Here we go -- the dress rehearsal of the preseason.
Denver faces Washington on Friday night with an 0-2 preseason record that is less significant than its questions to answer. Denver's first-teamers left the playing field last week with a 13-7 lead over the Chicago Bears that offered assurances that the issues in a brief cameo the week before against Minnesota were hiccups. But the Broncos are still waist-deep in the process of finding out who and what they are.
"I think as a defense -- and really as a team as a whole -- we're just still trying to find our identity," outside linebacker Shane Ray said.
No first-teamers have officially been ruled out for the game. Left guard Ron Leary is a game-time decision, but if he can't go, Max Garcia, last year's starter at the position, is set to hold down the fort.
What Head Coach Vance Joseph wants to see is simple.
"Just playing good football, that’s what we on want to see Friday night," he said Wednesday.
What are some key areas to watch Friday?
Defense finding its groove
The team is still looking to find its optimal form. This is especially true on the defensive side, where its dominance has helped define its sense of direction in recent years.
Last year the defense wobbled at times. Ensuring that there is not a recurrence ofthe issues that plagued the unit in 2017 led to some different areas of emphasis in practice this summer -- starting with the red zone.
"Red-zone [defense] last year was one of our biggest things as a defense that we don't feel like we did a great job at. We've got to improve on that. Even this year. That's our big focus."
Continuing to improve in pass coverage
Injuries have prevented the Broncos from having their top three cornerbacks on the field at all times the first-team defense has been on the field this preseason, which has affected their work in pass coverage and forced rookie Isaac Yiadom into some demanding situations.
But a significant issue is whether the Broncos can get their pass rush and secondary coverage to the same level. This will likely determine whether their defense can return to its 2015-16 form.
"For us, we're starting there, trying to see if we're going to be a dominant run-stop[ping] defense," Ray said. "If we're going to be able to pass rush and have coverage, to have those things work together. Those are all questions that have been asked that we're trying to fill in. So it's good to have this third preseason game with the starters out there playing more, just to see where we are. Is the engine revved up, or are we still lacking a couple of pieces?
"I think last week we made a lot of good steps as a team [and] as a defense, starting fast, making plays, affecting the quarterback, doing the things that we were doing. Of course, with the younger guys, we've got to finish the game with great communication and the technique that coaches give to us. So it's always things, but I like where we're heading."
Keenum getting up to speed
Quarterback Case Keenum spoke Tuesday about how his footwork led to some high throws during last Saturday's preseason loss to the Chicago Bears. The adjustment is relatively minor, but it's good to have the opportunity to tweak it now, rather than when the win-loss result matters most.
"I thought I was a little unsettled in the pocket at times and caused a few balls to sail when we had a few guys open," Keenum said. "[WR] Emmanuel [Sanders] got open a few times.
"Those balls that I said I want them back, looking back, my feet weren’t as good as they normally are in pocket. I think that’s part of it, too, getting some live reps with a real defensive line rushing and moving in the pocket. Being able to stay on your feet and keep your eyes down field and deliver a good catchable ball. So, I think that’s going to be one of the things personally, for me."
Finding a plan at running back
Devontae Booker remains the first-teamer, but rookie Royce Freeman has two touchdown runs so far this preseason and has dazzled in his work. The Broncos hope to use Friday's game to find out which one of the two young backs will handle the bulk of the workload come the regular season.
Good hands from Isaiah McKenzie
McKenzie has flourished on punt returns, but his fumbling issues arose again late in last Saturday's loss to Chicago, when he frittered away a potential game-winning drive.
Special Teams Coordinator Tom McMahon said he was not concerned about McKenzie's fumble on offense, saying that it was a "whole different ball game" catching the ball on punts, something McKenzie has done well in preseason and in training camp. However, a fumble on a punt return would represent a significant cause for concern.