ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --**What made Sunday's 34-0 win over the 49ers a near-perfect preseason game was not the score, or the fact that the Broncos emerged without any injuries that will linger longer than two weeks.
It was that the reserves looked as dominant as the starters, and on one play in particular, the Broncos got a glimpse at what could be their long-term future.
But first, the present, and an offense that has now scored 17 points in four possessions against the Seahawks and 49ers -- with all three of their scoring drives taking at least 10 plays. Again, the Peyton Manning-led offense diced up an aggressive defense with quick timing passes.
But the most fascinating one was the 20-yard, third-and-3 strike to Demaryius Thomas 8:49 into the game that moved the Broncos into the red zone. The Broncos used their base offensive personnel, but stacked up their outside targets: Andre Caldwell behind Wes Welker to the left, and Demaryius Thomas behind Julius Thomas to the right flank.
That is a potentially frightening combination, and the 49ers reacted accordingly -- with pre-snap confusion as the secondary tried to make its assignments on the fly. Julius Thomas moved upfield, and Demaryius Thomas ran a drag route across the middle. Ronnie Hillman moved outside into the right flat -- near where the Thomases were stacked before the snap -- and drew a linebacker into coverage. That left Demaryius Thomas wide open, and he turned a move-the-sticks short pass into a 20-yard gain, 16 of which came after the catch.
Manning found a wide-open Thomas, and pounced. But he's also renowned for getting the football into tight spaces. That's what Osweiler did on the key play of the Broncos' second touchdown drive, a 20-yard pass to tight end Jacob Tamme.
Osweiler does a good job of going through his progressions, but he also now has the confidence to drop a pass into a seam in the coverage where the intended receiver is in the vicinity of four defenders. This follows a trend of Osweiler's this offseason and training camp; he trusts himself more to make these throws -- and the reliable Tamme is an ideal target.
After the pass to Tamme, the Broncos ran three consecutive empty-backfield plays. This was good practice for Osweiler's decision-making, as the 49ers' predilection for blitzing forced him to deliver the football quickly under duress. San Francisco rushed four men once and five twice. When they brought five men, Osweiler delivered the football in about one second -- 1.00 seconds on the first five-man red-zone rush, 1.12 seconds on the second. The first pass was just behind Jordan Norwood, but on the second, he hit Tamme turning toward the goal line, after he'd cut inside coming from an outside position.
Situations like this show why Osweiler's self-assessment, that he is "getting better every week," is spot on.
"Well, my confidence is certainly going up every single week. But if I said, 'Hey, I'm ready to go, we've got everything accomplished,' I'd be lying to you. I have a lot of work to do. I have a lot of growth to continue to work on. But I think this was another great step.
And then there's Cody Latimer, whose second preseason game was as loud as the first was quiet, beginning with his crushing block on Antoine Bethea in the second quarter and capped by his 33-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter.
Latimer's speed on the go route pops off the screen, but so does the absence of a safety until it was too late. That is all on Osweiler, who identified the single high safety and then looks to his left, only turning right at the last possible moment to throw the bomb to Latimer.
"Great patience by the quarterback, and him seeing me and seeing that one high (safety), he got me the ball," said Latimer.
That play could offer a window into a collaboration that could someday help define the Broncos' passing game.
... Omar Bolden has never been quicker to break to the football. On multiple plays in the second quarter, he changed his direction, accelerated toward the intended receiver and snuffed out the play. One example came when he limited Bruce Ellington to a 3-yard gain on a second down, cutting him down in the open field. He later forced an incompletion to Ellington with a well-timed break that allowed him to swat away Blaine Gabbert's pass.
For this, he credits his season at safety.
"Going to safety last year, obviously, made me a smarter player, made me understand the game a little bit more," he said. "So things have slowed down for me, and I'm just a lot more comfortable out there."
... Bolden isn't the only defender who stood out on the breakup of the pass to Ellington. Mitch Unrein hit Gabbert as he threw, taking advantage of a forceful surge from defensive tackle Sione Fua. Unrein stunted behind Fua, who had already collapsed the pocket, to get to the quarterback.
Fua later set up a fourth-quarter sack that was shared by training-camp standout Kenny Anunike and linebacker Steven Johnson. Again, he provided the inside rush that first breached the pocket in front of 49ers quarterback Josh Johnson. Fua was the Broncos' top-rated player according to ProFootballFocus.com, and these plays were a significant reason why ...
... In addition to gaining 25 yards on five carries during the Osweiler-led two-minute drill touchdown drive, running back C.J. Anderson picked up two blitzes ...
... An early third-down stop came when the Broncos used six defensive backs, lining up T.J. Ward in the box as a linebacker next to Brandon Marshall. This is something that the Broncos worked on in training camp. Quinton Carter checked in at safety. Ward hit Colin Kaepernick on a blitz from this alignment.