Five Questions Facing The Denver Broncos In Tonight's Preseason Opener

Seattle Seahawks - Denver Broncos

Time: 7:00 PM MDT

Location: Sports Authority Field At Mile High

Last Time Met: Seahawks 43 Broncos 8 in Super Bowl XLVIII on February 2, 2014 @ MetLife Stadium, EastRutherford, NJ.

Since it’s only week one in the preseason, Thursday’s Seattle Seahawks - Denver Broncos matchup at Sports Authority Field at Mile High doesn’t quite measure up as a Super Bowl rematch (that’s coming in Week 3 of the regular season in Seattle). What the game will provide is a chance to measure the progress of the 2014 Broncos as they seek their second straight appearance in the Super Bowl.

With the two teams facing each other again in the regular season, don't expect either team to show anything other than a basic offensive and defensive packages. Starters should go a series or two before they give way to the backups.

There are five things to look for as the Broncos begin their preseason schedule:

Do The Broncos Have An Answer To Their Super Blowout?

Even though Thursday night's matchup is a preseason game, it can’t help but have some carryover from last February’s game in New Jersey. Comments from Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner last month on ESPN’s First Take only served to add more fuel to the Broncos’ fire.

Wagner didn't hold back his feelings about the Broncos play in the Super Bowl when asked by ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith.

"They looked scared out there," Wagner said. "Nobody wanted to catch the ball. Nobody wanted to come up the middle. ... They were very timid."

Wagner specifically called out wide receiver Demaryius Thomas as being the weak point across the middle.

“If you look at the previous games, (Denver) got a lot of balls across the middle,” Wagner said. “That first hit (Thomas) came across the middle and (SS Kam Chancellor) smacked him. You didn’t really see too many balls caught across the middle (after that). They were very timid. That says a lot about our defense.”

WR Demaryius Thomas of the Denver Broncos catches a pass in Super Bowl XLVIII. Getty Images

Expect the Broncos offensive starters to come out firing on all cylinders during their one or two series of play in an attempt to send a message to the Seahawks defense that this year things will be different. Thomas, along with fellow wide receivers Wes Welker and newly acquired Emmanuel Sanders will be putting Wagner’s view that the Broncos are scared and unwilling to come over the middle to the test. Since the Super Bowl the Broncos have set out to reshape themselves into a more physical team that won’t be dominated like they were by the Seahawks. Thomas' matchup with cornerback Richard Sherman should be especially interesting.

On the other side of the ball, the new-look defense will be looking to send the Seahawks and the rest of the NFL the message that their play in the Super Bowl will not be repeated in 2014.

"Me, personally, I'm tired of hearing about it: Seahawks, Seahawks, Seahawks," defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. "We accomplished some things last year. Not everything we wanted, but we took a step forward from the year before. We're going to reload, and when the time comes, we'll be ready to play them. And it's a good thing we play them twice."

#94 Defensive Tackle Terrance Knighton of the Denver Broncos. Getty Images.

New additions DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward, and Aqib Talib are hard nosed players who have played the kind of football that the Broncos want the rest of the unit to replicate. Thursday night, look for the defense to add an exclamation point to every tackle they make. Also, expect more than a few scuffles to break out as a result.

“You hear things like we were scared and things like that. As an athlete and a professional … you take it personal,” Knighton added. “And they’ll hear about it and they’ll feel it when we play them.”

Brock Osweiler or Zac Dysert?

With Peyton Manning going one series Thursday night, it will be third year quarterback Brock Osweiler getting the bulk of play behind center. With Manning starting every game since he was acquired as a costless agent in 2012, Osweiler has not had many chances in games to showcase his talent. The vast majority of reps have come mainly in OTA's and against opposing second and third string defenses in preseason action. His only regular season action has come in mop up roles with the team far ahead in the fourth quarter.

Quarterback Brock Osweiler of the Denver Broncos. Getty Images.

Osweiler was the Broncos 2012 second round draft pick. In his two seasons in Denver he has appeared in nine games, completing 13 of 20 passes (65%) for 107 yards. Osweiler has reached the point in his career where he needs to show total command of the offense and the ability to move the team down the field.

During last Spring's OTA's, Osweiler struggled with his accuracy and turning the ball over. According to offensive coordinator Adam Gase, those problems have been corrected.

"He was really aggressive and probably turned the ball over a little bit too much in the spring and he knew that," Gase said during the first week of training camp. "We sat down and [Quarterbacks] Coach [Greg] Knapp did a good job of [saying], 'Hey, training camp now, we have to start playing like it’s a game.

"He has done a good job out here so far as far as protecting the ball, not turning it over, getting through his progressions, making sure he is getting completions and moving the sticks."

Osweiler believes that he has improved enough to assume the duties of a starter and is ready to prove it starting with the preseason game against the Seahawks.

"From the way practices have gone from the start of training camp, and even back to OTAs, I feel like a completely different quarterback," Osweiler said. "I feel like I’m playing at a much higher level than I did last year and especially my rookie year.

"I have very high goals for myself and very high expectations and I expect to play well Thursday."

If Osweiler is unable to produce this preseason then all eyes will be on the Broncos 2013 seventh round draft pick, Zac Dysert. Dysert continues to make strides as he learns an offense that Sanders has called one of the more complex systems in the NFL.

Dysert brings a long list of accomplishments from his college career at Miami (Ohio) University. During his four year career as a starter, Dysert broke the school's total offense record with 12,678 yards (12,013 passing, 665 rushing), a record that was previously held by Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Quarterback Zac Dysert of the Denver Broncos. Getty Images.

During last Saturday's scrimmage at Sports Authority Field, Dysert was 7-of-8 for 112 yards. The lone incompletion came on the final play of the day when he attempted a last second touchdown that fell into the end zone.

If Osweiler does falter this preseason and Dysert continues to impress, coaches won't have a problem shifting their focus to the second year quarterback.

"I don't know if I'm there yet," Dysert said. "My plan from Day One of the offseason was to keep working to get better and take in what Peyton was doing."

As far as the man who is at the top of the depth chart is concerned, he is impressed with both young quarterbacks.

"Brock has continued to get better every year and Zac has made tremendous strides since last year," Manning said. "We've got a really good (quarterbacks meeting) room. We try to help each other. We all get along.

"Those young guys help keep the old guy young."

Can Ronnie Hillman Solve His Fumbling Issues?

With Montee Ball out for at least two weeks after undergoing an emergency appendectomy, Ronnie Hillman steps into the starting job at running back. Hillman went into last season's training camp as the number one running back until fumbling issues cost him the job.

The third year back out of San Diego State was the Broncos third round pick in 2012. Last season he rushed for 218 yards on 55 carries in 10 games. His fumbles ended up causing the coaching staff to lose faith in him as Hillman allowed the errors to weigh on him. He was placed on the inactive list by midseason.

Running back Ronnie Hillman of the Denver Broncos holding on to the ball during drills at training camp. Getty Images.

Hillman has shown signs of overcoming his fumbling problems and is having a good training camp. He appears now to be regaining the form that made him so attractive to the Broncos coming out of college.

"I think what we're seeing is we're seeing him much closer to what we thought his potential was," running backs coach Eric Studesville said. "The growth always happens as they experience more and they see more, but I think we're seeing him now getting really close, edging up to what we really thought his potential was when we drafted him three years ago."

At 5'10" and 195 lbs., Hillman is much smaller in size than Ball. What Hillman has that Ball doesn't is break away speed. Once Hillman gets into the secondary he can chew up a significant chunk of yardage. If Hillman can overcome his difficult 2013 season and return to form, then the Broncos will have a valuable weapon coming out of the backfield this season to pair with the bruising running style of Ball.

Will The Reshaped Offensive Line Protect Manning And Open Holes For The Running Game?

The Broncos went into the offseason with the intention to revamp their offensive line in order to provide more power to their running game while still maintaining the excellent protection that Manning has been receiving while he has been in Denver. With the return of Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady from a lisfranc injury he suffered last season in Week 2 against the New York Giants, the Broncos needed to find a suitable position for Clady's replacement, Chris Clark. Clark played well in place of Clady at left tackle and earned the right to stay in the starting lineup on the offensive line. Clark was moved to right tackle while last year's right tackle, Orlando Franklin, was moved to left guard to replace Zane Beadles who left for the Jacksonville Jaguars in costless agency. Manny Ramirez stays at center while Louis Vasquez remains at right guard.

Offensive tackle Ryan Clady #78 of the Denver Broncos blocks defensive end Stephen Bowen #72 of the Dallas Cowboys during preseason NFL action at Invesco Field at Mile High on August 16, 2008 in Denver, Colorado. Getty Images.

Having the 6-foot-7, 315 pound Franklin at left guard will allow the Broncos to get more physical in the middle of the offensive line as they attempt to improve their running game. Going up against larger but slower defensive tackles rather than the quick moving pass-rushers he has faced at the tackle position better suits Franklin’s talent and body size.

"It's easier to get your hands on them at guard. I feel like the play begins when you get your hands on them. At tackle, you are dealing with a lot smaller guys who are a lot faster," Franklin said. "The battle is before you get your hands on them."​

Eyes will be on the second team offensive line and the third round pick in this year's draft, Michael Schofield at right tackle. Schofield is a disciplined, technically sound player who gets his hands into the proper position and maintains his balance while moving backwards with the blocks. At 6-foot-six and a half inches tall and 301 pounds Schofield fits the profile physically for the tackle spot. It will be interesting to see if Schofield can outperform Clark and take the starting spot from him.

Will The Refs Enforce The Illegal Contact Rule As Tightly As They Say?

So far during training camp the refs have been throwing a number of flags during scrimmages and practices in regard to illegal contact by cornerbacks on wide receivers pass the five yard zone. The success of the Seahawks defenders last year in playing the receivers so tight that many complained they were being mugged caused the NFL to make the decision to "clarify" the rule and enforce it more vigorously. Another move by the league to help the offensive side of the ball. But will the refs be as aggressive in the enforcement as they have indicated?

"There's always talk about it, but once it's September and the real games start, it will probably be regular," Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib said.

Newly acquired cornerback Aqib Talib of the Denver Broncos. Getty Images.

If the refs do crack down on illegal contact as much as they are saying, games may run longer and passing numbers that have been exploding in recent years will go even higher. Could a six thousand yard passer be too far off?

The answers to these questions begin to come tonight as the preseason kicks off for both of these teams who may very well end up facing each other for a third time in 2014 in Arizona for Super Bowl XLIX.

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