DENVER --What was likely the final preseason tune-up for the Broncos' starters left the offense feeling confident it can move the ball against a tough defense -- and cognizant of the need to eliminate turnovers.
When quarterback Peyton Manning left Saturday's game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, the St. Louis Rams led 20-10. The offense never once went three-and-out and put together drives of 63, 75 and 80 yards. Yet the group put just 10 points on the board. A fumble and an interception didn't help that cause.
"We really moved up and down the field at a fast tempo. We stalled down in the red zone – that's where we have to finish," Manning told CBS after halftime. "You have to finish those drives. You have to get seven points when you have the defense sort of holding their heels."
The Broncos began the game with the ball, but after one first down, the drive was halted.
It took a touchdown-saving tackle by punter Britton Colquitt to stop Rams rookie Tavon Austin on the ensuing punt -- his 81-yard return came to an end at the 3-yard line.
Unfortunately for the Broncos, the special-teams tackle kept the Rams out of the end zone for just one play, as quarterback Sam Bradford found tight end Jared Cook for a leaping touchdown over top of linebacker Danny Trevathan on first-and-goal.
But the Broncos offense was quick to answer, stringing together an 11-play, 80-yard drive on the next possession. A 16-yard run by Ronnie Hillman got the series started, and a 15-yard connection from Manning to Eric Decker put the Broncos in Rams territory.
Decker -- with a 12-yard catch -- and Montee Ball -- with an 11-yard run -- picked up the other two first downs on the drive before Denver faced a fourth-and-2 at the 6-yard line. Manning hit Demaryius Thomas for a touchdown in the back corner of the end zone to convert the fourth down and knot the game up at seven points apiece.
The Denver defensive tackles dominated St. Louis' next drive. First, Kevin Vickerson and Terrance Knighton swarmed running back Daryl Richardson at the line of scrimmage for no gain on second down, then Mitch Unrein sacked Bradford on third down to force a punt.
The ensuing Broncos drive started at the 9-yard line, but that didn't stop the unit from driving deep into St. Louis territory. Among the highlights were two more first-down catches by Decker and two first-down catches by Ball out of the backfield. On the first catch, the rookie running back made linebacker Alec Ogletree completely whiff on a tackle, and on the second he lowered his shoulder to drive for the first down, knocking off cornerback Janoris Jenkins' helmet in the process.
When the drive stalled, however, a 34-yard Matt Prater field goal was blocked by Rams safety T.J. McDonald. St. Louis' next possession resulted in a Greg Zuerlein field goal to give the Rams a 10-7 lead.
Ogletree redeemed himself on the Broncos' next drive. The rookie forced a fumble by ripping the ball out of Hillman's hands before picking it up and running the remaining 13 yards into the end zone for a defensive touchdown to put the Rams up by 10.
"Ronnie did a good job – that could have gone either way and Ogletree made a good play," Executive Vice President of Football Operations John Elway said in the CBS booth at halftime. "They (Hillman and Ball) are both running the ball well tonight. Making some strides from last week, which is what we wanted to see."
Ogletree wasn't finished -- he leaped to tip a Manning pass with one hand before corralling it for an interception, ending a promising Broncos drive near halftime. Instead, the Rams drove down the field for a 58-yard Zuerlein field goal and the 20-10 lead.
The first-team offense -- with Brock Osweiler at quarterback -- came back in for two third-quarter drives, the second of which resulted in a touchdown.
Osweiler used 17-yard passes to Thomas and Knowshon Moreno to spur on an 11-play, 79-yard drive that was culminated by Ball's first touchdown as a Bronco. Starting with first-and-goal from the 6-yard line, Ball carried the ball for 3 yards then 2 yards before punching it in on third-and-goal from the 1. He kept his legs churning and powered through Rams linebacker Josh Hull to pull the Broncos to within three points -- 20-17.
"I thought Montee and Ronnie had some good runs," Manning said. "They caught the ball well out of the backfield. Those guys have to get better, though, throughout the season because they are young guys."
That was the final drive for the offensive starters, and by then the defensive starters had left the game as well. Wesley Woodyard, from his new position at middle linebacker, paced that group with seven tackles and a sack.
"It was fun," Woodyard told CBS in the third quarter. "Got in there and just did what I do and just played football."
Among the standout offensive performances were Ball's 14 carries for 43 yards and a touchdown, Hillman's 5.7-yards-per-carry average, Thomas' seven catches for 64 yards and a score and Decker's six catches to lead the starters with 66 yards.
"Well, Eric has had a good training camp," Manning said of Decker. "He is going to play a big role on our offense this year. You saw him outside, you saw him in the slot. He's a versatile guy. We feel like we have good matchup options with he and Demaryius Thomas outside. (Andre) Caldwell played well and (when Wes) Welker gets back it gives us another weapon. It's just a matter of trying to get better through the season. That's what we're trying to do."
Manning left the game having completed 25 of his 34 passes for 234 yards, one touchdown and one interception -- good for a quarterback rating of 89.6.
"There were some good things, some positives we can build on," the quarterback said. "I don't think you ever want to peak too early. There are still some things we can iron out. We have two weeks to do it before we play Baltimore in the season opener. So, we'll use all that time that we can. I thought we got some good work done but certainly some things we can build on."