As far as preseason games goes, Saturday's game was important as they come. After getting blown out 40-10 against the Seattle Seahawks and making a ton of mental errors, the Broncos needed to correct their mistakes before they haunted the team in the regular season.
While the team still showed some quirks, it was the best showing for the Broncos thus far.
Here are five takeaways from the game:
1. Mile-High-paced offense shines
Here's the one fact that best sums up the night for the first-team offense: After one quarter, Peyton Manning completed 15-of-20 passes while the offense ran 30 plays -- 30!
Under Manning, the Broncos found their rhythm and previewed what could be a scary offense for opposing defenses. The team may have had just 10 points at halftime, but Manning was in check with his receivers. Manning finished the night with 234 yards, went 25 of 34, and had one touchdown and one interception.
The Broncos continuously ran a hurry-up offense, and carved up the Rams' admittedly soft defense. Even with wide receiver Wes Welker out, Manning had plenty of options. Of his 25 completions, Manning completed passes to eight different targets -- including three receivers, two tight ends and three running backs.
Even Brock Osweiler looked great when running with the first team. Osweiler went 5 of 6 on a 79-yard drive, which led to a Montee Ball touchdown. Also, the return of left tackle Ryan Clady was critical, giving Manning and Osweiler much more time to throw.
For the first time this preseason, the offense seemed balanced. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase called balanced, yet aggressive plays. There were mistakes that included turnovers and formation penalties, but the makings of the league's best offense are there.
This might be the year that Manning breaks into the 5,000-yard category.
2. Hillman-Ball competition became a lot closer
Normally, the third preseason game is when coaches decide who the starters will be going forward. Regarding running back, rookie Montee Ball might have gained enough ground for head coach John Fox to rethink keeping Ronnie Hillman at starter.
Once again, Hillman struggled with turnovers. At Seattle, Hillman fumbled in the end zone and had it returned for a touchdown. Against St. Louis, Hillman was stripped on the way down and the Rams returned it for a score.
"I still have great confidence (in Hillman)," Fox said. "It's something we worked very hard on last week, something we'll work very hard on this week."
To Hillman's credit, the second-year running back improved his average yards-per-carry against the Rams. Hillman finished with 34 yards on six carries, a 5.7 average. It was an improvement over his previous preseason average of 2.6 yards.
However, Ball was the back who came away impressing. While he finished with only a 3.1-yards-per-carry average, Ball was much more versatile. Ball was effective in being substituted on third down, converting first downs and picking up the blitz. The rookie also had a touchdown, punching it in on the goal line after initially being hit first.
Also worth mentioning, Hillman was the only starter on offense besides Manning to not play in the third quarter. He might not have been benched, per se, but Ball got looks as the main back in the second half.
The starting running back is definitely a situation to monitor going forward.
3. What happened to special teams?
In 2013, the Broncos' special teams was just as impressive as the offense and defense. Returner Trindon Holliday was explosive, and punter Britton Colquitt would pin opponents in positions that made it hard to return the ball.
During the first three preseason games, the Broncos' special teams has been all but special. The Broncos surrendered another long return with rookie Tavon Austin returning a punt for 81 yards to the Broncos' 3-yard line. Austin also added a 23-yard return in the second quarter.
Against the Seahawks, wide receiver Jermaine Kearse returned a Broncos kickoff 107 yards for a touchdown. So far, the special teams unit has been nothing short of terrible.
4. Is the defense a concern?
It's hard to gauge the quality of a defense in the preseason. Still, there were plenty of areas that the Broncos have to correct on defense.
Most notably, covering tight ends remains a huge problem. Last season, the Broncos ranked 24th in covering tight ends despite being a top five defense, according to Football Outsiders.
This week, Rams tight end Jared Cook was wide open in the back of the end zone, scoring on a pass from Sam Bradford. Cook easily snuck around linebacker Danny Trevathan, who failed to bat the ball down after jumping for it.
The pass defense has also seemed a bit off, so far. Starting quarterbacks have gone 21 of 32 against the Broncos in three games, passing for 275 yards. Again, it's preseason, but teams have been able to drive the ball down the field against the Broncos' starting defense.
There were some positives, however, against the Rams. The Broncos finally were able to get pressure, sacking Sam Bradford twice. Malik Jackson, in particular, has been very effective in creating pressure. Jackson, a second-year player, has taken advantage of injuries to Derrick Wolfe and Robert Ayers.
Also, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie's return was promising. Rodgers-Cromartie used his size to shut down the Rams' receivers. Rodgers-Cromartie, Chris Harris and Champ Bailey is a very nice group of cornerbacks when healthy.5. Players take advantage of teammates' injuries
Jackson wasn't the only player to step up in light of injuries to the Broncos.
On defense, cornerback Kayvon Webster made a big impression with the second unit. Webster was considered a reach when drafted in the third round but showed his potential here. The rookie had two pass deflections and was solid in coverage.
Receivers Eric Decker and Andre Caldwell worked the slot with Wes Welker being injured. Decker caught six passes for 66 yards, and Caldwell had three receptions for 42 yards.
Perhaps most surprising was the re-emergence of Jacob Tamme. There was some speculation that Tamme could either be cut or traded with Julius Thomas' play. Tamme made a case for himself Saturday, catching three passes for 21 yards. It wasn't a big game on paper, but Tamme's looks in the slot were noteworthy.
It was a showing that suggested the Broncos' depth will help them in the long run.
Matthew Paras is a Journalism Major at DePaul University. He writes for multiple outlets, including Maxboxing.com, Operationsports.com, and DePaul's student newspaper, The DePaulia. He can be reached by email at Mparas1432@gmail.com or on twitter @Matthew_Paras. He currently resides in Chicago, but lived in Littleton, Colo. for seven years.
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