Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 8/31/12

After a long day at work, I was looking forward to an extended Labor Day weekend holiday which was going to start with watching the final NFL exhibition game between the Denver Broncos and the Arizona Cardinals.

With the regular season just days away, this game was the final chance for many players to either cement their roles within a team or simply do enough to win a job out of camp.

Although I follow the Broncos very closely, living in Portland, Oregon puts me squarely within the territory of the Seattle Seahawks and the Cardinals are a rival of theirs.

This match-up would give me an opportunity to not only see how the Broncos would perform, but get a chance to see a team that I’ve heard quite a bit about.

As much as Arizona is a team that I can respect, they’ve been a club that has either battled significant injuries or lack of performances at key points throughout their history in Phoenix.

The first key point that I noticed before the game even kicked off was the starting lineups of both teams. While Arizona started young Ryan Lindley at quarterback, the team used many regular players in their initial drive such as running back Beanie Wells and receiver Larry Fitzgerald.

Denver, on the other hand, sat their entire starting offense and defense, giving Caleb Hanie the start at quarterback and Knowshon Moreno at running back. I had also seen limited game action with the replacement officials, so I was interested to see how this would impact both teams.

There is no time frame for a contract where the regular officials will return, either, so how they would perform would be of paramount concern for the league. In recapping the game, I decided to break down the game by quarters and list my observations within each stanza.

First Quarter: Have the Cardinals found a complementary receiver for Fitzgerald? Andre Roberts was pretty impressive in the Cardinals' first drive with his pass routes and soft hands. Lindley was very comfortable with his work rate, and found him in great spots on the field.

The Cardinals forced a Denver punt on the first drive, and then went to work on a long drive that ended on a missed Jay Feely field goal from 40 yards. The game announcers had been complimenting Feely on his work in camp so far until he plunked the left upright. I found myself impressed with the Arizona defense, as they did a great job of bottling up the Denver offense.

Lindley was very good in their first drive, but on the second drive, he rushed a few throws and under threw a long pass that was originally intercepted until overturned on a questionable roughing the passer call.

For the Broncos, Moreno was solid in his early work in ripping off some exceptional early runs, but Hanie was struggling to find his receivers with any regularity. Hanie completed his first pass to Jason Hill for no gain on a bubble screen, but then missed his next two attempts – Julius Thomas had a key drop on a third-down pass and Hanie skied a pass intended for Andre Caldwell.

The officiating did have some impact in the first quarter, as a pass interference call on Drayton Florence seemed to be questionable in addition to a roughing the passer call on Robert Ayers. On Arizona’s second drive, they ended up with a fourth down and one call that they went for instead of bringing Feely on for another field goal, and Javarris James just crossed the first down line.

So for me, the first quarter highlights were a solid Arizona defense, a young quarterback in Lindley emerging, and plenty of exceptional runs by Wells for the Cardinals. Neither team scored, so the game was scoreless going into the next period.

Second Quarter: The game didn’t remain scoreless for long, as Lindley found receiver Michael Floyd with a 22-yard touchdown pass. Although Floyd was well covered by Jim Leonhard and Tony Cart, he made an impressive juggling catch and held onto the ball nicely, showing impressive concentration and skill.

Lindley aided the play by recognizing the pressure was coming and stepped up to make a very good throw. After the score, Denver tried to counter the touchdown but Cardinals defensive tackle Vonnie Holliday had a tremendous sack of Hanie to stop the drive, forcing Denver to punt again.

After both teams traded punts, Arizona was content to try and run the ball using reserve running back William Powell. Powell is the leading rusher in the NFL preseason and despite being a rookie, I was impressed with his vision and ability to shake tacklers with a stiff leg technique that allowed him to earn more yards.  

The Denver defense forced another punt, and Dave Zastudil blasted another rocket for Arizona. If the Cardinals decide to stay with a defensive, ball possession style of offense, having a punter like Zastudil who can gain you field position is a huge weapon. 

Arizona forced another punt and looked to try and get some points before the half, but Denver linebacker Steven Johnson forced a fumble from Cardinals receiver DeMarco Sampson to give the Broncos their best field possession all night.

While Denver got close, Hanie was sacked again by Arizona linebacker Reggie Walker to end the first half.

While Lindley made a few errors, I was generally impressed with Arizona’s offense and defense, and felt they deserved to have the lead. Denver had some moments of brilliance, but just when it appeared they would gain some momentum, they would make a mistake or Arizona would complete a great defensive play.

Hanie apparently will spend the second half watching Brock Osweiler run the Denver offense as they would battle for the backup quarterback job to starter Peyton Manning, while I expected to see Arizona bring on more of their young players in the second half.

Third Quarter: Arizona would receive the ball first and make a switch at the controls with Richard Bartel taking over for Lindley. Bartel had some zip to his early throws, including a quality throw of 19 yards to young Cardinals receiver LaRon Byrd.

Bartel moved the team into field goal range to give Feely another chance at points, but his 50-yard attempt was extremely wide right.  Denver brought on Osweiler to see what he could do, and gave running back Ronnie Hillman his first carries in the initial drive of the quarter.

The Broncos actually started to find some rhythm as Osweiler made a couple of very nice throws while Hillman showed great vision and power in his rush attempts. It appeared that Denver might be driving for points, but Osweiler stared at his target too much and his pass attempt was intercepted by Cardinals defensive back Crezdon Butler.

After the turnover, the Cardinals wanted to stretch the game and sure enough, Bartel  found Isaiah Williams streaking past the Denver defense for a 52-yard gain on their first play. The offense stalled on the next plays, and Bartel had to leave the game temporarily after a Sealver Siliga sack.

Feely came on and atoned for his previous misses with a 36-yard field goal to push the scoreline to 10-0 Arizona.

Just when you thought the game was starting to get out of reach, Denver cornerback Omar Bolden returned the ensuing kickoff 103 yards to put Denver on the board. One of the concern areas I had for the Broncos was the return game, but it appears that they might have found a weapon in Bolden.

Bartel was unable to return to the game, so Lindley came back on and tried to drive Arizona for points, but instead, the drive stalled after missed passes and solid Denver defense. While Denver hadn’t done much with their offense so far, getting the ball back to start the fourth quarter could give them the chance to take the lead.

Fourth Quarter: Denver wanted to establish the run, so they used a combination of Hillman and Jeremiah Johnson at running back to control the tempo. While I expect Willis McGahee to be the starter, Denver certainly has plenty of options on their bench as needed.

Osweiler began to find some chemistry with a former teammate at Arizona State, Gerell Robinson, as Osweiler found Robinson for 16 yards. Hillman became the focus of the running game with consecutive positive carries as the Denver offensive line started to take control of the line of scrimmage to move the ball.

After some good work by Osweiler to get them in position, Denver got the tying field goal from Matt Prater as he hit from 19 yards out to push the score to 10 all with just over 8 minutes left.

Lindley was doing his best to move his team into position for points, but miscommunication between he and Williams led to a turnover as Denver defensive back Syd’Quan Thompson intercepted a Lindley pass attempt to give the Broncos amazing field position to the Arizona 30 yard line.

However, the offense stalled and Denver could only secure a 43-yard field goal by Prater to take the lead at 13-10. Arizona did a quick three and out, and it looked like Denver might run out the clock but they came up short on a running play on a 3rd down and 4 that led to another punt. Lindley immediately found Williams for 52 yards before the two-minute warning, and Arizona was in position to tie the game or take the lead.

The offense stalled, however, and Arizona settled for a 35-yard Feely field goal to tie the game with just a minute left. Adam Weber came on for Denver and looked like he was going to run out the clock, but  Weber found Johnson for 12 yards and Greg Orton for 45 yards to put themselves into field goal range with just second remaining in the game for a Prater game winning attempt from 44 yards to win the game. Prater lined up, struck the ball clean and the game ended up Denver 16, Arizona 13.

Final Thoughts: I was impressed with the efforts of Hillman and Osweiler for Denver in the second half, and could see Hillman become a key member of the Denver running game. The Denver defense also found their resolve late and made some outstanding plays, too.

While Lindley struggled after a great start, I believe he’s got a chance to be a quality quarterback if developed properly, but I’m not sure he’ll beat out Kevin Kolb, John Skelton or Bartel for playing time.

Both Denver and Arizona could point to positives from the effort, and nobody was seriously hurt for either side. Arizona can now turn their attention to a week 1 battle with Seattle at home, while Denver hosts Pittsburgh on a Sunday night game.

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