In a matchup of projected playoff heavyweights, the Broncos took what amounted to a preseason standing eight count Saturday night in CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks played with a regular-season edge and a bit more of a regular-season game plan. The Seattle regulars were far more opportunistic and played with far fewer mistakes in opening up a 26-point halftime lead the Broncos reserves couldn’t close.
During a preseason in which they have had plenty of injury issues, the Broncos had what was the scariest thus far. Defensive tackle Derek Wolfe was taken by ambulance to a Seattle hospital, where he was examined for a cervical spine injury. On a second-and-5 play in the first quarter, Wolfe was struck on the crown of his helmet by Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson. Wolfe was trying to fend off a cut block when Robinson plowed into him in a helmet-to-helmet collision. Wolfe was examined on the field by the Broncos’ medical staff before being loaded into the ambulance. Broncos officials said X-rays showed no broken bones, that a CT scan was "positive," and that Wolfe also had an MRI. The Broncos were hopeful he could return to Denver with the team. (Update: Wolfe will be able to return to Denver with the team.)
Special teams play was decidedly un-special. Those units were consistently a strength for the Broncos last season with Trindon Holliday's playoff heroics -- a punt return and a kickoff return for touchdowns against the Ravens -- lost in the disappointment of the double overtime loss last January. But the preseason has been a choppy affair for the group. Holliday made two unwise decisions in the return game in the preseason opener, including being tackled inside the 5-yard line on a punt return, and Saturday night in Seattle was worse for the unit. The Broncos surrendered a 107-yard kickoff return for the touchdown by Jermaine Kearse with 1 minute, 52 seconds left in the first quarter and then had a missed-tackle extravaganza on a 33-yard punt return by Golden Tate in the second quarter. The night would have been a total washout had it not been for Holliday’s 73-yard punt return against plenty of Seahawks reserves in the fourth quarter.
The Broncos simply did not take care of the ball. They fumbled four times in the first half, losing three of them. Most troubling was how the Broncos turned momentum-changing plays into enormous errors with the miscues. Tight end Julius Thomas lost a fumble after a 20-yard reception on what was looking like a scoring drive in the first quarter. Running back Ronnie Hillman fumbled away what would have been a 1-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Seattle cornerback (and former Bronco) Brandon Browner returned Hillman’s fumble 106 yards for a touchdown. Hillman fumbled twice in the game. The Broncos were among the league leaders in lost fumbles in 2012. The Broncos lost 14 fumbles overall last season; only six teams lost more. None of those six teams made the playoffs and three fired the head coach. The Broncos' backs lost seven of those fumbles, including one by Hillman. Add in Montee Ball’s missed block in the first quarter Saturday night that resulted in a crushing hit on quarterback Peyton Manning and it was not a good night for the team’s young running backs.
The Broncos would like to work out of a three-wide receiver set as their base formation, but that’s not going to work if they can’t hold off the rush when they are in it. The Seahawks were aggressive early against the three-wide look, often rushing six and seven defenders. And after Manning took a big shot following Ball’s bobble in pass protection, the Broncos worked out of a two-tight-end look for six snaps during their next possession. They also had one snap in a two-back formation. On that drive the Broncos had the ball for 14 plays and would have scored had Hillman not fumbled. The Broncos forced the Seahawks to back off the pass rush when they went bigger in the formation. It showed the Broncos have versatility in the offense, but pass protection out of the three-wide look is still a concern after two preseason games. Those troubles will embolden opposing pass-rushers all the more if the Broncos don’t tighten things up.
For the second time in two preseason games an opposing offense pounded its way through the Broncos’ first-team defense to score on a game-opening drive. The Seahawks took their opening possession 65 yards in 10 plays, with five of those plays coming on runs that accounted for 21 yards. And much like the damage the 49ers did in the run game in the preseason opener, the Seahawks pounded away against the Broncos’ base defense. The Broncos did tinker with the lineup as Mitch Unrein started at one of the defensive tackle spots in place of Kevin Vickerson.
Some odds and ends:
As expected linebacker Von Miller started and played for much of the first half for the Broncos. Miller spent Thursday in Washington, D.C., to meet with NFL Players Association officials about his appeal of a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Miller returned to Denver on Thursday night and traveled with the team to Seattle on Friday.
In addition to Wolfe, the Broncos have some other injuries that will be evaluated more Sunday. Cornerback Champ Bailey suffered a foot injury in the first half and guard Louis Vasquez suffered a knee injury. Bailey limped to the locker room at halftime while Vasquez's injury wasn't considered all that serious.
On a night when the Broncos had difficulty at times maintaining their composure, they had some ill-timed flags. In the first half, Vickerson had an unnecessary roughness penalty and tackle Orlando Franklin had an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. An offside penalty by Malik Jackson negated a Tony Carter interception. There were two illegal formation penalties on tackle Chris Clark on back-to-back plays. The Broncos also had two illegal-formation penalties in the second half -- both on rookie tackle Vinston Painter. The Broncos also took a delay of game penalty late in the first half when backup quarterback Brock Osweiler didn’t ask for the snap in time.
Rookie Kayvon Webster showed he has moved up the depth chart a bit, as he entered the game on defense before Omar Bolden, a 2012 draft pick. Webster has appeared more frequently in the specialty packages in practice and opened the second half on defense.
The Broncos had to take a timeout in the first half when they only had 10 players in the offensive huddle.
Andre Caldwell got several snaps with the offensive starters in the three-wide receiver set. Caldwell was in the formation in Wes Welker’s place at times in the first half. Caldwell and rookie Tavarres King are battling for the No. 4 wideout position, and the Broncos likely wanted to see how Caldwell performed with some premium snaps.