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'They've given us a great boost and advantage at home': Broncos react to playing season opener without fans

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — When the Broncos jog out onto the field for their season opener against the Tennessee Titans, the Empower Field at Mile High stands will seem oddly empty.

After the team's first touchdown or takeaway, the south stands won't shake and any roar would have to be artificial.

The Broncos announced Friday that they will hold their Week 1 game without fans in attendance, and that means games won't be quite the same at a mile high.

"It's disappointing," Head Coach Vic Fangio said Friday. "… I watch a lot of sports, as you guys know. Even [in] golf and baseball, it's just not the same without the fans there. It isn't. I've always known the fans are a big part of pro sports in particular. We're going to miss them. We're going to miss our fans in particular. They've given us a great boost and advantage at home. We love playing in front of them. There's a love affair between the fans and the players and the team. We're going to miss it."

Fangio said he remains hopeful that the Broncos can welcome fans back to future games this fall, and the team said it would continue to assess the situation. The team has not ruled out welcoming back fans as early as Week 3 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"Hopefully at some point here we can keep doing the job with … COVID that we're doing in the NFL and eventually get some fans in there," Fangio said.

For an offensive player like Elijah Wilkinson, the impact of fans would likely be felt more in an opposing stadium. In Denver, the crowd knows to stay quiet while the offense is at work. Still, Wilkinson will miss running out to a stadium that has been sold out for more than 400 consecutive games.

"It's definitely a bummer to me," Wilkinson said. "That gets me amped. I love coming into Empower Field [at Mile High]. It's 70,000 strong and it's loud, especially when the defense is on the field. There's nothing like it. It's definitely going to be a little bit different, but it is what it is. It's the times that we're in and it's something that we've got to deal with until things get better with our nation."

Fangio, though, believes the Broncos will be able to play at a high level no matter how many people are in the stadium.

"I think they'll adjust quickly," Fangio said of his team. "As you see in practice, the guys that are out here, they get rolling pretty good. The game's not going to change. There's going to be live action going on. I don't think it will affect the play a whole lot. It just will affect the atmosphere."

Wilkinson agreed with his head coach's sentiment.

"I don't think it's going to affect us at all whether there's no fans, no noise or whatever," Wilkinson said. "We're coming to play some football; we're coming to win games. I don't think fans are really going to make an impact on that, but it's definitely nice to have them."

SENDING HIS BEST

Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera announced Thursday that he has been diagnosed with cancer, and Fangio expressed his best wishes for the long-time defensive-minded coach.

"I know Ron a little bit," Fangio said. "Obviously [I'm] hopeful that he'll be able to overcome this. I've heard … it's a curable cancer, and Ron's a tough guy. Deep down in his gut, in his belly, his DNA, he's got a lot of toughness. I'm sure he's going to get through this as good as anybody can, and I expect him to beat it."

Rivera announced he has squamous cell carcinoma that is located in a lymph node. Rivera told ESPN that the cancer is "very treatable and curable."

WILKINSON EMBRACES DIFFICULT MATCHUP

Elijah Wilkinson has had a tough task as the team's starting right tackle during training camp. Nearly every day, he's faced off against Von Miller, who looks refreshed and energized after an eight-sack season in 2019.

On some plays, Wilkinson is able to keep Miller away from Lock. On others, Miller gets the best of the young tackle. Wilkinson, though, isn't afraid to match up with the three-time first-team All-Pro.

"You know, he's [a] Super Bowl MVP," Wilkinson said. "He's Von Miller — 58. Everybody knows him, but you can't look at it like that. You can't be like, 'Oh, he's Von Miller,' or 'Oh, he's Bradley Chubb.' He's No. 58, and I'm going to hit him. I'm not going out there soft setting or being scared to go out there. You just go out there and you hit him. He's the same. He puts his pants on just like I do. He puts his pads and helmet on just like I do. When you have a guy like that, he's No. 58. I'm not thinking about, 'It's Von Miller.' I'm thinking about my target, where I'm aiming at, how he's rushing, what I'm going to do to counter it — those kinds of things. If you think about all that, you're not going to win."

LOOKING FOR CONSISTENCY

In the Broncos' Week 16 game against the Lions last season, then-rookie defensive end Dre'Mont Jones recorded 2.5 sacks, five tackles, three quarterback hits and two tackles for loss. Jones was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week after the performance, and he thinks he's getting closer to being able to play like that on a consistent basis.

"I've been getting closer and closer each and every day," Jones said Friday. "I've felt like every day I've improved, I've grown, I've learned more about myself, I learned more about how to adjust when players are starting to know your tendencies as a pass rusher and as a player in the run. I think I'm getting close."

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