The Broncos’ starting quarterback reminded me of something Sunday I either never knew or had forgotten. At my age, one is never sure, but I’m pretty sure Peyton Manning would call it bad preparation either way.
He reminded me that he and Lance Ball have played together before.
Ball wasn’t drafted when he came out of the Univeristy of Maryland four years ago, but the St. Louis Rams signed him to their practice squad as an undrafted free agent. They released him at the end of September and Manning’s Indianapolis Colts picked him up two weeks later, adding him to their practice squad.
On Dec. 28, the Colts activated Ball for their season finale against division rival Tennessee. Both teams had clinched playoff berths, the Titans as division champs and the Colts as a wild card. Manning started for the Colts but played only the first series. He went 7-for-7 and led his team to a touchdown.
It is perhaps worth noting that the touchdown came on a 55-yard pass play to Joseph Addai, the Colts running back. Unlike Sunday’s big play to Ball, a 38-yard rainbow up the right sideline, this was a short pass into the right flat that Addai ran the rest of the way. Still, it’s a reminder that Manning is an equal opportunity thrower — if you’re the best matchup, he’s coming your way.
Ball made his NFL debut that day, after Manning had retired for the day. He carried 13 times for 83 yards and caught one pass for five yards from Jim Sorgi.
What this means, of course, is that Ball was practicing with Manning and the Colts for most of the 2008 season. Everybody knows Manning played with Brandon Stokley and Jacob Tamme in Indianapolis and this is at least part of the calculation that puts both Stokley and Tamme on the Broncos’ final 53-man roster.
Assuming the rib injury Ball sustained in Sunday’s third preseason game isn’t too serious, I’m thinking he makes that list, too. That would leave only one possible opening at running back for Knowshon Moreno, Jeremiah Johnson or Xavier Omon, and then only if the Broncos keep four in addition to fullback Chris Gronkowski.
I could certainly be wrong about this. My record predicting the future is not that good. I nailed that they would make another Star Trek movie after Wrath of Kahn, but that’s about it.
Still, Sunday was as close as the Broncos are likely to come to a dress rehearsal for the season opener against the Steelers on Sept. 9, and Ball was part of the first-team game plan. Manning threw to him twice consecutively on the Broncos’ first touchdown drive.
The second throw, a loft so perfect up the sideline it could have been animated by Pixar, was the drive’s big play, taking the Broncos from their own 36 to the 49ers’ 26. It was also a bomb on third-and-three.
Manning’s reminder came when I asked him about that throw, which he delivered while taking a helmet to the chest. I wondered if the timing was a matter of instinct, since he couldn’t have worked on it with Ball that much.
“Well, Lance played for the Colts; he did,” Manning said.
“But in training camp we have put him outside at wide receiver a few times and have thrown that particular pattern, actually, a couple of times in training camp. So it’s always nice when you can take something you’ve worked on in practice and take it to the playing field. I thought it was a really good route and a good finish by him today.”
Manning was sharp throughout his short stint Sunday. His second touchdown pass to Eric Decker was waiting for the third-year receiver like a room service tray suspended in mid-air after Decker sold an inside fake and turned uncovered toward the left corner of the end zone.
Against last season’s No. 2 scoring defense in the NFL, Manning played one quarter, completing 10 of 12 passes for 122 yards, two touchdowns and a passer rating of 148.6. He might be ready.
“I’ve seen steady improvement since he’s gotten here,” coach John Fox said. “That’s a tribute to him, his work ethic. I think the offensive coaches, his offensive teammates, for being a first-year guy, he’s not a young player by any stretch, but to come in and learn an offense, execute an offense with the precision he has, is pretty good.”
Manning declined a victory lap.
“Well, you’ve still got to do it every week,” he said. “I thought we did some good things today. We moved the ball pretty well and we got two touchdowns. It would have been nice to have gotten three . . . .
“I thought one thing that was nice was the defense got a turnover and the offense went out there and capitalized with a touchdown as opposed to having to settle for three. That’s always big when you can feed off one another, offense and defense.”
After managing just 38 yards rushing against Pete Carroll’s Seattle defense last week, the Broncos made the ground game a point of emphasis this week. It set no records — 26 carries, 83 yards — but was at least a viable option. Rookie Ronnie Hillman, seeing his first preseason action, had a 14-yard burst for the day’s long run, and veteran starter Willis McGahee had a 12-yard inside scamper out of a two-back set.
“I don’t think there’s really any barrier with this offense,” Manning said. “What I’ve done in my past and the teams I’ve played on I think (is) really irrelevant to this year’s team. We’re still forming our identity, seeing what plays we can hang our hat on.
“I thought coach (offensive coordinator Mike) McCoy emphasized the running game today. He challenged the guys to run the ball. I thought we did that against a good defensive front. It’s still preseason. It really carries no weight once the regular season starts, but it was good to do that and answer that challenge.”
To be sure, the Broncos still have issues. In each of the last two weeks, Manning and the first team have beaten an NFC West first team, then watched Denver’s second and third teams dominated by their counterparts. The first team led Seattle 10-9, but the Seahawks won 30-10. The first team took a 17-0 lead against San Francisco, but the Niners won 29-24. I asked Fox if consecutive flacid performances by the back end of his roster concerned him.
“Yeah, it all concerns me,” he said. “That’s kind of what I do. At the end of the day, I think we made a little bit of improvement, not a lot, but last week we flung up 21, I don’t remember what it was this time, but we’ve got work to do. When we pick the 53, you can do that a lot of different ways.”
For example, linebacker Nate Irving, a third-round draft choice in 2011 playing on the second team, was run over by 49ers third-string quarterback Josh Johnson, whom he tried to arm-tackle.
Luckily, the second team won’t be called upon to play as a unit once the games begin to matter. The first-team defense had only one major lapse. That came after Fox decided, up 17-0, to try an onside kick. It might have worked, too, if Matt Willis hadn’t grabbed it before it traveled the necessary 10 yards. Still, this is something Fox wouldn’t try on a bet in that situation if the game counted.
Given their best field position of the day, the Niners scored on the next play. Tight end Vernon Davis ran by linebacker Von Miller and safety Rahim Moore was so late getting over he looked like he’d missed his bus.
Caleb Hanie was the second quarterback in, arriving with 42 seconds left in the first quarter and the Broncos up 17-7. He was unsteady at first, throwing his second pass behind Decker into the arms of former Bronco Perrish Cox, now a Niners nickel back.
But Hanie eventually found a rhythm, leading the Broncos to a touchdown in a two-minute drill just before halftime. Rookie Brock Oswieler, second in last week, was third Sunday. Again, the offense sputtered, suggesting Hanie will be the No. 2 quarterback going into the regular season unless John Elway elects to make a waiver wire claim at the end of the week, when all 32 teams must cut down to 53-man rosters.
Ideally, Osweiler would have proven able to back up Manning right away, which would have allowed the Broncos to carry only two quarterbacks on the active roster. But through three preseason games, Osweiler, a one-year starter at Arizona State, does not look ready for prime time.
Befitting a dress rehearsal, McCoy trotted out a variety of schemes and personnel packages Sunday. Manning and the first-team offense huddled during their first series, then went no-huddle in the second. They used a two-back formation with Chris Gronkowski at fullback — it produced McGahee’s 12-yard inside run — and an empty backfield set featuring three wide receivers and two tight ends.
For much of the second series, McCoy went with a three-wide look that had the veteran Stokley in the slot, where Manning used to find him in Indianapolis. They connected twice Sunday, including a balletic tip to himself by Stokley on a third-and-six he converted into a first down.
Manning and Stokley may be the only 36-year-old pass connection in the league this year, but they looked a lot like they did in 2004, when they were both 28 and Stokley caught 68 balls for 1,077 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“We wanted to do a lot better than we have in the past couple preseason games,” Stokley said. “We put some good things together. It would have been nice to score touchdowns every time we got the ball, but I thought all in all it was a lot better than the two weeks before.”
This week will be all about the problematic back end of the roster — in the game Thursday night at Arizona and in the work Elway and the front office staff does poring over the waiver wire Friday.
As for the first team, it looked ready for the curtain to rise on the regular season.