ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Broncos' 2012 campaign won't officially kick off until Sunday at 6:20 p.m. MDT.
But the transition from the offseason to the regular season began with Monday's practice, when the team officially set its sights on its first opponent – the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"It's here," linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. "This is what we've been waiting for. We have our 53 guys and our eight guys on the practice squad. We're ready to hit the field running. Today we came out here (and) everybody came out ready to practice today. We had fun, flying around, making plays. That's something that shows that we're ready to play."
Entering his 14th year in the NFL, wide receiver Brandon Stokley has come to expect the increase in intensity that accompanies the conclusion of the preseason and subsequent start of the regular season. He said Monday morning's practice brought about a familiar spike in the energy level on the practice field.
"You could tell today the tempo got taken up a notch and it's just going to continue to do that," Stokley said. "But it's always kind of a different feel when you're done with the preseason and you're heading into the first week of the regular season. You can just tell. It's a different attitude, different feel out there. It's always great heading into that first week."
Rookie running back Ronnie Hillman recovered from a hamstring injury that hampered him throughout training camp to play in his team's final two preseason games. His work against San Francisco and Arizona gave him a small taste of a game-like atmosphere, but he knows that regular-season action will be a whole different animal.
"It's going to be my first experience of a real game and you get the whole atmosphere of it," Hillman said. "Hearing everything, going through everything, just going through the practice right now leading up to a game, it's something new."
With the results of the preseason now irrelevant, the only thing that truly matters is how Hillman and his teammates perform going forward.
"Now it's real," Hillman said. "It's on the record now. It doesn't get erased. Now it's preparing for (Pittsburgh) and getting ready."
Woodyard said the start of the regular season means the nicks and bruises sustained during training camp go out the window.
"Now it's no time for the soreness and the pain," Woodyard said. "That's all gone with summer camp. Now it's at that (16)-game stretch that we're waiting for."
The showdown with the Steelers is just the first of many steps in a long 16-game season, and Head Coach John Fox said the team is looking for a strong start.
"It's like any race," Fox said. "How you come out of the starting blocks is important, so it's something we're emphasizing and trying to do (to) the best of our ability -- like our opponent, Pittsburgh, is. It's always important. They're all really important games."