 20 pregame show when he saw station on-air talent shooting from field level. And the only two times he ventured onto the field of play Saturday involved injured former teammates, as he checked on edge rusher Malik Reed and cornerback Michael Ojemudia.
Miller put his Foxfield home for sale in May. He’s very much all-in with his new team. And the number of royal-blue Miller No. 40 jerseys in the stands Saturday shows that his new fans in western New York have bought into him.
“It’s hard to see him in a different jersey,” Reed said. “It looks a little weird, but I’m glad for him, more than anything.”
But there’s no denying that Miller left a part of his heart in Colorado — and with his former teammates.
“That’s my brother,” Reed said. “That’s somebody I’m going to be a lifelong friend, with and always in touch with … I’m glad to see he’s doing well.”