Some of that was tactically-based; the quick-snap, no-huddle offense exhausted the Rams, to the point where their players could be seen gasping for breath as Denver possessions climbed into double-digit play counts four times. But a good chunk of it was based on better individual work.
- No one has seen more work on offense this preseason than
Julius Thomas, whose 153 total offensive snaps to date are 33 more than anyone else (120, by Zane Beadles, Orlando Franklinand Manny Ramirez). When including special-teams snaps, Virgil Greenranks second on the offense in overall plays with 134 -- 91 on offense and 43 on special teams, 11 more than the No. 2 offensive player ( Jacob Hester).
Thomas needed the work to grow as a blocker, and his work on
Ronnie Hillman's second carry of the game showed his progress. Thomas was lined up to the left of Ryan Clady, and he began the play by moving to block defensive end Robert Quinn. But Clady was able to take care of that, so after bumping off Quinn, Thomas blocked linebacker Alec Ogletree, providing an inside seal that turned a 3-to-4 yard gain on first-and-15 into an 8-yard pickup.
"I think I executed in the run game at a high level. I didn't make some of the mistakes I made in the other two preseason games," Thomas said. "Getting snaps under your belt helps you be more comfortable, so you're thinking clearly."
- For a moment, let's not focus on what Ronnie Hillman did wrong (the fumble) and look at what he did right: cut decisively, follow his blocks and pick up the blitz. One play in particular stood out in this regard: the second play of the Broncos' third possession. With second-and-10 at the Denver 9, the Rams blitzed Will Witherspoon from the left edge. Hillman crossed in front of Manning (he'd been lined up to the quarterback's right) and coolly kept him out of Manning's face, allowing the quarterback to easily find
Eric Deckernear the sideline for an 11-yard gain.
- Manning also used this game to test Thomas' ability to make catches in traffic. Rolling right with 4:24 left in the first quarter, Manning rolled right and threw to Thomas, bypassing
Jacob Tamme, who was five yards closer and in more open territory. The pass was on target through the cluster of Rams, but Thomas couldn't bring in the grab. Later, he tried to find Thomas down the seam when he was covered by Alec Ogletree, but the rookie linebacker made an athletic interception of a pass that was just a bit short.
"(Ogletree) obviously has a pretty wide wingspan; I was surprised he was even able to get his hands on that ball. So, if we play the Rams again, I will remember that," Manning said. "I thought my decision to throw the ball was a good one. The ball might have been just a tad behind Julius Thomas. But, he made a pretty good play."
It's a throw Manning will try again -- but against the right linebacker who isn't capable of that kind of play.
"I’m not sure I wouldn’t have thrown it 99 out of 100 times," he said.
- Up front, this was Manny Ramirez's steadiest game to date. He responded quickly to blitzers, provided one of the blocks that created a gaping hole that Hillman ran through for a 16-yard gain on the Broncos' second possession, and then later that series helped spring
Montee Ballfor an 11-yard pickup on third-and-2. He looked more comfortable at center than he did in the previous two games, offering evidence that he's getting the hang of his new role.
- Pressure from the interior is going to be crucial to the entire defense, and to that end, the defensive tackles were more disruptive Saturday than the previous two games.
Terrance Knightonand Kevin Vickersonwere stout against the run, perhaps never moreso than with 5:32 left in the first quarter, when Vickerson fought through two Rams offensive linemen to engulf running back Daryl Richardson in the backfield for no gain.
One play later, fellow defensive tackle
Mitch Unreinsacked Sam Bradford after stunting with Sylvester Williams. Both were able to use an unimpeded push off the line of scrimmage to build up momentum before contact; from there, they pushed into Bradford's pocket until one of them arrived first.
"Our thing around here is starting fast and playing fast. That’s what we tried to do (Saturday) and I think, for the most part, it worked," Vickerson said.
- Backup quarterback
Brock Osweiler's statistical line was sullied by an interception, but his play was improved overall. Having Chris Clarkin at left tackle with the second team thanks to Clady's return helped keep Osweiler's pocket cleaner, and he did a good job taking advantage of the Rams' strength on the edges by stepping up and away from their outside pass rush more often than not. And while his touchdown drive came with the first-team offense against the Rams' No. 2 defense, the timing he displayed with the receivers was the first tangible evidence that the offense can hold its own and still move the football effectively if something happens to Manning; if the receivers stay healthy, Osweiler has multiple security blankets at his disposal.
Lerentee McCrayappears to be the top candidate to extend the Broncos' nine-year streak of seasons with an undrafted rookie making the post-preseason cut to 53. He plays a position that will see its depth compromised by suspension, is versatile enough to work as a stand-up linebacker and a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end, and his fourth-quarter punt block was the kind of special-teams play that has made the difference for so many players making NFL rosters since time immemorial. He could be one of the players with plenty to gain Thursday against Arizona.