ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Even in the third preseason game, when the first-teamers are expected to play into the second half, the process of building towards being prepared and healthy for Sept. 5 trumps all other priorities.
"This is preseason," head coach John Fox said Thursday. "We're trying to get ready for our regular season and yet still hone our skills to get ready for that."
Fox was talking about wide receiver Wes Welker, who is completing his recovery from an ankle injury suffered in last Saturday's 40-10 loss to the Seahawks. But those words hold true for the team overall.
1. Will there be a glimpse at life without Von Miller, and how will that go?
Since preparing for the regular season is what matters most, then the Broncos would be best served by giving their contingency plan a lengthy run into the second half, which likely means the most extensive work yet for Nate Irving as a strong-side linebacker and Shaun Phillips as one of the pass-rushing defensive ends.
Irving's experience as a backup strong-side linebacker last year will help him; he knows the system, knows the calls and knows how to find the gaps to attack against the run, as he showed in the last two games. But Phillips is getting acclimated after leaving the only team he'd ever known.
"Yes, I'm still adjusting," Phillips said. "I've pretty much got the gist of the defense and the guys are helping me out by welcoming me with open arms. They're making it that much easier for me."
It will help Phillips if the Broncos get some sustained pass-rush push from the defensive tackles. That would allow Phillips the chance to use his one-on-one pass-rushing moves, which has always been the most potent part of his game. It would also lessen the need for over-reliance on blitzes; the Broncos didn't need to get overly creative or take unnecessary risks to mount pressure last year, and ideally, they'd keep it that way.
"We still have linebackers blitzing, we still have to put pressure on them but we're not really concerned with that," said linebacker Danny Trevathan. "We're going to stick within our scheme and try to make plays within our scheme."
2. How will the running backs shake out?
There's no indication that the Broncos will deviate from their platoon of Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball, who have been the top two backs in the last two preseason games and have shared work with the first unit. But each made a mistake last week that could undo their progress: Hillman with a goal-line fumble and Ball with a missed block on Seattle's Bobby Wagner that resulted in the hardest hit Peyton Manning has suffered this preseason.
Pass protection and ball security "are equally as important," for the running backs, offensive coordinator Adam Gase said Wednesday, But Gase's repetition of "unacceptable" in regard to the three first-half fumbles -- one each by Hillman, Brock Osweiler and Julius Thomas -- revealed that the ball-protection issues particularly rankled him.
"[Fumbles have] been a huge point of emphasis for us this offseason because the fumbles we had early in the season last year -- that was one of the main factors of why we started off as slowly as we did. So this has been a big emphasis," Gase said.
And it's why if Hillman fumbles again, concern for the Broncos' ground game will spike, as another bobble could threaten a year's worth of progress.
3. How will Danny Trevathan fare as an every-down linebacker?
The second-year linebacker had good instincts, quickly attacks and can make plays anywhere on the field. If he can avoid missed tackles, he will be an asset; with Wesley Woodyard moving to middle linebacker, the combination of the two University of Kentucky products offers the potential for more speed at the weak-side and middle spots than the Broncos have enjoyed in some time.
"We're both UK guys and we know what our motto is: just fly to the ball and make plays," Trevathan said.
4. Which defensive linemen have the most to gain?
With Derek Wolfe still recovering from last Saturday's cervical neck strain and Robert Ayers having missed the last two days of practice because of a foot injury, the spotlight falls squarely upon Phillips, Malik Jackson and Jeremy Beal.
Phillips was set for a prominent role in preparation for Miller's suspension, but could find a bulkier workload without Ayers and Wolfe to handle base-package work at the ends. But Jackson's ascension is a result of Wolfe's injury; he filled in last week and can handle the swing inside/outside role. If he flourishes, he could have a more prominent role in the rotation than originally thought.
Beal's situation is different; his roster spot appears far more tenuous than that of Jackson. This is his third season in Broncos camp, and he has yet to play in a regular-season game. His work in preseason games the last two years has come with backups. But he's displayed some good moves from the edge in practice and the last two preseason games, and this could be his best chance to grab the coaches' attention.
5. Can the backup offense become more consistent?
This is what the Broncos desperately need. The No. 2 offense has only accounted for one scoring drive, and that came only because of a Trindon Holliday punt return; it didn't earn a first down on that possession, which resulted in a Matt Prater field goal last Saturday. It starts with the offensive line not allowing pressure from the flanks and providing enough push to keep the runners from being met behind the line of scrimmage. If the line stabilizes, the offense should improve.