SEATTLE — My flight to Seattle brought little sleep, and a meandering trip down memory lane.
Regardless of the airline, 6 a.m. flights sting. Anxiety percolates over sleeping through the 3:15 a.m. alarm, and turning the corner into the security line rarely brings the wonder of Christmas morning. But travel went smoothly -- landed on time, featured no rain on the ground and friendly PA messages from members of Alice and Chains and Guns N’ Roses.
Seattle provides memorable intersections in recent Broncos history. There was that whole Super Bowl 48 mess when Denver turned SeaSick, starting with the first snap for a safety, the ferocious hit on Demaryius Thomas, followed by three hours of misery. The following preseason the game didn’t count, but it mattered. The Broncos needed to show they could ditch their quivering lip and stare down the NFL’s champ. The Broncos won 21-16, providing a dose of confidence entering the season. A year later, the Broncos eclipsed the Seahawks 22-20 in Seattle, a gentle reminder that Denver possessed a talented roster.
Neither team is considered a Super Bowl contender anymore entering the 7 p.m. Broncos road matchup.
Seattle, however, boasts a star quarterback in Russell Wilson and a battery of hungry players who have accelerated the team’s makeover. The Broncos are trying to avoid three-straight losing seasons for the first time since the drought of 1963-1972. And while optimism brims over new coach Vic Fangio and his defense, the Broncos are employing their fifth starting quarterback since Peyton Manning retired. Which brings us to tonight at Century Link Field and My Denver7 Things to Watch:
Go Joe Go
Six months after the Broncos acquired him, quarterback Joe Flacco makes his debut. He is not stressing over a preseason game in his 12th year. However, it would be encouraging to see a functional offense in his one or two series – solid runs by Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman setting up play action to Noah Fant, for example. The offense has perked up over the last week, but fans seeing it against an opponent would not hurt. There are no second first impressions. This is an exhibition game. But it matters to those watching given what has transpired offensively the past three seasons.
The offensive line boasts all parts save for right guard Ron Leary, who will be eased back into the fold as he recovers from Achilles surgery. The group looked strong in its cameo in the 14-10 win over Atlanta. I would expect that to continue against Seattle’s second stringers. It also marks the debut of right tackle Ja’Wuan James, the highest paid lineman in franchise history who has been slowed by a sore calf.
Defense v. Paxton Lynch
The defense continues to look sharp in Fangio’s attacking scheme. The first-teamers should excel against backup Geno Smith – safety Justin Simmons has five picks in training camp. Then comes Paxton Lynch, the Broncos bust. Lynch says he’s more comfortable in Seattle than Denver. He should be. He longer carries the burden of expectations. He is hoping to make a team, not lead one. In a meaningless contest, the Broncos’ reserves vs. Lynch will provide a reason to make popcorn.
The Broncos remain thin at inside linebacker with the injuries to Todd Davis (calf, expected back for the season opener), Josey Jewell (oblique, likely back in a week or so) and Joe Jones (triceps, out at least six weeks). It provides an opportunity for Alexander Johnson and Josh Watson to show why they should stick. Or it could nudge the Broncos toward adding a veteran for depth.
Outside the box
Malik Reed, an undrafted free agent from Nevada, popped in the exhibition opener. He notched a sack, and was disruptive. He rides to practice everyday with Bradley Chubb, who continues to encourage him and provide insight on making the team. Can Reed keep his momentum? Will Justin Hollins' versatility pay off with big plays? Or will Jeff Holland step up?
No time for Fant of heart
The Broncos targeted tight end Noah Fant five times in the preseason opener. His development is critical to Flacco’s success specifically, and the offense in general. He fought inconsistency in the opener, but flashed the talent that made him so desirable in the draft.
Punt, pass, kick, return it
Among several Broncos' issues that must be addressed over the next month, punt return remains a priority. The Broncos have to be better. The Broncos ranked eighth in the NFL in snaps by rookies last season. Could a first-year player be the answer on special teams like receiver Kelvin McKnight or Juwann Winfree? It’s time for someone to start separating from the pack.