ENGLEWOOD — The images, spread across two different days in different environments, provided compelling evidence that most Broncos starters will not play in the preseason.
Against the Cowboys last Thursday, the Broncos' top players looked caffeinated as Russell Wilson connected on multiple touchdowns and the defense imposed its will with energy, ferocity and fists.
Tuesday, practice moved indoors because of a torrential downpour, featured spirited action between the 1s in 11 on 11. Wilson threaded the needle to Courtland Sutton for a touchdown, Dre'Mont Jones provided pressure for a virtual sack, and a two-minute drill ended with a spirited debate on whether the clock ran out (the offense believed it was slow ball placement after a running play, the defense pointed to the zeroes on the scoreboard).
Both practices simulated game conditions sans the crowd and stadium. If the starters continue to compete in this fashion, their first real action figures to be on Sept. 12 in Seattle.
"You know me, I don't like the preseason," Hackett said. "That's just my philosophy, my upbringing, just seeing all the different things I have seen in the past. There's always that risk-reward. I think we would all sit here and say. 'Sure we want the guys to do good and get reps.' But in the end we want to be smart with the guys. It's a 17-game season. It's about how we try to protect the guys and get them ready. ... Now if it gets bad, then we might have to throw them in the games."
Since becoming the Broncos coach, Hackett has leaned on his experience in Green Bay, where he worked with first-time boss Matt LaFleur. LaFleur chose to hold out most starters for the entirety of the preseason in 2021. They were coming off a 13-3 campaign and a division title. However, they were walloped 38-3 in their season opener a year ago, which has led LaFleur to consider playing his starters in the third exhibition game this month.
For now, Hackett remains committed to his plan as long as sees players delivering in workouts. Only a few regulars played in the opener: outside linebacker Malik Reed, inside linebacker Jonas Griffith, tight end Albert Okwuegbunam and right tackle Calvin Anderson. All four, however, are competing for starting spots, which is a different scenario than a Wilson, Justin Simmons or Pat Surtain, for example.
Hackett, though, benefited from the Cowboys game. It marked his first time in charge, and talking to sources, the communication between the coaches ran smoothly. The organization showed in clock management that led to a Brandon McManus field goal and no delay of game or too-many-on-the-field mistakes.
"I didn't think I needed it that much. It was fun. It's fun to call plays for these guys. It was great to go out there and compete," Hackett said. "From the standpoint of whether I needed it or not, we are in constant communication as coaches. Everything we do from game-planning as a group, and now that we are doing the move-the-ball periods in practice (where offensive coordinator Justin Outten called plays), all those things are great to get us rolling."
Darkside of the Defense
Broncos defensive lineman D.J. Jones is the gregarious sort, affable. But on the field, he makes an Incredible Hulk transformation. It fits in perfectly with the defense's new nickname, "The Darkside."
"I think that first play gets me there. Before the game, I might be jumping around but when I first put my hands on somebody I am locked in," Jones said. "It’s very hard to explain, I am not the same person I will tell you that much.”
The Broncos cut their roster to 85 players before the 2 p.m. deadline. Those cut were safety Jamar Johnson, a 2021 fifth-round pick, running back Max Borghi, receivers Travis Fulgham and Kaden Davis, and tight end Rodney Williams. Borghi, a legend at Pomona High School, was a late addition during training camp. He rushed for 10 yards on four carries on Saturday night. ... Lloyd Cushenberry (rest day, though he wore a protective sleeve on his right knee) and backup Luke Wattenberg (ankle) did not practice, leaving Graham Glasgow as the starting center. Glasgow can play center or guard. .... Ronald Darby (chest), Greg Dulcich (hamstring), and K.J. Hamler (hip/knee) did not practice. ... Defensive lineman Marquis Spencer injured his leg near the end of practice. He walked off slowly under his own power, but did not return to the workout.