After losing their first two preseason games in the final seconds, the Denver Broncos made damn sure to get a win at home in their preseason finale Saturday.
And Broncos Country could breathe a sigh of relief. A win at home - and a big one at that.
Trouncing the Rams 41-0, the Broncos put on a show for the hometown crowd and finished the preseason on a high.
Head coach Sean Payton noted that the game was just “one of those nights” for his players.
“As coaches, we’re teachers and you want to see these guys do well. It’s fulfilling when guys play hard and have the kind of game that you want to see,” he said. “So many of them are trying to put their best stuff on tape whether it’s for us or maybe another team, so you root for every one of these guys.”
The 41 points came on the ground, in the air and through the uprights.
Both quarterbacks threw touchdown passes while the rushing attack lit up the end zone with three TDs - one each from Jaleel McLaughlin, Tyler Badie and Tony Jones Jr.
Jarrett Stidham and Ben DiNucci each showed command of the offense and put up some good numbers. Stidham was 17 of 28 for 236 yards while DiNucci was 11 for 15 with 117 yards.
“Stidham has been consistent all during camp. I thought [tonight] he did really well,” Payton said. “He started off really hot. He took a shot on the one deep [pass] interference completion [and] bounced back. I thought he played well—made a lot of good decisions. I was encouraged.”
Brett Maher completed the scoring trifecta, hitting all extra points and making a pair of field goals - from 46 yards and 33.
And it was an impressive night on defense as well. The Broncos hauled in two interceptions - a near pick-six from rookie linebacker Drew Sanders and legit takeaway from fourth-year Essang Bassey, whose INT was his third in as many games. The defense also added two sacks, three tackles for a loss and eight passes batted down.
Although Payton would have preferred not to see Sanders cough up the ball after his interception, the coach is happy with the progress of his rookie.
“For a young player, there’s a learning curve and then the confidence starts happening. …He’s one of those guys that right before our eyes were seeing gain confidence,” he said. “He’s really athletic. It’s awfully important to him so I’m encouraged.”
While McLaughlin continued his rushing dominance in the preseason, the offensive player of the night went to Albert Okwuegbunam.
The tight end was sitting fifth on the depth chart but his game-leading seven receptions for 109 yards and a touchdown probably earned him a roster spot.
“He had a big night,” Payton said. “I mean holy cow.”
Stidham was also complimentary of the tight end’s performance.
“Albert was awesome. That guy is big, strong and fast,” Stidham said. “He was able to display his talent and what he can do. I was happy for him. He made a lot of plays tonight.”
Overall, Payton was encouraged by the entire team’s performance.
“I thought upfront we played well, defensively and offensively. When you play that way in the trenches, you’re going to have games with success,” Payton said, adding that the third-down numbers were good on both offense and defense. “I thought we were physical tonight - even in the kicking game. If you watched the coverage units and the return units, we did a lot of things well.”
When Payton was asked about the injuries, he noted that he isn’t superstitious about injuries, and sidestepped any hints that the staff isn’t doing enough to keep players from getting injured. Instead, he told reporters the question they probably wanted to know was depth.
“I think your question is ‘How do I feel about our depth?’ I feel better tonight about our depth than I did a week ago or two weeks ago,” he said, adding that he’s always paying attention to the back 10 or 15 spots on the roster. “I’m encouraged and yet, there’s some areas I would say we have some hot spot areas position-wise. I won’t share them but that’s what you think about as a coach. Where can we in this roster cut down? Where might we find players that can help this team?”
And now that painful process begins in earnest for Payton and his coaching staff, who must trim the roster to 53 players by Tuesday at 2 p.m. Mile High Time.
Having waived cornerback Delonte Hood plus three wide receivers on Sunday - Kendall Hinton, J.J. Koski and Nick Williams - Denver has to find 33 more players to take off the roster.
“It’s always difficult this time of year. That hasn’t changed in 16 years for me,” Payton said, adding that he meets with every player who is not making the team. “I was on the other side of that four times in the preseason. My mom said, ‘You need to start coaching or do something else’. I think that the dream for so many of these guys is still alive even if it’s not here.”