Broncos seek answers in scrimmage

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Broncos will take the field tonight at Sports Authority Field at Mile High for their now annual summer scrimmage, and it will be the best open-to-the-public glimpse they've offered thus far of what's to come this season.

In recent years, it has been an eye-opening experience for those on the field as well. There was a crowd of thousands booing a stunned Kyle Orton in 2009 when he threw his third interception of the workout. There was more than 40,000 on hand last August, most of whom lustily booed a third-down draw play.

While a few thousand folks pile into training camp practices each day, the stadium scrimmage is often a young Broncos player's first experience with the depth of knowledge and passion for the team in the region.

Or as former Broncos defensive end Elvis Dumervil once put it; "It's where you find out what this place is all about.''

And while there will be plenty of eyes on Peyton Manning -- to see if his receivers are right and that his arm really is stronger this time around -- there will be a few others to keep under the microscope as well tonight:

The running backs: The Broncos have shown every indication the carries, catches and snaps will be divided up at the position with Ronnie Hillman and rookie Montee Ball leading the way.

But the backs who play the most when the games count will be the ones who make the fewest mistakes in an audible-heavy offense. And while running with the ball is on the top of the to-do list, it is just part of the equation. Hillman has the speed and explosiveness Ball does not, while Ball is bigger, runs with more vision in tight places and has fared slightly better in pass protection thus far.

They're both going to play plenty in the season, but how much and in what situations is still to be determined.

The safeties: Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has used plenty of combinations in camp thus far and has made it clear he's going to cycle in plenty of players in a variety of ways during the season.

But at the moment Duke Ihenacho has made the improbable jump from practice squad guy for much of 2012 to running with the starters this past week. And Ihenacho has done it by playing the position how Del Rio wants it played, with good "eye discipline'' -- reading the right keys -- and by making a play on the ball when the opportunity is there.

It is the fine line between playing with top-tier discipline and having enough aggressiveness to force a turnover when the chance arrives. And it's why some guys are losing snaps and why Ihenacho has received more.

A tough line to walk, but it's why Del Rio has worked so many players at the position already as he searches for the right combination. In short, too much freelancing or too much robotic behavior will get you moved down the depth chart.

Center: Sure, people don't buy their season tickets in hopes the center will have a big year, but this is a significant issue for the Broncos.

Defensive coordinators routinely say it's tough to get Manning with pressure packages designed to free the rushers on the edge. Manning usually, almost without fail, sees the plan in his pre-snap reads and will deliver the ball before the edge player can cover the extra real estate needed to get to him.

So, pressure up the middle is the preferred way and it was a spot the Broncos had a difficult time covering at times last year. The Broncos have a center on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list in J.D. Walton and one on injured reserve in Dan Koppen with Manny Ramirez, who's never started an NFL game at the position, as the current starter.

Ramirez certainly works at it and is a powerful player who does far better in the run scheme, but loses his leverage in pass protection at times. Some defensive line coaches around the league will say if you get Ramirez leaning a bit in his pass sets, you can get him off the spot because he does not always recover and create a lane.

And though the Broncos did sign Ryan Lilja this past week, Ramirez is still the guy. Lilja was retired when the Broncos called and had largely approached his offseason that way, so he looked rusty in his initial work on the field, as expected, and may need a little time to show if he's going to push for playing time or not.

The Broncos are going to have to decide over the next few weeks if they can still open the formation as much as they'd like in a three-wide receiver set if they can't consistently block the middle of the field. It may push them toward more two tight end or two-back looks at times with an extra player sliding in the protection in the middle of the field.