- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Tonight’s preseason game figures to be the last action for most of the Denver Broncos' front-line players until the Sept. 5 regular-season opener against the Baltimore Ravens. Most, or all, of the Broncos starters are expected to play through halftime.
That, at least, is coach John Fox’s goal, but say quarterback Peyton Manning takes as big a hit in the first half against the St. Louis Rams as he did against the Seattle Seahawks last Saturday, and his exit come could earlier than that.
But some things to keep an eye on:
The Broncos' offensive front hasn’t consistently carved out running room or consistently protected the quarterbacks, and that is a worrisome 0-for-2 for the group. Things will improve when left tackle Ryan Clady rejoins the lineup in the regular season, but the group has to pick up the pace. If it doesn’t, the ripple effect will be that some of the favorite items in the Denver playbook will be left behind, like the drop-back passing game. The Broncos have averaged just 3.0 yards per carry in two preseason games; now-injured rookie C.J. Anderson is the only back who has averaged more than 3.8. The injuries up front have made life tougher for other backups -- Nos. 2 and 3 quarterbacks Brock Osweiler and Zac Dysert have 35 combined completions and have been sacked a whopping eight times combined. That’s not the kind of ratio the Broncos want, or need. The Rams tied the Broncos for the league lead in sacks last season (52), so it will bear watching how the Broncos protect overall Saturday, but especially out of their three-wide receiver set -- because it can’t be their base formation, as they’d like it to be, if they can’t protect Manning when they play it.
After a wafer-thin game plan and limited work in the first two preseason games, the Broncos' starting offense has one touchdown to its credit and no runs longer than 8 yards. Turnovers crushed them in Seattle -- they put up 209 yards on 40 offensive plays in the first half against the Seahawks -- but given that this is the unit's last work of the preseason, it needs to show it can close the deal on a couple drives.
Linebacker Von Miller, who has been suspended for the first six games of the regular season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, will play, but the Broncos are expected to play him later in the game than he is used to. If they stick to the practice plan they showed after the suspension, the two-time Pro Bowl selection could be chasing a Rams backup quarterback against backup linemen. The Broncos want to get Miller some work tonight and in the preseason finale Thursday, but they also have to get Nate Irving and Danny Trevathan ready to play with the starters at strongside and weakside linebacker, respectively, over the first six weeks of the season.
With Champ Bailey (left foot) still a question mark for the regular-season opener and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie having left Thursday’s practice after being hit in the lower back, the Broncos aren’t yet at full speed in the secondary. With Miller’s suspension also taking an elite rusher out of the mix, the Broncos need to find that right coverage/rush mix. The best defenses in the league are the ones that can get to opposing quarterbacks with four rushers -- pick any four in the formation, but just four if you want to be among the best -- and can put seven players into coverage. That will be a tough balance to walk without Miller, but it means Robert Ayers and Shaun Phillips have to find a way to consistently disrupt plays. The Broncos need to take a look at some rush combinations in this one against an accurate pocket passer like Sam Bradford. The Rams played their starters for 15 and 25 plays, respectively, in the first two preseason games and are expected to go to the 30- to 35-play mark in this one.
This will be the Broncos' first home game -- they did have a scrimmage that drew just more than 44,000 in training camp in a driving rain -- since their off-the-field drama overtook football matters in the offseason. The folks in the seats might be a little edgy if things don’t go well early.
Eric Decker has one catch in the preseason for 10 yards. He is going to be a far bigger part of the offense than that.
This will be Wesley Woodyard’s first game action at middle linebacker since he was formally moved there this past week in practice. The Broncos did not stop the power running of either the 49ers or Seahawks in the first two preseason games. The problem was big enough that Fox said Woodyard was going to move to the middle even if Stewart Bradley had not had wrist surgery this past week. It’s a drastic decision, given that the Broncos worked Irving there the entire offseason and worked Bradley there through most of training camp. If Woodyard doesn’t work out, they’re out of options in the base defense.
The final roster decisions, particularly if an undrafted rookie or two like linebacker Lerentee McCray is going to make the last cut, will be made by what gets done in the kicking game. A play or two in the final preseason games can be the difference for a host of bubble players.