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Broncos 14, Falcons 10: Observations

CANTON, Ohio -- Khalfani Muhammad has made a habit of turning small holes into big plays during training camp, so it came as no surprise that he continued that trend during the Broncos' 14-10 preseason-opening win over the Falcons on Thursday.

Muhammad finished with 74 yards from scrimmage -- 50 on seven carries and 24 on four receptions.

"He's got speed and he's elusive and he's a tough guy," Head Coach Vic Fangio said. "Not surprised by that too much."

Thirty-one of Muhammad's yards came on a single burst late in the third quarter to ignite an offense that had gone stagnant. Before that carry, the Broncos had just four first downs and 57 net yards on their previous seven drives, which finished in six punts and a lost fumble.

Muhammad saw right tackle Quinn Bailey bury Falcons defensive end John Cominsky on the outside. With the inside sealed, Muhammad quickly hit fifth gear.

"I was slowly going through my progressions, through the holes, and I saw the hole open to the outside," Muhammad said. "I just took advantage of the opportunity."

He did the same on his first-quarter touchdown when he followed tight end Jeff Heuerman through a hole on the right side of the line.

"To have those type of people in front of you and leading the way, you can't complain at all," Muhammad said. "When the opportunity comes, just don't miss it."

KEVIN HOGAN

Working with a smattering of first-teamers -- left tackle Garett Bolles, left guard Dalton Risner, center Connor McGovern and Heuerman -- Hogan threw for 37 yards on 5-of-8 passing and guided the Broncos to their first touchdown of the night.

"I'm not surprised, but I think he could have played better, too," Fangio said.

His best work came on the Broncos' 51-yard drive that ended in Muhammad's touchdown. He completed three passes to three different targets, including a 7-yard pass to first-round pick Noah Fant on third-and-5. That allowed the rookie to overcome a drop on the first play of the series. Wide receiver Juwann Winfree, who later caught the game-winning touchdown pass from Brett Rypien, also had a drop.

"Some of the drops he had, the ball placement wasn't great," Fangio said. '[He] made what should have been easier catches harder catches. The guys should have caught them, but they didn't. But I think he's capable of better."

DREW LOCK

"Every journey has a first step ... Every saga has a beginning ..."

Two decades ago, those words flashed on the screen in the trailer to the first "Star Wars" prequel. And just as "Episode I: The Phantom Menace" wasn't the sizzling opening act that many expected, Lock's first NFL preseason game had its rough patches as he finished with 34 yards on 7-of-11 passing.

"I was hoping for more, but [I'm] not surprised," Fangio said. "He's still got a lot of work to do. I thought his accuracy wasn't clean all the time, along with his reads, but we've got four more games. We've got to get him ready -- more ready than he is right now."

Lock had the chance for some explosive plays deep, but misfired. He overthrew Fant and Muhammad down the right sideline, the latter on a wheel route. 

"I feel like if I hit a couple of those passes, I'd feel a little better about the game," Lock said. "There's definitely things I'll need to work on after watching the film."

*BRETT RYPIEN *

The ledger shows a game-winning touchdown for the undrafted rookie -- a 15-yard pass to Juwann Winfree that saw the receiver catch the tipped pass on fourth-and-14 -- one play after a holding penalty had wiped out a 5-yard touchdown strike to Kelvin McKnight.

The tip, an earlier pass-interference penalty against Atlanta's Rashard Causey on fourth-and-10 that kept a drive alive ... yes, there was a little luck involved. But to his credit, Rypien kept the offense calm, overcoming a sack early on the game-winning drive and a pair of possessions that ended in punts early in the fourth quarter.

Rypien's work on the final drive allowed him to lead the three quarterbacks with 41 yards, although he was the only one of the trip to complete fewer than 60 percent of his passes, going 5-of-10.

PASS RUSHERS BUILD OFF STRONG CAMPS

A significant reason why Denver's backup quarterbacks were under pressure during practices was the pass-rush work of the Broncos' reserves, including outside linebacker Malik Reed and defensive ends Dre'Mont Jones and DeMarcus Walker.

Reed and Walker each posted sacks, and Reed led all Denver front-seven players with four total tackles.

But Jones' hit of Atlanta quarterback Matt Schaub with 5:28 left was the most impactful defensive play of the night. It forced an errant throw that Trey Johnson intercepted at the Atlanta 38-yard line, setting up the game-winning drive.

The blow to Schaub was the second of consecutive explosive plays for Jones. One snap earlier, he engulfed Atlanta running back Qadree Ollison in the backfield for a 4-yard loss.

And while his work against the run is important, Jones knows why the Broncos drafted him: to generate pressure on passing downs.

"I've always been able to try to hone my craft to rush the passer, because the league has changed. It's not a run-stuffing league anymore," Jones said. "I've been focusing on that because I know that's what they want me to do here."

THE PUNT-RETURN SHUFFLE

It wasn't a different returner every time out, but Special Teams Coordinator Tom McMahon did change his punt returners throughout the game, with McKnight, Brendan Langley, Nick Williams and Devontae Jackson handling the work.

McKnight had the most explosive return of the group, bursting down the left seam with an 18-yard return that set up Hogan and the offense at its 49-yard line for its second series, from which it drove to Muhammad's touchdown.

McKnight prepared for a precision punt that lingered in the air, but Bosher's 44-yard punt sped toward him, leaving him with some open field.

"I was surprised," McKnight said. "[Bosher] kicked a line drive to me and I thought, 'Shoot, I thought I was gonna have more hang time.' I just caught it and made the most of it."

Langley had the roughest night. He moved forward to field a 36-yard Bosher punt, but muffed it, allowing Atlanta to recover at the Denver 40-yard line. He successfully fielded a punt in the second half, calling for a fair catch.

Langley, Jackson and Muhammad also handled kickoff-return duties. Each had one runback apiece, with Langley's 26-yarder leading the trio.

BIG PLAY IN THE SECONDARY

Johnson's interception wasn't his only key moment. He also prevented a score in the third quarter, lunging to prevent Falcons tight end Eric Saubert from catching a 9-yard touchdown pass from Kurt Benkert.

A pair of incompletions followed, leading the Falcons to settle for a 27-yard Giorgio Tavecchio field goal and ensuring that Johnson effectively made a 4-point play.

Photos from Broncos team photographers of the first half of Denver's preseason opener against the Falcons in the Pro Football Hall of Fame game.

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