DENVER -- The third preseason game is typically the dress rehearsal for the regular season. In each of Peyton Manning's previous two Broncos seasons, the All-Pro quarterback, the No. 1 offense and No. 2 defense played the entire first half, with a smattering of starters remaining in the game early in the third quarter. Manning did not play in the second half of either.
This year's third preseason game, against the Houston Texans, could be different because of the three days of practice against each other at Dove Valley.
"We've already talked about coming into this week knowing that we would have more intense reps this week that could affect maybe a little less playing time for the starters," said Broncos Head Coach John Fox.
The intensity escalated into mild skirmishes at times in practice. But those incidents will not make a difference as to how long the first-teamers play; it's all the other repetitions -- team, seven-on-seven, nine-on-seven, one-on-one -- and whether Fox and his staff believe their players got enough out of them to move the first-team cutoff up to some point in the second quarter Saturday.
No matter when the starters exit the game, there are pertinent questions to examine while they and others are in there. After the game, we'll look back and see how these were answered. 1. What will make the first-team offense's third game of preseason work a success?
Above all, to keep Peyton Manning upright. If Jadeveon Clowney returns to the field Saturday, the Broncos' pass-protection scheme will have its hands full containing Clowney and J.J. Watt, both of whom had bursts of dominance during practice this week. They could be especially dangerous if they attack from the same flank; if they're lined up to one side, you can expect the Broncos' blocking scheme to compensate, whether through extra men or a screen pass away from them, to defuse the pressure Houston's pass rushers can provide.
But beyond good health for Manning and his teammates, the Broncos would like to work on the timing between Manning and Emmanuel Sanders -- if Sanders is cleared to play; he returned to practice Thursday after missing most of the previous two weeks with a strained quadriceps muscle. More consistency from the running game, at least two more sustained scoring drives and a chance to examine a variety of formations and scenarios would also help the Broncos extract what they need from this game.
2. Will Von Miller play, and if he does, how will he do?
Miller hopes to play, and has taken part in a full array of team periods the last two weeks. If he returns to game action for the first time since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament just over eight months ago, it will be interesting to see how the Broncos use him relative to DeMarcus Ware. Will they line up exclusively on opposite flanks? Will they move Miller around and overload one side with pass rushers? Will Miller drop into coverage on passing downs, or will he focus entirely on the pass rush?
There exists myriad possibilities for Miller, and the Broncos may not want to show them all Saturday -- even if he plays. There's no guarantee of that, even though Miller would like to take part.
"It's the kind of place where you can get some of the errors out of the way and work on technique. It's a game to get better," he said. "I would like to play in the preseason games, but I am a pro."
And being a pro means listening to medical staff, listening to his body and doing the right thing for the long term, not just for one August night against a team from his home state.
3. What does Isaiah Burse need to show on punt returns?
A breakaway return would be helpful, because if the Broncos keep a player on the 53-man roster whose primary role is as a returner, he needs to be explosive enough to justify a spot on a squad that appears to be the club's deepest in years.
But as Burse noted this week, the top priority is to protect the football. This was a bugaboo for the Broncos on kickoff and punt returns the last two years, when most of the returns were handled by the spectacular, but fumble-prone, Trindon Holliday. Special Teams Coordinator Jeff Rodgers has made it clear to his charges that ball security is the No. 1 goal.
"Every special teams meeting Coach Rodgers starts the meeting off by saying, 'Hey Burse, what's the most important thing in the return game?' And it's to get the ball back to the offense," Burse said. "I really take pride in that and I'm going to keep trying my best to do that."
In the wake of Jordan Norwood's season-ending tear of his anterior cruciate ligament, Burse should have a opportunities. If the defense flourishes in the next five days, there could be a plethora of them. That would offer Burse the chance to build a workable sample size for evaluation under game conditions.
An explosive return would aid his cause. However …
"I think it's important, but I feel kind of like they know I can do that. They know I can do that and what I think about it is just taking care of the ball," Burse said. "That's all I really care about, but the big returns will come.
"If the offense is on the field in the next play, then you did your job. That's how I look at it. As long as I'm taking care of the ball, everything will work itself out."