ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As clouds rolled in over UCHealth Training Center early Wednesday afternoon, the game clock on the scoreboard began ticking down.
The Broncos' second minicamp practice was in its final period. With Thursday's session set to be what Head Coach Vance Joseph termed a "cap day" -- baseball caps with no helmets -- effectively, the most crucial phase of offseason work was in its final period, as well.
One minute and 30 seconds were on the clock. The offense had the football at its 35-yard line with one timeout remaining and a 28-27 deficit. It was time for a statement. It wasn't real, but it was the closest thing you can get to it in practice without pads.
Move-the-ball periods like this were a staple of OTA and minicamp work for the Broncos this spring. But this scenario -- with the offense in hurry-up mode in an end-game simulation -- was the most urgent.
It was also necessary.
"We just want to try to work situations so the first time we encounter them [is not] in the fall," Offensive Coordinator Bill Musgrave said after practice. "That way the players can anticipate what's going to be called, and they can have some dress rehearsals."
Wednesday's "dress rehearsal" belonged to the offense, as Case Keenum and Paxton Lynch each led the No. 1 and No. 2 offenses, respectively, into range of a game-winning field goal.
Keenum used consecutive completions to Courtland Sutton, DaeSean Hamilton and Jeff Heuerman to guide the offense into field-goal range. The completions to Sutton and Heuerman moved the chains, with Keenum using a bit of misdirection to find Heuerman for the pass that moved the offense to the defense's 34-yard line.
Keenum then drew the offense into better field-goal range with 4-yard passes to Sutton and Heuerman that bracketed a defensive pass-interference penalty that moved the chains.
Lynch guided the second offense on a 35-yard march that got to the defense's 30-yard line. He completed two fourth-down passes on the series -- a 4-yard, fourth-and-4 pass to Jordan Leslie that moved the football to the defense's 44-yard line, and a 6-yard connection to Isaiah McKenzie near the sideline on fourth-and-2 that was followed by the double horn that ended practice.
The drive started with a pair of quick passes to tight end Jake Butt that moved the chains before Lynch began spreading the football around, finding Leslie, McKenzie, and tight end Brian Parker, who caught back-to-back passes for a total of 13 yards.
"The offense drove the ball and got two field goals. That's the key," Joseph said. "You want to practice winning games offensively, and you want to practice stopping them on defense."
OBSERVATIONS FROM PRACTICE:
... "Most of our practice is about scoring and stopping scores," Joseph said, and that was evident in the extensive goal-to-go and red-zone work during Wednesday's practice.
One of the standouts of red-zone work was rookie tight end Jake Butt. During one period he caught two touchdown passes, one on a slant from Keenum and the other on a post route in the back of the end zone from Keenum.
"Jake is working hard. Of course, he's hungry, because he had to sit out with his injury," Musgrave said. "But whether it's at the tight-end position or outside the numbers at the wide-receiver spot, he's got the body control to get open, so he's going to be a terrific asset for us."
Later in that same period, quarterback Chad Kelly led the third-team offense to three touchdown passes -- one scored by River Cracraft and two caught by rookie Jimmy Williams.
... The defense continued to throw pressure at the offense from all angles, beginning with a pass rush from outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett that forced a Keenum throwaway during the first team period Wednesday. Barrett also got to Lynch for what would have likely been in a sack in game conditions -- a sack he would have likely split with defensive lineman DeShawn Williams, who recorded multiple pressures over the last two days.
However, the offense was also able to respond with some quick passes that allowed it to find its footing.
"The defense got after us pretty good [Tuesday]. It was body blow after body blow," Musgrave said. "Today we stopped the bleeding [and] had our moments, but the defense is still a tough, tough task each and every day."
... Defusing a pressure defense like the ones the offense will face often involves throwing to the running backs, all of whom made receptions in space over the last two days.
One example of this came when Chris Harris Jr. sprinted toward Keenum on a delayed blitz. Keenum continued to look in Harris' direction as the three-time Pro Bowler approached, but then threw above him and toward Devontae Booker, who was open near the left sideline.
Running backs and tight ends will be essential to making Musgrave's offense work.
"I think we need to utilize those guys," he said. "Our wide receivers are the strength of our team; we know that with Emmanuel [Sanders] and Demaryius [Thomas]. But we're looking forward to Jake Butt making a contribution in the passing game, and our running backs have great hands.
"A lot of times those matchups are a little more favorable than a wide receiver on a Pro Bowl corner[back]."
... Second-year safety Dymonte Thomas nearly intercepted a pass during the first team period, stepping in front of a Chad Kelly attempt into the right flat. This marked the second consecutive day in which Thomas broke up a pass.
... Tight coverage from cornerback C.J. Smith prevented a potential Lynch-to-Sutton touchdown pass later in practice. Smith has consistently made plays on the ball during the open-to-media practices of the last few weeks.
... Keenum and Hamilton connected on one of the best pass plays of the day midway through the practice, as Keenum hit the fourth-round pick for a 30-yard gain down the right sideline past three defenders. The pass came in spite of a defensive pass-interference penalty.
... With Demaryius Thomas sitting out due to a foot injury, Sutton also had a handful of receptions, including a leaping 20-yard grab that saw him pluck a Lynch pass out of the air.
... Although the running backs continued to shine, the run defense had some solid moments, including one play on which Shelby Harris blew through the left side of the second-team offensive line into the backfield, meeting running back Phillip Lindsay just as he received the handoff from Lynch.
Minicamp Day 2: 'More fire and more energy'
The Broncos' second day of minicamp practice was a more energetic effort, Head Coach Vance Joseph said, as the team focused on end-of-game scenarios.
action during minicamp at UCHealth Training Center in Centennial, CO, June 13, 2018.
Photo by Gabriel Christus