LOS ANGELES — Depth is an issue at some spots on the Broncos’ roster. But it was quickly evident early in Saturday’s 10-6 loss to the Los Angeles Rams that the Broncos are well-fortified on the defensive line.
With the Rams in third-and-1 after a 51-yard Brandon Allen-to-Michael Thomas pass down the right sideline moved them into the Broncos’ red zone just, the defensive line short-circuited the Rams’ attack.
On the third-and-1 from the Denver 11-yard line, defensive end DeMarcus Walker exploded into the backfield, bringing down Rams running back Darrell Henderson Jr. for no gain.
One play later, defensive lineman Mike Purcell was the first man through, guiding Henderson into the grasp of Justin Hollins. Hollins brought him down with two other defenders closing, and the Broncos had their first red-zone stop of the contest.
“We want to be disruptive as a defensive line, and hopefully I accomplished enough,” Purcell said. “Being disruptive, it helps other people make plays. If I can do my job and be disruptive [and] somebody else makes a play, it helps the defense.”
The defense held up its end of the bargain Saturday, Although the Rams averaged 5.1 yards per play and outgained the Broncos 323 yards to 213, it stood firm in the red zone, limiting the Rams to 10 of a possible 28 points in four red-zone forays.
BIERRIA’S BIG MOMENT
If Todd Davis has not recovered from his calf injury by the time the Broncos play the Oakland Raiders in Week 1, the battle to be the Broncos’ top reserve inside linebacker could be the most impactful of the early season.
The difference could boil down to whichever young reserve is the biggest playmaker. That’s why Keishawn Bierria’s fourth-and-goal stop of Rams tight end Johnny Mundt could be one of the most crucial moments of the preseason.
Head Coach Vic Fangio’s scheme provides opportunities for the inside linebackers to flourish. Bierria seized his chance.
“Vic, he’s going to put you in a position to do it,” Bierria said. “It’s on me to make the play.”
Bierria made the play by shadowing Mundt into the right flat, upholding his responsibility in man-to-man coverage. When John Wolford’s pass arrived, Bierria made contact with Mundt, then held him up while the momentum carried both of them to the sideline.
Mundt attempted to reach the football across the goal line, but Bierria had already guided him too far. A Rams instant-replay challenge failed, and the Broncos had the stop just a half-yard from the goal line.
More importantly for Bierria, he had the kind of high-leverage moment that could help him earn a spot on the 53-man roster.
“We rehearsed that in practice a few times,” Bierria said. “It was all [in the] game plan, and I just did my job cutting off the tight end, just making sure that he didn’t get into the end zone.”
WILKINSON GETS REACQUAINTED WITH RIGHT GUARD
Elijah Wilkinson’s background is at left and right tackle. But his NFL starting experience is at right guard, and he practiced there this week with Ron Leary sidelined this week after being limited in practices throughout training camp.
After working at the offensive tackle spots throughout camp, he manned the right guard spot through most of the game.
“I just got back into it. Going through the game, it kind of felt like I was getting into the groove a little bit,” he said.
Fangio said he wanted to watch the tape before making a definitive evaluation of Wilkinson’s play.
“The one time the guy blew by him early, I think our snap count was off. I think the center snapped it a count early,” Fangio said. “I think [Wilkinson] probably played pretty good, but, again, ask me that in a day or two.”
Wilkinson’s value rests in his versatility, as he can play any of the guard or tackle spots. He hasn’t worked at center since he was young, but said he could also work there if the Broncos asked.
“I’ll start snapping tomorrow,” he said, smiling.
BUTT FINDS HIS GROOVE
During the Broncos’ first possession, Butt went back to the sideline and conferred with team medical personnel. He quickly began moving around, kicking up his knees to get limber.
“I just felt like I needed to shake something out in my leg. I really don’t know. But I went back in,” Butt said. “There was nothing that was going to stop me from going back in, honestly. I was like, ‘There’s no way.’ So I went back in, put some good stuff on tape and came back healthy.”
Then he went out and looked just like he did early last season before he tore his anterior cruciate ligament at Baltimore in Week 3. He caught two passes for 19 yards — both of which came on the Broncos’ first scoring drive of the game.
Most importantly, he looked confident on his surgically repaired knee. His cuts were crisp.
“I thought he did well,” Fangio said. “He caught a couple of of balls. [He] was active in there. I saw him run some good routes where the ball didn’t even go to him. Based on what I saw of live action — which isn’t everything — I think he’ll probably be pleased with his play.
“It felt good,” Butt said. “I mean, I don’t want to get too excited about [having] 11 plays in the preseason, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. I’ve got to look at the tape, but I feel pretty good about what I did out there. I had a couple of catches, I blocked well and I came out healthy, so it’s all good.”
WINFREE MAKES A SPECIAL IMPRESSION
Rookie wide receiver Juwann Winfree accounted for the Broncos’ longest gain of the first half — and their longest pass play of the game — when he turned and adjusted to Kevin Hogan’s pass for a 19-yard reception with 10:48 remaining in the second quarter.
But the play that could earn him playing time came with 11 minutes remaining in the game, when he exploded downfield in punt coverage to bring down Los Angeles’ Austin Proehl for no gain.
Winfree’s chances of making the team — and being among the active 46 players on game days — rest on his ability to emerge as a reliable special-teams player, particularly in the “gunner” role on punt coverage.
“It will help his cause a lot [and] help us,” Fangio said. “If you’re going to dress five receivers on game day, two of them have to make a contribution [on special teams].”