For the Denver Broncos, it didn't take long to reinforce the identity they've so firmly established in previous years but it was a total unknown who ended up stealing the show late in a 24-17 preseason victory over the hosting Chicago Bears.
The "No Fly Zone" opened the preseason by reminding everyone how special they are. After leading the league in passing defense the last two seasons, the crew picked up right where they left off Thursday night. Darian Stewart broke up a Mike Glennon pass to Cameron Meredith on the second play of the game, before Chris Harris Jr. intercepted Glennon on the next play and returned it for a touchdown to get the Broncos out to a quick 7-0 lead. The most notable part of the play may have been outside linebacker Kasim Edebali beating Charles Leno forcing the bad decision with his pressure.
That was the end of the night for the Broncos' defensive starters.
Trevor Siemian opened the game up with a penalty-ridden, 60-yard drive which resulted in a 38-yard Brandon McManus field goal. The offense started with a step backward, as Menelik Watson allowed Leonard Floyd to blow by him and blow up Trevor Siemian. Watching two defensive linemen run virtually unblocked at Trevor Siemian immediately evoked memories of the Broncos’ 2016 offense. Both Siemian and Paxton Lynch were under constant pressure all night, taking multiple big shots from oncoming defenders.
Luckily the squad got the ball moving and rode the momentum down the field. Siemian found Demaryius Thomas on third-and-11 for an 11-yard gain to move the chains. Shortly after, a pass interference call on a deep ball to Emmanuel Sanders was offset by a hands-to-the-face penalty on Menelik Watson. While credit is due to Siemian for leading a 10-play scoring drive that gave the Broncos a 10-0 lead, the series was heavily influenced by penalties.
Siemian’s ended his night with 51 yards on six-of-seven passing. He led drives of 10, seven and three plays and the offense totaled 105 yards and three points under his watch. The starting offensive line was disappointing in pass protection but respectable in the running game.
Lynch’s performance was a step behind Siemian’s. On his first drive, Lynch scrambled on first and third down, and missed tight end A.J. Derby high on a route 15 yards down the left side of the field on second, resulting in four yards gained but a three-and-out.
His second drive shared the same fate. After a holding penalty on Donald Stephenson forced a second-and-12, Lynch found Cody Latimer for a 10-yard gain. His third-down pass to Bennie Fowler went incomplete and punter Riley Dixon made his third appearance of the night.
The second-year quarterback began to turn things around on his next series, which was four plays and 19 yards and ended at his own 32. He threw two good balls, one to Jordan Taylor for 14 yards and a first down, the second to Cody Latimer for four. On third down, Lynch threw an incomplete deep ball to Jordan Taylor.
Lynch’s final series of the night was clearly his best. He completed all three of his pass attempts for 14 yards and a first down. He also scrambled for eight yards on a second-and-five, after evading a collapsing pocket and what seemed to be an inevitable sack.
Lynch ended the night with 42 yards on six-of-nine passing and 11 ground yards on four rushes. The offense didn’t move down the field behind Lynch, but later in the night, he calmed down, set his feet and began to fight back against a Bears defense that had dominated him early on.
The Broncos depth defense left plenty to be desired. The Bears scored 17 straight points from late in the first half through the mid-fourth quarter to take a 17-10 lead. The onslaught was led by Bears rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky who completed his first nine attempts of the game against the “Baby No Fly Zone,” averaging 8.2 yards per pass over this span. The three scoring drives totaled 30 plays and 174 yards.
Bears backs ran freely against the Broncos reserves. Benny Cunningham, Tarik Cohen, and Ka’Deem Carey combined for 111 yards and each averaged at least five yards-per-carry. Broncos defensive linemen and linebackers were unable to hold the point of attack, contain runners or sense where a play was going. It wasn’t rare to see three wide running lanes between the tackles on a given play. The first defender to meet the ball-carrier would rarely end the run.
Wide receivers found plenty of space and Mitchell Trubisky had plenty of time to find them. The lack of pressure and inability to cut off passes allowed the Bears to pick apart the Broncos as soon as Denver’s starters left the field.
Some of the defensive problems are probably due to rust after an abnormally long offseason in Denver, and part is because of inexperience from young players who are longshots to make the final roster anyway. While this is a theme we’ve seen from Bronco preseason defenses in recent years, it doesn’t make a performance like this any less frustrating.
Luckily for the Broncos, third-string quarterback Kyle Sloter led two scoring drives late in the fourth quarter. In the first, which culminated in a 47-yard touchdown to fifth-round pick Isaiah McKenzie, Sloter threw five passes, completing four, resulting in 70 yards. The second ended with a 41-yard touchdown run by rookie De’Angelo Henderson and gave the Broncos a 24-17 lead, which they would hold.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Kalif Raymond came into the game as a likely practice squad member. This probably hasn’t changed, but he’s certainly made a case to be selected for the 53-man roster. Raymond dominated in the return game, with attempt each at a kickoff and punt return. He brought the punt back to the Broncos’ 32 and the kick back out of the end zone to the 36.
Kalif also caught a key 24-yard bullet from Kyle Sloter on a first-and-20 with under four minutes left in the game
PLAY OF THE GAME
Chris Harris Jr.’s pick-six gets the nod for the Broncos’ first play of the game this season. Kasim Edebali beat left tackle Charles Leno off the snap and applied pressure to Glennon, who then lofted a ball into triple-coverage on the Bears’ first third down of the game. Harris caught the ball and cruised down the sideline for the first score of the game.
It’s no surprise that the 'No Fly Zone' took advantage of an enormous mistake by a hasty quarterback; the noteworthy point was that Kasim Edebali, who will likely start opposite Von Miller due to injuries to Shane Ray and Shaq Barrett, breezed into the backfield so easily. Edebali performed well during training camp and that is translating to success on the field.
QUOTE OF THE GAME
"The attitude, I liked, but we've got to clean it up a little bit." - Vance Joseph
BY THE NUMBERS
35- Paxton Lynch led the offense past the 35-yard line just once.
3- The total number of points scored by the offense in 7 total drives led by Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch
173- The total rushing yards allowed by the Broncos defense Thursday night.
Trevor Siemian came into Thursday’s contest ahead after clearly outplaying Paxton Lynch in training camp, despite Vance Joseph’s attempts to delegitimize claims that Siemian had a lead. After Lynch’s first few drives, it seemed as though Siemian had put himself firmly in the driver’s seat with just one week left in the quarterback competition. Lynch completed four of his last five passes and, while he still didn’t play as well as Siemian, he did turn what could have been a knockout in favor of Siemian into a split-decision.
Lynch will play with the starters next week against the 49ers after the team travels to San Francisco early in the week to compete against the 49ers in a pair of practices.