DENVER — The Broncos' 17-7 win over the Cowboys may not count in the ledger, but the performance was promising even beyond the final score.
Denver's offense executed at a high level and its defense was punishing. The Broncos largely avoided penalties as the Cowboys racked up 129 penalty yards. The team's young players stood out as a majority of Broncos' starters sat out the preseason opener. And Nathaniel Hackett, in his first game as the team's head coach, demonstrated a strong ability to manage the clock.
In an encouraging preseason opener, these were the players and themes that stood out:
OFF THE EDGE
Baron Browning continue to show good progress in his transition from inside linebacker to outside linebacker as he looked quick off the edge. He recorded a 12-yard sack as the Cowboys tried to run their two-minute offense to end the first half, and he had a second-quarter pass deflection to force the Cowboys off the field on one third down. Browning also added a tackle for loss in the first quarter.
"I think y'all saw it," Hackett said. "He was around the quarterback quite a bit. Got a sack, a couple tackles, a pass breakup. His acceleration off the ball, ability to bend is really good to see. He came out and played free. I thought it was awesome to see. We'll evaluate him more, but he's doing a great job."
After a strong training camp, Browning said it was nice to finally take the quarterback to the ground.
"It felt good, especially because in practice we can't sack the quarterback," Browning said. "So a lot of times it would be in question if it was a sack or not, so it was good to actually get a sack."
Browning seemed to play as much as any defender, as he started the game and played well into the fourth quarter. The Broncos are currently a bit thin at outside linebacker, as Browning, Malik Reed, Nik Bonitto, Aaron Patrick and Jonathan Kongbo were the only players dressed for Saturday's game.
"I knew I was going to play, but I didn't want to ask any questions," Browning said of his extensive snaps. "I didn't want to be that guy. So I was just going to keep playing until I was told that I was done. That was kind of my mindset."
BATTLE TO BE THE BACKUP
The Broncos' backup quarterback battle remains ongoing, but Josh Johnson may have edged ahead following his performance on Saturday.
The veteran quarterback settled in nicely, as he completed 13 of his final 14 passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns to end the first half.
"A little adversity never hurt nobody," Johnson said.
Johnson finished 16-of-23 for 172 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 120.2 rating.
"I thought he was really patient with his footwork, was able to get the ball out on time and the wide receivers were able to get just enough separation to get some catches, which I thought was great," Hackett said.
Brett Rypien had a couple of near interceptions, but he threw a nice go-ball to Jalen Virgil and finished 8-of-18 for 113 yards and a 65.3 rating.
"That was awesome to '17' down the left side," Hackett said. "He kept battling back. He was put in some rough situations. Both guys were — and I thought they did a good job continually moving the chains."
Rypien said while the deep ball worked on Saturday, he'd like to work to improve his consistency.
"Obviously I want to be more efficient and get more completions and play a little bit better in rhythm and on time," Rypien said. "I've got to go watch the tape. From first reaction, I'm not really sure where I need to get better yet, but [I'll] go watch the tape and come back strong next week."
STIFF COMPETITION AT WR
Several wide receivers made impressive plays as they state their case for a roster spot.
Behind Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler and return specialist Montrell Washington, there may be just one spot up for grabs.
Against the Cowboys, Kendall Hinton, Seth Williams, Brandon Johnson and Virgil all made plays.
In the first half, Hinton caught three passes for 53 yards, including an impressive 24-yard touchdown catch in the corner of the end zone. Johnson rebounded from a couple of missed opportunities to catch four passes for 64 yards, and Williams high-pointed a pass in the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown reception.
"They were pressing up in man [coverage] and we got a lot of athletes in the room – speed guys and guys that can go up and get it [the ball]," Hinton said. "We made them pay."
After the break, Virgil joined the party, as he finished the game with three catches for a team-high 83 yards.
"All those guys I thought did a fine job," Hackett said. "We were able to throw the ball down the field. We were able to do some precision routes with those guys too. Got a couple first downs. I thought they all did a really fine job. It's going to be great competition. Obviously Tim [Patrick's] the best, we all love Tim. When something like [an injury] happens, it creates opportunity and you love watching guys step up for that opportunity."
The Broncos' preseason opener was also Hackett's first chance to demonstrate his clock-management skills, and he passed the test with flying colors.
After a Browning sack on second down, Hackett called for a timeout with 1:14 to play before halftime and the ball at the Dallas 47-yard line. After a quick incompletion, the Broncos got the ball back at their own 10-yard line.
Hackett used another timeout to avoid a 10-second runoff after a penalty. and he called the final timeout later in the drive with three seconds in the half to give Denver a chance at a field goal.
In all, Denver moved 56 yards in one minute, two seconds for a field goal at the buzzer — and it wouldn't have been possible without Hackett's initial timeout call.
"Any time you can steal a possession, [that] is what you're trying to do," Hackett said. "At the end of the half, especially if we have the opportunity to receive the kick in the second half, you want to try to do everything you can to be able to end that first half with one. I thought we did a great job. The defense stopped them. They had an incomplete, which stopped the clock, so I didn't have to burn another timeout. So we went into that with two timeouts. I think it was 1:04, 1:08 [left on the clock], and Josh did a great job getting it down the field. I think even with a penalty that we had, we still were able to get into field-goal range. I thought that was very well executed."
It's just the preseason, but Hackett seemed to ace his initial clock-management test.
LOSING A STARTER
The Broncos played just four starters on Saturday night — Jonas Griffith, Malik Reed, Albert Okwuegbunam and Calvin Anderson — and Denver lost one of those players early in the game. On the first series, Griffith exited the contest with an elbow injury and was quickly ruled out. Hackett said after the game that the team was still evaluating Griffith's injury.
"I think we wanted to see all those guys play a little bit more," Hackett said. "Watching the scrimmage [against the Cowboys], we thought we wanted to see it in live action. That's the problem when you're dealing with all these preseason games. You are trying to evaluate guys, you want to get a couple people some chances and sometimes things don't go your way, like it did for Jonas. And that's why we want to protect the guys as much as possible. But in the end, you still want to Albert, you still want to see Calvin, you still want to see them on the field and have them continuously improve."
Reserve linebacker Justin Strnad entered the game in Griffith's absence and tied for the team lead with four tackles in the first half.
"I learned a lot last year," Strnad said. "I didn't play the way I wanted to last year when I got the opportunity, and [I'm] just taking that with a grain of salt and continuing to work this offseason."
IMPROVEMENT AT RETURNER
The Broncos drafted Washington in the fifth round of the 2022 NFL Draft in hopes of giving their return game a spark. Washington showed flashes of what he could bring as he posted punt returns of 18 and 27 yards in the first half.
"It's great," Hackett said. "That's one of the reasons why we drafted him. He's done some great things as a wide receiver, but to see him go back there, catch those things and get those positive yards, field position is so critical in this game, so whenever you have someone who's going to get you one or two first downs by himself, it's huge."
Washington looked comfortable as he fielded the ball and found seams to take off. And though Washington took a couple of big hits on offense, he avoided punishment during his returns.
"It was literally a dream come true," Washington said of his first game. "I honestly could've cried."