ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --With no pads and ball caps instead of helmets, the Broncos' focus as they began getting ready for the Cincinnati Bengals was more mental than physical.
"Today we did a lot more mental work. I wanted to get some more reps than we normally get on a Wednesday," Head Coach Gary Kubiak said.
And part of that was focused on fixing the offense's lingering red-zone issues, which is where the Wednesday roundup begins.
- WORKING TO GO FROM "RED" TO "GREEN" IN THE RED ZONE**
Per-possession stats illustrate the one thing missing from Denver's offense.
In first downs and net yardage per possession, they rank second in the league. But in net points per possession, they rank 12th, with the offense accounting for 40 points over 18 series so far this season.
That's a better pace than the one logged by last year's offense, but it is nevertheless frustrating as turnovers and third-down stops have kept both games close. Without those, the Broncos might be looking at having a 2-0 record with the league's best point differential.
Yes, 2-0 is 2-0, but that doesn't prevent the offense from lamenting its squandered opportunities -- and understanding that it needs to maximize them better, especially because there will be games when the Broncos do not roar up and down the field between the 20-yard lines.
"I think we're doing some good things," quarterback Trevor Siemian said. "I think we're really, really close. I think we're knocking on the door to being a special group."
To kick the door in, the task is simple in description but difficult in execution: to finish drives in the end zone more often than once every three possessions that go inside the opponent's 30-yard line.
"Everybody's got to do their part, and I think it starts with me for sure," Siemian said. "But I think we're really close. I look back at tape, and if one or two things go our way, it's a totally different ballgame."
The Broncos returned to the field to work on preparing for a road trip to face the Bengals. (photos by Gabriel Christus unless noted)
- HOW WILL THE BRONCOS FILL IN FOR DONALD STEPHENSON? WITH "A LOT OF PEOPLE"**
It could take a village -- or at least a rotation -- to fill in for their starting right tackle, who did not practice Wednesday and is expected to sit out Sunday's game because of a calf injury he suffered early in the win over the Colts.
"We have a lot of options," Kubiak said. "I think with Donald right now, I see us playing a lot of people. We could get into a rotation-type of thing."
Against the Colts, the Broncos' only option was to move Michael Schofield out to Stephenson's right tackle spot and insert Darrion Weems at Schofield's vacated right guard position. Those were the Broncos' two primary choices because Ty Sambrailo was inactive; the only other active offensive lineman was center James Ferentz, who saw some work at guard during the preseason.
But if Sambrailo plays, the Broncos have myriad options, because he can work at every position but center.
"Obviously, Michael can play out there [at right tackle], Ty can play out there, and even Weems can really play out there," Kubiak said.
He added that he "probably" expects to use all seven offensive linemen who will be active Sunday, making a rotation seem likely.
Look back at photos from the history between the Broncos and Bengals, including Brandon Stokley's miracle touchdown in 2009.
- BRONCOS MINDFUL OF CINCINNATI'S GROUND GAME**
In 29 regular-season games played together before this season, Bengals running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill became one of the league's best tandems, combining to average 100.9 rushing yards per game and 4.21 yards per carry with 25 rushing touchdowns between them.
But in two regular season games, they've struggled, combining for just 95 rushing yards on 30 carries. And while Bernard is a potent threat as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, with a 25-yard touchdown catch-and-run last week, the Broncos know they must still take the Bengals' ground threat seriously, even though Cincinnati currently ranks 31st in rushing yardage per game and 30th on a per-carry basis.
To that end, the ground game was a point of emphasis Wednesday.
"We worked on a lot of run today, because we know that they want to run the ball," ILB Brandon Marshall said. "They have a good back, and good O-linemen to run the ball, so we've got to be on guard."
And the Bengals have had more success running against the Broncos in recent years than anyone else. Since the start of 2014, the Broncos have allowed the Bengals to average 4.5 yards per carry, 157.5 rushing yards per game and one first down every 4.38 carries. Against all other foes since 2014, they've allowed 3.5 yards per carry, 80.1 rushing yards per game and one first down every 5.26 carries.
4. IF NEEDED, JEFF HEUERMAN IS READY
With Virgil Green "day-to-day" with a calf injury that kept him out of practice Wednesday, Jeff Heuerman's time might have finally arrived.
"Yeah, it's about time," he said. "I do need to get in there and make some plays and help this team win on the road this weekend."
The second-year tight end has yet to play a regular-season snap because of a litany of injuries, from last year's torn anterior cruciate ligament to hamstring and ankle problems in recent weeks. But he was healthy enough to play last Sunday, and if Green can't play, Heuerman will be in action.
"It was kind of one thing after another for a little while, but it's all good now," Heuerman said.
Before the injury, Heuerman appeared primed to be the No. 2 tight end behind Heuerman, thanks to his improvement as a blocker and his ability to make plays in the red zone.
"I felt good," he said of his play before the Aug. 17 hamstring injury. "It was kind of one of those things, [where I was] a little down for a little while after that hamstring came up on me during camp. But I felt good during camp and I felt good out there the couple of days I practiced last week and today, so I'm getting ready for everything."
And Siemian is ready to have his fellow member of the 2015 draft class back on the field.
"I've got a lot of confidence in Jeff," he said. "I think the whole locker room does."
Added Kubiak: "I'm confident in Jeff. He's a good kid. He works hard. He's very bright. He knows what he's doing. You know, this happens sometimes to young players; it seems like every time they take a step forward, they take two back. I know it's been tough on him, but I've seen guys jump out of it and go."
- SIEMIAN CONTINUES TO DO WELL GETTING EVERYONE SET**
Earlier this month, Kubiak said that Siemian had the freedom to change the call at the line of scrimmage, just like Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler did last year.
So far, so good.
"He's done a really job of getting us in the right calls, changing some protections," Kubiak said. "We ask our quarterback to handle the run game at the line of scrimmage a great deal, and I'm very impressed with what he's done so far from that standpoint.
"Obviously it gets a little tougher where we're going."
That, of course, is Cincinnati, where the crowd is certain to be raucous and noisy in a way Siemian has not experienced since he guided Northwestern into Big Ten cauldrons such as Michigan Stadium, Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium and Penn State's Beaver Stadium.
Of course, his signature performance came in his senior year when he went 30-of-48 for 284 yards in leading Northwestern to a 43-40 overtime win at Notre Dame in what turned out to be his final full game as a collegian before he tore his anterior cruciate ligament one week later at Purdue.
So he's dealt with noise. But not as a pro, and not with the burden of getting this offense set. So how can the Broncos prepare him for what looms in the Jungle?
"Play a lot of loud music," Kubiak said, smiling. "No, that's a big challenge this week -- his first time going on the road and handling the team and handling the huddle. We'll have to work a lot of noise this week, not only at the line of scrimmage, but just getting in and out of the huddle."