ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As the Broncos wound down their second practice of training camp, they began their work in perhaps the most important area of the field.
The final few periods of the morning's practice were held in the red zone, where the Broncos have had differing fates over the last two years.
Over the last two years, no one has been better defensively inside the 20-yard line than Denver. The Broncos allowed touchdowns on just 47 of their opponents' 107 trips into the red zone (43.9%) as they became the first team since red-zone statistics started being tracked in 1995 to lead the league in red-zone defense in consecutive years.
The offense, however, hasn't been nearly as successful. Denver's 53.3 percent red-zone scoring rate in 2020 ranked 27th in the league.
Denver's need to preserve its lockdown red-zone defense while improving on the offensive end is what made their work on Thursday so important — and why it will continue throughout training camp.
"They have to understand the coverage principles, No. 1." Head Coach Vic Fangio said of the important of red-zone work. "Things change in the red zone. We play the same coverages that we play upfield, but we tweak them because of the red zone. They have to be able to execute and know those differences. You have to be able to play fast. A 6-yard gain out in the field may not be that big of a deal, but down there it is. We have to play tight, we have to play decisive,and we have to have a total understanding of what we're doing. The receivers have to understand the tightness of it. We have an end line and there are 12 defenders on defense. It's bad for the defense to be down there — however it happened — but it is a defensive advantage. Nobody can get beat deep anymore. The offense has to change. Quarterback placement of the ball has to change. Are you throwing it in the front of the end zone or the back of the end zone? That makes a difference.
"All those little coaching points [are] why we spend a lot of time on it almost every day. I'm not going to say every day because it might not happen, but we will do some red-zone work. It might be a little bit; it might be a lot. [Most days], we'll do some."
At least on Thursday, the offense appeared to hold the advantage. Working from several spots inside the 20-yard line, Drew Lock found Tim Patrick and Eric Saubert for touchdowns and Teddy Bridgewater tossed passes to Seth Williams and Patrick for scores. Bridgewater's touchdown pass to Patrick may have been the play of the day, as he found Patrick in the back corner of the end zone on the final play of practice.
Bridgewater's red-zone session capped a day in which he completed a slew of passes and was generally efficient in moving the offense. On one fourth-down play outside of the red zone, Bridgewater fired a pass in to KJ Hamler to keep the changing.
Lock, meanwhile, seemed to see his fortunes change during red-zone work. After struggling to find completions earlier in practice — due to a bevy of reasons that included protections, a poor snap and tight coverage — Lock was able to find completions in the tight area of the field.
The work in that area of the field is just beginning, but on Thursday, Denver's offense appeared to take a step forward.
The offensive side of the ball may have succeeded late, but the defense thrived for much of Thursday's practice.
The team's secondary was active all day, forcing a series of incompletions and breaking up several passes. Cornerback Kyle Fuller broke up a pass intended for Jerry Jeudy, and newly signed safety Tedric Thompson later swatted one away on a deep pass to the end zone.
Rookie safety Caden Sterns made his first big play with the team, as he recorded the first interception of training camp.
"He got a nice pick, and he's done a good job of picking up our defense, learning it and being able to graduate from Level 1 to Level 2 and Level 3," Fangio said. "[It's about] not just knowing his job and making sure he's doing that, but maybe putting a little extra on the sundae. That comes with experience. His clock, in that regard, has been fast."
Denver's front-seven worked in concert with secondary, as the team's pass-rushers consistently placed pressure on the quarterbacks. Several plays were blown dead after would-be sacks, and there were moments when the quarterback was flushed from the pocket as quickly as the play began. Defensive ends Shelby Harris and McTelvin Agim each batted down passes near the line of scrimmage, with Agim's nearly resulting in an interception.
"Best hands in the league, baby," Harris said. "Yeah, I had a batted ball today, but it's about getting better. We've just got to work on our craft. My boy 'Sosa' [Agim] had a big one. It's the stuff we do in 'indy' [individual], we got to bring as a team. And then when we do that, we've got to bring it to the games. Everyone's out here working and trying to perfect our craft."
There were more plays to be made, as well. Kareem Jackson flew up to meet Tim Patrick after one catch, and Justin Simmons was potentially in position to make the stop on the aforementioned Hamler fourth-down catch. In a game, either defender likely could have and would have laid a big hit. In the confines of practice, that was left to the imagination.
SUTTON CONTINUES TO PROGRESS
After Courtland Sutton caught a couple of short passes on Wednesday, he took another step during Thursday's session.
The 2019 Pro Bowler caught a 15-to-20 yard pass from Teddy Bridgewater in an early team period, and he raced across the field to make another catch from Bridgewater a few plays later.
Sutton appeared fluid as he ran with a knee brace, but Fangio noted that Sutton has yet to reach full speed.
"Yeah, I'm seeing progress," Fangio said. "I [saw] yesterday and some today that he's still holding back a little bit. He worked in the offseason, but all his work in the offseason was on air. Now you put the defenders out there and it's a totally different ball game. He's got to react to where they are. He doesn't have clear paths all the time. He's got to change [things] unchoreographed and suddenly that he didn't think he'd have to change. I see a little hesitancy. I don't want to [sound] the alarm, it's not. He's progressing. He's going to keep getting better and better."
Fangio said Wednesday that Sutton will continue to wear his knee brace at least through the end of training camp.
Bradley Chubb continued to work on the side during team drills as he continues to get back into shape following offseason ankle surgery.
Asked whether he wished Chubb underwent surgery earlier, Fangio accepted the notion while also mentioning the process wasn't clear-cut.
"Yeah, in hindsight, for sure," Fangio said. "Everybody was confident that it would heal on its own naturally. The surgery — when he did it— was not a slam dunk to have it. There was still a school of thought that he could have overcome it naturally. He decided to go do it, and when they went in there, it was good that he did. Not that it was bad, but it was very easily fixable. It wasn't as bad as they thought it would be or could be. He'll be back soon."
- KJ Hamler was one of several players to catch punts during practice on Thursday. He returned just three punts as a rookie, but Fangio said Hamler could be an option for the role.
"It can be," Fangio said. "It definitely can be. He's got to improve his ability to catch it, which is good. As a punt returner, it's got to be 100 percent. He's a definitely a viable option back there."
- Wide receiver Kendall Hinton made a nice catch along the sideline and appeared to get two feet down.
- Linebacker Justin Strnad, who got hurt early in training camp last season, showed nice closing speed after Javonte Williams caught a pass out of the backfield.
- Fuller broke on a short pass intended for Tyrie Cleveland and was a half-beat from recording a pick-six. Instead, Cleveland was able to make the catch for a short gain.
- Tight end Albert Okwuegbunam recorded a couple of grabs during team drills.
- Safety Trey Marshall had a near interception as he tries to earn a role behind Simmons and Jackson.
- Patrick had a nice day with five catches and a pair of touchdowns. A potential third score for Patrick appeared to be just a yard or two short of the end zone, based on my view.