DENVER -- Trevor Siemian never ran from a challenge. He was under recruited out of high school because of his diminutive build. He chose Northwestern over Rutgers and Harvard. As a seventh-round pick with a bum knee, he put his head down last season and became a sponge. His résumé boasted a single-kneel down, but hid the knowledge he gained.
Smart and methodical, Siemian wasn’t about to do anything foolish that would cost him a starting job Saturday night.
In a half, Siemian showed his youth, received a mulligan on an awful mistake and exhibited enough leadership to reveal the position isn’t too big for him. So the next time Siemian steps under center should be Sept. 8 against the Carolina Panthers. Coach Gary Kubiak didn't announce the decision, but said he had enough information. It sounded like he wanted, as his method, to tell the team first just as he did during the Peyton Manning-Brock Osweiler drama last season.
"I am impressed. I think Trevor's very calm. I can tell by the way he handles the team in the huddle. He has control of what's going on," said Kubiak, whose team travels to Arizona on Thursday for the final exhibition game. "What I see is a guy getting better."
Siemian finished 10 of 17 for 122 yards, one touchdown and one interception by safety Cody Davis on a deflected pass that Kubiak labeled "a bad break."
Siemian’s story requires no embellishment. He ascended from forgotten practice body to emergency backup to starter in 16 months. He beat out veteran Mark Sanchez, who was told Saturday morning Paxton Lynch would play the second half, and won over teammates with his poise.
Now all Siemian has to do is convince Broncos Country he’s worthy of his title. He took a small step forward, leading the Broncos to a one-point halftime lead in the 17-9 victory over the Los Angeles Rams.
"I do," said Siemian when asked if he's done enough to win the job. "But that's not my call. Whatever happens, I will be the best teammate I can be."
In the final dress rehearsal for the starters, the Broncos revealed a CliffsNotes version of their offense. Denver ran the ball on its first six plays. Siemian struggled to gain traction, completing two of his first five passes. However, he settled down and settled in, leading the Broncos on a pair of scoring drives. Trailing 6-0 in the second quarter, the Broncos took over on their 33-yard line. Siemian connected on four of his next five attempts, including a ridiculous one-handed, 43-yard catch by Demaryius Thomas down the right sideline. After three straight C.J. Anderson runs for 35 yards against second-stringers upfront, the Rams became ripe for play action.
Siemian sold the fake and tossed a 1-yard touchdown to tight end Virgil Green in the back of the end zone.
"We didn't run well early. Last year we would have probably gotten away from it. But we stayed patient. That's the key," Anderson said. "We always have confidence in Trevor. He's calm, composed, collected. He's everything you want him to be."
Siemian is line to become the first Northwestern quarterback to start on opening day since Otto Graham in 1955. A Northwestern alum texted him the stat this week. No Northwestern quarterback has started an NFL game since Randy Dean in 1979.
"I didn't know that," Siemian said with a smile.
The streak, for one mouth agape moment, appeared safe when Siemian failed to look off the safety and threw a pass into Christian Bryant’s chest. The Rams defensive back inexplicably dropped it. Denver finished the drive with a Brandon McManus 50-yard field goal, shoving the Broncos ahead 10-9. The Broncos offense finished with 175 first-half yards, but was just 2-for-6 on third down.
"We started slow. We were trying to run the ball and we didn't do it well," Kubiak said. "We got going and did some good things. What I do is build on the positives."
Denver’s offensive line remains clouded with questions. Rams Pro Bowl defensive tackle Aaron Donald had his way with left guard Max Garcia. The Rams aggressive upfield penetration caused problems early, but the Broncos line made adjustments. Michael Schofield started at right guard and was uneven. Darrion Weems, the projected starter at right guard, worked out before the game, showing his progress in the concussion protocol.
The Broncos want to be physical, and have work to do. But Siemian rallied the group.
“Trevor got off to a slow start, but did well in the second quarter,” Broncos general manager John Elway said on the broadcast. “It’s been a good battle. We are happy with where Paxton is. And Trevor has done a nice job.”
Lynch’s second half start served as an indictment of Sanchez’s play a week ago. Attempting to secure the starting job, Sanchez committed two fumbles in the red zone. It followed an interception at Chicago. Fair or not, the problem Sanchez, who didn’t play on Saturday, is his past. When he makes a gaffe, it brings up bad memories and reinforces his résumé. When Siemian or Lynch struggle, their youth provides benefit of the doubt. By cutting Sanchez, the Broncos would save $3.5 million in salary cap space and not have to surrender a seventh-round draft pick to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Siemian outplayed Sanchez in camp by a slim margin, showing more consistency. After three games, Siemian is 27 for 43 for 285 yards with one score and two picks. Lynch continued to show his athleticism -- and his inexperience. He was 6 for 13 for 57 yards.
The Broncos defense allows for patience at the position. Denver’s first stringers allowed three field goals, their only points allowed in three games. Cornerback Aqib Talib made his preseason debut. He looked good in coverage, but received an unnecessary roughness call for a hit on the sidelines on Rams starting quarterback Case Keenum.
"I did not see him at all. It happened pretty fast," Keenum said. "I was on the ground before I knew it."
Bradley Roby was later flagged for unnecessary roughness after hitting defenseless receiver Duke Williams following a drop. He could face a fine for the hit.
In a game slowed by penalties and ugly play, some roster bubble players made strong cases to stick. Ronnie Hillman scored on a 7-yard touchdown and outside linebacker Dekoda Watson secured sacks on back-to-back plays. Riley Dixon also put together an intriguing, um, final kick in his pursuit of the punting job.
But there is only one position that matters for the defending champions. And after Saturday night, it belongs to Trevor Siemian.
"I have had a blast to tell you the truth," Siemian said. "Everybody has been good to each other. (Sanchez and Lynch) are great guys. I can't say enough about them."
Punter Riley Dixon received a full game of action. The Broncos have yet to decide whether to keep the rookie or veteran Britton Colquitt. Dixon averaged 40.9 net yards on eight punts. ... Receiver Cody Latimer hurt his knee blocking. He will undergo an MRI on Sunday. He said he would be fine but had a significant limp. ... Rookie fullback Andy Janovich hurt his shoulder. ... C.J. Anderson received four stitches after cutting his right ear on his helmet.