CHICAGO --The Broncos' pursuit of their fourth world championship will begin on what is expected to be a muggy night at Soldier Field, hard by the west shore of Lake Michigan.
Their opponents, the Bears, are filled with familiar faces on the sideline and the field, starting with former Broncos head coach John Fox and players like linebacker Danny Trevathan, defensive tackle Mitch Unrein, wide receiver Eddie Royal and, of course, quarterback Jay Cutler.
Ordinarily, we'd have three keys to the game. For the preseason, keys are irrelevant, because the scoreboard result is less important than the process -- and, above all, avoiding injuries.
Instead, we'll look at three key areas to watch:
It's been 17 years since there was any reasonable preseason doubt as to the Broncos' projected Week 1 starter, so the ongoing competition between Mark Sanchez, Trevor Siemian and rookie Paxton Lynch is unique.
Barring anything unforeseen, the Broncos hope there is more certainty to the spotlight position at this time next year than there is now. However, Thursday's game could begin providing some answers to key questions for each quarterback for 2016.
Mark Sanchez will start and is expected to play the first quarter. As the only experienced regular-season quarterback in the trio, he needs to show the value of that seasoning. Although he's struggled to avoid turnovers in recent days, with three interceptions in the last three practices, seeing another defense that doesn't jump short routes as often should help.
Trevor Siemian is expected to play the second quarter. He has done well at running the offense, but the game format will offer him a chance to deal with pressure from an opposing pass rush. How will he respond? What will his decision-making be under a rush? How well he answers these questions could help determine whether he can sustain his bid to be the first-team quarterback against Carolina in Week 1.
Paxton Lynch will get the longest look: the entire second half. This gives him a chance to get settled into a groove, and perhaps not find himself in a situation where he's forcing passes knowing he might not get another chance. Given Lynch's feel for the rush, his escapability and his comfort on the run, the game format could give him the chance to show some skills that the practice format doesn't always reveal.
- OFFENSIVE LINE**
With Ty Sambrailo injured and Russell Okung being brought back on a "progression" plan and not playing Thursday, Michael Schofield will line up at left tackle, with newcomer Darrion Weems working on the first team at right guard.
Schofield is the more known commodity from his starting work last year; although the Broncos signed Okung and Donald Stephenson to man the tackle spots, Schofield has capitalized off the work he's received in place of Okung and has established himself as, at minimum, the first backup off the bench.
He has a chance to earn the starting job at right guard, and even though he's not working at the spot Thursday, a good performance could help him stake a claim to being one of the five best offensive linemen on the roster and a Week 1 starter. He's already done enough to earn the co-No. 1 right guard spot with Sambrailo.
Weems moved inside from tackle and has shown enough to get a starting shot Thursday. Others who will bear close watching Thursday include center James Ferentz, and tackle Kyle Roberts; both have seen first-team snaps in the last week.
- SPECIAL TEAMS**
Britton Colquitt and Riley Dixon will continue to grapple for the punting chores, but perhaps the most fascinating battle will be at returner, where young returners led by Kalif Raymond and Bralon Addison are expected to get a long look.
Kubiak said that Raymond would get an extended opportunity after a strong two weeks of practice to open training camp.
"You want to see his return mechanics, if he has good ball security, catches the ball well and makes good decisions, that's really important," Special Teams Coordinator Joe DeCamillis said.
DeCamillis also plans to have Brandon McManus work on placing kickoffs into what he often calls "manageable space" to get a better gauge on his players' coverage abilities.
"If you watch last year, the Seattle game, the first [preseason] game, we were trying to hit it in the field of play," DeCamillis said Tuesday. "We want to see the guys who can cover because you also find the guys that can't cover, which helps you down the road."