AFC West: Denver Broncos

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DENVER -- It is a spinning wheel of fortune, a fast, powerful, migraine-inducing combination of choices for opposing defensive coordinators.

Because Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning can drop back and pick a number, any number, and dial up touchdowns. And Thursday night, in a 35-21 victory over the San Diego Chargers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, it was wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders' turn.

"I feel like on any given night it can be anybody's night," Manning said. " ... They're all running full-speed routes because they know the ball might be coming to them."

By the time they turned out the lights in the stadium, Sanders had finished with nine catches for 120 yards and three touchdowns. Each of those was a career best for Sanders, and the three touchdown receptions were more than he had in each of his first three seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"Definitely a great night to be a Bronco," Sanders said. " … Obviously we understand in this offense it can be anybody's night at any moment."

Tight end Julius Thomas and now Sanders each have had three-touchdown games this season. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas has had multiple two-score games.

When the Broncos swept up the wreckage from a 35-point Super Bowl loss, the overriding theme -- in both tweaks made to what was a record-setting offense and the retooling of the team's defense -- was an emphasis on speed. Executive vice president and general manager John Elway said he wanted a more athletic roster, "more speed across the board, at every position."

And when the Broncos ranked the offensive players they hoped to pursue in free agency, the guys they believed could come to the team and have real impact, Sanders was at the top of the list -- so much so that the Broncos let wide receiver Eric Decker go into free agency without making him an offer.

The attraction was mutual to be sure, as Sanders consistently has called the Broncos' offense "wide receiver heaven" since his arrival, even as he went through the first five games of the season without a touchdown catch. But with the Broncos having played two games in the abbreviated Sunday-Thursday week, Sanders scored four touchdowns in a five-day span.

"I'm just happy tonight was my night and as a team we got the win," Sanders said. " ... That's the reason why I came here. When I entered the free-agency process, I said I wanted to go to a team that's going to spread the football around, that's going to throw it. ... Every week we don't know where the ball is going to go. [Thursday] night was just my night."

There have been times in recent weeks when Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase has said he believes this season's offense could be better than the 2013 version, and it has often been met with a raised eyebrow or two, or three. The Broncos scored a single-season-record 606 points last season with five different players finishing with at least 10 touchdowns. No other team in league history has had more than three.

But Sanders' speed, his ability to dismantle press coverage with his quickness off the ball and to elevate and catch the ball in a crowd gives these Broncos a dimension they didn't have a season ago to complement Demaryius Thomas. Toss in running back Ronnie Hillman's athleticism, which has been increasingly on display since Montee Ball's injury (two 100-yard games to go with 4.9 yards per carry over his last three starts), and the Broncos are a ruthlessly efficient collection of matchup nightmares. It is an offense where a remember-when game could pop up most anywhere on the depth chart.

"[Thursday] 18 was looking, was just looking at me," Sanders said. "And it felt good."
DENVER -- A few takeaways from the Denver Broncos' locker room after the 35-21 victory over the San Diego Chargers:
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  • Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. had a good start to what he said would be a "great weekend" when he nabbed his second interception of the season with 13:35 to play in the second quarter. Harris' wife Leah is also scheduled to give birth to the couple's first child and was being induced late Thursday. "We were in the second half, and in first half my mind wasn't really in the game to me, and I just told Coach [John Fox] that I was going to turn up and make a play for us, and I did that."
  • Nothing escapes the discerning gaze of quarterback Peyton Manning. Following the win, the scoreboard operators at Sports Authority Field at Mile High were squarely in the crosshairs. The Broncos had a false-start penalty on tackle Paul Cornick just after the two-minute warning, and Manning placed the blame on the stadium's audio-visual crew. "I got a problem with our scoreboard operator, I've got to have a little talk with him," Manning said. "I'm not sure what he's doing, he's playing music and showing players dancing, getting the crowd fired up and we have the ball. I don't think we should be doing that." Manning also took aim at a moment in the second half when Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was shown on the giant video board as the crowd booed and then Manning would be shown to cheers. "And I don't think we should be showing their quarterback on the sideline," Manning said. "I thought that was kind of disrespectful ... our scoreboard operator, it wasn't his best night."
  • Running back Ronnie Hillman now has two 100-yard games in this past three starts since Montee Ball suffered a right groin injury Oct. 5 against the Arizona Cardinals. Hillman finished with 109 yards on his 20 carries against the Chargers and has had 37-yard runs in back-to-back games. He has averaged 4.2, 5.3 and 5.5 yards per carry in those three starts. "I feel like I can do a lot more," Hillman said. "... I just plan on getting better every week, and if getting better every week helps this offense, I'll do my best. ... When you understand the offense, you understand what's going on, the angles, you start to realize it gets easier, you see the play."
  • Broncos linebacker Lamin Barrow, a regular on the special-teams units, suffered a concussion and did not return to the lineup. Barrow is now under the guidelines of the league's concussion protocol.
  • The Broncos like how the defense has played in recent weeks, but defensive tackle Terrance Knighton is still looking for the complete game, as it were. "We just have that one series [every game] where it looks like we don't know what we're doing," Knighton said. "And our coaches are putting us in good position to make plays, and we just have to make them."
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DENVER -- For the first time since the season opener when Denver Broncos rookie wide receiver Cody Latimer played 10 plays on special teams, Latimer was slated to be in uniform for a game. Latimer was among the 46 active players for the Broncos for Thursday night’s game against the San Diego Chargers in Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

Latimer, whose potential impact in the offense has been lauded by several of his teammates, including quarterback Peyton Manning, was the Broncos' second-round pick in May.

Cornerback Omar Bolden, who is also one of the Broncos' kick returners, and running back Montee Ball, who suffered a right groin injury against the Arizona Cardinals, were the two most prominent inactives for Thursday night’s game.

Ball has now missed three games as the Broncos hope he may be able to practices, at least on a limited basis, next week.

Other Broncos inactives were: running back Kapri Bibbs, guard Ben Garland, linebacker Steven Johnson, tackle Michael Schofield and defensive tackle Mitch Unrein.

For the Chargers the inactives included cornerback Brandon Flowers who suffered a concussion against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday. Other Chargers inactives were: running back Ryan Mathews, running back Donald Brown, linebacker Manti Te'o, cornerback Steve Williams, outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu and outside linebacker Cordarro Law.

Around the Denver Broncos’ complex, last December’s game against the San Diego Chargers is referred to by many people, Broncos coach John Fox included, simply as “Round 2." The 27-20 Chargers win was the second of three meetings between the two teams in the 2013 season -- playoffs included -- and it was also the Broncos' only home loss last season.

So Thursday night’s affair is a sequel of sorts given last year’s regular-season meeting in Denver was also on a Thursday night. This time, however, the Broncos (5-1) and Chargers (5-2) have powered to the early lead in the AFC West race with both Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers in the early conversation for league MVP.

ESPN Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold preview the game:

Legwold: Eric, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware have more combined sacks (15) than 14 teams in the league right now. How would you expect Rivers and the Chargers offense to handle that?

Williams: Fair question. Rivers has done a nice job of getting the ball out quickly. The Chargers are predominantly in shotgun most of the time, so that helps Rivers get set to throw the football quickly, along with San Diego’s reliance on the short passing game. Rivers has been sacked just 11 times through seven games. The one thing the Chargers will do more of in an attempt to slow down Denver’s talented pass-rushers is give them a steady diet of cat-quick Branden Oliver in the run game.

Jeff, a lot of the conversation nationally has been about Manning and Denver’s prolific offense, but staying with Denver’s defense, it has held opponents to just 20 points a contest and an average of 74 yards a game on the ground. How have Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib made that defense better?

Legwold: When the Broncos picked through the rubble that was a 35-point loss in the Super Bowl, they went into the offseason intent on revamping a defense not only with more athleticism but also with what Ward called “that nastiness." The Broncos had confidence that Ware would rebound when they gave him a three-year, $30 million deal. He has also been a mentor to Miller. Talib, with his length and aggressiveness, has given the Broncos the press corner they wanted, and Ward has played all but three snaps on defense thus far. So the new arrivals have helped plenty, but the Broncos have also seen the starters who finished 2013 on injured reserve rebound to their previous form, most of all Miller. Chris Harris Jr. may be playing as well as any cornerback in the league despite having ACL surgery in February, as is defensive tackle Derek Wolfe. Put it all together and the Broncos play with far more versatility and athleticism in the formation than the last time these two teams played.

San Diego defensive coordinator John Pagano, a Colorado native, often takes risks with the Chargers defense, even against a quarterback like Manning. Will the injuries on defense change that philosophy, or do you think Pagano will come after Manning a bit?

Williams: Despite the lack of healthy bodies, Pagano will take his chances when he sees an opportunity. In San Diego’s win at Denver last year, the Chargers started Richard Marshall and Shareece Wright at cornerback and Thomas Keiser and Reggie Walker at outside linebacker. With San Diego’s top two cornerbacks in Brandon Flowers (concussion) and Jason Verrett (shoulder) nursing injuries, along with rookie pass-rusher Jeremiah Attaochu (hamstring), the Chargers' projected starting cornerbacks are Wright and Marshall. And the team’s projected starting outside linebackers are Jarret Johnson and Walker. The bottom line is Pagano trusts his backup players to know and understand his complex scheme. Those fill-in guys proved they can execute his game plan to try to confuse Manning last year.

The Broncos revamped the offensive line during the offseason. So far Manning has been sacked just eight times. What are the reasons for Denver’s success up front this season?

Legwold: The offense is built to keep Manning out of harm’s way, with lots of crossing routes, screens and quick-hit plays to get the ball out of his hands. And Manning may be one of the best to have ever played the position when it comes to limiting the punishment he takes by how he conducts his business in the pocket. He usually sees where the pressure is coming from before the snap, adjusts quickly and rarely holds the ball if he believes a sack is imminent. Overall, the offensive line’s play has caused a bit of consternation for the Broncos. They made a switch at right tackle for last Sunday’s game, putting Paul Cornick in place of Chris Clark. Some teams have created some room in the middle of the field, both in the run game and pass rush, and it will bear watching in this one.

In the Chargers’ win in Denver last December, Keenan Allen scored twice. Allen doesn’t have a touchdown yet this year. Where does he fit in the Chargers’ offense, and is Antonio Gates the go-to guy for Rivers?

Williams: Rivers and Gates hold the NFL record for touchdown receptions between a quarterback and tight end at 67, so it’s fair to say that the 34-year-old Gates is Rivers’ go-to guy, especially in the red zone. However, Allen leads the Chargers in targets (50) and receptions (34). But for whatever reason, the Cal product has not gotten into the end zone. One thing Rivers said is that he doesn’t want to force feed a receiver if he’s not open. And San Diego has so many other weapons, such as Eddie Royal, Malcom Floyd and Ladarius Green, that Rivers has a lot of matchups he can get to in the red zone. Allen’s turn to score will come, but Rivers won’t force it to him in coverage.

Broncos rookie cornerback Bradley Roby was a consideration for San Diego in the first round, but the Chargers selected Verrett instead. How has Roby played this year?

Legwold: The Broncos knew they would need Roby on defense, so they gave him plenty of tough love early in training camp; offensive coordinator Adam Gase and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas have both said the offense went out of its way to go after Roby in team drills early. While it was a tough go to open camp for Roby, he responded. He has earned plenty of confidence, so much so that the Broncos have matched him up with the likes of Reggie Wayne, Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Crabtree already this season. Roby has played both in the slot and on the outside and is a willing tackler in the run game. While there were some pre-draft concerns circulating in the league that Roby had some maturity issues, Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said he has had no such issues with Roby. “I told him on the first day he was going to have to earn his way and that he shouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t play," Del Rio said. “But he’s put in the work and earned his spot."

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – If the past accounts for anything Thursday night, Denver Broncos rookie cornerback Bradley Roby can expect, and should expect, Philip Rivers to put Roby on the hot seat.

Because when the San Diego Chargers came to Denver last December, on a short week, for a Thursday night game, Rivers looked early and often at then-rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster. Rivers repeatedly tested Webster in last season’s 20-13 Chargers victory, a total that included a 14-yard completion to Vincent Brown in the first quarter, a 12-yard completion to Eddie Royal in the second quarter, a 10-yard touchdown throw to Keenan Allen in the second quarter, and a 32-yard completion to Brown in the third quarter.

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Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesPhilip Rivers could look to single out rookie cornerback Bradley Roby on Thursday.
“I told Kayvon at the time, those were about Philip’s accuracy," said Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. “There are always technique things you can do, footwork, at the line of scrimmage, but Kayvon was in the right spot a lot of time, it’s just Philip is accurate and he challenges everybody. He doesn’t care who you are; he would challenge Champ [Bailey]. I think he’ll come after me, too, because he has in the past."

Roby, who was the Broncos' first-round pick in this past May’s draft, has been tossed into the mix from his first day in the Broncos complex. Right from Roby’s first day, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio told the rookie he would have to “earn his way," and that Roby shouldn’t be surprised if he couldn’t crack the rotation right way.

The Broncos also tested Roby early in training camp, with both offensive coordinator Adam Gase and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas having said they “picked on’’ Roby plenty in those early practices. It was all for the greater good, however, for both Roby and the defense.

Because even then Del Rio had high hopes for Roby in the defense and one of the most important things for a young defensive back to do in the NFL is bounce back from mistakes, to survive, with some semblance of confidence intact, when the league’s best behind center find where you are in the coverage.

“I think it’s always the way where you, as a young player, have to keep fighting in there," is how defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, a defensive captain, has put it. “Guys in this league are going to test you, every game. If you can’t keep coming back, they’ll keep coming after you."

“I want them to trust me," Roby said. “I always say I want to be one of the reasons we win the game."

Del Rio has moved Roby all over the formation and figures to do it again against the Chargers. Roby, who didn’t play much, or ever, in the slot at Ohio State, has been put there plenty by Del Rio. Del Rio has matched Roby up on the likes of Reggie Wayne, Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Crabtree while even adding Roby to the pass rush in recent weeks.

Roby has played on 78.8 percent of the team’s defensive snaps this season and is third on the team in passes defensed – behind only the starting cornerbacks, Harris and Aqib Talib.

“You can’t be frustrated with guys like Rivers, [Tom] Brady or Peyton [Manning]," Harris said. “You can’t get frustrated with those guys. They’re going to make some tough throws into some tight coverages and you’ve just got to line back up to the next play. I remember last year, Kayvon had some great coverage and [Rivers] was able to just fit the ball in. So you can’t be discouraged. We’re definitely going to make those throws a challenge. He’s going to have to make some perfect throws. … And whoever is out there with us will be ready."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos place-kicker Brandon McManus, who was held out of Tuesday’s practice because of a groin injury, practiced Wednesday and will kick in Thursday night’s game.

McManus’ injury is to his kicking leg and he has appeared on the Broncos’ injury report since Oct. 1. The Broncos had held McManus out of practice one day last week as well.

The Broncos traded a conditional draft pick to the New York Giants just before the regular season opened because Matt Prater was headed for a four-game suspension for violations of the league’s substance abuse policy. McManus was 3-of-3 on field goal attempts during Prater’s suspension. Since the injury, as well as since Prater’s release, Mcmanus is 3-of-4 with his miss coming from 53 yards.

On his 37 kickoffs this season, McManus has forced 28 touchbacks, the third most in the league behind only Indianapolis’ Pat McAfee and Baltimore’s Justin Tucker.

Running back Montee Ball (groin) again worked with the strength and conditioning staff, but did not participate in practice and was formally ruled out for Thursday’s game. The Broncos have at least some optimism Ball could practice next week on a limited basis if he continues his current progress.

Defensive back Omar Bolden (concussion) also was ruled out for the game. Linebacker Steven Johnson (ankle), who leads the team in special-teams tackles, was listed as questionable and the Broncos have optimism he’ll be able to play.

"I like the depth of our football team," Broncos coach John Fox said. "So we’ve got options we feel good about, but Stevie is still questionable for the game."
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.

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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.

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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.’’

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