ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — After eight days of full-speed work, the Broncos slowed the pace on Monday for a 100-minute, unpadded practice.
Denver was slated to go through a different practice scheduled, but a rash of soft-tissue injuries led Head Coach Vic Fangio to call an audible and swap Monday’s practice plan for one the Broncos were set to go through later this week.
For most of the session, the Broncos' first-team offense and defense worked against scout-team looks as they traded high intensity for mental preparation. Fangio said following practice the Broncos worked against looks they would see from early-season opponents, and that work will continue intermittently until the Broncos begin their game-week preparations ahead of their Sept. 14 opener.
"Today's work on both sides of the ball were against some things that we're going to see from early opponents and things that we need to see on both sides of the ball that we don't get from each other's offense or defense," Fangio said. "So today, that was the focus. That was planned. We have one or two more of those planned before we get into game week, and we'll do that along the way."
Despite the half-speed nature of Monday's practice, there were still several highlights. On offense, Drew Lock showed good accuracy — as you would expect during such work — and Noah Fant made several catches. Jerry Jeudy was also on the receiving end of several targets, and Courtland Sutton hauled in a couple of passes. Lock also connected with Melvin Gordon — who returned to practice Monday — and Royce Freeman out of the backfield.
Defensively, Jurrell Casey and Bradley Chubb both batted passes at the line, and Chubb nearly hauled his in for an interception. Alexander Johnson and Kareem Jackson added pass breakups, and the first-team defense was strong against the run in the red zone.
As the Broncos prep for the Titans and their other early opponents, Fangio admitted they may have to make some concessions in what they install for Week 1 and beyond. He'll rely on his time as the 49ers' defensive coordinator in 2011 for some guidance. That season, ahead of which a lockout kept teams away from their facilities all offseason until training camp, was Fangio's first in San Francisco.
"At first, comparing this to the lockout year, which that year we were a totally new staff where I was, hadn't even met our players until training camp," Fangio said. "But we had a normal training camp with preseason games and the like. We put a lot in because we wanted to expose our players to it in case we needed it, and also it was a way for us to learn our players. I think along the same lines here, we don't want to not put something in that we think is valuable, although it might be cumbersome to learn in the short amount of time that we do have available. But I do think because the camp is shorter with no preseason games, we're going to have to find the mid-ground there between what I explained with the lockout year and this year. Yes, we're going to have to be able to execute what we do, which may mean we cut back. But we also, I think, have to push the envelope, and if we feel something's important to have schematically, that we're able to do."
HOLLINS AN OPTION AT INSIDE 'BACKER
With Todd Davis out for multiple weeks with a calf injury and Justin Strnad out for the season following wrist surgery, the Broncos will have to turn to other options at inside linebacker.
Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell were the team's top options Monday, but the Broncos also moved second-year player Justin Hollins from outside linebacker to inside linebacker. Fangio said the Broncos planned to keep the former fifth-round pick at outside linebacker this year, but the series of injuries "forced our hand."
"It may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Justin and for us," Fangio said. "We're not putting him in there just because we need somebody in there. He's a guy that has a chance in there, and sometimes when you're forced to do something, both as a coaching staff or as a player, it ends up being a blessing, and I'm hoping that's what happens here."
Fangio said Hollins could potentially see time in the team's nickel package, but the team hasn't decided on who will start in that role.
"We'll see," Fangio said. "Justin, this was his first day there, and it wasn't a normal practice day there as far as training camp goes. He does have good recall. He's a smart guy. He's recalling the stuff he was learning last year at that position. I think we'll find out if he's grown at all and is a guy capable of that. He does have some good length. He can run. He's just going to learn to play with more explosiveness and decisiveness, because things happen quicker and more things happen at inside linebacker."
HAMILTON NOT THROWING AWAY HIS SHOT
Third-year wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton caught a pair of passes Monday, including a touchdown grab during red-zone work. The former fourth-round pick had a pair of costly drops in 2019 against Oakland and Los Angeles, but he rebounded by posting 11 catches for 130 yards in the final two games of the season. Fangio said Sunday that Hamilton had showed improved route running, catching ability and overall play, and he revealed Monday that he had a conversation with the young receiver last season.
"I think he's learned a lot," Fangio said. "He struggled last year. He was hard on himself. I remember he had a drop in a game there with five or six games to go, and I called him into my office and showed him one of the top receivers in the league who has great hands dropping one that was an easy catch. I just told him, 'Everybody drops one every now and then, but you can't let it linger. This player's not going to let that one linger. You can't let it linger.' I thought he played better the last quarter of the season last year. I think he's picked up from where he left off."
- Denver closed practice with a four-minute drill in which the offense had to run out the clock and the defense needed a stop. On third-and-six, Lock rifled a pass to Nick Vannett for the presumably game-winning first down.
- Fangio said the NFL's response Sunday to a series of false-positive COVID-19 tests among multiple teams was "a good reaction." Teams either delayed or cancelled practice and in some cases closed their facilities until they ensured no players or staff were sick. "This is a time where we all have got to adjust, and I think they handled it correctly," Fangio said.
- With De'Vante Bausby (soft-tissue injury) and Michael Ojemudia (quad) held out of practice, Isaac Yiadom and Davontae Harris shared reps at the No. 3 cornerback spot.
- Rookie Lloyd Cushenberry III led the way at center on Monday, but Austin Schlottmann and Patrick Morris also got reps with the starting unit as the competition continues.