- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In the end the Denver Broncos played their starters until halftime Saturday night, or just about what they had planned to do against the Houston Texans after three days’ worth of work against the Texans leading up to the game.
That will also do it for virtually all of the regulars since they will not play in Thursday night's preseason finale in Dallas.
But after a look at the game video from the 18-17 loss to the Texans, here are some items of note:
With just three tight ends in uniform due to injuries, offensive coordinator Adam Gase still went to work some in a two-tight-end look with mixed results. With the starters in the game, the Broncos used it for nine snaps before halftime with Jacob Tamme and Julius Thomas in the formation, including all seven snaps on a second-quarter possession that ended with a Peyton Manning interception. The Broncos had five called runs in the look and Manning was sacked once. The Broncos will consistently work the three-wide-receiver look as their base formation much of the time this season -- 35 snaps in all for the starters Saturday, including penalty snaps. But unless something unexpected happens when the roster gets cut to 53 players next week, the Broncos will most likely have three tight ends on the roster during the season, so Saturday was a rather tidy dress rehearsal for that. Green's return will allow them to muscle up a bit more when they're in it and some additional game-planning should help. But it has to be an effective option for them against some of the sturdier defensive fronts they'll face.
One of the more effective looks for the Broncos defense last season was their dime (six defensive backs) and it should be an even more reliable option this season with the addition of safety T.J. Ward to go with some additional depth at the position. The Broncos didn’t play cornerback Chris Harris or cornerback Kayvon Webster in the game, but still fared well in the look against the Texans’ starters. Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was 2-of-4 passing against the Broncos’ dime package with Ward, Rahim Moore, Quinton Carter, Omar Bolden, Aqib Talib and rookie Bradley Roby in the lineup. The completions went for 12 and 5 yards on the Texans' first scoring drive. The Texans eventually converted a fourth-and-1 on a 4-yard run by Alfred Blue, also against the dime look. The Broncos will mostly use the formation in passing situations, but their ability to stay in it could depend on how they do when offenses try to run on it because it's a lighter look in terms of personnel. Ward helps, with his ability to drop down to the weak-ide linebacker spot as he can play along the line of scrimmage in a run fit or drop into coverage.
Some of the most difficult roster decisions for the Broncos will come in the defensive line, especially if they keep just eight at a deep position. In a scenario where they keep eight, they are going to lose more than one defensive lineman who could play elsewhere. Saturday night Kevin Vickerson, who was on injured reserve during the second half of last season with a hip injury, got his first action of the preseason. Vickerson carries a $2.266 million salary-cap figure for the upcoming season and given the Broncos’ current cap situation contracts are going to be a bigger consideration in cuts than in the previous three seasons. They would take a $500,000 hit for “dead’’ money if Vickerson is released, so ultimately the Broncos would see a $1.766 million cap savings. It's not huge but perhaps necessary. Vickerson played 24 snaps with the second-team defense in the game.
For the optimism surrounding a still-high-powered offense and a revamped defense, the Broncos' special teams didn’t have the kind of night you would expect in the third preseason outing. Matt Prater, now facing a four-game suspension to open the season, missed a field goal and took a chunk of sod out of the ground even as he made his other attempt in the game. Britton Colquitt shanked a punt in the first half -- a 27-yarder with plenty of field to work with -- and rookie Mitch Ewald missed a 36-yard field goal attempt. Couple that with the up-and-down work they’ve had in the return game throughout the preseason and there’s plenty of work to be done.