ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – If it's business as usual, then the Denver Broncos' third preseason game is usually the business of the team's starters.
Usually they play into the third quarter, usually it's designated as the closest thing to a regular-season game until the regular season officially begins and usually some those players fighting the hardest to carve out a roster spot can only stand and watch those who will certainly make it, play deep into the second half.
But there has been change around the league to be sure. The quest to escape a preseason with as few injuries as possible almost overwhelms all other goals and in the last week or so the Broncos have seen linebacker Danny Trevathan suffer a fracture at the top of his tibia that will keep him out of the lineup for six to eight weeks and wide receiver Jordan Norwood suffered a season-ending torn left ACL.
"It's a balance in a combative game," said Broncos head coach John Fox. "You want to make sure you're ready to play when the regular season gets here, but you want to have your people available to go play too. So, we're always talking about it, meeting about it, deciding what makes sense, what gets done what we need to get done and what's the smartest thing to do."
Saturday night, the Broncos will play their third preseason game -- against the Houston Texans in Sports Authority Field at Mile High -- and for the past few days Fox has alluded to the idea things may not be on the usual schedule because of how this week's practices went.
The Broncos didn't go through their usual paces this week, instead having the Texans in for three days' worth of practice. And while there was only one workout in full gear, on Wednesday, the two teams went at it with an edge to be sure.
Wednesday's and Thursday's practices were each marked by skirmishes. Even some "non-contact" drills between the two teams featured plenty of contact as both teams tried to continue to cross things off their to-do list.
The Texans, with first-year coach Bill O'Brien trying to get the buy-in from his players on his program, seemed intent on showing they were not the 2-14 team of a year ago. While the Broncos, after listening to commentary from both near and far for months that weren't physical enough in Super Bowl XLVIII and were intimidated, have spent training camp showing they will be nastier on both sides of the ball.
"You always want to be physical and play with that enthusiasm," said Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware. "We think this is a physical team and that people are going to see that."
So, in the end those three days with the Texans will almost certainly impacts who plays and for how long on Saturday night. It's unlikely even quarterback Peyton Manning would play into the third quarter, unless for some reason the Broncos offense sputtered in its first-half work.
Thus far the starters on offense have put up points in three of their four possessions in the first two preseason games combined.
"We'll just see how it ends up and see how each series goes," said Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase. "If you go two three-and-outs, we're not going to pull him out. We've just got to see how the rhythm of the game is going and how everybody is doing, and then we'll make that adjustment as the game goes on."
Should the Broncos adjust the playing time of the starters a bit, as expected, it would most help players down the depth chart who ordinarily might simply get a "DNP" (did not play) next to their name in a third preseason game.
The Broncos still have some special teams slots, including kickoff and punt returner, as well as some difficult decisions to make in the offensive and defensive lines before the first round of roster cuts are dues Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET. Rosters will go from a maximum of 90 to 75 players by Tuesday and rosters must then go to 53 players by 4 p.m. ET on Aug. 30.
"It always kinds of clarifies itself in the last week or so and there are some good battles that are shaping up, and we will play it out right to the end," said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. "So I know it's an important time for us to select the proper guys to be here for this year, it's an important time for the players involved. We have depth in a way that many of these guys that if they can't stick here will go to other places, so it's important that we select the best first."