Relative to third preseason games over the years, Saturday's 18-17 Houston win over the Broncos was atypical.
Three days of practice offered plenty of tape to evaluate, and both teams held a handful of starters back from extensive duty: for the Broncos, Von Miller and Montee Ball were pulled after one series apiece. The Texans gave defensive end J.J. Watt a breather after nine snaps, and did not play running back Arian Foster or outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney at all.
But there was plenty of note, starting with the Broncos' first touchdown, a 67-yard strike from Peyton Manning to Emmanuel Sanders.
Manning began by offering a play-action fake, which does just enough to keep safety Eddie Pleasant honest. He's playing deep, but not deep enough; as long as Manning delivers the ball on target to Sanders, this is basically a one-on-one situation -- in which Sanders has already beaten cornerback A.J. Bouye, who intercepted Manning earlier that quarter.
Sanders' quickness off the snap, acceleration and ability to use speed to generate separation gives the Broncos a new dimension to their passing game -- which might be just as productive as last year's, albeit via different methods.
MILLER TIME: Miller's return to game action eight months and a day after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament was quiet, but that didn't mean it was uneventful.
The Broncos gave him the entire first series, which offered a representative sample of his duties as a strong-side linebacker in the base 4-3 alignment and as a pass-rushing defensive end in sub packages. He handled coverage on tight ends lined up in the slot, he worked as a stand-up pass rusher; he had his hand in the dirt as a left defensive end. He barely missed an interception after Kevin Vickerson's quickness when he was unblocked off the snap forced the Texans into disarray.
Miller's night was complete after one series, but the Broncos defense continued to generate pressure without him, just as it did in the first two preseason games. An example of this was on the last Texans snap of their second possession, which was all about DeMarcus Ware.
Ware lined up at left defensive end, bounced off Houston right tackle Derek Newton and exploded. The Broncos had a four man rush, so Newton and center James Ferentz both had opportunities to prevent Ware from stunting well inside of Malik Jackson and bursting through the middle. But Ware's speed, his calling card in Dallas, is intact. With Jackson on one side and Derek Wolfe on the other locking Ryan Fitzpatrick in the pocket, the quarterback has nowhere to go, and the Broncos have their three-and-out stop.
OSWEILER'S UPS AND DOWNS: Backup quarterback Brock Osweiler often speaks of looking for progress and growth from every game, but a 4-of-11, 43-yard, one-interception night is not what he had in mind. The game was capped by four consecutive incompletions in the two-minute period at the end of the game -- although the first two were dropped by players no longer with the team.
But there were some shining moments for Osweiler, none more than a 17-yard pass to wide receiver Cody Latimer on which he diagnosed the Texans' pre-snap intent. Houston brought eight men into the box, and rushed them all against five Denver offensive linemen, tight end Cameron Morrah and running back Kapri Bibbs, both of whom stayed in the backfield to block. The only thing Osweiler does not do is turn his head to catch the defense off guard. But by identifying the blitz, he exploits the mismatch -- Latimer in one-on-one coverage.
And finally, if you thought you were having a flashback, you weren't alone:
Yes, that was the brief return of the zone-read option popularized during the 2011 season, when Tim Tebow was the starting quarterback. It showed Osweiler's mobility, and if he is pressed into extended service, provides another wrinkle for rare use.