DENVER – Walking the pathway around Empower Field Saturday night, toward the horse statues and player monuments, the optimism is palpable. The final preseason game offers a chance for many fans who don’t have season tickets to see the Broncos in person.
That has been a risky proposition the past seven years. The team has missed the playoffs every season since winning Super Bowl 50 and boasts six straight losing records for the first time since 1963-72.
But this year feels different, beyond the eye-opening scoreboard, the screensaver Broncos logo on it during field goals and head coach Sean Payton. The Broncos sold off last year’s offense for parts, and this version has a new car smell.
With the starters watching, the reserves led by quarterback Jarrett Stidham were running on nitromethane, racing to a 27-point first-half lead against the Los Angeles Rams en route to a 41-0 victory.
“It felt great to get in front of the fans. This was my first time playing here as the home team. Playing in front of the fans was great and feeling the energy of the stadium," Stidham said. "It is the last preseason game and this game means a lot to everybody. I just wanted to come out here and get the win, and luckily we did.”
After scrimmaging the Rams on Wednesday and Thursday, Payton wisely sat his first teamers, who received plenty of reps in practice and the past two exhibition games. Saturday offered a platform for the backups to show this team is deeper than thought, while those on the bubble competed in Hunger Games for scant remaining roster spots.
Stidham set the tone with his best performance this month. He went 6-for-6 on the opening drive, spreading the ball around to Lil Jordan Humphrey, Albert Okwuegbunam and Marvin Mims Jr. Running back Jaleel McLaughlin, who limped off later in the first quarter, darted in from the 1-yard line for his fourth touchdown of the preseason to cap the initial drive.
Stidham, signed minutes into free agency to serve as Russell Wilson’s backup, followed with toughness and accuracy rarely seen or needed in an exhibition game. He absorbed a hit to his ribcage as he floated a deep ball to Mims for 50 yards. It was originally ruled a 75-yard touchdown, but reversed after replayed showed contact when he was on the ground. Brett Maher, hoping to survive the roster cutdown from competition around the league, nailed a 46-yarder, shoving Denver ahead 10-0.
"I think Coach kind of speaks for himself. His history in New Orleans and his history with quarterbacks and winning. I just want to win football games and that was a big reason for coming here," Stidham said. "We have a tremendous defense, great skill players and a great offensive line. That culmination of things that made the decision. I am happy to be here for sure.”
What happened next looked familiar because it was. For the third straight game, Essang Bassey intercepted a pass, showing versatility as a nickelback and safety with K’Waun Williams (ankle) and P.J. Locke (ankle) recovering from injuries. Moments later, Stidham found Okwuegbunam for an 8-yard score. Albert has gone from “Oh No!” to “Oh My!” the past two weeks. Showing functional blocks against the 49ers followed by a strong week of practice – four touchdowns in the joint workouts – Okwuegbunam is making a strong push for a roster spot given the lack of playmakers. Nate Adkins had the edge until recently, and it is possible the Broncos are showcasing Okwuegbunam to land a draft pick in a trade since the tight end room is deep with Adam Trautman, Greg Dulcich and Chris Manhertz. But the idea that he has finally turned the corner in his disappointing career cannot be dismissed.
“No,it doesn’t matter what the outside thinks. In my heart, I always knew. This is nothing new. I mean I’ve always been capable of doing this. Tonight, I just got some opportunities to show it," Okwuegbunam said. "(Blocking) is one thing I’ve been focusing on, and that translated from practice to the game. Still not perfect, but it is definitely an area of my game that I’ve been improving on.”
The Broncos made some pretty unique uniform history in their preseason finale
The Broncos’ 17 points on three drives was more than they averaged per game last season. Denver ran 46 plays in the first half compared to the Rams’ 24. The Broncos netted 325 yards to the Rams’ 51.
Stidham finished the half 17-for-28 for 236 yards, while hanging in the pocket and taking multiple big hits. Four targets had at least 46 yards, and Okwuegbunam tallied seven catches for 109 yards and a score. Brandon Johnson, back from his sprained ankle, added 58 yards.
"The sky is the limit with this offense," Johnson said.
Only twice last season did the Broncos score more than 27 points. It was backups vs. backups on this night, but when you are trying to change the culture this type of proficiency matters to Payton.
McLaughlin showed toughness between the tackles, finishing the half with 48 yards on 10 carries. Tony Jones, competing for a final spot, added a 1-yard touchdown.
My theory remains that Payton knew his team had hit a wall last week – it is unusual to have joint practices before the third game – and wanted to see who could survive it mentally and physically. He has a type, and it’s physical, tough, smart players. So, while the scrimmages didn’t tilt in the Broncos’ favor, Saturday showcased some players as keepers.
Defensively, Bassey and linebacker Drew Sanders intercepted Stetson Bennett. Sanders nearly spoiled his when the quarterback stripped him 32 yards down field. The Broncos recovered. The Broncos scoring included a pair of field goals from Maher of 46 and 33 yards, giving him a stronger argument to stick even as the team will scour the waiver wire over the next three to four days. It allowed the Broncos to build a lead that was safe sans usage of the Rockies bullpen.
Nobody remembers preseason results. We know this is true. But for Payton to make his stadium debut with this type of offense, it creates hope after seven years of wandering through the darkness.
Undrafted rookie tackle Alex Palczewski, who had made a strong impression in camp, took a step back Saturday, whiffing on a pass block and drawing a penalty. However, he played through a hand injury. …
Fellow tackle Demontrey Jacobs was injured late in the third quarter., hurting his ankle. ...
Outside linebacker Thomas Incoom, looking to make a late push, produced a first-half sack and danced in celebration. …
Rams defender Tre Tomlinson was ejected for his ugly facemask of Mims. He ripped him all the way to the ground. …
The Broncos starters received the night off. Those sitting included Russell Wilson, Javonte Williams, Samaje Perine, Jerry Jeudy (hamstring), Courtland Sutton, Mike McGlinchey, Garett Bolles, Ben Powers, Quinn Meinerz, Lloyd Cushenberry, Greg Dulcich, Adam Trautman, Chris Manhertz, Jonathon Cooper, Randy Gregory, P.J. Locke (ankle), K’Waun Williams (ankle), Kareem Jackson, Damarri Mathis, Caden Sterns, Justin Simmons, Riley Moss (sports hernia surgery), Nik Bonitto, Josey Jewell, Alex Singleton, Frank Clark, Jonathan Harris, Tyler Lancaster, Mike Purcell and Zach Allen. ...
The Broncos have to make IR decisions with multiple players, but I don't expect Jeudy to land on the list because he should be back before Week 4.