ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- You've heard it from coaches, and now you'll hear it from this observer: preseason games matter more than practice in determining the roster and how the depth chart will look. It's one thing to flourish in training-camp practices against teammates, whose moves and tactics become so familiar, you begin to have a sixth sense for knowing what they'll do next. It's something else against a foe you haven't seen before, and under the heightened scrutiny of a sellout crowd and a television broadcast.
Even an elite team like the Broncos has questions to answer Thursday, and there'll be five I'll examine with particular interest.
1. Who starts at safety next to
Moore appears set at one spot, barring injury; he looks more comfortable now than at any point in his career, and is able to apply his experience to help set the defense before the snap.
2. How much progress has
This is the moment to which the second-year quarterback's entire offseason has built. All the progress he's made on the practice field — from his improved touch on deep passes to his ability to command an offense in the no-huddle to his more decisive thought process in the pocket — will be re-evaluated if he reverts to some of his rookie habits Thursday. The Broncos have confidence that if something happens to Manning, Osweiler can steer the ship effectively; against the 49ers, we'll begin learning if this is actually the case.
3. How will the Broncos keep Manning upright?
Injuries and shuffling along the offensive line make this a key concern, since all other matters from Thursday's game are secondary to players emerging without injuries — none more crucial than Manning. The 49ers' first-team pass rush isn't quite as potent as usual without Justin Smith, who will miss Thursday's game, but the presence of Aldon Smith sustains it as a lethal threat. Defusing Aldon Smith will be the primary task of the tackles — which may or may not include
4. Which unheralded players will emerge?
5. Among young cornerbacks, who's in the lead?