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Passing game fails to impress in Broncos' stadium practice

Bradley Chubb, Graham Glasgow exit with injuries
Posted at 5:44 PM, Aug 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-31 08:01:46-04

DENVER -- The passing game received a failing grade.

In a quasi-scrimmage at Empower Field at Mile High, with fake crowd news reverberating off the empty seats to simulate the season opener, the concern was real.

With the clock's tick becoming a thunder clap, the offense requires work, a sobering reality after the defense dominated during sprinkles of rain and a light wind. Injuries surfaced again, too, with star linebacker Bradley Chubb leaving the workout with mild discomfort in his surgically-repaired left knee and starting right guard Graham Glasgow exiting with a sprained ankle.

Chubb, who is still adjusting to wearing a knee brace, told Denver7 afterward, "All good, just being smart as we can." The extent of Glasgow's injury remains uncertain. One thing is clear. The offense needs to microwave faster than popcorn in five practices -- "Our most important of camp," coach Vic Fangio said -- this week.

The Broncos' top two quarterbacks -- Drew Lock and Jeff Driskel -- completed roughly 40 percent of their passes with four interceptions by Justin Simmons, Trey Marshall, Devontae Harris and P.J. Locke. It was because the day was so bad that the offense will be good, Lock insisted.

"I think if you have a quarterback that is not upset and hurt to the core after a practice where you kind of get your butt kicked, then you've got the wrong guy leading your team," Lock said. "Of course right now I am upset. I would have rather played a lot better. But it's a learning moment for me. ... It's big to struggle early. I would rather us struggle right now, then be great when the season comes along."

A confluence of issues siphoned the helium out of the air attack. There were multiple issues of miscommunication on routes, protection breakdowns -- Von Miller gave right tackle Elijah Wilkinson fits -- and the continued absence of runing back Melvin Gordon, who has been limited to drill work for a week because of sore ribs.

There is also the matter of the playbook. The Broncos are attempting to learn everything right now -- an arduous process without an offseason training together -- and will pare it down dramatically for game week.

That said, they need better.

The Broncos smothered the Titans 16-0 last season, and watching the offense Saturday made me wonder if another shutout would be needed to win the opener against Tennessee.

"We can't have that many turnovers on offense," Fangio said. "If you’re an offensive player or an offensive coach you didn’t like it. ... We have some things we have to iron out.”

Phillip Lindsay remains the boost for the offense. He caught a 9-yard pass in the opening drive, and showed burst on his runs. The idea is to rotate he and Gordon, but Lindsay appears the front runner to start given how much Gordon has missed this week. Truth is, they are better with both, especially since Gordon, if necessary, profiles as a third-down back after averaging 50 receptions over the past three seasons.

"It's a concern (with the rib injury), but we think he will be back sooner rather than later," Fangio said. "We need him."

The tight ends boast potential with Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam producing nice receptions. Also, Jake Butt is pushing to make the roster with his blocking ability. Nick Vannett is an accomplished blocker who is still finding his way in the passing game. He dropped a potential touchdown Saturday.

The defense continues to shine. The Broncos produced good pressure, even in Chubb's absence, as Malik Reed and Jeremiah Jeremiah Attaochu were sound.

And the secondary shows signs of evolving into a team strength. A.J. Bouye matched up well in limiting Courtland Sutton's production, and he snuffed out a long pass to rookie Tyrie Cleveland. Devontae Harris made his bid for the third cornerback spot with aggressive coverage and a pick.

Miller told me afterward he wasn't worried about mauling the offense yet again. He stressed the talent is there, and it will manifest in better results.

The defense, meanwile, has a chance to be elite, but it's hard to see that happening without Chubb. Saturday, for now, represented only a scare. Early in the practice, Chubb didn't feel right, and walked to the bench. He took off his knee brace, and then iced his leg during the second half.

"I talked with Bradley. We are Ferrari’s. Sometimes, Ferrari’s, the check engine light come on," Miller said. "That doesn’t mean the car is broken.”

Fangio expects to hold another dress rehearsal at Empower Field this week, this time at night. Saturday presented a different vibe without fans, which will be the case when the Broncos open the season on Sept. 14 at 8 p.m.

"It was really weird. Without a doubt," Lock said.

Miller called it, "definitely different. But the crowd noise does the job."

Added Fangio, "I thought it was realistic crowd noise. Just being in a big league stadium brings a little oomph to the party. I felt that early on. It was more game like than practice-like."

I asked Drew Lock about the canceling of Thursday's practice serving as a galvanizing force for the team. He believes it can be, noting that players will continue meeting on their off days during the season to find solutions regarding social justice reform. "If we’re this passionate about it like we say we are, let’s stop talking about it. Let's get together and bring ideas to together to help the city and Denver and state of Colorado become a better place. We need to rally behind this cause and keep it going." ...

Austin Schlottmann replaced Glasgow at right guard. Glasgow's absence would serve as a gut punch to a line that lost starting right tackle Ja'Wuan James before the season after he opted out due to COVID-19 concerns. ...

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock spoke to the Broncos after Saturday's practice, thanking them for their past and future work in the community. Hancock remains a huge Broncos fan. As a high school senior, he served as Huddles the Mascot during the 1986 season. ...

Tight end Troy Fumagalli has a medical issue that is currently “not very serious,” Fangio said. There is hope he will return next week. ...

Rookie Lloyd Cushenberry is the clear frontunner to start at center after taking the bulk of the No. 1 snaps the past few days. ...

Rookie Jerry Jeudy hauled in a near 50-yard reception from Driskel, leaping up for the catch. ...

The following players did not practice, while noting that starting linebacker Todd Davis (calf) could return this week: Receivers K.J. Hamler (hamstring) and Juwann Winfree (groin) Elijah Holder and Michael Ojemudia (quad).