ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The nine-on-seven period is typically the most physical of a training-camp practice. It's a chance to find out where a team's ground game and run defense stack up.
Last year, these periods provided the first indication of improvement from the Broncos' run defense, which struggled in 2016. In previous days this year, the Broncos' improved run blocking and deep stable of running backs seized the spotlight, with runners like rookies Royce Freeman and Dave Williams showing their cutback ability.
But Saturday, the defense got the better of it, stopping runs at or behind the line of scrimmage on half of the 12 repetitions. This work set the tone for a practice in which Denver's front seven and safeties filled gaps and generated pressure that often forced the quarterbacks out of the pocket and into hurried throws.
"It's definitely one of our best days of camp, coming off a day where we didn't really start fast," rookie linebacker Keishawn Bierria said. "That was the emphasis today, to come out here, have that urgency, start fast, play good defense, listen to the vets and just work."
Bierria was a key component of a pair of the run stops, bursting into the backfield to stop rookies Williams and Phillip Lindsay during a three-play span. On the stop of Lindsay, Bierria and defensive end Cashaud Lyons blew up the run. When Bierria got to Williams, he was the first defender there.
These aren't the first standout moments in nine-on-seven work for Bierria, a sixth-round pick fighting for traction in a crowded field of inside linebackers. His work against the run has jumped out since the Broncos first donned full pads July 31.
The transition out of shorts and shells brought out the best in Bierria.
"When you put the pads on, really, for a linebacker like me, it's 'See ball, go get the ball,'" Bierria said. "You're definitely supposed to be in position, but what [the coaches] really want to see from me right now is to just be out there, play football and see what I can do."
Special-teams work will likely determine whether Bierria can stick on the 53-man roster, but for now, his defensive snaps are worthy of attention.
... While the defense bolted from the starting blocks Saturday morning, the offense progressed in fits and starts, with a handful of dropped passes dotting its performance.
"We’ve got to start faster, in my opinion," Joseph said. "Today wasn’t good enough at the start, offensively. Yesterday it was defense, so we can’t pick and choose our times to come out and be focused. That’s a problem.
"We don’t want to start games down 14-0 and claw our way back into the game. That starts out here and that hasn’t been good enough the last two days."
... Defensive end Clinton McDonald had a strong day in both run defense and pass rush. During the nine-on-seven period, he held his ground at the point of attack, allowing him to be in position to tag-team with inside linebacker Todd Davis to stop Devontae Booker for no gain. In a team period, he posted a sack of Case Keenum, taking advantage of outstanding coverage downfield that prevented a throw, allowing him to get to the quarterback.
... Defensive end Adam Gotsis broke up a Paxton Lynch pass near the line of scrimmage during a team period, and also notched a safety when the offense was at its 1-yard line, breaking through the offensive line for what would have been a sack of Lynch in game conditions.
... Marquette King showed off his strong leg once again, blasting three punts of 57 or more yards to open up a special-teams period in which he was punting from the back of the end zone.
... Wide receiver Tim Patrick had another strong day. He set up a De'Angelo Henderson touchdown with an outside block that sprung the second-year running back for an 8-yard catch-and-run, and later had a score of his own, leaping in the back of the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown pass from Lynch.
... The timing between Keenum and Emmanuel Sanders resulted in a connection that could have gone the distance in a game. During a team period, Keenum hit Sanders in stride as he crossed from left to right on a third-and-5 play, which easily moved the sticks.
Keenum and Sanders later connected on a play in a third-down scenario that moved the chains, with an assist from Freeman, who picked up a blitz to keep Keenum upright.
COURTLAND SUTTON STRIKES AGAIN
Continuing to make the spectacular seem routine, the Broncos' second-round pick provided the biggest play for the offense during Saturday's practice, catching a deep pass down the right sideline that could have potentially been a 93-yard touchdown in game conditions.
With the offense facing second-and-4 at its 7-yard line, Keenum fired a pass for Sutton, who adeptly adjusted to the football in flight, coming back for the pass and hauling it in despite contact from cornerback Bradley Roby. Sutton then turned upfield and sprinted for the east end zone.
The test now for Sutton is whether he can carry it over into preseason games.
"It’s a different level next Saturday versus the Vikings, the following week against Chicago. We’ll see," Joseph said. "As camp goes on, obviously the intensity goes up. As the season goes on, the intensity goes up. We’ll see how he continues to develop.”
... Inside linebacker Josey Jewell saw his workload increase in his second practice back from a hamstring injury. He wasted little time making an impact, bursting through Lindsay with pressure that forced Lynch out of the pocket during the first team period.
"I just love the way [Jewell] plays," outside linebacker Von Miller said. "He may be a rookie, but when you talk to him, it really doesn’t feel like he’s a rookie. When you see him play, it doesn’t look like he’s a rookie. He’s going to play in this league for a long time."
... Lindsay and Isaiah McKenzie fielded punts Saturday. Lindsay had trouble fielding one punt as he came forward to catch a high, hanging King punt, but he couldn't reel it in.
... Austin Traylor continued to see extensive first-team work at tight end with Jeff Heuerman sidelined because of knee soreness. He capitalized by catching a 5-yard touchdown pass from Keenum during a team period.
... A crowd of 4,287 watched the practice, which took place under sunny skies and temperatures that rose from 82°F to 88°F over the course of the two-hour session.