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Broncos-Rams: What to watch

LOS ANGELES -- The Broncos' fourth preseason game of 2019 will primarily belong to the backups. That doesn't mean there isn't plenty to absorb as the Broncos try to sort out their depth.

At no position is this more important than quarterback. If Drew Lock's injury persists into the regular season -- and recallable injured reserve is a possibility, Head Coach Vic Fangio noted -- then Kevin Hogan, Brett Rypien or both must prove they are capable of running the offense for a game or more if Flacco is injured.

Effectively, Hogan and Rypien could be in competition with players not on the roster -- free agents or players currently on other teams who will be waived or released at the 53-man roster deadline on Aug. 31.

For Hogan, the task is simple: play smooth football, something he did in the preseason opener against the Atlanta Falcons.

“I just want to show that I can run the offense, go be efficient, convert on third down and stay on the field," Hogan said. "I felt like we got off the field a little bit too much. And then get in the red zone and put stuff in the end zone. Try and get touchdowns instead of field goals.” 

Red-zone inefficiency has been an issue up and down the depth chart in the previous three preseason games. But Hogan's 24-yard touchdown run last Monday -- four yards outside of the red zone, of course -- showed that he has the sort of adaptability to discombobulate a defense on the fly.

"He’s a smart guy," Fangio said. "He can run the offense and he’s always been one of those guys that seems to make a play when there isn’t one there like the scramble he had the other night for the touchdown. He’s got some playmaking and improvisation in his game."

The ability to take a play and make it leap beyond the initial design is a trait most effective NFL quarterbacks share. It's something that Rypien must show, as well.

The repetitions will not be divided evenly between Hogan and Rypien on Saturday night, but Rypien will still see his first game action since leading a game-winning touchdown drive against the Falcons.

Rypien noted that the game has slowed down for him as he's gained more experience -- some of it coming with the scout team against Denver's No. 1 defense, a scenario in which improvisation can prove valuable.

“I just try to take those reps like it’s a game and I’m out there playing," he said. "Even when we’re doing the scout cards and we’re just drawing everything up, for me, I try to take it like we’re running our own offense and I’m out there in a game."

What he and Hogan do in this game will help determine whether they have a place on the 53-man roster.

What other storylines are worth watching Saturday?

GETTING YOUNG DEFENDERS BACK ON TRACK 

With Todd Davis still sidelined, Alexander Johnson has been among the players seeing first-team work at inside linebacker. But despite all the first-team repetitions, Fangio said Johnson is "kind of flattening out" after an "up and down" game against the 49ers.

"Some good, some not so good," Fangio saida of Johnson's performance after reviewing the game footage. "I was hoping for more. He’s got to keep ascending and not flatten out. I thought he had a good camp early on. ... He’s got to step it up here.”

Safety Trey Marshall started on Monday with injuries sidelining Will Parks and Su'a Cravens. He notched three tackles, but it wasn't his best performance, Fangio noted.

“It was OK, was hoping for better, but he’s a young guy who’s learning," Fangio said. "His whole body of work, meaning since we’ve been here, practices, other games, was better than his work the other night so hopefully he’ll be back to playing better.”

FIXING WHAT AILS THE SPECIAL TEAMS

“We just have to do a better job of covering and blocking," Fangio said Wednesday.

No aspect illustrates this more than the team's work on kickoff and punt returns. The Broncos rank 23rd on kickoffs (20.0 yards per runback) and 28th in punts (3.3 yards per return).

The Broncos also have three fumbles so far this preseason; that rate of one fumble every three opportunities (returns and fair catches) is 28th in the league; only the Bengals, Giants, Lions and Falcons were worse going into Friday's games. So the first task remains to secure the football; one fumble or muff per game -- as the Broncos have had on returns in August -- is unsustainable.

Young players will likely comprise the core of the Broncos' special-teams units, but Fangio did not dismiss the notion of using starters on offense or defense, citing the example of NaVorro Bowman, who played for him in San Francisco from 2011-14.

Four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Chris Harris Jr. knows all about this; before he broke up his first regular-season pass as a pro, he led the Broncos in special-teams tackles in three games as a rookie.

Harris' solution? Find the players who bring what he calls "want-to" to the equation.

“It just more like 'want-to,' I think. I think we just need a little be more dog in us in special teams," Harris said. "Just 'want-to' -- who wants it more? I think that is what special teams is. Who wants it? Who is going to make the play, who is going to put that high effort in?

"I think we have great effort, but we've just got to have that dog in us to go finish the play.”

SETTLING THE RECEIVING CORPS

With Emmanuel Sanders' strong performance Monday, the Broncos appear set to rely on him, although Fangio noted Thursday that he still has work to do in order to get his game stamina up to speed.

"It just goes to show that playing football is really the only way to get in shape to play football," Fangio said, "because he’s in as good of shape as he can be in in light of his injury.”

Courtland Sutton, DaeSean Hamilton and Tim Patrick all appear to have clearly defined roles in the room. Hamilton has found his stride since returning from a hamstring injury as a reliable short-area target for Flacco on third downs; he moved the chains twice in that scenario against the 49ers last Monday.

Sixth-round pick Juwann Winfree had the Broncos' game-winning touchdown reception against Atlanta and caught a two-point conversion pass from Lock at Seattle a week later.

Special teams factors into this, as well. If one of River Cracraft, Nick Williams or Kelvin McKnight can generate some separation in the punt-return derby, a roster spot is there for the taking.

SEEING HOW ORSON CHARLES FITS

Charles is listed as a tight end, but was used mostly as a fullback by the Browns last year, and that could be the most intriguing aspect of his skill set as it relates to roster construction.

If the Broncos keep Andy Janovich on the 53-man roster while he recovers from a pectoral-muscle injury, they might need to allocate two spots to the fullback position -- unless a tight end can handle the job. So while Charles is competing with tight ends such as Jake Butt and Moral Stephens; he will also grapple with rookie fullback George Aston, who has played 55 offensive snaps in preseason games this month.

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