DENVER --It wasn't hard to find the culprit that nearly cost the Broncos a preseason win over the Rams on Saturday: sloppiness. A minus-4 turnover margin was enough to nearly undo an overall performance in which the Broncos outgained the Rams by 247 yards, averaged 1.7 more yards per play and had 27 first downs to just 11 for St. Louis.
Cut the turnovers of last week and this week, and the storyline of the preseason is different; maybe the Broncos aren't unbeaten, but they certainly don't have a minus-25 point differential through three games, either.
"There are certain things we need to clean up; that is what (Head) Coach (John) Fox addressed in our team gathering after the game," Peyton Manning said. "We can't just talk about it; we have to do it."
Still, that's a relatively simple fix compared to some of the structural failings that are already evident in plenty of other NFL precincts. The Broncos know they can move the football consistently -- perhaps better than anyone else, if they hang onto the football. That might be enough to render moot most of the questions that stem from the upcoming suspension of Von Miller.
Now, to revisit the five questions posed before the game:
1. Will there be a glimpse at life without Miller, and how will that go?
It wasn't much of a glimpse, as Miller played most of the first half, working at his usual strongside linebacker and pass-rush defensive end position. Only on the first series of the second half did much of the Broncos' first team work extensively without Miller, and that was a blink-and-you-missed-it three-and-out.
"The league (suspended him for six games). I wasn't going to suspend him for eight. I'll just leave it at that," said Fox.
Playing Miller was a bit of a necessity, given that Derek Wolfe (cervical spine injury) and Robert Ayers (foot injury) were unavailable Saturday. Shaun Phillips ended up playing extensively not in his pass-rushing role in place of Miller, but as a fill-in for Ayers.
It was a move that Phillips agreed with. It also keeps alive the element of surprise for Week 1; the Ravens have few examples of the Broncos' pass rush without Miller, so they might not be prepared for any exotic blitzes the Broncos throw at them to compensate for his absence.
"Let's get him as many reps as we can," said Phillips, who noted that if Miller was held out Saturday, "now he's missing two months as opposed to six weeks. It's already hurting him enough, and he'll be okay. I'm not going to say we're better off without Von, but I keep telling everybody (that) football is about 11 people, not one."
2. How will the running backs shake out?
This will be the position group that bears closest monitoring in the next 12 days -- not just by Broncos fans, but fantasy-football players circling the globe who now wonder whether the Ronnie Hillman/Montee Ball platoon will come to pass, or whether Knowshon Moreno now factors into the mix.
Three days after Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase described fumbles in general as "unacceptable," Hillman lost his grip on the football after being hit by Alec Ogletree, who recovered it and ran 13 yards for a touchdown. It was the second consecutive game in which a lost Hillman fumble was returned for a touchdown, and he did not touch the football again.
That opened the door for Montee Ball and Knowshon Moreno. While neither was perfect -- Ball, in particular, was kicking himself over dropping a pass in the left flat that he might have been able to turn into a 13-yard touchdown -- they were both effective. Splitting the repetitions on the next five first-team series, Ball ran for 33 yards on 10 carries and a touchdown, pushing his total to 43 yards on 14 rushes, while Moreno caught three passes for 42 yards and added one rush for five yards, working mainly when the Broncos were in pass-intensive mode. Moreno added another 28 yards on four carries behind the second-team offensive line.
Hillman did a lot right as a ballcarrier Saturday; he was decisive, exploded to the holes he was given and averaged 5.7 yards per carry, but as he admitted, "It's kind of hard to look at the positives when you have negatives like that."
3. How will Danny Trevathan fare as an every-down linebacker?
Saturday was a mixed bag for Trevathan, who had some solid moments against the run and wasn't caught out of position often, but struggled to keep pace with Jared Cook, the Rams' 6-foot-5, 254-pound tight end who consistently got open throughout the first half. Cook had 50 of the 110 yards the Rams' first-team offense racked up; when he was targeted, the Rams averaged 8.3 yards per play, compared with 3.3 on their other 18 first-half snaps. Trevathan's speed and playmaking ability gives him a high ceiling, but he wasn't able to show it against Cook, whose precise cuts seemed to catch the entire defense off guard.
Time and repetitions are what Trevathan needs most.
4. Which defensive linemen have the most to gain?
Malik Jackson provided the big play that he needed, punctuating a solid summer with a thunderous sack of St. Louis quarterback Austin Davis late in the third quarter. Linebacker Lerentee McCray, who has worked some snaps from a hand-in-the-dirt position, made his mark on special teams, blocking a Brett Baer punt in the fourth quarter to set up a touchdown.
Defensive tackle Mitch Unrein stopped a Rams drive with a third-down sack of Sam Bradford early in the third quarter.
What was key was the interior pass rush. Even without Wolfe, who rotates inside on pass-rush downs, the Broncos were able to attack Rams quarterbacks from the inside spots; two of their four sacks came from the defensive tackles.
5. Can the backup offense become more consistent?
Osweiler's best drive came with the first-team offense, which he guided to a 79-yard, 11-play march that culminated in Montee Ball's 1-yard touchdown run. The backups accounted for 10 points on six possessions, but also had a pair of giveaways that helped keep the outcome in doubt until the final moments.
Osweiler was able to function effectively in the pocket for most of his time with the second team. When he did face pressure from the edges, the second-year quarterback was generally able to do a good job stepping up and into his throws.
"We knew that they would be coming hard upfield, so we knew, as quarterbacks, that we had to step up into the pocket to make throws," Osweiler said. "That was something that (Quarterbacks) Coach (Greg) Knapp reminded me of on the sideline, and we did that tonight."
But a fumbled snap and an interception sullied the night. The snap is likely correctable with time and repetition; the interception, on a pass to Trindon Holliday, requires a better decision-making process, which he acknowledged.
"I'm thinking one thing; he's thinking one thing," Osweiler said. "But that's one thing I need to learn: either throw the ball out of bounds if there's confusion, or find my checkdown. I can't have a turnover in that situation. That's one of those bad things that I need to learn from and clean up and make sure it doesn't happen again."