SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Levi’s Stadium brings smiles to faces in Broncos Country. This represents the sight of the Broncos’ last playoff win and game, an Orange Rush of dominance in Super Bowl 50.
That seems like a like a long time ago. Because it was. In 2015, "Jurassic World" was ruling the box office and Bruno Mars was gyrating and ruling the airwaves with “Uptown Funk.”
It’s past time for the Broncos to become relevant again. With Sean Payton in charge, there are finally signs of progress, of healthy doses of urgency and discipline manifesting from practice to the game.
The second preseason game did not count but it mattered to the Payton. And it showed that there are bridges that must be crossed. For the second consecutive week, the Broncos failed to finish, allowing a late score in a 21-20 loss to the 49ers on a windy Saturday night.
"I was encouraged in a lot of areas tonight. I thought we did a good job with the takeaways," coach Sean Payton said. "I thought we ran the ball well and defended the run. Certainly I wished we had won. But I was pleased with pretty much most of that game."
Jake Moody booted a short field goal with three seconds left for the win.
The Broncos, if only briefly, tilted the outcome in their favor with a special teams gem.
In the third quarter, reserve cornerback Fabian Moreau raced down on a punt that San Francisco reserve D’Shawn Jamison muffed. Moreau pounced on it, representing a flip of the script for a Broncos team that has been a tire fire in the margins since Super Bowl 50. The Broncos sideline erupted with starters, long since out of the game, leading the cheers. This not an accident or act. On the next play, Jaleel McLaughlin burst in from 8 yards as he continues to make a name for himself, this time with it spelled correctly on the back of his jersey.
"He's been doing that (all camp) if you have been watching," Payton said.
Because nothing come easily for the Broncos, they were required to hold on by dental floss. A Trey Lance touchdown shaved the deficit to 20-18, but he misfired on the two-point. It didn't matter as they put together another drive.
The Broncos led 13-9, and it was shaved to a one point lead in the fourth quarter as struggling rookie kicker Jake Moody converted a 43-yard field goal with 6:37 remaining.
One thing is clear: Payton loves coaching. And teaching. His passion on game day, if not temper, is impossible to miss, and hasn’t been by the Broncos ownership group. But he wasn't pleased Saturday as his team failed to finish, and there were some issues with the officiating.
"I don't enjoy when we can get a simple end of half situation done correctly. I like being friendly with those guys. But man," Payton said. "Then if you sub on offense, the defense has a chance to make a sub. There's a substitution that takes place on the touchdown pass at the end of the game. They were right at the line of scrimmage, so it's preseason for the officials as well as it is for us."
Payton leads with conviction. He promised to get running back Javonte Williams involved early and often. He wasn’t kidding. Williams touched the ball on the first four plays – a dropped pass, a caught pass for 12 yards, a run for no yards and a four-yard reception -- and his right knee responded to contact and use. Williams finished with 12 yards on three carries and 18 receiving yards on four catches, five targets. He became a magnet for screen plays, peeling back another layer of preference for Payton.
"It was just like a weight lifted off of me. I was thinking it was going to hurt. I really didn't even feel it. I just popped right back up," Williams said.
The Broncos’ first march logged 49 yards, hardly an impressive number, but it was spangled with highlights. Against a rugged defense, quarterback Russell Wilson demonstrated the acumen he has shown in practice. In his lone drive, Wilson completed 3-of-6 passes for 24 yards and rushed for 25 yards on three attempts, and it would have included 16 more yards if not for a Courtland Sutton holding penalty. The ground dynamic cannot be dismissed. Only three times last year did Wilson exceed 25 yards rushing in 11 games. He is 15 pounds lighter, more mobile and showing shades of Seattle Russ with his decisiveness when the play breaks down.
"There are a lot of good things where we feel great with where we are. It's coming together one day at a time," Wilson said.
The clutter of stats resulted only in a field goal in part because of two penalties, among them a false start on center Lloyd Cushenberry. Yet in Brett Maher vs. The World, Maher drilled a 48-yarder as he tries to secure a spot as the only kicker currently on the roster.
An answer was required after a shaky opening drive for the defensive starters with only Justin Simmons (groin) absent. Quarterback Brock Purdy made his first appearance since hurting his elbow in the NFC Championship Game. He riddled the Broncos in passing game, finding Deebo Samuel for 39 yards on two completions. Denver finally stiffened inside the 10. On second down, Zach Allen shot into Purdy’s face, leading him into a sack by Jonathon Cooper, who was active throughout the first half.
"At least personally I corrected some of the mistakes from last week, but we have a lot of things to do," Allen said. "I think the good thing is the players feel the same way (about losing). If there was kind of a disconnect it would be an issue. But guys aren't exactly taking it lightly. They understand the importance of it all. It sucks but it was something to build off of for sure."
San Francisco settled for a 20-yard field goal. With the score knotted at 3, the Broncos took the lead with Jarrett Stidham under center. Working with the starting offense that logged 23 snaps, Stidham finally gained traction this summer. An 18-yard strike to tight end Greg Dulcich set up a 34-yard field goal.
What happened next had Payton seething. Always percolating on gameday, he went volcanic on the last play of the half. Stidham connected on a deep ball to the speedy Jalen Virgil. He dodged a tackler and trucked to the 1-yard line. In fact, it appeared he scored, but there was no review. The play began with 25 seconds remaining. By the time, Stidham surveyed the line and snapped, the clock struck zero, leaving Payton furious as he jogged down to the 5-yard line and let a ref have it, believing there was a tick left. Virgil hurt his right knee on the play, entering the locker room on a cart and did not return. He left to the bus with a large wrap on his leg.
The Broncos led 6-3 at intermission. It was 30 minutes of football. Hardly enough time to draw a conclusion. But contrasting how the Broncos looked Saturday compared to preseason week two last summer at Buffalo was striking. Saturday represented progress. A year ago, the Bills embarrassed Denver, which looked like a clueless junior varsity team vs. a state champion. The Broncos are not a finished product, but the urgency is starting to pay dividends.
While Stidham remained a tick late on his decisions, and nearly had two passes intercepted, he produced a solid stat line. He completed 12 of 17 passes for 170 yards.
There were multiple veterans logging a huge number of stats, including Randy Gregory and Frank Clark deep into the second half. But it was left up to third-stringer Ben DiNucci and crew. McLaughlin set up a late drive with a 44-yard kickoff return. It’s hard to imagine a roster without him on it. He gives the Broncos something they don’t have – pure speed. After a 43-yard run by Tony Jones, McLaughlin scored his third touchdown in two weeks on a 9-yard reception.
But like last week, the curtain dropped too soon.
"That's two straight times where we had the game in our hand at halftime, and we did a terrible job of finishing. That's all three phases," Gregory said. "That's the whole team as a whole."
Essang Bassey, who can play nickel or safety, delivered his second interception of the preseason. Sam Darnold fired a fastball off Ronnie Bell that ricocheted into the air and into Bassey’s hands. …
Kendall Hinton was flagged for two penalties. While the holding penalty was questionable, he boxed out on a pass play, an easy call. Aaron Patrick was also flagged for two penalties. …
Purdy has a connection to receiver Brandon Johnson’s family. Purdy’s dad pitched at the University of Miami where Charles Johnson, Brandon’s father, and former Rockies’ backstop, served as the catcher. The elder Purdy introduced Charles to his future wife and Brandon’s mother. ...
Elijah Garcia picked off Trey Lance. He continues to make plays as he pushes for a roster spot.