DENVER (AP) — If it's not exactly a return to the scene of the crime, it was at the very least a heist.
The Denver Broncos open the preseason in Cincinnati on Sunday night against the Bengals. It marks the two teams' first appearance at Paul Brown Stadium against one another since Sept. 13, 2009, when Denver wide receiver Brandon Stokley caught a pass that was batted into the air 87 yards in the waning seconds to complete what was widely called "The Immaculate Deflection." It represented one of the NFL's top plays last year.
"It will go down as one of my favorite plays of all time that I've had," said Stokley, who kept the ball and the gloves he wore that day as souvenirs. "It was a right place, right time type of deal, but it definitely brings a smile to my face."
That level of drama won't be matched in all likelihood Sunday with many players just fighting to crack rosters competing. Still, Stokley will be on hand, and given his strong week of practice, it won't be out of the question that the veteran wideout at least makes his presence felt.
There was a point this offseason with all the roster additions at the receiver position and Stokley's advancing age (34) whether he had a place on Denver's roster. That notion seems foolish now, after Stokley consistently connected with Kyle Orton this week on third-down completions and starred in red-zone and goal-line periods in training camp.
"There's a lot of young guys in the huddle right now so it's nice to have veteran faces in there that have done it before," Orton said. "I know he's feeling good and, really, his route running has never been better since I've been working with him."
Stokley's snaps were limited last season but he did crack the lineup in key situations. It's possible he's set himself up for a similar role this year, while serving as a mentor for neophytes like Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and others.
"Being the oldest is definitely different," Stokley said of his standing at his position. "You take on a new role and try to show more leadership. I've definitely gone out of my way to try and help because I remember when I was a rookie. Any help the veterans gave me I truly appreciated."
As for Stokley's anticipated role, he maintains he'll simply put his head down and go to work and not worry about how the Broncos decide to use him.
Given the loss of Brandon Marshall and his three straight seasons with 100-plus catches, that workload figures to be spread around at the receiver position anyway.
Stokley, Jabar Gaffney and Eddie Royal seem to have an opportunity to be the go-to target in any given week within that new dynamic.
"It's not always a bad thing not having the quote-unquote No. 1 guy, just a bunch of guys out there scrapping and fighting and making plays who don't really need to have the ball thrown to them or care about stats," Stokley said. "That's not to say that's how (Brandon) was but the ball's going to be thrown around. And there's catches for everybody."
QUINN RETURNS TO OHIO: Denver's starting quarterback job is all but wrapped up by Kyle Orton. That doesn't mean there isn't drama left at the position.
Brady Quinn, acquired via trade from Cleveland last March, has been entrenched as the backup quarterback all offseason. But with first-round pick Tim Tebow pushing hard there's no way Quinn can feel secure without a solid showing in the preseason games.
"I definitely feel like I'm grasping the offense and things are coming along," Quinn said.
At one time, Quinn's training camp was like Tebow's now — with every move documented by the media and fans. Now, Quinn has been able to settle into his job, build upon his performances in offseason organized team activities and run the second-team offense.
"I was familiar with the terminology coming into it, but now, being in the offense and getting some of the install the second time around, it's starting to fit in nice. There's very little thought process. It's just going in, doing your job and playing."Coach Josh McDaniels hasn't publicly announced his quarterback rotation, other than to say that the starting group may play about 20-25 plays.
CARRYING EXPECTATIONS: If there's a Broncos player with a last-best chance to make a first impression, running back Lance Ball qualifies.
The sustained absences of Knowshon Moreno (hamstring), Correll Buckhalter (back/neck) and LenDale White (hamstring) have meant an additional workload in training camp practices for Ball, who for most of the last two years has kicked around practice squads in St. Louis, Tennessee, Indianapolis and Denver.
It appears Ball may actually draw the starting backfield assignment Sunday night, rotating with Bruce Hall, Toney Baker and newcomer Justin Fargas.
"You have to take it like it's a regular season game: Give it your all, 100 percent, show everybody what you've got and make the coaches happy," Ball said.
Fargas just joined the Broncos as a free agent Tuesday but should play on early downs, since he hasn't been in the system long enough to get down all of his pass-protection assignments. The ex-Raiders back earlier in the week demonstrated good burst through the hole and speed to the outside but Friday seemed to be dragging his right leg some.
He had arthroscopic knee surgery in March.
"We'll see how far he can push it between now and Sunday and play him accordingly," McDaniels said, speaking more about playbook assimilation than Fargas' health.
LEAD ROLE: No matter how he fares Sunday night, rookie QB Tim Tebow figures to be the top Broncos story both locally and nationally.
"Whatever people make of Tim's performance or any other rookie, for that matter, all we've got to know is that we're going to get better from there," McDaniels said.
QUICK HITS: Tight end Richard Quinn appeared to turn his left ankle late in Friday's practice at Invesco Field at Mile High. Quinn had the ankle re-taped by head trainer Steve Antonopulos but didn't return. . On Wednesday, TE Marquez Branson was carted off the field with what looked to be a serious right leg injury. But two days later, Branson was back on the field. Don't expect safety Brian Dawkins to play Sunday night. He's been in a non-contact jersey all week and didn't practice Friday. ILB D.J. Williams did practice but continues to be held out of contact drills. He'll sit Sunday. Based on practice attendance due to injury, at least 10 other Broncos can be counted out vs. the Bengals, including No. 1 pick Demaryius Thomas, RG Chris Kuper and OLB Jarvis Moss.