ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Three hours before kickoff at Highmark Stadium, Nathaniel Hackett opened the stadium gate behind the east goal posts and began his pregame workout. He runs the stairs for 25 minutes — it was officially 23 in Saturday's 84 degree heat and 46 percent humidity — to clear his mind. He has been performing the routine since his days as an assistant in Tampa Bay in 2006.
Saturday offered an interesting challenge. It was a preseason game, which Hackett loves as much as a cheese grater across the shins, creating an opportunity to evaluate the Broncos' backups (18 in total) vs. Buffalo starters (18 as well).
Suffice to say, the Bills boast the best odds to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl for a reason. Josh Allen toyed with the Broncos' on the opening drive, capping it with a 26-yard score to Gabe Davis in Buffalo's 42-15 mauling.
It was a forgettable, if not embarrassing day for the defense regardless of who was playing and who they were going against. The Broncos allowed touchdowns on Buffalo's first six drives — 70, 80, 78, 80, 80 and 73 yards. Buffalo led 28-6 at half, and it kept getting worse. If the season goes as the Broncos expect — it starts with ending the streak of five straight losing seasons — this afternoon will be forgotten faster than a co-worker's birthday.
Saturday proved notable for several reasons:
— Buffalo's top players, heck all players, remain a handful — the Broncos reserves produced a field goal vs. Buffalo's No. 1s — as they made it look too easy.
— The Broncos' reserves continue to search for answers stopping and running the ball.
—And there are no fail-proof ways to remain healthy in a violent sport. Outside linebacker Malik Reed (left eye), cornerback Michael Ojemudia (dislocated elbow, out 4-6 weeks) and reserve offensive lineman Casey Tucker (foot) exited with injuries and punter Sam Martin inexplicably hurt his ankle in warmups.
Buffalo bolted to a 14-3 advantage on Zack Moss' 1-yard plunge, leaving Buffalo with 46 yards rushing on six carries, part of 150 total yards on its first two drives. It was a harbinger. The Bills finished the first 30 minutes with 333 yards on 33 plays. They had 486 yards after three quarters, and did not punt until 8:08 left in the game.
The Bills consistently won the line of scrimmage with the No. 1s, the No. 2s vs. 2s and the 3s. The Broncos showed no improvement on the ground after rushing for 39 yards on 22 carries vs. the Cowboys. Mike Boone delivered 13 yards on the initial 12-play, 6:45 march that resulted in a 33-yard Brandon McManus field goal. Denver finished with 29 yards on 15 carries.
They need better, and it will remain a question entering the opener until Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon answer it.
What played out with offensive line illustrated the competition at two positions. Nuance exists when coach Hackett sits most starters in the preseason. It should read proven or established starters.
Those fighting for jobs remain in the lineup. As such right tackle Calvin Anderson and right guard Quinn Meinerz opened against the Bills on Saturday. Both showed uneven play over the past week. Anderson alternated snaps with Cam Fleming in practice, evidence that he has lost his grip on the starting job that remains open with Billy Turner's situation/return uncertain as he attempts to return from left knee surgery.
Meinerz is a brute in the run game, but his misses in pass protection are glaring, with several coming against Dre'Mont Jones.
Anderson played the first three drives, which produced six points, and Fleming replaced him. Meinerz logged one series. Graham Glasgow started at center, but could push Meinerz for the right guard spot if he shows he's healthy after suffering a season-ending ankle injury last season at Dallas.
Similarly, tight end Albert Okwuegbunam played into the fourth quarter since he needs to polish his blocking skills. If he does not become serviceable, it could create more playing time for Eric Saubert. While the score was embarrassing, it provided analysis on several positions. At cornerback, the Broncos' depth is shaky, though time remains to solve it.
Allen opened the rout by scrambling and tossing a 28-yard score in front of cornerback Damarri Mathis. It was a tough day for the defensive backs.
Offensively, Josh Johnson finished 8-for-16 for 70 yards, producing two field goals. Brett Rypien looked sharper than against the Cowboys, completing 22 of 26 passes for 191 yards. He guided the Broncos' first touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, connecting with Okwuegbunam on a 26-yard pass then lofting a 1-yard score to Saubert.
Russell Wilson went through a pregame workout with his receivers, then signed autographs in the tunnel leading up to the locker room. Wilson suited up in full uniform and ran out for warmups to simulate the gameday experience again. There are no plans to play him against Minnesota in the exhibition finale, either. ... With Martin hiurt, Corliss Waitman received all the chances. Special teams coordinator Dwayne Stukes said this week the competition remains open. .... The Broncos offensive starters: LT Zack Johnson, LG Luke Wattenberg, C Graham Glasgow, RG Quinn Meinerz, RT Calvin Anderson and WRs Kendall Hinton, Brandon Johnson and Montrell Washington and RB Mike Boone. The defensive No 1s: DL DeShawn Williams, DL Jonathan Harris, DL McTelvin Agim, OLBs Malik Reed and Baron Browning, ILBs Alex Singleton and Justin Strnad, CBs Damarri Mathis and Michael Ojemudia and safeties Caden Sterns and P.J. Locke.