AFC West: Denver Broncos

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The numbers speak for themselves and they’re essentially shouting at everyone at the moment.

Shouting that Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller leads the NFL with eight sacks while defensive end DeMarcus Ware is among four players tied for second in the league with seven sacks. Miller’s eight sacks put him ahead of six of the league’s teams and those 15 sacks between the Broncos’ two marquee pass-rushers put the pair ahead of 14 teams.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
AP Photo/Jack DempseyDeMarcus Ware's ability to get to the quarterback has benefited the Broncos this season.
The Broncos’ 21 sacks also tie them for third in the league though they've played one fewer game than the other four teams with at least 21. But if sacks had assists, Miller and Ware know who would get them. Because while the glamour guys collect the highlights along the way, it takes a defensive village to raise a sack.

"And those guys in the middle, they make it go," Miller said. "It’s like I’ve said, they’re unselfish, they just get to work."

In the end, it’s simple math, really -- the smaller the pocket for the quarterback to move around in, the bigger the chance Miller or Ware will finish a play with a sack.

They are the UTR Club perhaps, an under the radar football thing they all understand. And Terrance Knighton, Sylvester Williams, Marvin Austin Jr., Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson have done the roll-up-the-sleeves work on the interior that, both Miller and Ware say, has allowed the Broncos’ edge rushers to have exactly the kind of impact the team had hoped.

Knighton, in particular, has caught the eye of personnel executives around the league as one of the most disruptive players in the Broncos' defense, even in the mass of humanity along the line of scrimmage.

"We wouldn’t be able to have success that we’re having right now without Malik and Derek Wolfe and Marvin and all those guys," Miller said. " … It’s like in basketball when you’ve got Kobe and Shaq. Those guys really make it go and I’m not trying to be funny about it, but those guys -- if it wasn’t for what Malik and Derek do -- we wouldn’t be able to do what we do on the outside. … They’re very unselfish."

This all was part of the offseason plan. In a defensive overhaul where plenty of attention in free agency and the draft went to the secondary, the Broncos’ decision-makers hoped recovery from injuries would give them back the defensive front they wanted.

Wolfe had spent the back half of the 2013 season on injured reserve after suffering seizure-like symptoms as the Broncos prepared to go on a road trip. Miller had suffered a torn ACL in a December game against the Houston Texans and Ware was a player the Dallas Cowboys were prepared to cut loose because, "They felt like they had a decision to make and maybe I wasn’t the player I was."

The Broncos gladly dove in with a three-year, $30 million contract for Ware with the idea that a fresh start would be what was needed after he finished with six sacks in 2013. It’s what defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio had been talking about for much of the offseason when he said that beyond the injuries that sent five defensive starters to injured reserve by the time the Broncos played in Super Bowl XLVIII, the fact the team wasn’t able to replace Elvis Dumervil’s impact last season impacted what the defense could do the most.

With Dumervil and Miller together in ’12, the two combined for 29.5 sacks as the Broncos tied for the league lead with 52 and the Broncos allowed just five rushing touchdowns.

"I think it all goes together," Knighton said. "When we get the good push in there, don’t give quarterbacks room to move up and throw, with DeMarcus and Von coming from the outside, that’s what we want. Hopefully I get a sack or two with all that, but if they get a sack, if we see them with the quarterback, we know we did our job, too. Sacks make everybody feel good."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos running back Montee Ball returned -- briefly -- to the practice field Tuesday, but the Broncos had enough concerns about their overall depth at running back to tweak the roster.

Ball
Ball, who suffered a right groin injury in the Broncos’ Oct. 5 win over the Arizona Cardinals, was in a jersey and on the practice field during the open period of practice for the first time since the injury. Ball went through the pre-practice stretching with the team and then went to work with the strength and conditioning coaches.

The Broncos have planned for Ball to miss at least three weeks with the injury -- and Thursday night’s game against the San Diego Chargers will be the third game Ball has missed -- so they promoted running back Kapri Bibbs from their practice squad, even as some teams in the league had started to circle the undrafted rookie with interest in signing him.

“I think he’s a guy that we liked," Broncos head coach John Fox said of Bibbs following Tuesday’s practice. “... Right now, until Montee starts moving along, getting well, (Bibbs) is really our fourth back, so we felt the need to do that and did so."

The Broncos also held kicker Brandon McManus (groin), defensive back Omar Bolden (concussion) and linebacker Steven Johnson (ankle) out of Tuesday’s practice. Bolden and Johnson are not expected to play Thursday night.

McManus has been limited in at least one practice in recent weeks but has not missed any game action because of the injury. Fox said he expected that to be the case this week as well.

“See what tomorrow brings. ... I’m sure he’ll be good to go," Fox said.

In an abbreviated practice week, the Broncos did not wear helmets in Tuesday’s work, with the players in jerseys and shorts for the early-afternoon workout.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – With the kind of speed that would make any overnight delivery service proud, the football Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning threw to Demaryius Thomas on Sunday night for Manning’s 509th career touchdown pass is on display in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Eric Lars Bakke/Denver BroncosPeyton Manning poses with Demaryius Thomas, who caught his record-breaking 509th TD pass, and Hall of Fame rep Joe Horrigan, who raced to put the ball on display in Canton, Ohio.
The ball, along with a handwritten sign on a sheet of three-ring binder paper with “509’’ in black ink on it, to go with three photos, sits comfortably in a case inside an exhibit entitled “Pro Football Today.’’

Asked as he prepared to leave Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Sunday night, Joe Horrigan, the Hall’s long-time vice president of communications/exhibits, said his plan was “to display it as soon as we possibly can.’’

Horrigan secured the record-breaking football from the Broncos’ equipment staff following the game -- Manning had posed for a few photos with it, including a photo with Thomas, inside the Broncos locker room -- and returned to Canton, Ohio, on Monday morning, football packed in his luggage. The football and the sign were brought to the Hall after hours on Monday night and put on display on Tuesday morning.

Horrigan said Manning has provided “several items’’ that are on display in the Hall, including a uniform from the 2013 season when Manning won his record fifth MVP award and threw for a single-season record 55 touchdowns.

The Film Don't Lie: Broncos

October, 21, 2014
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A weekly look at what the Denver Broncos must fix:

A lot of what the Broncos had on the drawing board this past offseason has come to pass over their first six games: The defense is more athletic, the pass rush is disruptive and quarterback Peyton Manning directs an offense that can stress an opposing defense all over the field.

But the Broncos' offensive line? The group is still trying to figure things out. With San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano next on the docket, the Broncos will need the line to settle in to deal with the aggressive, unpredictable looks the Chargers can offer.

The Broncos made a change this past Sunday with Paul Cornick moving to right tackle in place of Chris Clark. Coach John Fox said “things hadn’t gone real good’’ before the change. Manning has routinely muted pass-rush plans with his ability to locate the extra rushers in the formation before the snap and deliver the ball quickly. But the fact remains the Broncos, low sack numbers or not, have not handled how defenses have chosen to attack them.

The Broncos have struggled up front at times with stunts from opposing defensive linemen or rushers coming from off the ball, off the line of scrimmage and too often rushers have simply come free. San Francisco 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks tackled running back Ronnie Hillman for a 3-yard loss this past Sunday after Brooks was unblocked in a formation with the three tight ends and one extra tackle -- and that was after the Jets had sacked Manning twice with a three-man rush a week ago

Pagano will try to create some indecision as the Chargers have 12 players with at least one sack this season, especially through the middle of the formation where opponents have consistently attacked the gaps between center Manny Ramirez and guards Louis Vasquez and Orlando Franklin.
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DENVER -- Little more than two years ago, John Elway and other members of the Denver Broncos' football hierarchy went to Duke University to watch Peyton Manning throw. It was post spinal-fusion surgery, post-missed 2011 season.

Elway said they saw enough that day to take the plunge and make their best pitch to Manning, that there was "no Plan B." And now it is simply the league's greatest-ever free-agent signing, the game-changer of game-changers.

So when Manning threw his record 509th career touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas in a 42-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, there was a rather startling thought that came with it. Manning has started all of 38 regular-season games for the Broncos. Thirty-eight.

And in those 38 games he has gone from a quarterback simply hoping to compete at the level he had always known in his pre-spinal fusion football life, to a quarterback who may have found another plane beyond it. A place he has carved out with a surgically repaired neck, a glove on his right hand and never-before-seen performance from a quarterback who has passed his 38th birthday.

Manning threw his 507th, 508th, 509th and 510th career touchdown passes as the Broncos moved to 5-1 flaunting plenty of playoff power on both sides of the ball. He opened the 2013 campaign with seven touchdown passes against the Baltimore Ravens, tying him for the NFL's single-game mark. And by the time the regular season was over Manning had thrown 55 touchdown passes, also an NFL record.

"You kind of just know you're part of something big," said Broncos tight end Jacob Tamme, who has been Manning's teammate in both Indianapolis and Denver. "You know someday you're going to reflect on it, think about it, but in the moment he wants to win games and we want to win games. But someday, yes, it's going to be a good story."

Manning now has the touchdown trifecta all to himself -- game, season and career. All records, pushed into new ground in his 38 games with the Broncos. There's plenty more where that came from because Elway, a Hall of Fame quarterback, has created the perfect storm of points, personnel and plan, all with Manning at the wheel, finishing off whatever play offensive coordinator Adam Gase can think up.

As Manning was poised to rewrite another chapter of the NFL record book, linebacker Von Miller felt the moment closing in.

"I wasn't really paying attention, I don't get to see him really, we're looking at our sheets, talking about what we're going to do on the next play, things like that," Miller said. "But we were looking at our stuff, and all of a sudden it was like a concert, all the phones were up all over the stadium, you could feel it. We knew it was going to happen. And you had to watch."

Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said: "Oh yeah, you see all the phones come out like that, you knew we were going to throw the ball … and that's one of those plays people will ask you about when you're old. To us that's Peyton Manning, he does something people want to remember every time he throws the ball."

Where it all goes from here is still an unknown of sorts, but the ride, for those lucky enough to be on it, will be one to remember.

"I can't put a number to it, but the way he is playing I feel like he can just go out and average three, four, five touchdowns a game," Thomas said. "Hopefully, because that's good, it's good for the offense, good for the team."

Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders added: "He's addicted to football and so is this offense. … We know we've got a special group and we like to score points."

49ers vs. Broncos preview

October, 17, 2014
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Prime time is the right time for a game between teams that entered the season at the front of the Super Bowl conversation.

At least that is how Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. sees it.

"You face any other top teams in the league, you always want to get up for them," Harris Jr. said. "It’s Sunday night prime time, so we want to have a good showing. We want to go out there and show we’re definitely a contender, definitely one of the top teams. ... They have a great team; they’ve been together for a while, so they know how to play together in these big games."

The San Francisco 49ers will be the fifth team the Broncos (4-1) have played this season that won at least 10 games in 2013 -- "we’ve had a salty schedule," is how Broncos coach John Fox has put it -- and the 49ers (4-2) own the only win against the Dallas Cowboys this season and have won three in a row.

ESPN's 49ers reporter Paul Gutierrez and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss the matchup:

Legwold: Paul, it seems, at least from the outside, like there has been plenty of turmoil this season with reports 49ers players are tuning Jim Harbaugh out and that Harbaugh won’t return after this season. What’s the mood in the locker room? And how do you think Harbaugh interacts with the team?

Gutierrez: It’s important to note that most, if not all, of these reports have come from national reporters, particularly from a certain league-owned media outlet. And to the conspiracy theorist in me, that means the leaks are coming from within the 49ers and above Harbaugh’s pay grade. As I’ve said before, Harbaugh likes to make his players uncomfortable because he believes that brings out the best in them. I wonder if that same mentality is being thrust upon Harbaugh’s coaching skills. As far as the locker room goes, to a man and on the record, the players say they have Harbaugh’s back, with quarterback Colin Kaepernick saying he would go to "war" with his coach. And technically, Harbaugh still has a year left on his deal. It’s just that talks of extension have been tabled until after the season. It has made for a wild ride thus far, no doubt, and Harbaugh has made a point to wander through the locker room to chat with players during media access periods during the week.

Speaking of bedside manner, Fox has been seen as a folksy players' coach from yesteryear, at least, to the outsider. How much of his personality has rubbed off on the players, and is that a reason the Broncos have been able to shake off the sting of last February’s Super Bowl disaster?

Legwold: When Fox missed four games last season because of heart valve surgery, the word most of the players, as well as the coaches on Fox’s staff, used to describe what was missing while Fox was away was "energy." Those who have worked with him say Fox’s greatest attribute, beyond the on-field work, is giving those in the organization the belief their job is an important part of the process, no matter where the job fits within the organization. Yes, the Broncos have won plenty of games along the way, and having Peyton Manning at quarterback is a spectacular starting point for any head coach, but Fox has support in the locker room, in the executive offices, and a contract extension signed this past offseason. That said, he has also been the guy in charge when the Broncos have come up short, and in the case of the Super Bowl, 35 points short.

Moving toward the field, how have the 49ers' wide receivers helped Kaepernick?

Gutierrez: At first, it was a hot mess. The 49ers seemed to forget they were a team built on a power running game, and Kaepernick looked out of sorts with all of the shiny toys at his disposal, with Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd joining Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin as wideouts, and tight end Vernon Davis. Then, about Week 4, the 49ers rediscovered their identity behind running back Frank Gore and, voila, the passing game blossomed. This past week, Kaepernick threw three touchdown passes to three different wideouts without an interception. Crabtree might be his favorite receiver, and Lloyd has become his most explosive down the left sideline, but Boldin is his Mr. Dependable underneath. It is, without a doubt, helping Kaepernick’s maturation process. Especially since there does not seem to be any selfishness going on with the receivers. Just healthy competition. At least, that’s how it looks when the team is winning.

Manning, meanwhile, does not seem to have missed a beat after losing receivers Eric Decker to the New York Jets and Wes Welker to injury. Is Manning simply so good that he elevates the play of those around him, or is it a scheme thing in Denver?

Legwold: In all that Manning has done in his career, the fact he has lifted his play to its current level following spinal fusion surgery in 2011 -- his fourth neck surgery -- is a remarkable achievement. The guy has started 37 games for the Broncos and thrown 107 touchdown passes in those games. The offense was built for him; he runs it with complete freedom to change any call to any play at any time. And at this stage of his career, with his work habits, he might think the game better than anyone who has played the position. But all of that said, there is a perfect-storm effect in Denver as well. Adam Gase is an innovative risk-taker as an offensive coordinator who paid his coaching dues to earn his spot. Receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas are elite players, Welker is routinely called the best slot receiver in the NFL by opposing coaches, and in his time with Manning, Emmanuel Sanders will go from a player folks thought was pretty good to Pro Bowl worthy. So Manning has been very good for the Broncos, and the Broncos, with Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway calling the personnel shots for the team, have built a quality landing spot for Manning.

Some teams have been aggressive coming after Manning with the blitz, like the Cardinals, while the Jets consistently dropped eight into coverage last weekend. How do you think the 49ers will approach it?

Gutierrez: Let’s just say, both ways. Yes, the 49ers brought the house against the St. Louis Rams’ Austin Davis, sacking him five times (the total doubled the 49ers’ season sack total to 10) and pressuring him on 44 percent of his dropbacks (a season high for the 49ers), but, as you know, Manning loves it when teams blitz him. His 2.25-second release is the second best in the league, again, per our friends at ESPN Stats & Info. Yet, his 92.8 total rating when not pressured since joining Denver in 2012 is the league’s best, and the 49ers rank 23rd in pressure percentage. So yeah, the best way to affect Manning is by bringing pressure. Just pick your poison in doses, I guess, right? What might make it all a moot point is the potential loss of All-Pro inside linebacker Patrick Willis, who injured a toe Monday night. We’re talking about a linebacker corps already missing the suspended Aldon Smith and the recuperating NaVorro Bowman.

Manning, who needs two touchdown passes to tie Brett Favre's career record (508), always comes across as disinterested in records and his legacy. But surely, holding the passing touchdown record would mean something to him, right? How important do you think holding the mark would be to him?

Legwold: This is all something he will have to get used to as many of these records approach, especially if he plays one or two more seasons following this one. Certainly his legacy is important to him, but it gets lost sometimes because he is so competitive. People talk about his intellect and his ability to digest information and recall things he has seen in his career. But it would be impossible to play as many consecutive games as he played before his spinal fusion surgery kept him out of the 2011 season (208 consecutive regular-season games) and to push himself as hard as he does if he were not one of the most competitive people in the game. So, in that vein he wants Super Bowls and knows his career clock is winding down. So, though the records will be something he respects, and at some point enjoys, his desire to play for a Super Bowl champion trumps everything right now, including the touchdown mark.

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Other than running back Montee Ball, the Denver Broncos had full participation at Thursday’s practice.

Ball, who suffered a groin injury Oct. 5 against the Arizona Cardinals and was expected to miss at least three weeks, was the only Broncos player on the current roster held out of Thursday's workout.

Running back Juwan Thompson (knee) was held out of Wednesday’s practice but practiced fully Thursday. With Ball’s injury, Thompson has been working as the team’s No. 2 back behind Ronnie Hillman.

The Broncos had a season-best 138 yards rushing in this past Sunday’s victory over the New York Jets as Hillman finished with 100 yards on 24 carries -- his first career 100-yard game.

Thursday, Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase said he likes what he’s seen from Hillman since Ball’s injury.

“Ronnie has unusual speed, he gets through the hole quickly," Gase said. “And all of a sudden he’s on the secondary. If we get to a point where we can actually make a safety miss one of these days, it’s probably going to be more. ... Just his speed is different than what we’ve had in the past, and if we can keep him going it should be good for us."

The Broncos have 14 runs of at least 10 yards this season, and Hillman has six of them in the last two games.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- He is a 6-foot-5, 250-pound testament to patience, a matchup crushing tight end who shows a question mark can be forced into an exclamation point with a little good fortune and plenty of work.

Because for two football seasons Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas' career stat line was this: One catch. Five yards.

It's been a long journey for the player who injured his ankle on his first career catch to the player who currently leads the NFL in touchdown receptions after nabbing nine in five games.

[+] EnlargeJulius Thomas
Seth McConnell/The Denver Post via Getty ImagesJulius Thomas will be facing one of the toughest defenses on tight ends Sunday night when the Broncos play the 49ers.
"I wouldn't say that I imagined that far," Thomas said Wednesday. "I was confident that I'd be able to come in and make plays and do things to help out my team. I was focused on working towards being one of the better players at my position. To come out and have the hot start I've had this year, it's something that kind of just happens. You prepare for it. You train for it. Everybody in the offseason thought they would have two touchdowns a game, but it just doesn't always work out like that. I'm thankful, blessed."

In a contract year Thomas has gone from breakout season in 2013 (65 catches, 12 touchdowns) to the league's top shelf at his position. His touchdown total is just ahead of Antonio Gates (six) and more than New Orleans' Jimmy Graham (three) and New England's Rob Gronkowski (four) combined.

He has already had more games with at least two touchdown receptions -- three -- than he did all of last season.

"I wasn't going to rest on what I did last year," Thomas said. "I was really determined to come in and keep working and try to find every way I could to get better. Fortunately for me, it's been able to show in production. I'm still going to continue to keep working. Everything I've done now inspires me to work harder, so I'll stay after it."

"He asks the right questions, does it the right way," said Broncos tight end Jacob Tamme. " … And even in the spotlight a little bit right now, he's still is a humble guy going about his business."

And Sunday night's game against the San Francisco 49ers should offer Thomas not only another prime-time stage, but perhaps the best defense the Broncos have faced thus far when it comes to how it handles opposing tight ends.

Even with the injuries and suspensions, the 49ers have allowed just one opposing tight end more than 43 yards receiving in a game this season -- the Rams' Jared Cook, with 74 this past Monday night -- and opposing tight ends have three touchdown receptions combined in the 49ers' six games (one each for Martellus Bennett, Travis Kelce and Lance Kendricks).

"What's been amazing to me is how well they've adjusted to injuries," Manning said. "You lose some of these guys and think they couldn't be doing this as well, they couldn't be stopping the run as well and you see it statistically and you see it on film. They've got guys stepping up, answering the bell. … There's nothing where you can say, 'we can attack this'."

It's all fairly heady stuff for Thomas, whose original rookie contract will expire following the season and puts him high on the team's list of priorities. Thomas has lined up down in a three-point stance as a traditional tight end, he's lined up in the slot and lined up wide.

He's overpowered cornerbacks to the ball as well as run by safeties and linebackers. And Manning said he could see it coming when the quarterback and Broncos pass catchers gathered at Duke University for some workouts this past offseason.

"I know he really wanted to improve his route running, both at the tight end position and outside," Manning said. "And so I know that Jimmy Graham ruling has already been ruled on but he's doing pretty good out wide at receiver. He's got nine touchdowns. He's worked on that aspect of his game and he spends time talking to Demaryius. He comes down and does one-on-one with the receivers and we watch one-on-one together ... have to admit, when I saw him at Duke this year in early April for the first time he looked faster to me than he did from last year. It just kind of jumped out at me."

"Every week I get a cutup of a lot of the big plays that tight ends across the league have made," Thomas said. "It doesn't matter if they were a Pro Bowler before. I get a whole clip, and I watch it every week. That's one of the first things I do with my week -- just see what other guys are doing, how they did it -- and I think it really helps me a lot. It's kind of a competitive thing. I turn on the tape and I see some good things that guys across the league have done and I want to be able to do those things for my team."
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, a team captain, was notified by the NFL on Wednesday that he has been fined $11,025 for his unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in Sunday’s game against the New York Jets.

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Knighton
The penalty was assessed on an extra-point play following a 22-yard scoring pass from Peyton Manning to Julius Thomas with 27 seconds remaining in the first half. Knighton, who is not expected to appeal the fine, plays on the interior of the offensive line on extra-point attempts.

In Knighton’s letter from the league, the fine was assessed for "abusive language," which is a point of emphasis for NFL officials this season. During the league meetings this past March and with Michael Sam vying to make an NFL roster as the league’s first openly gay player, the NFL’s competition committee made it clear to owners and coaches that the rules for abusive language would be enforced for racial slurs, comments about sexual orientation or other “verbal abuse."

Knighton told some of his teammates Wednesday the fine was for directing a racial slur at another player.

Knighton’s fine won’t be the only one for the Broncos this week. Linebacker Lamin Barrow was ejected from the game with 30 seconds remaining in the third quarter when he threw a punch at a Jets player following a Broncos kickoff return.

The league’s fine schedule shows a $27,562 penalty for a first offense for “fighting," but there also is a smaller $5,512 fine for “unnecessarily entering fight area (active involvement)."

That incident came when Thomas was caught by network TV on-field microphones firing off a profanity after his 4-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter. Thomas was heard screaming, “It’s so f---ing easy. It’s so easy."

Had Thomas been facing a Jets player at that moment -- he was facing the crowd in the back of the end zone -- he could have been flagged for taunting or unsportsmanlike conduct and been subject to a $8,268 fine for taunting or the $11,025 unsportsmanlike conduct fine.

“I can’t really tell you what I’m going to scream when I’m out there on the field, that’s a different guy," Thomas said when asked about the play Wednesday. “He gets a little excited out there, hopefully the mics won’t be turned up as high and you can just scream whatever you want like you’ve been doing since you were a kid and you don’t have to go home and hear about it.’’

Peyton Manning closes in on TD record

October, 15, 2014
Oct 15
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ESPN Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold talks about Peyton Manning possibly setting the career touchdown record vs. the 49ers Sunday.

The Film Don't Lie: Broncos

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- A weekly look at what the Denver Broncos must fix:

In an offense built on precision and making split-second changes at the line of scrimmage to put itself in the best possible play, the Broncos continue to give defenses too many second chances with penalties.

Yes, 4-1 is, and always will be, the bottom line. The Broncos win pretty, they win not so pretty, but penalties are self-inflicted items that seem to hurt worse the deeper a team is into the football calendar, so what gets overcome now might not be with a Super Bowl trip on the line.

And while the Broncos might not agree with all of the flags -- and they don't -- their 51 penalties in five games put them in not-so-good company. Of the 13 teams which have been flagged at least 51 times this season, only the St. Louis Rams (1-4) and Broncos have not yet played six games.

The team’s offensive line continues to draw many of those flags, even as it struggles to tighten up the gaps in the run-blocking scheme. The Broncos are always going to draw the occasional holding penalty to keep any rushers who get free from hitting quarterback Peyton Manning -- better a 10-yard walk-off than a clean shot on Manning -- but some defensive coaches in the league say the Broncos linemen are tipping their hand with their footwork in the run game by having the linemen back out slightly before they pull to run wide.

Defensive linemen are shooting those gaps as soon as they see the movement. Broncos linemen have been flagged for several holding penalties in the run game, including two more Sunday against the New York Jets, as they have tried to combat that.

In all on Sunday, four of the five starting offensive linemen drew flags in the game. The one who didn't, right tackle Chris Clark, is the most penalized player on the team at the moment.

Right guard Louis Vasquez, who has played through some back and rib issues this season, has already drawn three flags, or the same number he did in all of the 2013 season when he was named an All Pro.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When it comes to building a roster, Denver Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has certainly shown he's not afraid to dive into free agency if he thinks he has to.

Just watch Peyton Manning throw passes to Emmanuel Sanders or Wes Welker, watch DeMarcus Ware chase down an opposing quarterback or Aqib Talib return an interception for a touchdown and anyone can see the impact Elway's victories on the open market have had for the Broncos.

But Elway has consistently also said free agency can only be a supplement, not a long-term plan. That the draft has to be the foundation over the long haul or the team won't be able to deal with "the bumps in the road, the injuries, that come along.''

[+] EnlargeDenver's Corey Nelson
Adam Hunger/USA TODAY SportsLinebacker Corey Nelson is just one of the Broncos' homegrown talents at linebacker.
And nowhere on the depth chart can the team's ability to work deep into the draft to find players who can contribute be seen more than at linebacker. Danny Trevathan's latest injury only highlights that once again. Trevathan is expected to miss six weeks with a fracture just above his left knee.

"Other guys have to play," said linebacker Von Miller. "We have a lot of guys who can get out there and make some plays."

Miller was the Broncos' first draft pick of Elway's tenure as an executive -- second overall in 2011 -- a two-time Pro Bowl selection taken at the top of the board and is the team's marquee player at the position. But the Broncos have also worked down the board to fill the position as well as comb the waiver wire from time to time, even from the time Wesley Woodyard -- now a Titans linebacker -- made Mike Shanahan's last Broncos team as an undrafted rookie in 2008.

Trevathan, who was the team's leading tackler last season, was a sixth-round pick in 2012. The guy who has played in Trevathan's weak-side spot has been Brandon Marshall, a player the Broncos promoted from their practice squad late last season who has started four games this season.

And when Trevathan left Sunday's game on just the defense's second play, it was Corey Nelson, a seventh-round pick this past May, who played alongside Marshall in the two linebacker spots in the nickel.

Nelson, a classic "fit" player in their defense, earned his way into the nickel by moving past Irving and showing himself to be a quick study who understands what the Broncos want to get done. Like they did with Trevathan, the Broncos found a place for a linebacker like Nelson, a player who others in the league didn't like nearly as much. Nelson was credited with a team-leading seven tackles in Sunday's win over the New York Jets despite playing just 36 snaps.

"I think just working hard, busting my butt to get to the ball, listening to the coaches, listening to my assignments and what I had to do, and just being as fast as I can with that," Nelson said. "That's what allowed them to trust me to be able to do that. I just tried to remain consistent, especially on special teams, and those things just all added up to now. ... I consider myself a pretty smart guy and the terminology of the defense was quite similar to an older defensive coordinator's I used to have back at Oklahoma."

But the whole group continues to be a testament to homegrown personnel. Irving is a former Broncos third-round pick, Steven Johnson is a former undrafted rookie who made the team in 2012 and Lamin Barrow was a fifth-round pick this past May.

"That's our group," Miller said. "We're all growing up together as Denver Broncos."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – When it comes to divvying out playing time in the Denver Broncos defense, Jack Del Rio believes in the more-the-merrier approach.

Or technically the more-the-engaged approach And “engaged’’ is a word Del Rio uses a lot when it comes to any discussion as far as who plays and how much for the Broncos.

“You earn your way,’’ Del Rio said. “That’s always the start, we tell all the guys earn your way, but I think we’ve shown in our time here, and we’ve been consistent in how we talk about it, how we do it, is if you earn your way, show us you can contribute something to what we’re doing, we’ll find a place for you.’’

[+] EnlargeBradley Roby
Jack Dempsey/AP PhotoCB Bradley Roby has been the most successful member of the Broncos' rookie class thus far.
That has certainly been the case for the Broncos rookies on defense in this season's early going. Part adjustment to injuries and part those first-year players carving out some room, the draft picks on defense have been in the rotation more than their offensive counterparts to this point.

The Broncos had a six-player draft class this past May, three players on defense, three on offense. Defensively, cornerback Bradley Roby (first round) was a defensive regular right from the start who has played at least 69 percent of the team’s snaps in all five of the Broncos’ games thus far.

The Broncos have used him in any and all situations, including matching him on the likes of Reggie Wayne and Larry Fitzgerald already this season. Roby had his first sack Sunday against the Jets and is one of the team leaders in passes defensed as quarterbacks have consistently elected to test him late in games.

With Danny Trevathan’s knee injury early in Sunday’s win over the New York Jets, linebacker Corey Nelson (seventh round) was moved into the Broncos’ nickel package and was certainly efficient. Nelson was credited with a team-leading seven tackles in the game in his 36 snaps of work.

Nelson, made his first appearance on defense in a two-play cameo against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 3 as the Broncos wanted to get more speed on the field to try to hem in Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.

And linebacker Lamin Barrow (fifth round), who was ejected from Sunday’s game for throwing a post-play punch at a Jets player, was also used on defense against both the Seahawks (11 plays) and Arizona Cardinals (eight plays). Barrow also has been a special teams regular.

“We’ve got the depth to match personnel … we’re not scared to put anybody in this room in the game,’’ Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib said. “Guys get ready to play, they get in there, they play, man.’’

The depth of the Broncos playbook on offense, as well as quarterback Peyton Manning doing plenty of work at the line of scrimmage with a bevy of audibles run at no-huddle pace, has made it a little more difficult transition early on for the offensive rookies.

Wide receiver Cody Latimer (second round), who has consistently shown his potential in the team’s practices, has appeared in one game and been a gameday inactive four times. Tackle Michael Schofield (third round) has been a gameday inactive for all five of the Broncos’ games and center Matt Paradis (sixth round) is on team’s practice squad.

“I just know we will need every one of them before this is all over,’’ Broncos head coach John Fox said. “We have a lot of football in front of us, a lot of things can, and will happen. Those guys, like all our guys, show up and go to work and get themselves ready to play. Not everybody gets a uniform on gameday, that’s just the rules. But we like where all those guys are right now.’’
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- When the Denver Broncos finished their offseason work and broke training camp, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said he believed the defense's rookies would help in what had been an extensive makeover on that side of the ball.

First-round pick Bradley Roby is already a regular on defense who Del Rio trusts to match up with some of the best receivers clutch situations thus far. Fifth-round pick Lamin Barrow, who was tossed from Sunday's game for throwing a post-play punch as the third quarter drew to a close, has played some at linebacker in the defense as well as plenty on special teams.

Sunday, it was rookie linebacker Corey Nelson's turn. The seventh-round pick from May's draft had appeared some in the Broncos' overtime loss in Seattle in Week 3. He was forced into a far bigger role Sunday when Danny Trevathan left the game with a left knee injury following the defense's second play from scrimmage.

"They don't get out there unless we like them," said Broncos head coach John Fox. " … [Nelson's] learning, he's a young guy that's worked and kind of earned his stripes in the kicking game."

But Trevathan's exit left the Broncos with some roles to fill in their scheme since Trevathan plays in everything. Brandon Marshall, who went for Trevathan at weak-side linebacker kept his usual spot – usually with Trevathan – in the Broncos' nickel package as well.

But the Broncos then used Nelson as the second linebacker in the nickel. Against the Jets, he ended up playing the nickel enough that Nelson finished the day as the Broncos' leading tackler.

"He got in there and made some plays," said linebacker Von Miller. "That's what we want, no matter who goes in there, they go in and get the job done."

Trevathan will undergo additional tests Monday and while the Broncos were hopeful it wasn't a season-ending injury when they left MetLife Stadium Sunday night, Nelson figures to be in the mix some Sunday when the Broncos face the San Francisco 49ers and perhaps beyond as well.

The Broncos likes Nelson's athleticism when he came into the draft -- he ran a 4.60 40-yard dash at Oklahoma's pro day at 231 pounds. He had missed most of his final season with the Sooners with a torn pectoral muscle, but the Broncos saw a player who made plays in both coverage and the pass rush -- with an interception return for a touchdown in 2013 to go with a 4.5-sack season as a sophomore.

Nelson also took to special teams quickly and when the Broncos made the cut to 53 players, both he and Barrow were among the linebackers they kept.

"That's what it takes," Miller said. "We need everybody, if you're in this locker room, we need everybody to be ready, just in case. Be ready to help when it's time to help."
videoEAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Jets had made a clear choice on defense against the Denver Broncos.

The Jets made sure if the Broncos were going to win, quarterback Peyton Manning wasn't going to throw for 300 yards doing it. And history, as in the NFL’s record for career touchdown passes, was going to be made on somebody else’s watch.

Instead, the Broncos would have to grind it out on the ground for the 31-17 victory Sunday at MetLife Stadium.

"The way the Jets played us, my guess it they didn’t think much of the running game coming into the game," said Manning, who threw for three touchdowns and is now two passing touchdowns from tying the career record of 508. “Take your two linebackers and walk them both out on your two receivers [and] they’re basically kind of laughing at your run game. And based on what we’ve been doing, it’s probably a valid philosophy. So, it’s tough to throw the ball when they’ve got eight guys in coverage every single play.’’

Even for a defensive risk-taker like Jets coach Rex Ryan, it was an easy decision. Broncos running back Montee Ball was out of the lineup with a groin injury and the Jets have a good enough defensive front to make life difficult without blitzing. The Broncos had not shown they could win a game by running the ball, averaging 3.2 yards per rush and 79.5 rushing yards per game -- 29th in the league.

So, the Jets distributed their defensive resources away from the line of scrimmage and did it well enough that Broncos were sluggish at times, mistake-prone in others. The Broncos had five penalties on offense accepted to go with two more that were declined.

“It just felt like a run day," Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman said. “It was like the [Jets] defense said: ‘You’re not going to pass on us for 300 yard or anything like that, so we are going to have y’all run and see how that goes.' So, we ran."

When they needed Hillman to be the guy they believed he would be when they picked him in the third-round of the 2012 draft, Hillman stepped forward with 24 carries for 100 yards.

And no, it wasn’t always suitable for framing. The Broncos had three runs go for no gain, and one for negative yardage Sunday. It brings their season total to 28 rushing attempts in those two categories combined -- or 21.2 percent of their carries this season.

“A game like this comes, you’ve got to just take your punches and roll with them," Hillman said. “[Sunday] I just took them and rolled with it. [The Jets] have a very, very physical front seven and they played their asses off, but our offensive line did a great job in there and we got the run game going."

The Broncos went with three-wide receiver sets in their first 12 snaps of the game -- with less than favorable results. There was yet another bad snap in MetLife Stadium to go with a Manning sack on back-to-back plays. In the Broncos second series of the game, the Broncos muscled up.

They used more two tight end sets the rest of the way, including all 10 snaps in a third-quarter touchdown drive, often with reserve tackle Paul Cornick in the lineup as the second tight end. And when they wanted to give a little more a of pass look, they paired Jacob Tamme with Julius Thomas.

The result? In addition to Hillman’s career-best 100 yards, the Broncos rushed for a season-best 138 yards overall. Nobody is going to accuse them of grounding the Space Shuttle and dialing Manning into a grind-it-out look, but Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase adjusted and the Broncos adapted. And they did it with Hillman being asked, not to be a guy, but for an afternoon, to be the guy.

"I think that’s why the run game ended up opening up,'' Manning said. "When we could stay in phase and have the threat to run the ball, the advantage was to us."

“I’m just glad it worked out," Hillman said. “Now I want to carry it into next weekend too."

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