DENVER — The debate approached a tipping point last Saturday. Should NFL starters play in the preseason? Would two games plus multiple joint practices suffice as calisthenics to ready a team for the season? The Rams and Bears don't even bother. They refuse to play first-stringers. For others, it remains a balance. And then there's Broncos new coach Vic Fangio. He firmly believes reps in games are needed, citing Tom Brady as proof of why he works.
After the Broncos' 10-21 record the past two seasons, including 12 losses by double figures, it screamed for a seismic cultural shift. So while Fangio appears to going against the grain in the preseason, he is, after 40 years as an assistant, comfortable in his own skin. And he's definitely not sweating decisions where he carries conviction.
So it was the Broncos starters played into the second quarter. It gave the crowd of 59,232 that turned out in the sweltering 95-degree heat -- the warmest ever for a Broncos kickoff -- an extended look at why hope is slowly peeking its head around corners at UCHealth Training Center. The Broncos fell to the 49ers 24-15, but they look better at quarterback, enhanced on defense (hello, Bradley Chubb), yet remain clumsy on special teams (aside from Brandon McManus) and bitten by injuries.
"I thought our first defense, overall played well," said Fangio, who was encouraged by the starting offense as well, but didn't hold back when assessing the special teams. "I am big time concerned. It's the second straight week we have been whipped. The last two weeks are unacceptable. We might have to use some starters there."
Rookies Drew Lock (sprained right thumb) and Noah Fant (sprained right ankle) were hurt on Monday. Lock, who was wearing a brace after the game, headed to the locker room and didn't return after jamming his thumb into the turf on a third quarter sack. "Going into I knew the X-rays would likely be negative, but that was good to hear. We will know more (Tuesday).But it's just a little sprain. It shoudl be all right." Fant, too, appeared OK, but provided a scare when his right leg crumpled underneath him on a tackle. He limped into the locker room and was wearing a boot after the game. The Broncos' top heavy roster revealed itself when the reserves entered on defense and on special teams.
However, Monday was about those who will log significant minutes and those who will be counted on to steer the ship toward the lighthouse. In that regard, it was a promising evening. Joe Flacco completed 7 of 11 passes for 59 yards, guided a scoring drive and had a 45-yard strike to Emmanuel Sanders negated by a Garett Bolles holding call. The Broncos fizzled in the red zone, something that plagued them a year ago. But the wrinkles in the game plan -- reverses, running back and receiver screens -- hinted of an attack that might finally carry its weight for the first time since Peyton Manning retired.
Flacco showed pocket presence in converting two third downs to receiver DaSean Hamilton, and displayed his arm strength on the long strike to Sanders.
"It was a lot of fun. I know it wasn't a full stadium, but we had a good amount of people out there. One thing I noticed is that you can tell Peyton (Manning) played here because when the offense has the ball you can hear a pin drop. That was a little different," Flacco said. "I felt like I could hear my own voice so I was a little thrown off by that."
Sanders made Monday look like a practice. Yes, that's a compliment. He has often been the Broncos' best player in workouts as he has returned from Achilles and ankle surgeries. He was fast, cut sharper than razors and showed elite speed. He finished with one catch for 5 yards. But the 45-yard reception callback showed enough to make it fair to ask if he should play again in August. Sanders also raced 19 yards on a reverse.
"I wish I had that play back. I should have scored on that. The old Emmanuel would have scored on that play," he told me. "I can still get back in the lab and dissect it and see how I can attack defenses and get better. My Achilles felt normal. I felt fast."
If there was a concern, it came in the running game. As was the case in practice last week, the Broncos offensive line struggled with the 49ers' front, even with starters sitting out. Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman combined for 14 yards on 10 carries.
Lindsay said reporters are guilty of over analyzing preseason games.
Lock positioned himself to win the backup job before his hand jammed into the turf as he stumbled on a third quarter sack. He connected on 7 of 12 passes for 40 yards. He is 31 for 51 for 254 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He delivered two scoring drives, logging 24 plays on those, leaving the Broncos ahead 10-9 at half. Things turned sour in the third quarter. On the first drive, Lock attempted to escape pressure, running to his left. He was tripped from behind and tried to throw the ball as he fell, his right hand and thumb mashing oddly into the ground.
Fangio described the injuries to Lock and Fant as "mild in nature."
The preseason has been painful for the Broncos. They lost running back Theo Riddick (shoulder fracture) and fullback Andy Janovich (pectoral) for 6-to-8 weeks, tight end Austin Fort (knee) for the season. Lock faces a potential absence, missing out on valuable reps to microwave his development. Kevin Hogan (5-for-15, 40 yards) replaced Lock and was running from trouble. He was sacked five times, threw a pick and ran for a touchdown. He served as the Bronco backup last season, something to file away if Lock requires time on the shelf.
The defense proved vicious and versatile. Chubb looked like Khalil Mack Lite, a disruptive force. I have said I believe Chubb could produce more sacks than Von Miller this season, and Monday he showed why. He took up residence in the backfield. His pressure at Jimmy Garoppolo's feet produced a rushed throw and an Isaac Yiadom interception. Moments later, Chubb delivered a strip sack.
"The game has slowed down. I have a better undertanding of my job, and I am not putting too much pressure on myself," Chubb said. "The scheme is amazing. We are always disguising. You never know were the pressure is coming from."
Added Von Miller about Chubb, "He’s a totally different player this year. It looks like another guy is wearing his jersey. He’s a totally different guy. Run, pass, coverage, it doesn’t matter, he’s a totally different guy. I’m excited for him and excited for the things that he’s going to do this year."
The Broncos starters held the 49ers on 32 yards into the second quarter. Then the reserves entered and allowed a 38-yard run on the first play. The Broncos lack of depth was again exposed. San Francisco gashed the Broncos repeatedly through the air and on the ground, taking a 23-9 lead deep into the fourth quarter.
The Broncos depth is an issue. But their starters provide a launching point for improvement.
"For sure it's something to build on," Chubb said. "But it's not something to hang our hat on. It was just one quarter. It's something we have to keep building off of."