- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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DENVER -- The Denver Broncos' plan Thursday night was easy to see when, just more than three hours before kickoff, most of the players who sit at the top of the depth chart at their respective positions were working with strength-and-conditioning coach Luke Richesson, as Richesson prodded them all from one end of the field to the other over and over again in something far more stringent than just a warm-up.
That’s because they weren’t going to play in the game that followed. And with just a few roster spots still in play, the Broncos' reserves closed out the preseason with a 32-24 loss to Arizona at Invesco Field at Mile High.
Some things to consider as the Broncos now turn their attention to the Baltimore Ravens:
There was almost as much to learn by who the Broncos did play as by who they didn’t. Tight end Julius Thomas earned the night off as a starter, but Jacob Tamme did not, as Tamme played in several two-tight end sets, lining up in the slot. Some of that was a numbers game with Joel Dreessen still coming back from two knee surgeries since late May, but it's clear the Broncos have big plans for Thomas in the front-line offense. Running back Montee Ball also was in the pregame workout with the starters, but Ronnie Hillman was not. Hillman started at running back, likely just to give him confidence with a carry or two early in the game given his recent fumbles -- he had a fumble returned for a touchdown in each of the previous two preseason games -- and given he is still very much in the mix to be a mainstay in the run game. Hillman carried twice for 14 yards on the Broncos’ first two plays of the game and then headed for the sideline with his work finished for the night. Knowshon Moreno also did not play, so Ball, Hillman and Moreno are solidly the top three.
Broncos coach John Fox said last week that linebacker Von Miller, who is suspended for the first six games of the regular season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, would play in the final two preseason games because Fox didn’t want to turn a six-game suspension into eight games. Miller did play last weekend against the Rams, but he was held out of Thursday night’s game. Miller’s suspension officially begins Saturday since the Broncos play next Thursday night. In the end the Broncos elected to give some young players those snaps instead of risking an injury to Miller.
And one of the Broncos’ undrafted rookies made the most of that decision. Lerentee McCray, who has made a strong push for a roster spot since training camp opened, started in Miller’s strong-side linebacker spot and finished the first half with three tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. (McCray blocked a punt in the previous game against the Rams.) But McCray was helped off the field with just under four minutes left in the third quarter with a right ankle injury. He had difficulty putting weight on the leg, and if an MRI shows any significant problems Friday, it could complicate what the Broncos can do with him if it's an injury that would keep him on the sideline for several weeks. But McCray certainly earned a spot with his play on the field.
The Broncos have struggled to protect the quarterback with the backup linemen in front of him during the preseason -- Brock Osweiler had been sacked eight times in three preseason games coming into his start against the Cardinals -- so the Broncos bulked things up in front to open the game. After not using the two-back look for anything more than a smattering of plays in the first three preseason games, the Broncos worked out of it for most of the first half. They used it on six of 10 plays in their opening drive of the game -- an 80-yard touchdown drive -- and 12 plays in all in the first half. They used a two-tight end/two-back look once and a two-tight end look six times in the opening half. The move did give fullback Jacob Hester a chance to get some work on offense. Hester was the fullback in all of those two-back sets after playing just 25 plays on offense in the first three preseason games combined. Hester’s chances of making the final roster are enhanced by the fact he is the only running back who has lined up at fullback in the offense, that he can play running back and that he is a key special-teams player.
The Broncos have plenty of tough decisions awaiting in the secondary for final cuts, but they unveiled at least one of their potential solutions against the Cardinals. Cornerback Omar Bolden, who has played plenty on the outside with the second-team defense in the preseason, lined up at free safety in the base defense for much of the first half. He showed himself to be physical, quick to the ball and comfortable despite it being his first game at the position. It means the Broncos consider him a potential swing player in the secondary, one who could line up at corner and work at safety as well. If the game video confirms for the coaches what seemed clear in real time -- that Bolden can function well at safety if needed -- that likely makes it difficult for veteran Quentin Jammer to make the roster. The Broncos had originally signed Jammer because they envisioned him being able to be a combination player in the secondary.
Rookie quarterback Zac Dysert got his first significant action of the preseason. He tossed a 25-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter and led another touchdown drive in the fourth quarter that included a short toss to running back Lance Ball that turned into a 69-yard catch-and-run. Dysert will be around the team, whether on the practice squad or as one of those to get one of the final two or three roster spots. If the Broncos feel they can’t afford the luxury of three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster, they will have to get Dysert through waivers to get him to the practice squad.
Rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster could get a look from the league office with an unnecessary-roughness penalty in the first half -- he was called for striking an opponent with his helmet -- to go with another personal foul in the opening half for intentionally slamming a player to the ground.