ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — On third-and-8, Josh Johnson dropped back and fired a pass down the center of the field.
In a flash, rookie Montrell Washington cut inside and found space between the Bills cornerback in coverage and a Buffalo safety crashing down. Washington hauled in the pass, absorbed contact and held onto the ball for a completion of 19 yards. It was the latest big-time play from the fifth-round pick that has emerged as the surprise of the preseason.
"I knew it was third down, so we needed a play," Washington told DenverBroncos.com after the Broncos' preseason meeting with the Bills. "Josh threw a beautiful ball, and once I came out of my break it was there for me. Just kind of making a play when my number's called."
Initially drafted as a return specialist — a job he's handled quite well — Washington has also emerged as an offensive option for a Broncos team that will look to find a way to replace an injured Tim Patrick.
"I'll tell you, that catch he had on third down, that was a big-boy catch vs. very good defense," Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett said. "With the safety in the middle, he was fearless. So seeing that was great."
Washington also contributed an explosive play on special teams, as he broke a tackle on his second kickoff return of the afternoon and raced away for a 35-yard gain.
"I thought he was down, and he was rolling," Hackett said. "That was great."
Washington — who had a pair of nice punt returns against Dallas — again showed an ability to avoid contact and make a play in space. His tendency to make those plays results from a combination of his ability and his dislike of the alternative.
"I was just trying to make a play," Washington said. "... I'm just fast. I don't like to get hit, so my biggest thing is just run fast."
Washington quickly exited the game, as the Broncos looked to protect one of their newly found weapons. In Washington, Denver may have found the edge they've been missing on the return unit.
IMPROVING IN THE RUN GAME
Early on Saturday afternoon, it seemed the Broncos' offense had remedied its issues in the run game from against Dallas. After averaging 1.8 yards per carry against the Cowboys, Denver averaged 3.5 yards per carry on its first drive. Quickly, though, the Broncos again found trouble when trying to run the ball. Denver finished with a 1.9 yards per carry average, and the team's longest run was just eight yards.
"Alignment [and] assignment is always the most important thing," Hackett said of correcting the issues in the run game. "We want to make sure that they know what they're doing. Then you go to their technique, how they're doing their technique, and then just simply if they're getting physically outmatched. So it's a step-by-step process to see how all those guys are doing, and that's why this is a great time. It doesn't count. But in the end, you get to evaluate all your guys."
Running back Mike Boone, who carried the ball five times for 11 yards, stressed the importance of the run game in the Broncos' overall success.
"I feel like the run starts everything," Boone said. "In order to pass good, you've got to be able to run good. It's extremely important."
… Second-round pick Nik Bonitto did not record a tackle, and he said his focus ahead of Week 1 is to "[see] things faster," diagnose the opposing formation and better learn his responsibilities.
"I feel like a lot of the time I'm still thinking when I go out," Bonitto said.
Bonitto was whistled for an offside penalty at the end of the second quarter, and Hackett said that sort of penalty can impact the rest of a player's game.
"Whenever you're a rookie coming into the NFL, there's always going to be some difficulties and learning a new system and all those things," Hackett said. "He went against a couple of veteran quarterbacks today. So going against those guys, they know how to work the count. They know how to work him. They probably saw that he was trying to get off the ball quick and they got him … in those pre-snap penalties. Then that kind of affects you and then you lose some other things. But you know, he's coming along fine. It's one of those things [where] he is a rookie, and he's got to work even harder to understand the system."
… Tight end Albert Okwuegbunam was one of just a handful of starters to see action on Saturday, and he played into the fourth quarter. Hackett said after the game that Okwuegbunam "needs some reps," and that he was glad to see the tight end respond with a 26-yard catch after an earlier drop. Okwuegbunam's four catches were the second most on the team.
… The Broncos could regain several of their key players this week, as Hackett said he expects tackle Billy Turner (knee) to return to practice this week. Hackett also said he hopes tight end Greg Dulcich (hamstring) and wide receiver KJ Hamler (knee/hip) can do more in practice, but he wants to make sure both players avoid setbacks.