CHAMPAIGN—Bears fans waiting to see the sleeker model of the new and improved "A-Train" are still waiting.
Bears running back Anthony Thomas, seeing his first action Saturday night since breaking his finger Dec. 1, responded much like a guy who hadn't carried the ball in an NFL game in nine months. Much like the Bears cannot afford Thomas to look this season.
preseason matchup for both teams and the last game at Memorial Stadium for the Bears.
Asked if he thought Thomas looked rusty, coach Dick Jauron said: "Not particularly. I thought Anthony made a few good runs early. It's got to be there, too, for him to have an opportunity to run with it."
But as the Bears got their final taste of Champaign, their running game fizzled. The man pushing Thomas for the starting job, backup Adrian Peterson, didn't fare any better with 13 yards on six carries.
Thomas offered no explanation, leaving the locker room without comment. His teammates didn't shed much light either.
"It's frustrating," guard Rex Tucker said. "We want to break more runs and have more yardage there, and all we can do is keep working at it"
Contrary to what Jauron said last week, two of Thomas' carries in the second quarter came behind the second-string offensive line, which included starting tackles Mike Gandy and Aaron Gibson. His longest gain went for 6 yards on a sharp cutback on the only scoring drive of the night for the No. 1 offense.
That run came at the end of the first quarter as quarterback Kordell Stewart steered the Bears on a 12-play, 63-yard march crowned by a 28-yard field goal by Paul Edinger.
Take away Stewart's improvisation and the Bears' starting offense wouldn't have created much of a buzz in its only quarter of play. Not surprisingly, Stewart impressed more with his legs than his arm.
Twice on third downs, Stewart converted by tucking the ball and running. The first time came on third-and-10 when the Broncos vacated the middle of the field and Stewart scampered for 15 yards before wisely sliding. Five plays later on third-and-1, Stewart gained 3 yards on a bootleg left on one of those designed runs about which offensive coordinator John Shoop keeps talking.
"It's not fair to pass judgment on how the first team especially is doing," Stewart said.
On the Bears' longest completion, a 30-yarder from Stewart to wide receiver Marty Booker, the intended receiver was fullback Daimon Shelton, but Stewart's arm got hit and the ball ended up closer to Booker.
Defensively, the Bears played the football they have stressed in preseasonthe kind that results in getting turnovers.
Safety Mike Green returned the starting lineup from a groin injury in style with an entertaining 42-yard interception return of a Jake Plummer pass after the Broncos had moved deep in Bears' territory. The pass rush applied more pressure than it did against the Colts with end Alex Brown and rookie linebacker Lance Briggs, in particular, standing out. Brown forced a fumble that the Broncos recovered while Briggs added a sack and a blocked kick, playing well enough to make Bryan Knight want his right knee to heal quickly.
Despite isolated breakdowns, defensive coordinator Greg Blache had to like the fact that the Broncos got inside the 10 twice against his starting defense but only came away with three pointsa 22-yard field goal by Jason Elam with 5:09 left in the first quarter.
"We needed to see them and wanted to see a lot of them," Jauron said of his No. 1 defense. "They represented themselves pretty well because that is a real good football team on the other side of the field."
As well as the defense played at times, it still showed enough rough edges that need smoothed. Or make that rough corners.
On Denver's first drive, cornerback R.W. McQuarters got beat twice for passes 15 yards or longer, gave up a catch that converted a third down, and had a holding penalty.
"It's preseason," McQuarters said. "Out of all those plays the one that I hit myself on the head most was the third-down play. [But] all those are nuisances, those 15-yarders. As long as you can keep them out of the end zone, I'd rather give up 10-yarders all the way down the field and not give up a touchdown."
McQuarters and Jerry Azumah, the other starting cornerback, were replaced in the second quarter as backups Roosevelt Williams and rookie Charles Tillman played with the No. 1 defense. Jauron said that was the plan before the game, but McQuarters said he thought he would play "more than I did."
Rookie quarterback Rex Grossman replaced backup Chris Chandler with 9:55 left in the third quarter and showed some of the same jitters that nagged him in his debut. But overall Grossman looked sharper, completing 6-of-9 passes for 89 yards. For the second straight week, Grossman directed his team's only TD drive of the game when the Bears went 62 yards in seven plays and scored on a one-yard run by Peterson with 3:55 left in the third.
The Broncos nearly gave Grossman another chance for a rally after backup quarterback Steve Beuerlein hit Herb Haygood with a 10-yard pass with 9:56 left in the fourth to make it 10-9. But on Denver's two-point conversion attempt, Bears cornerback Jason Goss knocked away Beuerlein's pass, and the lead was safe.
Safe until the Broncos took over on their own 20 with 3:02 left, that is. Former Notre Dame quarterback Jarious Jackson engineered a 13-play, 80-yard drive that included a 36-yard pass to Frank Rice to convert a fourth down. Jackson sneaked in from 1 yard out with 18 seconds left to score the game-winning touchdown.
"It's an exhibition game," Jauron said. "Thankfully they don't count."