The Broncos came into their first preseason matchup with a grudge, and a point to prove. Despite the fact that it was just preseason, there's no doubt that there was a desire to beat the team who walked over them in Super Bowl 48. Preseason games have zero impact on standings, but there is a still a good deal of pride involved, especially when it comes to this match-up. More-so than anything else though, preseason games are a time for players to play themselves onto, or off of the final roster, or supplant a teammate in a position battle. Seven Broncos made a strong case in position battles on Thursday night.
1. Nate Irving (LB)
The biggest question in Denver remains the question of who will occupy the role of starting middle linebacker. As one of the leading candidates, Nate Irving solidified his spot atop the list with an impressive performance against the Seahawks. Irving made plays all over the field on Thursday night, highlighted by a big sack on Russell Wilson (which was ultimately turned over by a T.J. Ward facemask). Irving was able to create problems in the backfield, and came up with tackles from sideline to sideline, removing doubts about whether or not he can solidify the middle of the Denver defense.
2. Ronnie Hillman (RB)
Ronnie Hillman didn't necessarily have a phenomenal stat-line on Thursday night, but the third-year back was impressive in less obvious ways. Hillman proved that he's worked on his ball security issues, running tough through the middle against a strong Seahawks defense, never once losing the ball. Hillman averaged just 2.5 yards per carry, but he fought for yards when there were few gaps, he found the endzone on a one-yard run, and showed some improved pass blocking to protect Peyton Manning.
3. Marvin Austin (DT)
Marvin Austin just might be the wildcard on the Broncos defense in 2014. After being drafted by the New York Giants in the second round of the 2011 draft, Austin had a difficult time staying healthy and making an impact on the Giants, and later Cowboys/Dolphins' defenses; however, he has been one of the biggest news-makers of Broncos training camp, and he continued the strong play into this week's game. The defensive tackle, who is in the mix with Sly Williams and Kevin Vickerson for the second defensive tackle position behind Terrance Knighton, failed to record a sack in any of his first three seasons, but managed to do just that against the Seahawks Thursday night. Austin provided consistent pressure up the middle in his Broncos debut, and made a case for himself to start the season behind Knighton on the DT depth chart.
4. Juwan Thompson (RB)
There is a crowded group of running backs on the depth chart behind Montee Ball, with Ronnie Hillman, CJ Anderson, Kapri Bibbs, Brennan Clay, and Thompson all vying for a spot on the roster; but it was Thompson who stole the show on Thursday night. Although it should be noted that his work came against second and third-string defenses, Thompson gouged those defenses for 59 yards on six carries, averaging almost 10 yards per carry. Some Broncos fans are calling for Thompson to start the season as number one on the depth chart; this fairly unlikely, but after his showing against the Seahawks and the impressions he's left in training camp so far, Thompson seems poised to beat out the other UDFAs for the final running back slot on the roster. In fact, Thompson even received first-team snaps in camp practice today, suggesting that he may actually have a shot at leap-frogging the rest of the currently healthy backs.
5. Steven Johnson (LB)
Just like the running back group, the linebacker position group is full of similar talent, with no real indication of who will rise above the rest and claim the final roster spots. Nate Irving made a case for the starting spot on Thursday, while Lamin Barrow, Corey Nelson, and Brandon Marshall all flashed solid play in pursuit of roster spots; however, it was Steven Johnson who made the biggest splash at the lower end of the linebacker competition with his game-sealing interception. Johnson, who has been a solid contributor on special teams over the past two seasons, but if he can continue to make game-changing plays like his interception this week, he may push himself past the highly-anticipated rookie linebackers on the linebacker depth chart.
6. Jordan Norwood (WR)
Jordan Norwood was drafted in the 2009 NFL Draft, before spending the next four seasons bouncing around NFL rosters, never finding a spot to stick. Now competing for a spot at the bottom of the Broncos receivers depth chart, Norwood improved his chances on Thursday night. Showing some solid chemistry with Brock Osweiler, the fourth-year receiver hauled in three receptions for 51 yards and a 34-yard touchdown. Along with tallying the most receiving yards behind Demaryius Thomas, Norwood showed some promise on special teams, returning a punt for 20 yards. After Thursday night's game, Norwood holds the upper hand on Isaiah Burse for that final receiver spot on Denver's roster.
7. Kenny Anunike/Quanterus Smith (DE)
Quanterus Smith missed his entire 2013 rookie season with a torn ACL, after being drafted by the Broncos in the 5th round of the 2013 NFL Draft. After a year of recovery and training, Smith is ready to make his NFL debut, and he made it in a big way on Thursday night. The second-year Western Kentucky product proved his worth in the pass rush against the Seahawks, forcing the three mobile quarterbacks to play on their heels all night. Smith, who played almost 50% of the Broncos' defensive snaps in the game, was not credited with a single tackle on the night, but logged four quarterback hurries and earned the third-highest defensive grade on the Broncos (1.7) per PFF.
Anunike, who is battling Smith for a spot on the defensive line and lined up opposite of him for most of the night on Thursday, was also a pass-rushing force. The undrafted free agent out of Duke has been highly praised for his work thus far in training camp, and he proved why against the Seahawks offensive line on Thursday night. Anunike had the most pressures of any of the Broncos' defense (5), earning his own impressive defensive grade of 1.5 (PFF).
The players fighting for spots on the 53-man roster will still have three more chances, as well as numerous other ones during practice, to prove that they are worthy of suiting up for the Broncos this season; however, the players who stepped up against the defending Super Bowl champions on Thursday night have gained a step on their competition. Despite the long road of training camp that lies ahead, these seven players should be feeling pretty good about where they're headed.