ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — They will soon take the final step.
Von Miller and Courtland Sutton, who played a combined 31 snaps in 2020, are expected to make their respective returns to game action on Saturday against the Rams.
Miller has not played since the end of the 2019 season, as a freak ankle injury ended his 2020 campaign before it began. Sutton, meanwhile, missed the first week of the 2020 season with a shoulder injury before he tore his ACL against the Steelers in Week 2.
Over the past year, both players have been relentless in their return to the field, and they should finally see live reps as the Broncos close the preseason. Head Coach Vic Fangio said he expects both players to take part in the action.
"I think they're in shape and they're ready to go," Fangio said Thursday. "They just need to get some game action."
Fangio said he wasn't sure how much the team's starting unit would play, but he expected "a few series at least."
Regardless of the snaps they get, both players are eager for the moment.
"I've attacked this week like a regular week for me," Miller said Wednesday. "This is a true dress rehearsal for me. [Tuesday] was [the] first day of practice [going] hard like I would in [the] regular season. [I] attacked the day like I would in the regular season today. I'm going to get ready and I'm going to go through pregame warmup and I'm going to go through my whole routine from the night before, two nights out [to] changing the way I eat two nights out. This is a true dress rehearsal for me and I'm going to go out there and play. I'm not really worried about the numbers. I just want to go out there and touch the field [for the first time] in a long time. I haven't played in a game since the Raiders in 2019, so it's super exciting to be back in there and go through the motions, and just drive to the stadium and go through the whole thing. So, it's a true dress rehearsal for me and I'm attacking it like it's game week for me."
Added Sutton: "I've missed the game. I've missed the game a lot. I know a lot of people say preseason doesn't count, this and this and that. There's a lot of opinions about that. I feel like if you're stepping onto the field, they blow the whistle, the clock is running, it's a game — you better go out there and do your best and put your best foot forward. I'm looking forward to being able to go do that."
Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur noted that the game reps are important for Sutton and are the next step in his recovery process.
"We've talked about this throughout the camp but we need to see him get out there," Shurmur said. "I think it'll be good for him. This is kind of the next phase of his recovery, and he's done a great job in practice and just go out and play good football. Run good, crisp routes; if he's asked to block do his business; and then catch the ball."
Though he has yet to compete in his first preseason action, Sutton said he "1000 percent" expects to be able to play in Week 1 against the Giants without a snap limit.
"If I'm available and … there aren't too many restrictions on me, then I'm going to go out there and play as much as they allow me to play," Sutton said. "I don't have a pitch count for myself. I don't plan on being like, 'I only want to play 30 plays.' That's the last thing I'm trying to do. If them boys say I can go play, I'm going to be on the field as much as I possibly can."
As Sutton looks ahead to Week 1, Fangio said he expects tight end Albert Okwuegbunam — who tore his ACL against the Falcons on Nov. 8, 2020 — to make his preseason debut at the same time as Sutton and Miller.
"In my mind, he's kind of where Courtland is," Shurmur said. "He's coming back from injury. I see them as kind of the same player right now in they're going to get their first snaps in this game. So, he's got to go out and bang around, block his guy. If we throw him the ball, catch it and run with it. So, he needs to go out there and do stuff that looks like football."
Running back Melvin Gordon III, who did not play against the Seahawks, and starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater are also among those expected to play.
For a look at which players will not participate, click here.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
The Broncos' special teams coverage units weren't as sharp as they needed to be on Saturday against the Seahawks, as Denver gave up kick returns of 45, 28, 30 and 38 yards, respectively. In all, Seattle returned five kicks for 126 yards during the game, as the 38-yarder was reduced to 23 yards after a penalty.
"It's not effort," Fangio said. "It was guys being out of position and not taking on a block the right way. For the kicks that we had, we'd like a little more hang time. It was a little bit of everything. Mainly, we have to cover better."
While Special Teams Coordinator Tom McMahon acknowledged that the coverage unit was not comprised of the players who will play special teams during the season, he noted that every player needed to be better in the area.
"Every single guy's got to play for us, because you guys all know, the practice squad guys that start the year, they're playing for you Week 7," McMahon said. "That's reality in this league. So no, everybody needs to make plays, shed blocks."
McMahon said his unit is still looking for leaders to emerge and earn a role, but he identified fullback Andrew Beck and tight end Eric Saubert as key contributors. Saubert, in particular, earned praise from McMahon for his willingness to embrace a special teams role.
"Eric is tough," McMahon said. "It's hard to find a tight end that can run like him, and he is as physical as a linebacker. He can shed, and he does every single thing you ask him to do. He's prepared, he comes into the meeting rooms and all the guys see his notebook. He's mean, and that's what you need. You need a physical guy that's your third tight end. He accepts his role, and he loves his role. He wants to be the best tight end in the league on special teams."
Saubert, of course, should also contribute on offense. He caught two passes for 26 yards against the Seahawks, including a terrific over-the-shoulder catch on a 21-yard throw from Bridgewater.