AFC West: Denver Broncos

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – When they trimmed the roster to 53 players as the preseason drew to a close, the Denver Broncos understood there could very well be days like these because of it.

When the Broncos face the Miami Dolphins on Sunday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, the three available running backs figure to be three undrafted players who have been in uniform for 24 games combined in their careers.

“I guess I didn’t really think about it until now," said Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase with a smile when asked about the prospect earlier this week.

[+] EnlargeCJ Anderson
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesIn his second season, C.J. Anderson is suddenly the veteran running back on the Broncos roster.
Running back was already the youngest position group on the roster when the regular season began, as 23-year-old Ronnie Hillman was the most experienced running back, entering his third season. But with Hillman (left foot) and Montee Ball (right groin) now injured, the Broncos have second-year running back C.J. Anderson as their primary back, with rookies Juwan Thompson and Kapri Bibbs behind him on the depth chart.

Anderson, Thompson and Bibbs all arrived to the Broncos as undrafted rookies.

“I think, during the course of preparation, when you have injuries, you have a pretty good idea some guys aren’t going to play," said Broncos head coach John Fox. “You’re able to practice and prepare guys much better than, for instance, in a game when you have a tight end or a receiver go out, those guys are now playing with a whole lot of reps in preparation for that opponent. So those guys have practiced all week, got reps -- we have our test on Sunday."

The Broncos, from Fox to quarterback Peyton Manning to Gase, have all openly discussed the importance of running the ball with more consistency against the Dolphins on Sunday. The Broncos had just 10 rushing attempts, one of those a kneel-down by Manning just before halftime, in the 22-7 loss to the St. Louis Rams last Sunday.

Anderson had 163 total yards in the Broncos’ victory over the Oakland Raiders, a total that included a 51-yard catch-and-run reception when he made a one-handed catch and then broke several tackles for a game-changing score. Thompson has had 30 carries this season to go with three touchdowns.

Sunday figures to be the first game for Bibbs to be in uniform. He has been a gameday inactive for four games since being signed off the team’s practice squad on Oct. 20, but the Broncos like what he's done and Bibbs spent some time after Friday's practice talking to Manning.

“You feel good with C.J.," Gase said. “He’s shown the last couple of weeks what he can do and just him getting in the rotation has been eye-opening. We might have something good and you just don’t know because he hadn’t had an opportunity. He’s taken most of the opportunity he’s had and the rest of these guys it’s just going to be, ‘make sure I know who’s in the game and help them as much as possible,’ whether it be in the protection game or in the run game."

“All of the guys in the running back room are ready to play," Anderson said. “[Running backs coach Eric Studesville] gets us ready to play; he expects us to be ready."

For the most part, it isn’t carrying the ball in the Broncos offense that is the adjustment. It’s everything the backs have to do to earn the ability to carry the ball. It’s handling all of the audibles at the line of scrimmage in what is primarily a no-huddle offense and it’s getting it right in pass protection.

As Studesville has consistently said: “If you can’t do the right thing in pass protection, you can’t play … you don’t get to run the ball."

The Dolphins have an active defensive front – Miami is tied for fourth in the league with 30 sacks – and they blitz plenty to unsettle opposing quarterbacks.

“I would say the protections are a challenge, but at the end of the day, when they run the ball, it’s just natural instinct," Gase said. “So they just know once you give them the ball, they are just going to find the open hole and hit it. The good ones seem to develop quickly."

“Our job is to do the right thing when we’re in there," Anderson said. “We’re prepared to do that."

Dolphins vs. Broncos preview

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
video When: 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver TV: CBS

Earlier this month, the Denver Broncos (7-3) were poised to enter a stretch of three consecutive road games with their sights set squarely on the AFC’s No. 1 seed. After that road trip ended with a 1-2 record, including a surprising loss in St. Louis this past Sunday, the Broncos are now in a scrap just to win their division.

The Miami Dolphins (6-4) come to Denver having won four of their last five games. They have surrendered 56 points in those five games combined. ESPN Dolphins reporter James Walker and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday’s game.

Legwold: James, Ryan Tannehill was a player the Broncos took a long look at leading up to the 2012 draft as they looked for a quarterback prospect to pair on the roster with Peyton Manning. What’s been the key for his improvement this year and how he’s handled things?

Walker: Tannehill is on pace for a career year. I’ve watched all 42 career starts, and this is the most decisive I’ve seen him with the football. His play speed is better and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has done a good job of accentuating what Tannehill does well and avoiding where he struggles. He’s posted four games with a triple-digit passer rating, including the most recent win over the Buffalo Bills. However, the Dolphins’ offense is getting away with a lot of short and intermediate passes, and I’m surprised defenses haven’t worked harder to take that away. The biggest issues with Tannehill are inconsistency and lack of a deep ball. These are areas that have haunted Tannehill for three seasons, and it doesn’t appear it will change anytime soon. Yet teams haven’t challenged Tannehill to consistently throw deep. I’m curious to see how Denver plays Tannehill.

The Broncos have lost two of three and both losses have come by a wide margin. What is the mood of the team heading into Sunday’s game?

Legwold: The mood from the Broncos players and coaches is, essentially, they got what they deserved in losses to the New England Patriots on Nov. 2 and to the St. Louis Rams this past Sunday. They've owned up to it and unveiled the usual vows to repair the mistakes. But perhaps most troubling, for a team that has designs on a Super Bowl trip, is they didn’t have a response after some early trouble in either of those losses. They simply didn’t show the kind of bounce-back capability on the road that any team is going to need if they want to go deep into the postseason. The Patriots had a 24-point second quarter filled with Broncos mistakes and the Rams went up 10-0 in the first quarter. In both cases, the Broncos were wobbly and stayed wobbly. They know they didn’t execute on offense. They let pressure get to Manning, and defensively the Broncos had moments, but never really slammed the door to get the team back in the game. And now with the Kansas City Chiefs at 7-3 as well –- the Broncos have a Week 2 win in hand, but go to Kansas City Nov. 30 –- the Broncos know every week matters as they pursue their fourth consecutive division title.

Keeping with one of the Broncos’ trouble spots of late, defenses have tried to rattle Manning in the middle of the formation. How aggressively do you think the Dolphins will rush Manning, and what’s that mean for Cameron Wake?

Walker: The Dolphins are definitely bringing the pressure. They’ve done that against every quarterback they’ve faced, whether it’s an elite talent such as Aaron Rodgers or a developmental rookie such as Blake Bortles. Manning’s constant audibles and adjustments at the line of scrimmage could provide reason for Miami’s defense not to dial up as many blitzes. But the team knows the best way to win is to get hits, sacks and pressures on Manning. Several players I spoke to were impressed with the way the Rams defended the Broncos’ offense last week. St. Louis provided a nice blueprint, especially with its defensive line. This will be a big game for Wake, Olivier Vernon, Jared Odrick and others on the defensive line to win those one-on-one matchups.

Miami’s pass protection has been an issue lately. What are your thoughts on the Dolphins’ offensive line pass protecting against the Broncos’ front seven?

Legwold: The Broncos are at their best in the pass rush when they move into a six-defensive back look -- a dime package that really plays more like the average five defensive back (nickel) package when safety T.J. Ward moves down and plays at a linebacker spot. They have speed all over the formation, with Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware moving around some. As a result, Miller is tied for fourth in the league with 10 sacks and Ware is tied for eighth with nine sacks. They use plenty of pre-snap movement, moving players toward and away from the line of scrimmage, to give the quarterback some indecisiveness, and it’s been a productive personnel grouping. However, some teams have found ways to convert some long third downs; the Chiefs converted seven third downs on third-and-8 or more, while the 49ers and Chargers each converted three times at third-and-6 or more and the Rams converted two third-and-10 situations this past Sunday. Tannehill can extend plays and that will be an issue for the Broncos to consider. But at home they play fast on defense as Ware and Miller have repeatedly caved in the edges of the pocket.

Overall, the Dolphins have had plenty of drama over the last year –- the Broncos had Richie Incognito in for a workout last week -– how has coach Joe Philbin done in the swirl?

Walker: This was a major storyline in the offseason and throughout training camp. But at this point in late November, more than a year since Jonathan Martin left the team and Incognito’s subsequent suspension, the Dolphins have moved on from the fiasco. Miami made the right call to remove both players from its locker room in the offseason. The team didn’t re-sign Incognito and traded Martin to the San Francisco 49ers. That set the tone for a better locker room culture to develop. This year’s team is together, and I think winning six of 10 games has helped. In some ways, earning a playoff spot would validate the thought that they learned from the situation and became better for it.

Denver suffered a lot of injuries last week against the Rams. What’s the latest update on tight end Julius Thomas, receiver Emmanuel Sanders and tailback Montee Ball?

Legwold: That’s been the dark cloud hanging over this team this past week. Sanders, who has been one of the best free-agent signings in the league, is the team’s second-leading receiver with 67 catches to go with 954 yards. He’s now under the guidelines of the league’s concussion protocol, so the Broncos have to simply wait until he is cleared to return. Ball re-injured his right groin as he played just four snaps against the Rams, an injury that kept him out of the previous five games. He is expected to miss, at minimum, two to three weeks. And Thomas suffered a sprained ankle in the first quarter against the Rams. While Thomas’ injury wasn't nearly as serious as the team initially feared at the stadium Sunday, he has had ankle troubles before in his career and will be watched closely. His impact in the offense is no small matter. Thomas played just 13 snaps against the Rams and he still leads the league in touchdown receptions with 12, or at least two more than any other player.

The Broncos don’t have a fullback on the roster, so they can’t simply go to a two-back look to cover for some injuries. Tight end Virgil Green and running back Ronnie Hillman were out last week and Hillman is expected to miss additional time. That means young players such as C.J. Anderson and rookie Juwan Thompson have to be ready to be the guys at running back and rookie wide receiver Cody Latimer should get some snaps in the offense as well.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Used to digging in and standing up to what’s in front of them, the Denver Broncos' beleaguered offensive line has now dug in to fend off a wave of critiques that has gotten bigger with each passing week.

While the group admits there’s work to be done, they aren’t necessarily putting a lot of stock in what’s being said outside the walls of the team’s complex.

“Definitely, it’s a work in progress," guard Manny Ramirez said. “I understand a lot of people are talking outside of here, but we can’t allow ourselves to worry about that type of stuff. We’ve just got to make sure we stick together and continue to put our heads down and continue to grind and be able to with whatever we’re given."

[+] EnlargeManning
Joe Amon/Getty ImagesPeyton Manning has been under pressure the last three weeks, and the flow of the Denver offense has been disrupted.
In their recent three-game stretch, the Broncos have gone 1-2 and quarterback Peyton Manning has thrown two interceptions in each of the last three games. And while Manning has been able to avoid sacks much of the time, the Patriots, Raiders and Rams were able to get pressure on Manning and affect his ability to step up in the pocket and into his throws.

The Broncos’ sack total is still the lowest in the league for quarterbacks who have started every game, but the increased pressure, especially in the middle of the formation, has resulted in batted passes, interceptions and some choppiness in the offense. The Broncos have also had 37 rushing attempts this season for either no gain or negative yardage.

“If we go, the team goes, we definitely need to improve," left tackle Ryan Clady said. “We had a bad week (against the Rams). I think we’ll get better and we’ll get it back on track."

The Broncos have made four changes in the offensive line in recent weeks, with Paul Cornick replacing Chris Clark at right tackle before being replaced two games ago. Louis Vasquez was then moved to right tackle, Ramirez to right guard, and Will Montgomery was put into the lineup at center.

Those three have played those spots for the last two games. Vasquez has also dealt with some back/neck issues while Clady has been slowed by a groin injury, impacting his ability to move in recent weeks. Clady said his surgically repaired foot -- he spent most of the 2013 season on injured reserve -- felt better this week than it has all season.

In search of a successful organization, the Broncos worked out Richie Incognito, a key figure in the Miami Dolphins’ bullying scandal.

“We’ve just got to continue working hard at it," guard Orlando Franklin said. “Continue trying to create chemistry, because here’s the thing, you don’t just chemistry in two weeks in the offensive line. It’s not going to be like that ... we understand we do need to get better, we understand our team is relying on us, for us to get better and we will get better."

ESPN analyst Mark Schlereth, a former Denver guard, blasted the Broncos' line play on a radio appearance in Denver this week, using words such as “horrendous" and “horrible" to describe what he had seen thus far.

Schlereth said “an F would be kind."

The Broncos linemen, who have seen Schlereth at the team’s complex from time to time, said they were trying to tune it all out.

“I care what my teammates think, each and every one of my teammates think," Franklin said. “...We’re going to care what our coaches think, what everybody in this organization thinks, but outside noise, we’re not going to be listening to that. If the Broncos were 16-0 there would still be issues, people are still going to critique our performance ... It’s the NFL, it’s the life that were living, it’s the business that we’re in."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Will they? Or won’t they?

When it comes to running the ball out of what has been the league’s most prolific passing offense over the past three seasons -- 122 touchdown passes for Peyton Manning in the past 42 regular-season games -- the Denver Broncos have often been, at least some of the time, about semantics.

Instead of raw data, yards per carry, rushing attempts per game, words like "efficiency" and "positive gains" have been sprinkled in and around the descriptions of what is hoped for when Manning hands the ball to a running back. But that was before the 22-9 loss in St. Louis when the Broncos ran the ball just 10 times and one of those "attempts" was a kneel-down by Manning just before halftime.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/Bill KostrounDenver coach John Fox says the sight of Peyton Manning handing the ball to a running back needs to happen more often in coming weeks.
The fact it happened not only in a loss, but in a game the Broncos trailed by just nine points when the fourth quarter began, caused Broncos head coach John Fox to re-assess this week and say; "There’s no doubt to be the kind of team we want to be, we have to run the ball more. There’s a mindset, mentality, whether you’re on defense trying to stop the run and whether you’re on offense running the football ... Right now it’s something we have to do more, we have to execute better."

And that is the rub, because not only is running the ball more a commitment in play-calling, it is Manning who has the last word on any play before the snap. Manning, because of who he is, can check into, and out of, any play he wishes.

Sunday, in a game the Broncos trailed by six at halftime, and by nine at the end of the third quarter, the Broncos’ last 28 plays from scrimmage were called pass plays. C.J. Anderson had the last rushing attempt in the game for the Broncos, a 3-yard gain with just over seven minutes remaining in the third quarter.

"In my opinion we lost that game because I didn’t play well enough in the passing game," Manning said. "Did we throw it a lot? Yes, we did. There were plays to be made and I didn’t make them."

On what the proper balance between run and pass is in an offense built to be the best at throwing it around in unprecedented pass-happy times, Manning said it isn’t about percentages, but rather purpose.

"No matter how many times you run it or throw it, you have to produce when you do it," Manning said. "So, that’s what I’m disappointed about -- I didn’t execute the plays that were called, the way they were supposed to (be)."

But Manning also tossed out; "We might be an old-school running game this week, be alert for that."

Defenses have dropped plenty of players into coverage, with lighter personnel groupings on the field to chase around the Broncos receivers. That combination would seem to allow the Broncos to pound away if they chose.

But the Broncos have also had difficulty consistently winning the line of scrimmage. The Broncos, who are one of just seven teams in the league with fewer than 245 carries entering this week’s games, have had 37 runs go for no gain or negative yardage.

That is 15 percent of their rushing attempts that haven’t made it past the line of scrimmage.

The Dolphins are eighth in the league against the run -- 94.5 rushing yards allowed per game -- and seventh-best in the league, allowing just 3.83 yards per rushing attempt. Miami is also tied for third in sacks, and has seen the past three Broncos’ opponents affect Manning’s ability to deliver the ball when he wants. Opponents have been folding in the edges of the Broncos’ pass protection and pushing the middle to keep Manning from striding into his throws.

"I just know when they hand it to us as running backs, call our number, we want to make a play that helps us," said Anderson. "Any time they ask us to go, we need to go. I’m just concentrating on being ready to do my job as many times as they need me to do it."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders were on the practice field for the team Wednesday, but only as spectators.

Thomas, who suffered a sprained left ankle in Sunday’s loss to the St. Louis Rams, and Sanders, who suffered a concussion, were among the Broncos players who did not take part in Wednesday’s practice. Thomas went through stretching with the team but did not take part in drills.

Thomas' current injury is not to the ankle that was surgically repaired in 2012 -- he had right ankle surgery in the months leading up to the 2012 season.

Sanders, dressed in sweats, came onto the field after practice had begun. Sanders is currently under the guidelines of the league’s concussion protocol and must clear certain benchmarks to return to practice. He has not yet cleared those benchmarks.

Running backs Montee Ball (groin) and Ronnie Hillman (foot) also did not participate in Wednesday's practice. Ball and Hillman are not expected to practice this week or play in Sunday’s game against the Miami Dolphins.

Hillman could miss several additional weeks and Ball is expected to miss at least two to three weeks in his recovery. That makes C.J. Anderson the primary back at this point, with Juwan Thompson working in the rotation as well.

Tight end Virgil Green, who has missed the last three games with a calf injury, did practice Wednesday on a limited basis, while left tackle Ryan Clady (groin) and safety Quinton Carter (knee) were also limited.

Broncos need to run the ball

November, 19, 2014
Nov 19

ESPN Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold says the team must run and use play action to succeed on offense.

The Film Don't Lie: Broncos

November, 18, 2014
Nov 18
A weekly look at what the Denver Broncos must fix:

As is always the case, “defending" Peyton Manning is a relative thing. Manning finished Sunday’s loss to the St. Louis Rams with 389 yards passing, his third-highest output of the season, but the Rams still felt good about their plan. They sacked Manning twice and knocked down 12 passes -- 22 percent of Manning’s attempts.

The Broncos worked out of a three-wide receiver look much of the time, as they often do and as the Rams expected. “Well, we knew for the most part, they were going to be in just the one personnel grouping," is how Rams coach Jeff Fisher put it. The Rams positioned themselves on defense to force the Broncos receivers to the outside as often as possible.

Others will try to follow suit in the coming weeks. The Broncos work plenty of option routes -- “two-way gos" as Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas often calls them -- in which, depending on the coverage, they see the receivers pick a break to the inside or outside.

The Rams tried as often as they could to give the Broncos receivers a coverage look that would make them cut to the outside. Those are throws defensive coaches believe Manning, in his post-surgical career with Broncos, doesn’t make with the accuracy he shows on throws in the middle of the field.

Combine that with the Rams' ability to create pressure in the middle of the formation and keep Manning from fully stepping up to drive the ball to the outside, and the Rams got the Broncos off track.

The Rams' strategy doesn’t work when defensive backs don’t play with discipline and doesn’t work if Manning has room to fully stride into the throw. The Rams played with discipline and didn't give Manning room, and the result was the Broncos' lowest point total since Manning signed with the team.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos sifted through the what-happened list from Sunday's 22-7 loss to the St. Louis Rams, there were plenty of numbers they didn't like, starting with the ones on the scoreboard.

But one of the other red-flag numerals was the team's rushing attempts against the Rams, as in just 10 for the entire game, one of those a kneel-down from quarterback Peyton Manning just before halftime. The Broncos finished with just 28 yards rushing and as a result held on to the ball for just 24 minutes, 10 seconds in the game.

It was the third game this season when the Broncos have finished with fewer than 50 yards rushing and the Broncos are 0-3 in those games, with road losses at Seattle, New England and Sunday's in St. Louis.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Anderson
Michael B. Thomas/Getty ImagesC.J. Anderson had nine of the Broncos 10 rushing attempts on Sunday.
"There's no doubt to be the kind of team we want to be, we have to run the ball more," said Broncos head coach John Fox. "There's a mindset, mentality, whether you're on defense trying to stop the run and whether you're on offense running the football … Right now it's something we have to do more, we have to execute better."

The 10 carries tied for the Broncos' lowest total since the start of the 1981 season -- two years before the team traded for uber quarterback prospect John Elway. The Broncos had 11 rushing attempts against the San Diego Chargers last season -- the previous low since quarterback Peyton Manning signed with the team -- and the Broncos had 10 carries against the Chargers in the 2008 season finale, Mike Shanahan's last game as the team's head coach.

The Broncos are also one of seven teams in the league with fewer than 245 rushing attempts for the season and Denver is the only one of those seven teams with a winning record -- the other six teams have a combined 13-47 record, a list that includes the 0-10 Oakland Raiders as well as the Tennessee Titans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, both 2-8.

"Yeah, that's Coach Fox," said running back C.J. Anderson. "He's emphasized the run and our coaches of course are going to go upstairs and do the best thing they can do to make the run game go and part of it is on me, too. When I get the ball in my hands, I have to make sure I see the right things and see the right holes and see the right cuts and just continue to hit the spots I know I can hit and continue to make the runs I know I can run and get this run game going."

The Broncos, because of their ability in the passing game and the number of times they line up in three-wide receiver sets, often face smaller personnel groupings from opposing defenses. That scenario would seem to favor some run plays.

But the Broncos have sported injuries at running back all season -- Montee Ball (groin) and Ronnie Hillman (foot) are both sidelined at the moment -- to go with plenty of inconsistency in the offensive line. The Broncos have already made four changes in the offensive line.

The Broncos offense is at its best when Manning can use play-action in the passing game and he can't make an effective use of play-action if the Broncos don't run the ball enough, with enough efficiency, to give defenses any reason to honor the fake when Manning tries.

Manning threw the ball 54 times and the Broncos called pass plays on the last 27 plays from scrimmage in Sunday's loss. "When you throw 54, 50-something times, that's probably not the ideal scenario that you want to take place coming into the game," Manning said.

In the end, the Broncos expect, and need more, from the offense when Manning isn't throwing the ball.

"I'm the type of player that whatever's called you have to go out there and execute," Anderson said. "Whether it's 90 passes and one run, you have to go out there and execute. At the end of the day we have to play our best where were capable to play at and we'll get the results we want."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos went through their day-after medical evaluations Monday for three high-profile players who left Sunday's 22-9 loss in St. Louis with injuries.

The Broncos were optimistic tight end Julius Thomas' ankle injury wasn't quite as serious as originally feared Sunday night, they were in a wait-and-see mode on a timetable for running back Montee Ball's groin injury and as far as Emmanuel Sanders' concussion, well Sanders took to Twitter on that one.

Sanders, who was knocked out of the game in the third quarter when he dove for a Peyton Manning pass and was hit by Rams safety Rodney McLeod when the ball arrived, discovered someone had briefly doctored his Wikipedia bio to say Sanders had suffered a fatal injury on the hit.

Sanders took to Twitter Monday:

Sanders is currently under the guidelines of the league's concussion protocol and will be evaluated by the Broncos' medical staff as well as an independent physician before he returns to practice. His Wikipedia bio, which no longer includes a reference to the hit in the Rams game, does carry a notation at the bottom that it was last modified on Monday.

As far as Thomas' injury, Broncos head coach John Fox called it "an ankle sprain" and called Ball's injury "a groin strain."

Thomas said Monday "I'll be OK," and was walking around the Broncos locker room after position group meetings. Thomas said even Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome, he didn't think the injury was "season-ending."

Sunday was Ball's first game back in the lineup since he originally suffered the injury Oct. 5 against the Arizona Cardinals. He missed five games and last week was the first time he participated fully in practice since the injury as well.

Ball is a St. Louis-area native and said he had upward of 40 family members and friends in the stands. However, Ball was limping almost from his first play and ended playing just four snaps in the game.

Ball is expected to miss multiple weeks this time around as well. The Broncos are hopeful it could be as few as two or three weeks, but after Sunday will be careful in bringing him back.

Running back Ronnie Hillman suffered a foot sprain in the win over the Oakland Raiders a week ago and is still recovering as well. C.J. Anderson, Kapri Bibbs and Juwan Thompson are the three other backs on the 53-man roster, though the Broncos do have another back, third-year back Jeremy Stewart, on the practice squad.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Now it's the Denver Broncos' turn. They get to decide, by both will and deed, attitude and altitude, if Sunday’s 22-9 loss to the St. Louis Rams was just one of those days or the unveiling of a team not quite as good as it hoped to be.

“I think everybody in here will bounce back,’’ cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “ … It’s a long season, sometimes somebody is going to get you if you’re not all the way on. They played better than us, they deserved it, but sometimes those games happen. You don’t like it, but sometimes they do happen. Look around the league.’’

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/Tom GannamThe Broncos are just 2-3 on the road and have fallen back in the race for home field in the playoffs.
Take a spin around the league and those kind of what-happened games can be found, as can a variety of responses. For the 7-3 Kansas City Chiefs it was a 26-10 loss to the Tennessee Titans in the season opener. For the 7-3 Indianapolis Colts, take your pick, it was either a 51-34 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers to close out October or Sunday night’s 42-20 loss to the New England Patriots.

For the 6-3-1 Cincinnati Bengals, it’s also multiple choice with a 27-0 loss to the Colts, a 24-3 loss to the Browns or the 43-17 loss to the Patriots.

“This league is hard, everybody’s got players,’’ Harris Jr. said. “We didn’t handle our business and we got beat. Now we see how we respond, because we still have confidence in what we can do.’’

There are two rather vivid examples of those who handled what came next exactly how a playoff hopeful handles such things. For the 9-1 Cardinals the Broncos were one of those days – a 41-20 Denver victory Oct. 5 when Cardinals had No. 3 quarterback Logan Thomas go 1-of-8 when Drew Stanton was knocked out of the game -- but they haven't lost since.

And then there are the Patriots, who had all things questioned, including their quarterback Tom Brady, after a primetime 41-14 thrashing by the Chiefs on Sept. 29. They haven’t lost since. Much of the national conversation after that loss was that Brady was done, Bill Belichick was done, the last days of the dynasty were upon them. But the Patriots adjusted, they continued to ascend, they handled their business with six consecutive wins, including three of those wins over current division leaders in the Bengals, Broncos and Colts.

“It’s about getting back to work,’’ Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker said. “ … Nobody feels sorry for you or anything, so you get back to work.’’

The Broncos, who have already lost to the Patriots, are one game behind in the loss column as well in the race for the AFC’s homefield advantage. That might be key for a team that has been dominant at home -- 5-0, 34.6 points per game -- and not quite middle of the road on the road -- 2-3, 27.0 points per game.

“I don’t think concerned is the right word, frustrated is,’’ Broncos tight end Jacob Tamme said. “ … They outplayed us. I think we’re frustrated, we have to play better. We know we have a team good enough to do some really good things this year and get to the end goal.’’
ST. LOUIS -- When the Denver Broncos released kicker Matt Prater in early October and chose to stick with Brandon McManus, Prater was coming off a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy with a hefty contract in tow. The Broncos believed in McManus’ potential as a prospect.

"It's always a football decision," Broncos head coach John Fox said at the time, "what's going to give us the best chance, in our opinion … he's got great potential, he's a great young kicker.’’

The Broncos may still feel strongly about McManus’ potential over the long haul, but presently they are not letting him attempt kicks Prater would have been asked to make. In the 22-7 loss to the St. Louis Rams Sunday in the Edward Jones Dome, the Broncos passed up opportunities for 54- and 55-yard field-goal attempts indoors.

Following the game, Fox said he would have let McManus attempt kicks from as far away as the Rams’ 33-yard line. So after watching McManus warm up, the Broncos had capped his game-day range at 50 yards.

“We never got to that range,’’ Fox said following the game. “… I don’t know that was really the difference.’’

In the first instance, the Rams were holding a 3-0 lead and the Broncos had fourth down on the Rams’ 37-yard line. Instead of attempting a 54-yard field goal, they opted to go for it and did not convert. The Rams connected on a 63-yard touchdown play on the next snap to take a 10-0 lead.

In the second instance, on the Broncos’ first possession of the second half and with the Rams leading 13-7, the Broncos sent the punt team out with the ball on the Rams’ 38-yard line. Linebacker Lerentee McCray committed a false start penalty, which moved the ball back to the St. Louis 43-yard line. Britton Colquitt then punted 28 yards to the Rams’ 15-yard line.

“They practice and get paid too … this is the NFL, they played better than we did,’’ Fox said. “I think minus-2 [in turnover margin] is a reason you can write, I think our ineffectiveness on third down, you can write, I thought those were more factors than where we kicked or didn’t kick.’’

McManus missed a 53-yard attempt against the San Diego Chargers and hit the right upright for a miss from 41 yards against New England. He’s 3-of-5 on field goal attempts since Prater’s release.

The Broncos traded a conditional draft pick to the Giants -- it turned out to be a seventh-round pick in the 2015 draft -- for McManus in August when Prater’s suspension became official. Prater, with the suspension hanging over him, had a lukewarm training camp and missed two kicks in the preseason -- a 54-yarder and a 49-yarder.

McManus also missed two kicks in the preseason -- a 52-yarder and a 54-yarder against Dallas -- just two days after he'd joined the team following the trade with the Giants.

Prater's contract also affected the decision to release him. His cap figure was originally $3.107 million for this season, and the Broncos saved $2.294 million on the cap this year and $3.25 million on their 2015 salary cap, as well.

That was an issue for a team facing plenty of decisions in free agency following this season, as wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, tight end Julius Thomas, wide receiver Wes Welker, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, offensive lineman Orlando Franklin and safety Rahim Moore are among the players scheduled to become free agents.

ST. LOUIS -- There is a fine line between winning and losing.

That line, in the Denver Broncos' case, seems to be finding the right combination across their offensive front. The Broncos could not do it Sunday and, as a result, left the Edward Jones Dome with a rather unsightly 22-7 loss tagging along.

There were plenty of reasons for the unexpected thrashing. A defense that allowed its first 100-yard rushing game to an opposing running back, an offense that posted its lowest point total since the 2011 regular-season finale, and a lack of confidence in a kicker that was not allowed to attempt 55- and 54-yard field goals indoors were a few.

But over the past five games -- two of those losses -- the Broncos have made four changes on the offensive line, they have worked out Richie Incognito, a player known more for what he has done off the field than on it, and allowed far too many pass-rushers to get far too close to quarterback Peyton Manning.

"I thought the guys up front fought like crazy against a good rush," Manning said. "I’ve got to find a way to complete more of them and score more than seven points. Our defense held them to field goals and fought and gave us plenty of possessions and to only score seven points is very disappointing. … When you throw 54, 50-something times, that’s probably not the ideal scenario that you want to take place coming into the game. I think that plays into their strengths a little bit, but those are passes I’ve got to complete."

But the clock has been ticking on this for a while.

The San Francisco 49ers, without three of their Pro Bowl defenders (Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman), sacked Manning twice. The New England Patriots created pressure without adding too many additional rushers for most plays and had one of the three sacks of Manning this year from three-man rushes.

The Raiders got close enough on Manning’s front porch to deflect four passes and force two interceptions in the first half alone a week ago. And Sunday, the Rams consistently won the line of scrimmage with some well-timed coverage tweaks, a blitz here and there to go with a defensive front four that includes three former first-round draft picks in Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers and Aaron Donald.

"Those guys are talented," said John Elway, the Broncos' executive vice president of football operations/general manager. "Three of the four guys in the front are first-rounders, plus we let them tee off all day."

And the Broncos are discovering it is difficult to scheme your way out of inconsistent play up front. Defenses are attacking the middle of the formation to disrupt Manning’s ability to stride -- one that is slightly longer post-neck surgery and his throwing motion has become more lower-body driven -- into his throws.

On the edges, especially rushing from the defensive right into Manning’s face, teams have made a more pronounced effort to get their hands up to try to knock down the quick throws Manning makes to receivers crossing toward the middle of the field. And rushers aren't just getting to Manning, they're coming in clean.

In all it meant the Rams sacked Manning twice, hit him four times and knocked down 12 passes, a double-take worthy 22 percent of Manning’s attempts Sunday. The Broncos also ran the ball just nine times in the game and didn’t run the ball on any of their last 27 plays from scrimmage. The Broncos now have lost both games this season when Manning has attempted at least 50 passes.

As far as any additional changes or help being on the way on the offensive front, Elway said: "We’ll see how it goes, we’ll evaluate where we are."

"I give them a lot of credit, I thought they played really well at all three levels; their front, their linebackers, secondary," Manning said. "I thought we didn’t execute very well and just think I didn’t play very well, so you can usually kind of wrap it up into that."

Or wrap it into this: The Broncos are still a Super Bowl contender, but with a nagging question that needs an answer.
ST. LOUIS -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Denver Broncos' 22-7 loss to the St. Louis Rams in the Edward Jones Dome:
  • Sanders
    Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who left Sunday’s game in the third quarter because of a concussion, said he felt “OK" as he left the locker room. But Sanders is now under the league’s guidelines in the concussion protocol, so he will be evaluated by the Broncos' medical staff and an independent physician before he can return to practice or play in a game. Sanders finished with 102 yards on his five receptions and scored the team’s only touchdown on a 42-yard catch with 2 minutes, 22 seconds left in the second quarter. Quarterback Peyton Manning said: "I feel a part of that. I probably could have held the safety a little longer, keep him from getting a jump on that. Every pass you throw you feel responsible for. ... I hope he's OK. ... Any time a player gets injured on the end of one of your passes, my heart drops. ... He said was OK. I take that very seriously. I always have."
  • Running back Montee Ball, who was in uniform for the first time since he suffered a groin injury Oct. 5 against the Arizona Cardinals, looked like he might miss some additional time. He played just a handful of snaps, including two on the Broncos’ opening drive, before he limped off the field after being unable to reel in a high pass from Manning on a third-and-6 play on the Broncos’ second possession. Ball remained on the sideline, in uniform, for the remainder of the game. Asked if he felt like he did when he originally suffered the injury, Ball said, “It’s hard to tell, really. I’ll have to see when we get back and I get it checked out. We’ll have to see what the trainers, the doctors say."
  • Broncos coach John Fox said he would have let kicker Brandon McManus try a 50-yard field goal or closer in the game. Inside the Edward Jones Dome, the Broncos passed up a chance at what would have been a 54-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter. The Broncos went for it on fourth down instead. In the third quarter, the Broncos sent the punt team out instead of kicking a 55-yard attempt. “We never got to that range," Fox said of the 50-yard limit on the day. “... I don’t know that was really the difference." When the Broncos kept McManus and released Matt Prater last month, team officials, including Fox, said it was, in part, because of McManus' leg strength on kickoffs and ability to make longer field goal attempts. Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein made five field goals in the game, including from 55 and 53 yards in the fourth quarter.
  • The Broncos’ seven points was their lowest total since Manning signed with the team before the 2012 season. It ended the team’s regular-season streak of at least 20 points in a game that dated back to a 17-9 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs on Nov. 25, 2012. It also ended Manning’s 15-game streak of at least two touchdown passes in a game. The Broncos made no trips inside the Rams’ 20-yard line. They did not run a play inside the Rams’ 28-yard line in the game. “I felt like we had some good red zone plays, but I’m not sure we got to call any red zone plays," Manning said.

Rapid Reaction: Denver Broncos

November, 16, 2014
Nov 16

ST. LOUIS -- A few thoughts from the Denver Broncos' 22-7 loss to the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome on Sunday.

What it means: The Broncos have slugged it out with all four NFC West teams, and they looked like a different team at home compared to on the road. At home, the Broncos overwhelmed the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers -- they outscored those two teams 83-37 -- but on the road the Broncos were outmuscled by the Seahawks in Week 3 and the Rams on Sunday. The Broncos are now 2-3 on the road, with their wins coming against a Jets team that had one win at the time the Broncos played them and a winless Raiders team.

Stock watch: There are times when the Broncos' defense looks exactly like a championship defense -- hard-nosed against the run, stingy against the pass and opportunistic all-around. But on a day when injuries carved out some issues on the Broncos' depth chart on the offensive side of the ball, the Broncos needed their defense to put, and keep, the Rams on their heels. Instead, the Rams played at their own pace -- St. Louis held the ball for 18 minutes, 46 seconds in the first half, 27:10 by the end of the third quarter -- and the Broncos never forced a momentum-snatching turnover.

Wait and see: The Broncos’ high-flying offense has plenty of impact players, but tight end Julius Thomas left Sunday’s game in the first quarter with an ankle injury and Emmanuel Sanders left in the third quarter with a concussion. That’s 19 touchdowns this season -- including Sanders’ against the Rams in the second quarter -- that will potentially be out of the lineup. Sanders is now under the guidelines of the league’s concussion protocol, so he will have to meet certain standards before he can return to practice. Thomas will be evaluated more -- including an expected MRI -- on Monday morning.

Game ball: With the Rams paying particular attention to Demaryius Thomas, and Julius Thomas out of the game with an ankle injury, Sanders continues to show he has No. 1 skills in this offense. Sanders had five receptions for 102 yards, including a 42-yard catch for a touchdown with 2:22 left in the first half. If Sanders misses time with his concussion, the Broncos are going to need rookie Cody Latimer to be ready to contribute and Andre Caldwell to produce in the team’s three-wide set.

What’s next: The Broncos’ continued issues in pass protection need to get ironed out. The Miami Dolphins, much like the Rams, can get in a quarterback’s wheelhouse and stay there. The Dolphins, after their win over the Buffalo Bills on Thursday night, have 30 sacks in 10 games, and Cameron Wake has 8.5 of those. Wake is quick off the ball and just the kind of second-effort rusher who has given the Broncos trouble this season.
ST. LOUIS -- Denver Broncos safety Quinton Carter, who was added to the injury report Saturday because of illness, will be in uniform Sunday against the St. Louis Rams and expected to take his usual allotment of snaps in the team’s specialty packages on defense.

The Broncos had no surprises among their game-day inactives, as running back Ronnie Hillman (foot) was among them. Hillman suffered his injury in last Sunday’s victory over the Oakland Raiders and is expected to miss at least two to three weeks.

C.J. Anderson worked as the No. 1 back all week in practice -- he had 163 total yards against the Raiders -- and will start against the Rams. Montee Ball, a St. Louis-area native, is in uniform and will get some carries in the rotation.

It is Ball’s first game since he suffered a right groin injury Oct. 5 against the Arizona Cardinals.

The Broncos other inactives: wide receiver Cody Latimer, cornerback Tony Carter, running back Kapri Bibbs, linebacker Todd Davis, tackle Michael Schofield and tight end Virgil Green.

The Broncos claimed Davis off waivers this week and he joined the team Saturday in St. Louis.