ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- On the Broncos' first offensive play of Thursday's final preseason game,
"It was good to get those guys back and just get a little bit of work together before we get going," Orton said.
Throughout the preseason, Head Coach Josh McDaniels said he would be cautious with his veterans returning from injury. Both Buckhalter and Clady returned to the Dove Valley practice field last week, and after the players continued to sit out Sunday's win against Pittsburgh, the team decided they were ready to go on Thursday.
Orton said he appreciated the chance for his teammates to work out any "rustiness" now, rather than next week in Jacksonville.
Buckhalter went down on the first day of training camp and rejoined the running back corps for practice last Tuesday. The running back coming off a career season in 2009 finished with three carries for 3 yards and two catches for 26 yards.
Clady came off the reserve/non-football injury list last week. The offensive lineman progressed quickly enough in practice that McDaniels felt comfortable putting him back in game action on Thursday, and the Pro Bowler jumped back in at his familiar position anchoring the left side of the offensive line.
"I'm glad we got him in there," McDaniels said. "When you haven't played in a little while, there's always those first few plays that seem like the speed of the game is a little quicker than you remembered it. But I thought he did fine. I'm really glad we got that part out of the way for him and I look forward to getting ready for Jacksonville."
On the other hand,
Moreno returned to the practice field this week for the first time since the opening day of training camp. McDaniels said Moreno continues to show progress and as he nears full recovery, the team saw no reason to chance a setback before the regular season begins.
"It was good to get him out there and get going -- the same thing with practice," McDaniels said. "We feel like he's close. Every day is a better day for us. At that point, if we're not ready to go, then I think the best thing for us to do is not to take the risk."
In Thursday's preseason finale in Minnesota,
Smith registered an interception and a fumble recovery, in addition to tying for the team lead with four tackles in the Broncos' 31-24 loss. The second-year cornerback returned his third-quarter interception 51 yards to the Vikings 6-yard line and came up with Darius Reynaud's fourth quarter fumble that gave the Broncos a final chance to go for the game-tying touchdown.
"(Smith) was aggressive," McDaniels said. "He had the interception that he took back to the 6-yard line and made some tackles, too. We feel like we've got good corners."
With the starters out before the end of the first quarter, it was a busy night for Smith. He saw extensive action in the secondary and also had a punt return and a kick return.
The Wake Forest product also showed the ability to bounce back. He fell down in coverage on Minnesota's final score, a 63-yard touchdown pass from Joe Webb to Javon Walker, before coming back to recover the late fumble, which was forced by
McDaniels said he's enjoyed watching his young defensive backs compete in training camp and during the preseason. Those battles exemplify the competitive atmosphere the head coach hopes to foster across the roster.
Amid that competitive situation, Smith saved his best performance of the preseason for the final game.
"We've got a lot of young guys that are still learning how to play in this league and (Smith is) one of them," McDaniels said. "He did a nice job most of the night tonight."
The Broncos didn't get a chance to go against Brett Favre or Adrian Peterson or any of the offensive stars that helped Minnesota reach the NFC title game a year ago. The Vikings open regular season play in less than a week with a rematch against New Orleans, which ended their 2009 season a win short of the Super Bowl.
But with several extra days to rest before the Broncos' Sept. 12 season opener, Kyle Orton and the first-team offense continued to build on their impressive 2010 preseason. Orton finished the finale 5-of-8 passing for 56 yards, leading the first unit to a touchdown on its second and final drive of the night. After Thursday's game, the quarterback reflected on a clearly successful four-game preseason slate for himself and the offense.
"I'm happy that it's over -- I came out healthy," Orton said. "You want to get everything going but you want to come out healthy and I'm glad that I did that. Nobody knows what we've got. We don't know what we've got. I just know the feeling that we have on offense is excited."
Orton finished the preseason 38-of-57 passing for 397 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions, good for a 95.4 passer rating.
Even without the Broncos' top two running backs and Clady for much of the preseason, the sixth-year quarterback led at least one touchdown drive in each game. His four touchdown passes went to four different receivers.
Against the Vikings, Orton rebounded from a sack that derailed the opening drive to lead a 10-play, 58-yard touchdown march, capped by
"(Orton) has good command of what we're doing and he showed it again tonight," McDaniels said. "He really stood in there in the face of a couple rushes, made a couple nice throws and got us in the end zone."
Now Orton, who spent the final three quarters of Thursday's game watching
"I think we're excited to get this thing going," Orton said. "We've practiced well. We've played well in the preseason, now it's just can we take that next step and be effective for 16 straight weeks, which good offenses do. We'll see if we can keep that consistency, but I know we've got a bunch of guys on that side of the ball that are excited to get this thing going."