The Denver Broncos had a two-score lead in the fourth quarter against the San Francisco 49ers, but the Broncos third stringers struggled once again as the Broncos lost another one in the final seconds of this game. Former third overall pick Trey Lance led two late fourth-quarter drives, one for a touchdown and another for a last-second game-winning Jake Moody field goal. Ultimately, the Broncos lost their second straight preseason game by the score of 21 to 20.
It was not all bad for the Broncos in this one. The starting offense led a scoring drive in their first drive of the game, Javonte Williams looked good, Jaleel McLaughlin continued his breakout and Brett Maher was perfect. It wasn’t all good, but overall, this was a promising showing by the Broncos who looked better than they did last week.
HC Sean Payton on the game: "I was encouraged in a lot of areas."— Aric DiLalla (@AricDiLalla) August 20, 2023
Said he "certainly would have liked to have won" but he said he "was pretty much pleased" with how things went.
So, with all that said, let us take a look at the winners and losers from the Denver Broncos' 21-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
QB Russell Wilson
He only played one series tonight, but the Broncos starting quarterback looked good. He helped move the ball down the field during his lone drive and the offense settled for a field goal. After last season, I will take an opening drive field goal attempt.
His passing stat line was just 3 for 6 for 24 yards, but he also ran the ball 3 times for 25 yards. He looked quick, nimble, and in control of Sean Payton’s offense for a second week in a row.
If this is the last we see Wilson in the preseason, I am feeling a bit better about him than I did at the start of training camp. He has had a strong finish to camp and has looked solid in two preseason games. Once the games start to count and Sean Payton is drawing up plays, I think we will see some good things from this offense and Wilson.
QB Jarrett Stidham
The Broncos backup quarterback was coming off a pretty bad showing in the preseason opener, but tonight, he had a bit of a bounce-back performance. He finished the night completing 12 of 17 passes for 130 yards. He nearly had an end-of-the-half-touchdown pass to wide receiver Jalen Virgil but the refs called him down before the end zone and did not give the Broncos a chance to run another play before time expired, even though they downed the ball in time. So, he probably should have had a touchdown added to his stat line, but unfortunately, that did not happen.
After the preseason opener, some fans thought third-string Ben DiNucci could push him for the backup quarterback job but he silenced all that talk tonight. It was a nice bounce-back performance for Stidham and hopefully, he can continue it into the preseason finale before we never see him again outside of mop of duty during Broncos blow out victories.
RB Javonte Williams
After a long offseason of rehab and questions around his status, Broncos running back Javonte Williams returned to the field. There was some concern that the team was rushing him back, but the third-year back silenced all doubters and looked solid tonight.
RB Javonte Williams on his first game action: "It was really all about getting the nerves out."— Aric DiLalla (@AricDiLalla) August 20, 2023
Said he wanted to feel what it felt like to get tackled again.
Williams ended up playing a total of 13 snaps in this one and he ran 8 routes, saw 5 targets, and carried the ball 3 times in limited action. He finished the night with 3 carries for 12 yards and 4 catches for 18 yards. He passed his final test with flying colors and now looks primed to start the week one game vs. the Las Vegas Raiders.
After the game, Williams told reporters that this game was all about “getting the nerves out” and he wanted to feel what it felt like to get tackled again. When asked about being tackled for the first time since his injury, he told reporters “It felt like a weight was lifted off me”. He continued by telling reporters after the game that he feels like he is back to 100% right now. After an offseason of concern and wondering when or if he would ever be back, he beat all the timetables and looks to be back to 100% by the start of the regular season.
RB Jaleel McLaughlin
For a second straight week, the star of the night was explosive undrafted rookie running back Jaleel McLaughlin who did it all tonight. He ran for a touchdown, caught a touchdown pass, had a big return in the kicking game, and likely locked himself into a roster spot.
He finished the night with 7 carries for 45 yards and 1 touchdown, 2 receptions for 8 yards and 1 touchdown and he had a 44-yard kick return. He checked every box and even earned the praise of head coach Sean Payton after the game.
Payton on McLaughlin versatility: "Everyone has seen it if you pay attention to practice. No one was surprised." #9sports— Mike Klis (@mikeklis) August 20, 2023
He told reporters after the game that “everyone has seen it if you pay attention to practice” when asked about McLaughlin’s versatility and continued by saying “No one was surprised” about what he did tonight.
Earlier in the week, Payton compared McLaughlin’s play style to Reggie Bush, Darren Sproles, and Alvin Kamara, and we saw some of that tonight. I think it is safe to assume that he has locked up a roster spot and could have a role on offense and special teams during the regular season.
Last week, we saw the Broncos' offensive line struggle big time in the loss to the Arizona Cardinals and it was a concerning performance. They were in the spotlight all week and they came through in this one against a pretty solid defense from top to bottom.
We did not see any sacks on quarterback Russell Wilson and Jarrett Stidham and Ben DiNucci both had plenty of time in the pocket to complete passes. Also, the Broncos ran the ball for 165 total yards in this one and you cannot do that without the offensive line doing their job and doing it well.
So, overall, I am much more encouraged about the offensive line than I was a week ago. We did see left guard Ben Powers struggle with protection at times in this one, but overall, this was a solid showing by the Broncos' offensive line.
OLB Nik Bonitto
The offseason of Nik Bonitto is continuing. He had another strong showing and looks like the Broncos' best pass rusher on the roster right now. He was rushing from the left side and right side and doing it with a ton of success. He was burning the 49ers' second and third-string tackles and was even making plays in the run game. His excellent speed, explosiveness, and first step were evident and he just looks like a completely different player than the one we saw last year.
If this continues, the Broncos pass rush could be deadly. Frank Clark and Randy Gregory are two proven veterans who can get after the passer and adding Bonitto and the next guy we are going to talk about to that rotation gives them a deep and productive pass-rush unit.
OLB Jonathon Cooper
Agent Zero was dominant tonight. He had one sack, should have had another, a tackle for a loss, four total tackles, and just continued to have a strong summer. Also, as 9NEWS Denver’s Mike Klis noted, he started over Frank Clark in this one.
Broncos OLB Jonathon Cooper in again for a sack, even if others got credit. He started ahead of Frank Clark, by the way. #9sports— Mike Klis (@mikeklis) August 20, 2023
It is possible he is our week one starter at edge rusher while Randy Gregory, Frank Clark, and Nik Bonitto will all rotate in throughout the game. This deep pass rush allows them to keep these guys fresh while also limiting the snaps of the two veterans. Keep in mind, Baron Browning who is currently on the PUP will just make this unit even deeper and more explosive when he gets back from a knee injury.
I am optimistic about the Broncos pass rush and hopeful that we see them continue to dominate throughout the season.
LB Drew Sanders
The rookie linebacker flashed a ton tonight and gave us an idea of what to expect in the future. We saw him rush the passer, make plays in the running game, and nearly intercepted quarterback Trey Lance late in the game.
Drew Sanders making his presence felt on this drive— Zac Stevens (@ZacStevensDNVR) August 20, 2023
He finished the night with 7 total tackles, he had a few pressures and was so close to an interception. This past week, defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said they have special rush packages for him, so we could see plenty of the rookie linebacker this year.
IDL Elijah Garcia
Last week, the second-year defensive lineman had two sacks and he continued to make plays in this one. He did not sack the quarterback in this one, but he did apply pressure at times and he came away with an interception. Fellow defensive lineman Matt Henningsen deflected the pass and Garcia made an incredible diving catch for the interception.
Heading into camp, the defensive line depth was a concern, especially after the Eyioma Uwazurike suspension. However, the emergence of Elijah Garcia has helped with those depth issues. He seems likely to make the team now and will pair with Matt Henningsen to serve as the backup defensive ends for the Broncos.
K Brett Maher
I’ll keep it short and simple here. Maher went 0-2 last week with his field goal attempts. He missed one and had another blocked and it was a disappointing performance. However, the Broncos waived Elliott Fry and left him as the lone kicker on the roster and he responded well tonight.
He was 2 for 2 on field goal attempts with a long of 48 yards and was also perfect with extra points. He did everything he could to help his stock tonight and hopefully, he can carry this momentum into the regular season.
P Riley Dixon
The Broncos punter struggled last week on the rough-looking Arizona turf but bounced back in a big way during tonight’s game.
Riley Dixon punts tonight:— Parker Gabriel (@ParkerJGabriel) August 20, 2023
65 yards, TB, net 45
63 yards, 28 return, net 35
59 yards, fumble, net 67
51 yards, 0 return, net 51
Three of his punts went for 59+ yards and two of them went for over 60 yards. His shortest kick was 51 yards, which is still impressive. These are field-flipping kicks and hopefully something we see him continue to do throughout the year.
For a second straight week, we saw the Broncos third-string defense give up a game-winning drive in the closing minutes and seconds of the game. This time, former third-overall pick Trey Lance carved up the Broncos third-string defense and led back-to-back scoring drives to end the game
I am not going to spend too much time on this since most of these players will not be with the team in the next week or so. However, the team not being able to close out two games in a row is tough to see and something that will eat at Sean Payton for a little bit.
QB Ben DiNucci
After a solid showing in the opener, Ben DiNucci had a rough second game. He completed 3 of 7 passes for 13 yards and one touchdown(Jaleel McLaughlin). While he did get a touchdown, he had a rough showing overall and was unable to close out the game late in the fourth quarter.
On top of that, Jarrett Stidham looked much better than him tonight and silenced any talk of him pushing for the backup quarterback job. He is a third-string quarterback, so again, I am not overly concerned about him, but he didn’t gain on Stidham tonight.
WR Kendall Hinton
Wide receiver Kendall Hinton had a rough night. He did throw a nice block on the Jaleel McLaughlin touchdown run, but overall, it was not his best showing. He had two big penalties in the game and a key drop as well. With him fighting for a roster spot, these sorts of mistakes will keep him off the team.
He is on the outside looking in and with Sean Payton running the team and looking for his guys, it is hard to say if Hinton can continue to stick around with the Broncos for another season.
WR Jalen Virgil’s injury
The only real injury from this game came during Jalen Virgil’s long 50-yard reception to close out the second half. I thought he scored, but he was called down at the one-yard line and the Broncos could not get another snap-off before the end of the second quarter. To make things worse, Virgil fell to the ground clutching his knee before being carted to the locker room. We have not heard anything about his injury but it did not look good.
It sucks because Virgil was making plays for the second week in a row and was looking like a real contender to make this roster. Now, this knee injury could derail all that and potentially sideline him for an extended period of time.