DENVER -- If you go by preseason indications, this Broncos season should be far different than the last.
The starting offense found its footing after three three-and-outs to start its preseason work. The defense overcame early hiccups and improved its form over its three games of work. Quarterback Case Keenum has been as advertised, delivering precise work with judicious risk-taking predicated on trusting his big downfield targets to haul in more than their share of 50-50 balls.
Now the Broncos know they must turn those positive signs into a reality that ensures 2017 will stand as nothing more than an unfortunate blip amid decades of consistent contention and relevance.
What happens Sunday will not reveal everything about what is in store for the Broncos' 59th edition. But just as Broadway shows are reviewed on opening night, so, too, will this team.
Keenum and the newcomers, including three rookies listed on the first team -- running back Royce Freeman, outside linebacker Bradley Chubb and kickoff returner Phillip Lindsay -- are primary reasons why this year's team could be different. But if the Broncos are to return to the postseason, at least as much will depend on their returning players who endured through last year's struggles.
For some of them, the 5-11 season provides an extra tank of motivational fuel.
"A lot of us already forgot about that, but at the same time, a lot of us use that as motivation throughout the practices and throughout the offseason," safety Will Parks said.
"For me, there were a lot of plays that I left out on the field last year. In order for me to do great this year, there has to be some type of motivation for me in the back of my mind, to say 'Hey, man, you've got to make that play. You didn't make it last year. Do it this year, and you'll probably help your team out.' I'm pretty sure a lot of the guys could say that.
"So that's definitely going to be one of the key factors as far as using something as motivation to go out there and make plays. And if you do that, man, you should be making plays all day long."
If 46 active players stack together big plays like Parks suggests, the Broncos can get off to a flying start against Seattle with the potential to sustain it from there.
What are the keys to Sunday's game?
Establish ground control on both sides
Denver wants to have an offense that is equally capable of beating a foe on the ground or in the air -- but Head Coach Vance Joseph knows that his team must establish the run first.
“That’s our formula to win," he said. "Obviously, this [Seahawks] defense, it’s a really, really stout front. They are a single-high coverage team, so they’re going to have one more guy in the box than you can account for every down. We have to have a great plan to block that guy or influence that guy, but we can’t get frustrated with the running game."
Since Pete Carroll became Seattle's head coach in 2010, the Seahawks are 23-1 when they hold opponents to fewer than 50 rushing yards and 36-0 when the opponent rushes 19 or fewer times. The second record is a bit of a chicken-and-egg proposition, as teams typically ditch the run when they fall behind.
Considering that Seattle is 4-19-1 in the Carroll era against teams who run 35 or more times, the Broncos' task is clear: Maintain fidelity to their ground commitment, even if it takes a while for success to arrive.
"We have to stay with it," Joseph said. "It may look ugly sometimes, but we have to stay with and puncture some runs to make our pass game more available."
On the defensive side, multiple players pointed to gap-control issues as the primary cause of the first-team defense's occasional problems containing the run in the Broncos' first three preseason games. In those contests, Denver's No. 1 defense held opponents to one yard or fewer on 13 of 35 attempts. But the Broncos also allowed six gains of 20 or more yards -- a rate of one double-digit pickup every 5.83 attempts. Last year, Denver allowed run of 10 or more yards once every 10.19 attempts.
The key to preventing that is for each defensive player to focus on his task.
"Everybody wants to make plays," Defensive Coordinator Joe Woods said, "and I always tell them, 'Just do your job and make the plays you’re supposed to make, because every time we call defense, the ball might go somewhere else. Your job is to sit in your gap and then run to the ball. So just do your job and relax.'"
Contain Russell Wilson
Just five active quarterbacks have started and won at least one Super Bowl and possess a career passer rating of over 90.0. Wilson is one of them, and with a 98.8 career rating, he has the second-highest mark of any active quarterback with at least 300 attempts, trailing Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers.
Since Wilson broke into the NFL in 2012, only Drew Brees has more touchdown passes than Wilson's 161, and only Carolina's Cam Newton and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton have more touchdown runs than Wilson's 16.
"The offense runs through him," safety Will Parks said.
Defusing him starts with limiting his options. The Broncos must generate pressure, but it has to be prudent in nature; they can't simply fly off the edge, because then Wilson can squirt past the inside shoulders of the edge rusher and offensive tackle and take off for a lengthy gain.
"We might have to play the slow game with Russell," outside linebacker Shane Ray said. "We might have to pin him up there [in the pocket] for a while, and then -- boom -- maybe in the third or fourth quarter, then we start getting some sacks or some pressures."
"You've got to have extreme discipline," inside linebacker Brandon Marshall said. "In coverage, we're going to have to cover a long time. Hopefully the rushers will get to him -- and I think they will -- but we've got to cover well and when he scrambles, we've got to try to get him down. He's fast. He's quick. So it's going to be a tough challenge for us.
Win the turnover battle
Keenum was brought to Denver to help ensure the Broncos avoid a repeat of last year's poor form in this critical statistic, when the Broncos had more turnovers (34) and a worse turnover margin than every team but the Browns.
No position was more culpable than quarterback. Denver's three passers turned over the football once every 25.7 plays (passing attempts, rushes and sacks). This is a significant part of the reason why none of them remain with the team.
The Broncos signed Keenum to change that. Last year, he turned the ball over once every 67.9 plays, with just seven interceptions and one lost fumble.
"We want Case to manage the game and to use his weapons," Joseph said. "The quarterback’s best friend is running the football and having an efficient pass game to keep the third downs manageable.
"I want Case to be Case. I don’t want him to be anything special. Just be our quarterback, be a great leader, take care of the football -- that’s his job."