ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It was a move-the-ball period midway through practice, and the first-team offense was not moving fast enough. A pair of completions had the offense at its 43-yard line. But the drive began with 2:20 on the clock back at its 30-yard line, and after a pair of short completions, just 1:16 remained. To jump-start the series, Joe Flacco turned to undrafted rookie Kelvin McKnight. Reading the zone coverage perfectly, McKnight broke for the left sideline, settled under a 16-yard pass and got out of bounds to move the offense out of its own territory and stop the clock.
McKnight wasn't done. Three plays later, on third-and-2, Flacco found him for a 4-yard completion to keep the drive alive. Two snaps after that, a 9-yard reception to set up what would have been a near-certain Brandon McManus field-goal attempt followed.
The drive covered 50 yards, and 26 of them came on passes to McKnight. Working mostly out of the slot in place of the injured DaeSean Hamilton and River Cracraft, McKnight has seized the moment in the last two days, in part because the rookie hasn't looked like one. Instead, he's learned some tricks of the trade that give him the savviness of a veteran.
"He did all right. He's progressing," Head Coach Vic Fangio said Thursday. "The wide receiver position has been hit a little bit with the injury bug, so these younger guys are getting opportunities and sometimes that's how you find somebody."
After practice Friday, McKnight said one of the things he's learned during training camp is that he can "cheat a couple of plays." But to "cheat" doesn't mean what you might think it does.
"It's just a football term -- maybe steal a yard on my alignment, cut my split down, certain stuff like that," he said.
Those tricks have helped him find separation within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, making him effective on short crossing routes. But they might not represent a direct path to a 53-man roster spot.
That's where special teams comes into play. As he often does, he lingered on the field Friday after the two-and-a-half-hour practice to get extra work, focusing on punt returns. He was one of the last to leave the field, and departed flanked by Special Teams Coordinator Tom McMahon, who still had some points to make about what to expect from opposing punters -- perhaps another "cheat" or two, if you want to view it that way.
"Just different looks on punts that I will be seeing throughout the year, different types of punters," McKnight said when asked what McMahon shared with him. "Different techniques, what to read on the ball, stuff like that."
In McKnight, McMahon appears to have an eager student, one willing to soak up the details and sharpen the subtle skills that separate those who manage to stick on an NFL roster with those who don't. He also has a pupil who understands that he will fail. Even though the first eight practices have been mostly stellar for McKnight, rough days will come. But the rookie expects to prosper from them.
"With repetitions, you just get better," McKnight said. "Failure equals growth."
ENDING WITH A THUMP
Fangio huddled his team late in practice, and then sent them to work on what is typically the most ferocious moment of training camp: the goal-line period.
The first-team offense faced the No. 2 defense and scored on two of four snaps. Running back Royce Freeman followed a block from a pulling Dalton Risner to score on a first-and-goal from the 2-yard line. On the next two plays, defensive lineman Billy Winn deflected a Flacco pass at the line of scrimmage, and Mike Purcell stopped Freeman at the goal line. The series concluded with a 2-yard Flacco-to-Tim Patrick touchdown pass.
Denver's No. 1 defense dominated against the second-team offense. Safety Justin Simmons stuffed Dave Williams at the 1-yard line on first-and-goal, and two plays later, a swarm of defenders led by Alexander Johnson stopped Devontae Jackson short of the goal line. Two pass plays ended with incompletions due to pressure on Kevin Hogan from DeShawn Williams and Jeff Holland.
... The goal-line stop by Simmons was just one of a slew of outstanding plays for Broncos safeties. Will Parks forced one incompletion with a blitz, and caused another on an attempt to Tim Patrick by timing his contact well, arriving just after the football to avoid a pass-interference call. Su'a Cravens also broke up a pass.
... Errant shotgun snaps remained an issue Friday. At one point, a single period of practice saw two low snaps from Connor McGovern to Flacco. Drew Lock also had to field an errant snap, but he recovered for a completion.
"We have to keep practicing because we can have nine other offensive players on offense having the best down of their life [but] we can't get the snap, it's wasted. That's both the snap and the quarterback," Fangio said. "Sometimes it's the quarterback too.
"I thought it was a little better today in comparison to yesterday where we had kind of an epidemic of them yesterday. Today we kind of had a few of them. We can't have any."
... With Ja'Wuan James nursing a lower leg bruise and Ron Leary getting a rest day, Elijah Wilkinson and Jake Brendel worked with the No. 1 offense at right tackle and right guard, respectively. Leary is expected to return to practice Saturday.
... Rookie tight ends Noah Fant and Austin Fort each caught touchdown passes during a seven-on-seven red-zone period. Fant caught his pass from Flacco, scoring on an 8-yard pass, while Fort took advantage of blown coverage for a wide-open 7-yard scoring catch. Fort had a chance for another touchdown one play later, but dropped the pass.
... Wide receiver Courtland Sutton had his longest reception of camp to date during a team period in which the No. 1 offense worked against the second-team defense, laying out for a 50-yard reception down the right seam.
... During that same period, the No. 1 offense faced the second-team offense, led by Lock, and finished with two plays that would have been sacks under game conditions, one by Von Miller and the other by Shelby Harris, who put his hands up and held up to avoid certain contact with Lock.
... Aside from the snapping issues and a pair of false-start penalties, the offense appeared to enjoy another strong day. It was particularly crisp in the ground game, with the first-team line doing a good job driving forward to create more space for the running backs to operate, leading to some solid runs throughout the day.
"I thought it was a little better operation than it has been and that's good to see," Fangio said of the offense. "Hopefully when I go back and look at it it's good play by them and not crappy play by the defense. Hopefully it's good play by both sides and they're winning. Don't know the answer to that yet."
... Punting, punt coverage and punt returns were points of emphasis Friday during the special-teams periods. Colby Wadman and Justin Vogel opened by working on precision punting.
Later, they punted from their own territory during a punt-return drill. Wadman had seven punts; Vogel had six. Wadman had the better gross average (49.4 yards) and hang time (4.42 seconds) than Vogel (37.2-yard average, hang time of 4.31 seconds), as Vogel was hurt by a pair of mishit punts that sailed out of bounds.
During the punt-return period, eight different Broncos lined up to field punts: McKnight, Trinity Benson, Phillip Lindsay, Horace Richardson, Juan Winfree, Brendan Langley, Devontae Jackson and Nick Williams, who signed with the team Friday.