Broncos defense sets tone, steals thunder from quarterbacks

CHICAGO -- At the north entrance of Solider Field, 90 minutes before kickoff, Trevor Siemian and Matt Paradis walked toward the locker room. They laughed at a description of an onlooker's shoes and disappeared into the tunnel. 

Siemian arrived in Chicago Thursday with his career again at crossroads, and looked as calm as a lagoon. There remains part of his life that makes this NFL experience feel like house money lining his pockets. A year ago, he admitted he was this close to beginning a career in commercial real estate before the gravitational pull of football drew him back. 

Siemian became the first Northwestern quarterback to make an NFL ripple since Otto Graham in 1955. He represented the nose is wet, underdog story. Now, he exists as a polarizing figure among a fan base that wants the first-round pick to play -- Paxton Lynch -- or for Siemian to play significantly better.

Siemian failed to answer all questions, but he maintained his lead in the quarterback derby with an efficient performance in the preseason opener against the Chicago Bears. Lynch rallied in his final drive with the second stringers, yet could not produce points. Therein lies the rub, the Broncos' top two quarterbacks combined for 37 plays and three points.

The only quarterback with a touchdown? Former Northern Colorado star Kyle Sloter on a 47-yard connection to a wide open Isaiah McKenzie in the fourth quarter. 

The reminders of 2016 were slightly uncomfortable in Vance Joseph's coaching debut, but the ending proved satisfying.

Rookie De'Angelo Henderson's 41-yard run shoved the Broncos' to a 24-17 victory.

On a night when hope existed of separation, the best quarterback on the field was Chicago's first-round pick Mitchell Trubisky, who riddled the Broncos' second and third-stringers. This bore a striking resemblance to many Sundays last season -- offense lacking, defense shining with All-Pro cornerback Chris Harris Jr. providing the Broncos' only first-half touchdown with a 50-yard pick and score on Chicago's Mike Glennon. 

As for Siemian, he provided an even outing. In three series, totaling 19 plays, he completed six of seven passes for 51 yards. Siemian converted two third downs, including a third-and-11 strike to Demaryius Thomas to extend the first drive as the Pro Bowler boxed out defenders. Siemian suffered a sack on his first play from scrimmage as new right tackle Menelik Watson missed his block. He completed a pair of passes on the 10-play drive, resulting in a 38-yard Brandon McManus field goal.

Sieman threw the ball accurately and on time outside the numbers. But there were no bold strikes sought by a fan base which watched the Broncos offense dissolve down the stretch a year ago.

Lynch, a former star at Memphis, failed to make a move in the competition, leaving him needing a huge week of practices against the San Francisco 49ers and solid work in his start to have any hope of unseating Siemian. Working behind the second-string offensive line, Lynch appeared indecisive, and prone to run. He nearly threw an interception on his first possession, airmailing a throw over tight end A.J. Derby. 

On first read quick slants, Lynch found his comfort zone on passes to Jordan Taylor and Cody Latimer. But his overall numbers told a story that mirrored his recent practice sessions. Highlights, but consistency lacking. On 18 plays, Lynch went 6-for-9 for 42 yards, while rushing four times for 11 yards. 

The Broncos' first string defense looked stout. Harris provided an exclamation point before many of the fans had even arrived. He read an errant pass, caught it cleanly and motored into the end zone. It marked the fourth time in his career with a pick six. The Broncos' first stringers played a series. And they did it without their best player Von Miller, who was a healthy scratch since exposing him to injury in the preseason is a dicey proposition.

"I couldn't," Miller told Denver7 when asked if he tried to talk himself into the lineup.

Denver's rush defense with its 1s appeared stronger in the snapshot. But any optimism was spoiled with the loss of a popular veteran. Defensive end Billy Winn suffered a leg injury and was carted off the field. 

Positives surfaced among a parade of penalty flags. The offensive line showed attitude and a physical presence, but the mistakes must be cleaned up by Watson and left guard Max Garcia. Defensively, the Broncos stopped the run early, showing progress in an area that undermined the unit last season. 

In the end, this game was about the quarterbacks. No one lost the derby -- at least not yet -- but it's fair to wonder if the starter has been found until points define production.

Footnotes

Kasim Edebali was active on pass rushing downs as he bids to start opposite of Miller. ... Anderson rushed for 21 yards on five carries with the starters. ... Sloter has made huge jumps since OTAs. He is showing he has NFL potential, even if that means starting on the practice squad. ... Lorenzo Doss was being evaluated for a concussion during the game. ... Dillon Day, trying to stick as a backup Olineman, was flagged for two penalties, including taunting. ... Henderson has been a terrific story in camp, a bowling ball with legs. ... The Broncos captains: Derek Wolfe, Aqib Talb, Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and Brandon McManus.

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