AFC West: Denver Broncos

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The San Diego Chargers used a former college basketball player turned tight end to score three touchdowns on the Seattle Seahawks defense this past weekend.

So, as the Denver Broncos prepare for the Super Bowl rematch Sunday in Seattle, perhaps it would stand to reason their former college basketball player turned tight end -- Thomas, who is tied for the league lead in touchdown receptions with four -- should be a big part of the plan.

"You can't really look at the game like that," Thomas said following Wednesday's practice. "Just because Gates had three touchdowns [Sunday] doesn't mean that I'm going to be able to go out there and have three touchdowns."

But it is something to consider as the Broncos work to try to make Sunday's visit to Seattle a little better than their last game that counted against the Seahawks -- the 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVIII.

Is Denver taking anything from how the Chargers, who happen to be coached by Mike McCoy, a former Broncos offensive coordinator, attacked the Seahawks defense in San Diego's 30-21 victory in Qualcomm Stadium? If they are, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is taking a loose-lips-sink-game plans approach.

"I can't really speak to the San Diego game plan, the Green Bay game plan (in Week 1 against the Seahawks), and I can't speak to our game plan," Manning said.

But beyond Gates' seven-catch day to go with 96 yards and three touchdowns, the Chargers did do some things on offense worth noting.

First, they played with patience and efficiency. Gates' 21-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter was San Diego's longest pass play of the game. No other receiver had a reception of more than 16 yards in the game against the Seahawks' zone looks.

The Chargers worked short and intermediate routes with Gates' seven catches to go with nine receptions combined for the Chargers running backs. The Chargers also held on to the ball and did not have a turnover.

They had two field-goal drives go for 10 and 14 plays, respectively, in the first half. And, two of their three touchdown drives went for 75 and 80 yards.

What that means for Thomas and the Broncos remains to be seen. In the first two weeks of the season, Thomas has been the matchup that has created the biggest problem for opposing defenses.

Some of that is Thomas' continued growth as a player, as well as the Broncos' desire to be a little more physical. But it also was likely because of Wes Welker's suspension for a violation of the league's drug policy and the fact rookie receiver Cody Latimer, a physical, athletic player the Broncos continue to rave about in practice, is not quite ready to work in the audible-heavy offense.

So the Broncos, who were primarily a three-wide receiver offense last season on the way to a record 606 points, have played far more out of a two-tight end set this season. In Sunday's win over the Chiefs, they were in that look for all but one snap -- usually with Thomas paired with Jacob Tamme, who often plays like a bigger slot receiver.

"There may be some things that we saw on tape that we may try to do with me, but ultimately you've got to go out there and play your own game,” Thomas said. "The Chargers were able to go out there and have some success last week, and we're going to find our own success. If that's with me being able to have a good game then I have no problem with that. But whatever it takes for us to get the W.”

With Welker being reinstated Wednesday, how the Broncos proceed is still a question they won't reveal the answer to until Sunday's game. Still, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Wednesday he knows facing Gates and Thomas in back-to-back weeks is a challenge.

"We've got some great power forwards that are playing tight end and can do everything," Carroll said. "Tony Gonzalez was a tremendous mold for that … We saw a great one last weekend that gave us all kinds of problems, just like [the Broncos] have so we know it can be a big factor particularly when they're hooked up and have great chemistry with the quarterback."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Before Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker was suspended earlier this month, most of the discussion surrounding the 11th-year veteran was about his health.

About the fact that, after a concussion in the Broncos’ Aug. 23 preseason game against the Houston Texans, Welker had suffered three concussions in a 10-month span. Welker has returned to the Broncos after being reinstated in the wake of the NFL and NFL Players Association finishing negotiations on a new drug policy that has been enacted immediately.

Welker
Welker took part in the Broncos’ practice Wednesday, his first on-field work since limited participation on Labor Day. Welker said Wednesday he had been cleared medically “about a week or so ago."

He was asked following practice if he understood why people were concerned about his well-being and why some have questioned publicly whether he should return to the field.

“I appreciate their concern, I do," Welker said. “But at the same time, I feel great. I feel sharp and ready to go."

Welker was held out of the final three games of the regular season in 2013 after he suffered a concussion in a Nov. 17 game against the Kansas City Chiefs and another in a Dec. 8 game against the Tennessee Titans.

He returned to play in all three of the Broncos' postseason games, including Super Bowl XLVIII. Wednesday marked the first time -- the Broncos had a fully padded practice -- Welker had been a full participant in practice since the days before the Aug. 23 concussion.

After Welker’s suspension was announced, Broncos head coach John Fox said the time away, from a health perspective, might be a “blessing in disguise" for Welker.

“Maybe a little bit, you always hate to miss any time at all," Welker said. “But especially with head injuries and different things like that, every week and every day is a good thing for it. Not the way I wanted it to happen, but it is what it is."

Under the guidelines of the league’s concussion protocol to return to play, Welker had to be cleared by an independent physician, designated by both the NFL and NFL Players Association.

Danny Trevathan moving toward return

September, 17, 2014
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- His return to the practice field was overshadowed plenty by wide receiver Wes Welker’s presence in practice as well, but linebacker Danny Trevathan’s ability to do at least some work with the team’s strength and conditioning coaches was good news for the Broncos and an indication that one of the team's most productive players is closing in on a return.

Trevathan, who was the team’s leading tackler last season and an every-down player in Jack Del Rio’s scheme, suffered a fracture at the top of his tibia on Aug. 12. Though he did not take part in the Broncos' practice Wednesday -- he stretched with the team -- Trevathan’s work was his first appearance on the field in a practice jersey since the injury.

Trevathan said last week, "I’m getting there, I’ll be ready to get back in there soon."

Trevathan is five weeks out from the injury. The Broncos have been optimistic throughout Trevathan’s recovery that he would need six to eight weeks before a return to the lineup.

The Broncos face Seattle this weekend, but then have a Week 4 bye, so Trevathan, if he continues at his current pace, may be available for the Broncos’ Week 5 game against the Arizona Cardinals.

The Broncos will likely practice at least twice during their bye week.

Linebacker Von Miller, who left the Broncos' win over the Kansas City Chiefs this past Sunday with a groin injury, practiced Wednesday.

Linebacker Lerentee McCray (knee) and defensive tackle Marvin Austin (excused) did not practice. Austin’s father, Marvin Sr., was involved in an automobile accident Sunday.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Perhaps it took a little longer than the Denver Broncos had hoped, but the team is poised to get wide receiver Wes Welker back on the roster this week, possibly as soon as Wednesday.

ESPN’s Ed Werder reported Tuesday that the NFL had begun to inform players who would be reinstated once representatives of the NFL and NFL Players Association had signed a term sheet on the new drug policy.

[+] EnlargeWelker
AP Photo/Jack DempseyThe Broncos could have Wes Welker back from his league suspension as early as Wednesday.
The Broncos have kept a roster spot open for Welker for over a week. The team, with the negotiations on a new drug policy seemingly nearing a conclusion, cut wide receiver Nathan Palmer on Sept. 9 and remained at 52 players since.

Welker, who suffered a concussion in the Broncos’ Aug. 23 preseason game against the Houston Texans, has been cleared medically, so he would take part in practice as soon as he is formally moved from reserve/suspended to the active roster.

Following Broncos practice last Friday, coach John Fox said the team was ready to welcome Welker back whenever an agreement was in place. But earlier this week, Fox wasn't prepared to publicly say when he thought that would be.

"I know we get Wes back for sure after four games," Fox said Monday. "Anything other than that, that’s somebody else’s decisions.”

Welker was originally suspended four games for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs and already has served the first two games of the suspension, missing the Broncos’ wins over the Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs. However, Broncos officials and players have believed that a new policy would change the criteria of Welker's suspension and allow for the reinstatement of Welker and several others players around the league.

Welker had been limited in practice at the time of his league-mandated punishment because of the concussion he suffered against the Texans. The concussion was Welker's third in a 10-month span.

Welker has taken part in just one practice -- he was limited in the team’s Labor Day workout -- since the injury.

Welker's chance at reinstatement came because, under the new policy, Welker's positive test for amphetamines would now fall under the league's policy for substance abuse because it occurred during the offseason. Under the guidelines of the substance abuse policy, a player enters the treatment program with the first positive test, a program that includes meeting with counselors. The player is also subject to increased testing each month.

It takes multiple positive tests under the substance abuse policy before the suspension phase is reached. Welker's positive test had fallen under the PED policy, which put players into the suspension phase with the first positive test.

Under his original suspension, Welker would not have been eligible to return to the team until Monday, Oct. 6, and then would have played for the first time in the Oct. 12 game against the New York Jets.

In Welker's absence, the Broncos have run far more plays out of a two-tight end set than they did down the stretch last season or in the playoffs. Of quarterback Peyton Manning's league-leading six touchdown passes, five have gone to tight ends: four to Julius Thomas and one to Jacob Tamme.

Denver Broncos rewind: Offense

September, 16, 2014
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- They’re fourth in the league in scoring, tied for sixth in yards per play and the Denver Broncos are 2-0.

Yet the feeling around the team, and certainly among the team's faithful, is they’ve left some points on the table and the second-half lull in each of the first two games will need some attention.

After a long look at the video, here are some thoughts on the team’s offense:
  • Welker
    With wide receiver Wes Welker's time in suspension limbo expected to end this week -- he would join the Broncos roster as soon as the league’s new drug policy is formally agreed to by both the NFL and NFLPA -- it will be intriguing to watch if the offense drifts away from what it’s done well in the early going. Five of Peyton Manning's six touchdown passes have gone to the team’s tight ends so far -- four to Julius Thomas and one to Jacob Tamme. And four of those scoring plays have come in the two-tight-end set with Welker out of the lineup. The Broncos have also spent far more time in the two-tight-end set, including all but one snap this past Sunday. And they are consistently creating matchup problems with it all over the field. If Welker isn’t ready for full duty -- he’s only practiced once, on a limited basis, since Aug. 23 -- or the Broncos want to limit his snaps since he has had three concussions in 10 months, it’s clear they have a viable option that’s more than a change of pace. Last season they used a variety of offensive sets early, but down the stretch they were almost exclusively in three wide.
  • The Broncos went into the offseason to try and squeeze more out of the team’s running game without losing their throw-first edge. And the Broncos have flashed some potential -- like Montee Ball's 23-yard run on a third-and-24 in the third quarter Sunday -- but they have spent almost 90 snaps in the first two games in a two-tight-end formation and have more runs by running backs or wide receivers for no gain or negative yardage than they did in last season's first two games, when they played out out of largely three-wide-receiver sets. They’re leaving gaps on the interior, both in the zone run game and when they pull one of the interior linemen to cross the formation. But overall they’ve had nine carries already for no gain or negative yardage (other than kneel-downs), and seven of those have come on first down. No surprise the Chiefs were involved in that already, though; last season the Chiefs stopped Broncos ball carriers for 15 runs of no gain or negative yards, with 11 of those in the Broncos’ Dec. 12 win. But add in the fact the Broncos have had seven additional carries for 1 yard each, and 34.8 percent of the rushing attempts the Broncos have had from plays other than Manning kneel-downs have gone for 1 or fewer yards.
  • Can’t say Ball isn’t willing to stick his nose into the action in pass protection. Tamba Hali did have the Chiefs’ only sack Sunday, and he did overpower Ball to get it. But Ball threw himself at the much bigger outside linebacker for what was perhaps the biggest collision in the game.
  • Many years ago Ron Erhardt, a longtime NFL assistant to go with a brief stint as Patriots head coach, said “throw to score, run to win." That was long before receivers were set free down the field by the rules makers and quarterbacks were more accurate overall than they’ve ever been. But the Broncos are living the throw-to-score mantra. They have touchdown passes of 3, 5, 4 and 4 yards already this season.
  • Of the Broncos pass catchers, Emmanuel Sanders played 48 of the team’s 49 snaps Sunday, while Julius Thomas played 46 and Demaryius Thomas 45. Tamme, who was in the formation for all three Broncos touchdowns, finished with 37 snaps.

The Film Don't Lie: Broncos

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
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A weekly look at what the Denver Broncos must fix:

In these pass-happy times when third-and-short is still a time for a quarterback to be in the shotgun with three wide receivers in the formation, a defense has to find a way to survive in its nickel (five defensive backs) and dime (six) packages, even if an offense decides to run the ball.

On Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs made it clear -- and the Seattle Seahawks' coaches are just as certain to take notice this week as they prepare for the Broncos -- they believed the Broncos would have trouble defending the run out of the nickel. On seven of the first nine snaps the Broncos were in the nickel, the Chiefs ran the ball.

The results: a 25-yard run by Knile Davis and a 2-yard touchdown run by Davis in a second-and-goal situation. In addition, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith rushed for 25 yards on a designed pass play when he took advantage of an easy escape from the pocket.

In the imitation-is-inevitable department, the Broncos are going to have to show they can defend the run when they go smaller on defense, especially with teams like the Seahawks, Jets, 49ers and Chargers on the docket over the next five weeks.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When some of the NFL’s officials rolled through the Denver Broncos complex during training camp to enlighten the team’s coaches and players on the rules changes for the season as well as the "points of emphasis," the Broncos saw one of their own on the training video shown to every team in the league.

In the portion of the video that discussed centers moving their heads or their hands too much before the snap in an effort to get defensive players to jump offside, it was the Broncos’ Manny Ramirez who was used as the example of what not to do.

[+] EnlargeJohn Fox
AP Photo/Jack DempseyJohn Fox saw his defense commit five offside penalties on Sunday, matching its total for 2013.
And after five offside penalties on Broncos defensive players Sunday, head coach John Fox believes not everybody got the memo, citing some “abrupt’’ movements from Kansas City Chiefs center Rodney Hudson.

Asked Monday for the root of four different defensive players being flagged for five offside penalties in Sunday’s 24-17 Broncos win, Fox said:

"They might have been a little abrupt. [That’s] something we’re, of course, going to turn in. I can’t speak about it, but we’ll turn it in."

One of those penalties, from defensive end Quanterus Smith late in the fourth quarter, negated an interception return for a touchdown by Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib. Fox also didn’t let his own players off the hook, either, as defensive end DeMarcus Ware was flagged twice to go with one penalty each for Smith, Von Miller and Terrance Knighton.

Because of crowd noise at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, the Chiefs used a silent count for much of the game -- "There was no cadence," Fox said.

"After maybe one or two, think we probably should have adjusted a little better," Fox said. "[But] the squatting and turning of the head fairly abruptly, you know, was something that we’ll make sure the league knows about."

Asked about the team viewing the training video this summer, Fox added: "Yeah, something we made people aware of. It didn’t work out so good."

"They had a really good snap count," Ware said. "There’s no excuse, it’s watching the ball. But when you have a lot of movement before the snap of the ball, you get a little antsy."

Last season the Broncos' defense was flagged for five offside penalties all year.

Before the season, officials were told to flag centers under the guidelines that "prior to the snap, any quick, or abrupt movement by any offensive players, or several offensive players in unison, which simulates the start of a play, is a foul."

The league's directive also said among the things to be penalized was to be "a center abruptly lifting or dropping his head not immediately followed by the snap."

In the league’s training video it was Ramirez who was shown quickly dropping his head without snapping the ball.

The NFL made it a point of emphasis given there were 33 neutral zone infractions by defenders flagged in 2005. Last season there were 132. Last year Broncos opponents were flagged seven times for neutral zone infractions and three for being offside.
DENVER -- Two halves don’t add up to the whole story right now for the Denver Broncos. At least not the story their offense wants to tell.

In two games, both wins, the Broncos' high-powered offense has had the ball for nine possessions in the first halves of their two games combined, excluding one kneel-down play for quarterback Peyton Manning to close out the opening half against the Indianapolis Colts.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/Jack DempseyPeyton Manning and the Broncos are 2-0 despite their second-half woes on offense.
On those nine possessions the Broncos have scored six touchdowns, a field goal and had two punts. The Broncos also have scored on their opening drive in each game.

"It feels good to go down and score on the opening drive," Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. "It gives everyone confidence that we can seriously do it over and over and over again."

But in back-to-back games the Broncos have left the offensive mojo in the locker room. In eight second-half possessions that haven’t included Manning taking a knee to end both games, the Broncos have scored just one touchdown and one field goal to go with six punts with offensive coordinator Adam Gase working out of the same playbook.

Broncos head coach John Fox, sitting at 2-0 after Sunday's 24-17 win over Kansas City, bristled at least some following the game with questions about discipline and offensive flow.

"We’re not going to beat everybody 58-to-nothing," Fox said.

For his part, Manning took a bit of a big-picture look following Sunday’s win.

"We’re playing a lot of good football teams," Manning said. "We played two really good teams, two playoff teams off the bat. Feel fortunate to win those games; have another tough game next week as well. So it’s still kind of the goals that you set on the offensive philosophies that you have, if you can achieve those goals those usually can lead to positive results. So we’re hitting some of those goals and some things we can do a little better job of."

Yes, Manning did finish his day with the NFL lead in touchdown passes, with six in two games. He has been particularly willing to find the best matchup in the scoring zone with four of those scoring passes having gone to tight ends Julius Thomas (three) and Jacob Tamme (one).

But the second-half numbers are troubling given the Broncos have been forced to hang on in each game, having to make a fourth-down play on defense in the game’s closing moments to preserve the win in each of the first two weeks.

Against the Colts, the Broncos didn’t make the most of their chances -- three three-and-outs in the second half -- while the Broncos simply didn’t get many chances against the Chiefs.

"If the other team has it, we can’t score," running back Montee Ball said.

The Broncos had just two possessions, other than Manning’s kneel down to end the game, in the second half against Kansas City. They turned one into a field goal, but were penalized for almost as many yards (17) as they netted on the drive (27).

The Chiefs opened up the first 10 minutes of the third quarter with a 19-play drive (23 plays with penalties included). They did not score after all that work when Cairo Santos missed a 37-yard field goal, but they got the next best thing by keeping Manning & Co. on the sideline for most of the third quarter.

"That’s ball-possession defense, all 10 minutes with no points," Fox said with tongue in cheek. "In all seriousness, that team struggled last week on third down. I’d say it’s fair to say, like any very competitive people, they worked very hard at it. Hat's off to them."

But the Broncos exited their 2-0 start knowing the team next on the docket is the one that derailed their offense in the Super Bowl just over seven months ago -- the Seattle Seahawks -- and that status quo won't be enough.

"We’ve got some work to do," Ball said. "We’re getting better every week. … It’s part of the game. The tide is going to turn, momentum is going to swing. Once we get momentum, we want to keep the momentum."

Third-down dilemma nearly dooms Denver

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
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DENVER -- On fourth down, the Denver Broncos are game-savers; they suit up, slap on a cape and do some super-hero stuff.

In both games this season, the Broncos’ defense has made a play on fourth down as the clock wound down to stop a rally and preserve a seven-point win. As they did in the season-opener against the Indianapolis Colts, the Broncos did it again Sunday to hold off the Kansas City Chiefs, 24-17, at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

[+] EnlargeAlex Smith
AP Photo/Joe MahoneyAlex Smith's ability to convert in key situations had Denver defenders frustrated after Sunday's game.
But it wasn’t without plenty of worry lines all around. Because on third down? It was third-and-brutal.

"Converting on third down, getting off [the field] on third down is something the defense is always about," Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware said. "If you can get off [the field] on third down, then it’s a great defense. [Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith] strings some of the plays out, they were able to make some big plays on us in key situations."

"We all get paid to come in here and do our job," Broncos linebacker Nate Irving said. "We don’t have any excuses, we know we can’t do that and be the kind of defense we want to be. We’ll look at it all. Like I say, we’ll look at it and see where we messed up."

Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has consistently started most any conversation about what needs to be done each week with two items. He will say the defense needs to "leverage and tackle," and he will routinely add the importance of getting off the field on third down "to give the ball back to our offense as many times as possible."

If you take away quarterback Peyton Manning taking a knee to end the game, the Broncos' high-powered offense had just two possessions in the second half Sunday. Two.

In all, the Chiefs converted 11-of-16 third downs and converted all types along the way. Some short, some intermediate, some long and some in the no-offense-should-ever-convert-those range.

During the Chiefs’ marathon 19-play (23 plays when penalties are included), 10-minute drive to open the second half, Kansas City converted five third-down situations. The Broncos escaped without surrendering any points -- Kansas City kicker Cairo Santos missed a 37-yard field goal attempt -- but those five were an alarming third-and-18, a third-and-11, a third-and-13, a third-and-3 and a third-and-8.

The Chiefs made three of those on completions from Smith for 20, 14 and 5 yards. But the Broncos put a little more self-inflicted woe on the pile with flags for roughing the passer on Malik Jackson to go with an illegal contact penalty on Chris Harris Jr.

The Broncos also, on a third-and-9 situation in the game’s closing minutes, had an Aqib Talib interception return for a touchdown that would have closed things out negated by an offside penalty on defensive end Quanterus Smith.

"We know," defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. "We know, every guy in here knows we have to do a better job of getting off the field. We’re 2-0, we made some plays to get the W's, but we know what we’re going to look on film."

They better. Because while 2-0 always feels pretty good, the Broncos know the Seattle Seahawks await them next Sunday.

Or as Harris put it before he strolled out of the Broncos' locker room: "If guys go out and celebrate and act extra hyped off winning this game … then their mindset is not in the right place."

John Fox: 'There are no cupcakes'

September, 14, 2014
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DENVER – Observed and heard in the Broncos' locker room after their win 24-17 over the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday:
  • The Broncos were left to explain what was on, at least some levels, an unsightly win. And while the scrappy, not-so-pretty wins were celebrated before Peyton Manning signed, the Broncos 11-penalty day where the Chiefs ran 29 more plays on offense than Denver did was not. It was enough to get coach John Fox’s hackles up . “We’re not going to win every game 58 to nothing,’’ Fox said. Fox later added: “There are no cupcakes, there never will be. They’re all tough and you feel good about all of [the wins].’’
  • The Broncos' defensive players all say they love the crowd noise, the thunder of stomping feet by those in the seats for their home games. But Sunday the Broncos struggled in their own stadium at times. The Broncos' defense had five offside penalties, including one by defensive end Quanterus Smith that negated what would have been a game-clinching interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. “They had a really good snap count,’’ defensive end DeMarcus Ware said. “There’s no excuse, it’s watching the ball. But when you have a lot of movement before the snap of the ball, you get a little antsy.’’
  • The Broncos' defense has made a play on fourth down in the closing minutes to preserve a seven-point victory in each of the first two games. Last week it was rookie cornerback Bradley Roby knocking a pass away from Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne and this week it was defensive tackle Terrance Knighton knocking down a pass on fourth down with 15 seconds to play. “We just got to end the game there,’’ cornerback Aqib Talib said. “We saw the clock, we saw the down and distance, defense just had to end that game. We like being on field last.’’
  • The Broncos came out of the game with two injuries -- to linebackers Lerentee McCray and Von Miller. Initially McCray’s looks to be more serious. He was taken to the locker room in the first quarter with a right knee injury and did not return. McCray will have an MRI on Monday, but after the preliminary exam there was some concern he could miss some time. Miller, who was not in the game during the Chiefs’ final drive, will be evaluated more on Monday as well.

W2W4: Broncos Week 2

September, 13, 2014
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Cornerback Chris Harris is just seven months removed from ACL surgery, so the team's Week 1 victory over the Indianapolis Colts had a work-in-progress feel for him.

"I know in the first game I wasn’t quite where I want to be with my stamina and things like that, but my knee feels great, when I was in there I felt like I showed I can play the game how I want to play it," said Harris. "But I wasn't all the way where I want to be, but I'll get there. We got the win, that’s all we’re concerned about. We’ll fix what we need to fix after wins, that’s what we want."

That is true for the Broncos as a whole. They weren’t quite where they want to be in the victory over Colts, but they won.

And as they head to a Week 2 game against the Kansas City Chiefs (0-1) Sunday, here are some things to keep an eye on:

  • [+] EnlargeDemaryius Thomas
    Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesExpect to see Demaryius Thomas get more opportunities against the Chiefs than he got in Week 1.
    Demaryius Thomas had just four receptions for 48 yards in the season opener, but those numbers figure to go up this week, especially if Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton sticks to what he did last season against Thomas. Sutton didn’t match a cornerback on Thomas, so when the Broncos moved Thomas around in the formation, they could usually get the matchup they wanted, often getting Thomas on Marcus Cooper in last season’s two meetings. As a result Thomas had two 100-yard games against the Chiefs and averaged 28.5 yards per catch in those two games. Cooper, who missed last week’s game with an injury, is expected back in the lineup Sunday.
  • Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles had just 11 touches in the opener, including just seven carries. The Broncos should, and do, expect Charles to get many more opportunities Sunday. There was a time, during his tenure in Philadelphia, when Chiefs head coach Andy Reid took some heat for leaving the run game behind in his play calling. Things got away from the Chiefs offense a bit in the loss to the Titans Sunday -- the Titans led 10-3 at half, 20-3 just before the end of the third quarter -- but the Chiefs ran the ball just 17 times in the game. The Chiefs had just two running plays in the third quarter. "We know Jamaal Charles is one of the best," Harris said. "We know they want to get him the ball."
  • The Chiefs have just one offensive lineman -- center Rodney Hudson -- who is starting in the same position for the team that he played last season. And the group looked out of sorts at times in the opening-week loss to the Titans. As a result the Broncos figure to get a steady diet of quick-hit plays as the Chiefs try to adjust. Reid has an extensive screen game in the offense and the Chiefs run many of those screens, to either side of the field, to a variety of players, when they all look the same at the start of the play. The Broncos' linebackers will have to be disciplined in their pursuit.
  • Sutton will offer plenty of unorthodox looks in the pass rush, often dropping safety Eric Berry into the mix with a delayed rush in the middle of the formation. The Colts had some success sending a rusher from off the ball late into the middle of the formation. The Broncos were slow to adjust at times and there were times Colts defenders got a free run at quarterback Peyton Manning.
  • The Broncos figure to test the Chiefs defense on the inside, particularly in the run game. Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson and defensive tackle Mike DeVito will miss the remainder of the season with Achilles tendon injuries and that is a significant amount of production out of the team’s defense, particularly on early downs when Johnson was the keystone of the team’s run fits and DeVito was in the rotation. The Broncos figure to pound away a bit to see how the Chiefs respond, both out of their two-tight-end or three-wide-receiver looks.

Broncos vs. Chiefs preview

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
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The Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs don't have to wait long to open up AFC West play as they jump into a Week 2 matchup. The Broncos had one glorious half before they had to hang on in their season-opening 31-24 victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

The Chiefs struggled in a 26-10 loss to the Tennessee Titans at Arrowhead Stadium and will be without two regulars in defensive tackle Mike DeVito and linebacker Derrick Johnson, who both suffered season-ending Achilles injuries in the loss.

ESPN.com Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday's game.

Legwold: Adam, every training camp for every team ends with such high hopes and plenty of optimism. What is the Chiefs' mindset after such a tough opening week?

Teicher: There's not a lot for the Chiefs to be optimistic about right now. Since their 9-0 start last season they've gone 2-7, including their collapse in the playoffs against Indianapolis. Their offensive line is in tatters, quarterback Alex Smith is throwing interceptions in uncharacteristically high numbers, running back Jamaal Charles didn’t get the ball much against Tennessee, some of their best young players aren't contributing much, they lost two of their best defensive players for the season with injuries last week and their defense got pushed around by Jake Locker and the Titans. Then there's the upcoming schedule, which has the Chiefs playing road games against the Broncos, Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers and San Diego Chargers and a home game against the New England Patriots in the next five weeks. Otherwise, all is good with the Chiefs.

What about the Broncos in this regard? The losing team in the Super Bowl often has a season-long hangover afterward, but the Broncos don't seem to be affected.

Legwold: When the Broncos signed Peyton Manning, executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said he wanted not only Manning's play on the field, but also a player "who raises all boats." Manning and the other Broncos veterans attacked the offseason and a fairly young team overall has taken its cues from those hard-driving older players. When they brought in veteran players such as DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward, those guys saw this as a chance at a Super Bowl, so they have been no nonsense as they've gone about their business. That has kept things on the tracks. The suspensions handed down to wide receiver Wes Welker and kicker Matt Prater ended what had been a quiet summer for the team. But, overall, it's a locked-in group that needs to avoid injuries to key players to be in the title mix again.

In terms of offseason work, the Chiefs locked up Smith with a contract extension. What was the organization's plan and is there even more pressure on Smith now to lift them into the postseason?

Teicher: The plan with Smith all along, from the time they acquired him in the trade with the 49ers, was to lock him up for the long term. At no time did they consider him a stopgap or the bridge to the next quarterback. Those plans could have changed had they not been satisfied with Smith's play last season. But Smith last season was the guy the Chiefs thought they were getting. This new contract certainly increases the pressure on Smith to deliver. The Chiefs have committed to him in a big way, and he will be consuming a significant portion of the team's salary cap. Smith is by no means solely responsible for last Sunday's loss, but he didn't play well. He threw three interceptions, and two were bad decisions on his part, the kind of choices he doesn't usually make. The Chiefs are paying him a lot of money to make better decisions.

You mentioned Denver's offseason signings of defensive players in Ware, Talib and Ward. How has their presence changed the complexion of the Broncos' defense?

Legwold: Elway spends a lot of time talking about "the mindset" and "the mentality to win a world championship," and when he was waving the team's checkbook around in free agency, he went looking for players with the mindset to remake the defense. There are just six players on the roster who started on defense in Super Bowl XLVIII. The Broncos players voted Ware a captain and his straightforward, no-nonsense approach has made him an almost instant team leader. He also had 1.5 sacks in the opener, and while some in the league had labeled Ware a declining player in his 10th season, the Broncos think they can manage his snaps to get the most out of him. Ward and Talib bring an edge the Broncos wanted, and both were all over the field this past Sunday night. Toss in the first-round pick, cornerback Bradley Roby, and the Broncos will play with more aggressiveness and a bigger variety in personnel groupings than they did in last season's two games against the Chiefs.

Defensively, how will the Chiefs adjust to the injuries to DeVito and Johnson? Will it alter their approach dramatically, especially given what Johnson means to the group?

Teicher: I don't think the Chiefs will change their approach dramatically, but there's no question they will feel the loss of both players. Johnson will be replaced by James-Michael Johnson. The Chiefs went out in free agency and signed veteran Joe Mays, a former Broncos player, to fill one of their inside linebacker spots, an indication they didn't think Johnson was ready to be a full-time player. He got a long look in passing situations during the preseason, and the Chiefs are more comfortable with him playing in coverage than against the run. That said, he's no Derrick Johnson, who is superb against the run and versatile against the pass. DeVito was one of the Chiefs' better run defenders and was improving as a pass-rusher. His main replacement will be Jaye Howard, who had a promising preseason. Former Oakland Raider Vance Walker, and even the newly signed Kevin Vickerson, could get some playing time as well.

The Chiefs tried to sign wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in free agency before he joined the Broncos. He looked like a good fit for the Broncos in the opener against Indianapolis. What are their expectations for him? And give us a little scouting report on Vickerson, a former Bronco.

Legwold: In terms of players on offense who were available in free agency, Sanders was the team's top target. The Broncos' offensive coaches, particularly offensive coordinator Adam Gase, like Sanders' versatility in that he can line up in the outside spots and in the slot to go with the fact he has quality short-area quickness to beat press coverage off the snap and top-end speed to run away from defenders in the open. Manning has worked extensively with him -- the two stayed after practice, often with rookie receiver Cody Latimer -- every day of offseason workouts, as well as in training camp. The work helped, and Sanders projects to a big season in this offense. Vickerson was likely the 54th player on this roster when the Broncos cut to 53. The Broncos liked his work on run downs and the physicality and ability take on double-teams. They did have some long-term concern about his hip -- Vickerson was kept on a limited schedule throughout much of training camp -- but they needed a little cap space and kept only eight defensive linemen, so Vickerson got caught in the squeeze.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – In the end, the goal is likely somewhere between better and much better.

The Denver Broncos aren’t on a quest to take what was the league’s highest scoring offense in history and remake it into something it’s not. In these pass-happy times, the Broncos can chuck it around with the best of them.

Even after the Broncos scored 31 points in a season-opening victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, the team has spent a lot of the past week discussing missed opportunities, dropped passes – they had five – and lost touchdowns – they said there were a few. And the Broncos also still want to run the ball better.

They don’t want to be a running team, but a passing team that runs it better when they want to.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Elsa/Getty ImagesMontee Ball rushed for 67 yards on 23 carries in the Broncos' season-opening victory over the Colts.
“The run game is a focus for us," said tight end Julius Thomas. “We have to run the ball efficiently, but if you’re running the ball well on third-and-short, it’s going to extend drives, so we’ll take that. But we’ll keep working."

After the Broncos cleared away the debris from a 35-point Super Bowl loss, they went into the offseason with adjustments to their run-game scheme/personnel on their minds. Knowshon Moreno was allowed to leave in free agency, Montee Ball was named the starter at running back, they moved one of their most physical linemen, Orlando Franklin, from right tackle to left guard and they tweaked some things they were doing on handoffs.

In Sunday’s opening act of the new season, Manning threw for three touchdowns, all in the first half. At times, the Broncos' passing attack looked every bit as dominant as last season, with Thomas having taken the next step as a player and Emmanuel Sanders fitting in quite nicely.

But as the Broncos now consistently talk about “efficiency" in the run game, they weren’t always able to reach their desired output. On first down, they had eight of their 18 carries gain one or fewer yards – four for no gain, one of 1 yard and one for minus-1 yard, all by Ball.

As a result of those runs and the down-and-distance situations they created, the Broncos then had just five second-down carries in the game and just three third-down carries. They did convert all three of those third-down carries for first downs, but all but eight of their rushing attempts in the game came on first down, and from a defensive standpoint, there is some predictability there.

“You have to focus on the plays that didn’t go so well," Ball said. “We’re going to carry the good plays to the next game. But from an individual standpoint, you want to focus on the bad plays where if you made a mistake, you can correct it and become better for the next team. For me, there are some holes out there that I missed. I’m looking forward to correcting them and getting better."

Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase said Ball is “being a little hard on himself. He did a pretty job hitting them … A lot of times he’s doing what the scheme allows him to do."

It all presents an odd sort of riddle. The Broncos want to run better, but they score plenty already. The Broncos have scored at least 31 points in 24 of Manning’s 33 regular-season starts with the team.

They’ve also been committed enough to the running game to have run the ball at least 25 times in 23 of those games, including Sunday.

So they don’t necessarily want more, as in more carries; they still want, and need, better carries. They want it because they’re thinking big-picture, that they’re going to need it to get another shot at the title, to slam the door against a physical opponent, to win on a bad-weather day without surrendering who they believe they are.

“I think our history speaks for itself as far as we’re not one to pull off [the accelerator]," Gase said. “Are we working on some things, trying to run the ball a little bit? Yeah. We were still trying to throw it [Sunday]. We figured if we finished a few of those plays a little differently -- we had a third-and-3, had a drop. The guy falls down -- we catch that, that might be a 30-yard gain. So some things that didn’t go our way in that second half, but in no means will we ever pull off the gas. We’re going to try to score as many points until the clock is at zero."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In what has been the Summer of Construction, it can be easy to miss everything that has been added to the Denver Broncos complex in recent weeks and months.

Thomas
 But there are three newly-minted signs in the players’ parking lot that will make it easy to see how things have gone in the game that was just played each week. It was quarterback Peyton Manning who pointed out the primo front-row parking real estate this week, one spot each for the team’s offensive, defensive and special teams player of the week, and the fact tight end Julius Thomas had parked his car in one of them.

“You get a parking spot by the way, player of the week, don’t know if y’all noticed that,’’ Manning said. “ … Right there the first three spots … if you get Broncos player of the week.’’

And with three touchdown receptions in the Broncos’ regular-season opener, Thomas certainly earned not only the team’s player-of-the-week honor, but he was the league’s AFC Player of the Week. But what Thomas may also be is another shining example of why draft classes can’t, and shouldn’t, always be judged quickly and why a player’s makeup will often be as important as the scouting trinity of height, weight and speed.

Because after two NFL seasons, Thomas, a guy who is now one of the league's most difficult matchups for any defensive coordinator, had all of one catch, a five-yarder against Cincinnati on Sept. 18, 2011 when he suffered an ankle injury. And for the remainder of that season and the season that followed Thomas was a fourth-round draft with potential the Broncos simply hoped to eventually see healthy.

Then they saw last year’s 65-catch, 12-touchdown season. Then they saw Sunday night’s opener when Thomas had three touchdowns in the season's first 30 minutes.

“I think he’ll be a better player this year than he was last year,’’ Manning said.

And beyond Thomas’ obvious physical attributes for his job -- the ex-Portland State basketball player is fluid in is movements, has soft hands and top-tier body control to go with rare speed for a player his size -- it was his approach during his one-catch period that always caught the eye on the Broncos’ decision-makers.

And that includes Manning after he signed in 2012. Because of the collective bargaining agreement, Manning wanted to gather some of the offensive players before the Broncos’ official offseason workouts began. Thomas was one of the team's few first- or second-year players to find his way to, and faithfully attend those workouts.

“But Julius was one of the guys, he and [Eric] Decker, that I was throwing with,’’ Manning said. “And I remember … 6-4 tight end, those guys just don’t come around very often, that can really run, just seems like next, you know, he had a previous injury that kind of flared up again … [I] definitely had a great early appreciation of his talent and his ability.’’

Thomas never lost confidence in himself. “I always believed, had the confidence, if I kept working through it, good things would happen. My approach has always been to be as good as I can be over my career, not just one year here, one year there, so always looking down the road to make sure I’m doing things that keep me successful in the long haul.’’

Thomas is in the last year of his original rookie deal, and the Broncos have had discussions about a new one for him, as well as wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. And the price goes up a bit every time Julius Thomas befuddles another linebacker or safety for another touchdown.

But it will be easy for executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway to see how it’s all going. He can simply count the touchdown on gameday and then, after Elways pull into his spot the next morning, he can see where Julius Thomas is parked as well.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos showed how their offense would operate without wide receiver Wes Welker in the win over the Indianapolis Colts.

And while the Broncos continue to be optimistic about the chances of getting Welker back before Week 6 if a new drug policy is put in place -- so much so they cleared a roster spot and are carrying 52 players -- their work against the Colts is worth a look for what it all means with, or without, Welker in the lineup.

First, if anyone doubted the Broncos could simply put Emmanuel Sanders into the offense in place of Eric Decker and roll on, they should put those doubts aside. Decker was second on the team in targets (137), catches (87) and receiving touchdowns (11) last season -- a productive, proven quality option.

[+] EnlargeDenver's Emmanuel Sanders
Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty ImagesEmmanuel Sanders caught six passes for 77 yards, including this one for 40 against the Colts.
But Sanders, with his ability to play on the outside and in the slot, will squarely be in the No. 2 role behind Demaryius Thomas. It’s what the Broncos signed him to be and what he showed he will be in his first regular-season outing. His ability to stretch the field from anywhere in the formation will create big plays for him and room for others to work.

"I thought it was a good start for him," quarterback Peyton Manning said.

With no Welker, the Broncos played their two-tight end set one snap more than they did their three-wide receiver set. While some said Andre Caldwell would start against the Colts in place of Welker, the Broncos actually opened the game in a two tight end look with Demaryius Thomas and Sanders as the wide receivers.

Virgil Green played 42 snaps as the second tight end and Caldwell played 40 snaps as the third wide receiver. Those numbers figure to shift whenever Welker returns and by what the Broncos believe the opposing defense has to offer week to week.

But their work in camp as well as the opener shows the two tight end look will likely be a bigger part of things than in 2013, when the Broncos had five games when they played out of a three-wide look for at least 69 snaps -- including penalty plays.

And then there’s the matter of how Julius Thomas fits moving forward. The Broncos saw, and enjoyed, his breakout year in 2013, but start charting how things could go in this offense and the most likely scenario is where Thomas is the third target rather than the third wide receiver.

He figures to get more attention moving forward, especially after what he did to the Colts linebackers and safeties. Sunday he was targeted eight times by Manning, just below Demaryius Thomas’ 11 targets and Sanders’ nine.

"When you’re on defense you have to pick your poison," Broncos coach John Fox said. "You can’t double everybody or you’d run out of numbers. I think part of what makes our offense successful is we do have those weapons and we have the trigger guy (in Manning). He can decipher exactly what is taking place in an instant and feed the ball to the guy the defense might be light on."

Rookie Cody Latimer also figures to enter the picture at some point. The Broncos have Latimer, as they do all of their receivers, learning all of the receiver spots in their scheme.

In their offense that means not only knowing all of the assignments at all of the outside spots and in the slot positions, it means being able to handle Manning checking out of a play into another play the team has either run in a game or practiced at any point since offseason workouts began.

When Latimer, who admits his head "is spinning sometimes, but you work," has a handle on those audibles, his size and speed will be too much to keep on the bench.

All in all, it means options against a schedule full of defenses that figure to dot the league’s top 10 when all is said and done.

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