AFC West: Demaryius Thomas

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In in the end, it’s the minds that matter.

Bill Belichick and Peyton Manning. Again.

Sunday will be the 23rd time, as either a head coach or defensive coordinator, Belichick has faced Manning. The 23rd time the matchup coach, the guy who has been more successful than most at taking away what you do best, has faced the matchup quarterback.

Former Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley has always said Manning works every play to the open guy. He doesn’t play favorites, that "if you’re the matchup, the open guy, you get the ball."

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick and Peyton Manning
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesBill Belichick said this week that Peyton Manning was the best quarterback he has ever faced as a coach.
Manning was asked this week if he thought deep down Belichick, who is 12-10 when facing Manning as a coordinator or head coach, might be tired of facing Manning after all these years.

"I don’t know. I can’t speak for that, but somebody was asking me if I ever see the schedule come out and say, 'boy, I wish we didn’t have to play them again,' but in reality they’re always winning the division, they’re always there, and so ... you’re going to play them," Manning said. "... The main reason we’ve played them so many times is because we’ve won the division the year before also. So it’s a challenging consequence of being a good team the year before, that’s what you want. You want to win the division, it gives you the chance to get in the playoffs, gives you the chance to win a world championship. That’s kind of your goal every year."

Through the years, Belichick, who is 10-5 against Manning with Tom Brady as his starting quarterback, has routinely chosen coverage over pressure with Manning. The Patriots have often filled the passing lanes with defenders dropping into coverage and hoped a four-, three- or sometimes even a two-man rush on a smattering of snaps can get there if Manning has to consistently go deeper into his progressions.

Last November, on a cold blustery night in Foxborough, Mass., Manning threw for 150 yards -- his lowest output of his record-setting 2013 season -- and was sacked twice as the Broncos chose to run the ball plenty against defensive sets with so many defenders off the line of scrimmage and in coverage. The Broncos ran for 280 yards, 224 of those from Knowshon Moreno. But in the end the Broncos could not protect a 24-0 lead, losing 34-31 in overtime.

Manning sees the same attention to detail in the Patriots' defense this time around, even with the Patriots missing Pro Bowl linebacker Jerod Mayo, who is now on injured reserve with a right knee injury suffered during an Oct. 12 victory in Buffalo. New England also played this past Sunday’s win against the Chicago Bears without defensive lineman Chandler Jones, who suffered a hip injury in the Patriots' Oct. 16 win against the New York Jets.

"That’s why Bill’s been so successful is they’ve done a tremendous job," Manning said. "They’ve taken a 'next-man-up' philosophy. They’ve lost some key components to their defense and plugged guys in and done a terrific job. They’re not giving up explosive plays. They’re high both in scoring offense and scoring defense, and part of that is pass rush. It’s just pass defense as a whole."

For Manning, it always means patience is a key. Belichick tends to try to take away a quarterback’s favorite routes, favorite receivers, and make him put the ball into the hands of others. That means the Patriots will try to limit the Broncos’ bread-and-butter crossing routes with plenty of attention given to receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas.

The make-somebody-else-beat-you philosophy usually makes someone else in the offense make the plays that make the difference. Last season it was Moreno, with a career night, who almost pushed the Broncos over the top.

In the AFC Championship Game, in Denver, this past January, the Patriots' secondary, especially after Aqib Talib left the game, wasn’t up to the challenge as Manning remained on schedule in his reads and finished with 400 yards passing, with 134 of those going to Demaryius Thomas. The Broncos believe they have enough depth, with Wes Welker and Emmanuel Sanders capable of 100-yard games -- Sanders has two this season, to go with a three-touchdown game -- if that's what it takes to end the Patriots long home winning streak (33 regular-season games in a row) against AFC opponents.

"When you’ve got Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, two first-ballot Hall of Famers in my eyes, those guys are definitely winners and going at home with the crowd and the environment, it’s definitely a tough place to play," said Sanders. "But at the same time, we’ve got to go out there. We’ve got to handle business. We’ve got to go out there and execute at a high level, we’ve got to be assignment-detailed, we’ve got to be physical."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- He has played in the two highest-scoring offenses in league history.

He's had a 16-catch game in his career and he's had more 100-catch seasons -- five -- than anyone who has caught passes in the league's history.

Yet as the Denver Broncos have rolled out to a 6-1 start, again with the league's highest-scoring offense, there are times when wide receiver Wes Welker's role has been almost ornamental. His 19 catches are his lowest total over the first seven games of a season since 2005. Back then Welker was a Miami Dolphins wide receiver who had 16 receptions over the first seven games -- a far cry from a key piece in the 2007 New England Patriots offense as well as the 2013 Broncos.

[+] EnlargeWelker
AP Photo/Jack DempseyIn five games this season, Wes Welker has just 19 receptions for 181 yards.
"Yeah it's definitely been different, for sure," Welker said. "Would I want the ball more? Yes. As long as we're winning games and we're being productive on offense and doing those things, I'm good with however we get that done. It's kind of strange being, I feel like, the weak link of our offense. If I'm the weak link, we're going to be OK."

The season has been a bumpy ride thus far for Welker. It started with a concussion in the preseason game against the Houston Texans, Welker's third concussion since last November, followed by a suspension for a violation of the league's policy on performance enhancing drugs. The suspension was initially for four games, but was reduced to two when the NFL and the NFL Players Association approved a new drug policy.

Others have stepped up this season. Julius Thomas had seven of his nine touchdown catches over the Broncos' first four games, Emmanuel Sanders had three 100-yard efforts in the first four games and Demaryius Thomas has four consecutive 100-yard games.

That, and the Broncos' desire to play out of a two-tight end set more often, have left Welker as a bit player at times. He had one catch, for 8 yards and a first down, in the Broncos' win over the New York Jets to go with two receptions for 5 yards in the win over the San Diego Chargers last week.

"Wes is far, far from the weak link in the offense," Sanders said. "The thing is, it could be anybody's day on any given Sunday. Wes just hasn't had his opportunity. But I remember when you guys were saying [Demaryius Thomas] was not being as productive and things of that sort, and I came out and I said, 'Look, Demaryius can go off in any game for 200 yards' and that next game, he went out for 200 yards. So that's the same thing with Wes. Wes can go out for three touchdowns and have a big game versus any opponent. I feel like it's going to click for him pretty soon."

Welker would likely like "pretty soon" to be this weekend. The Broncos (6-1) will face the New England Patriots (6-2), Welker's former team, on Sunday in Gillette Stadium. Welker's exit from New England was somewhat messy before he signed a two-year deal with the Broncos.

Of the four primary pass-catchers for the Broncos -- the two Thomases, Sanders and Welker -- Welker moves around the formation the least. Welker most often plays out of the slot, and Julius Thomas has been the preferred matchup in the middle of the field. And quarterback Peyton Manning meticulously throws to the coverage without forcing the ball to any of the receivers.

Demaryius Thomas has said "any week it could be your week," and Welker was asked this week if he believed Manning wanted to find a way to get him the ball more against the Patriots.

"Not necessarily; I don't want him to feel that way either," Welker said. "I just want him to go play his game and whoever's open is open and whenever we need to score touchdowns, that's the way I want it to be. I'm not going to put any pressure on him or anything else, [saying] 'Hey, I really need the ball because I'm playing my old team,' or anything like that. I just want to go out there and whatever we need to do to win the game, that's first and foremost for me. Hopefully I make some plays along the way, but however that happens is how it happens."

Last season Welker had four catches for 31 yards in the Broncos' regular-season loss to the Patriots (a Nov. 24 game the Broncos had led 24-0 at halftime) to go with four catches for 38 yards in the Broncos' win in the AFC Championship Game.

"I like the way Wes Welker works at football," Manning said. "He loves it, another football junkie, gym rat, whatever you want to call it that loves football, loves to work. You can't tell him, 'Hey, that's enough, we're going to stop.' He wants to do one more, one more, one more."

Welker said he feels more "comfortable" going back to play against New England this time around and that "I'm just so excited about the opportunity and a big game like this."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – With the kind of speed that would make any overnight delivery service proud, the football Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning threw to Demaryius Thomas on Sunday night for Manning’s 509th career touchdown pass is on display in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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

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

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

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

49ers vs. Broncos preview

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
8:00
AM ET

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.

videoEAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In the end the Denver Broncos will take a win, but could do without the pile of flags that came with it Sunday.

The Broncos finished with 11 penalties for 101 yards in the 31-17 victory over the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium. It is already the second time in five outings this season the Broncos have finished with 11 penalties in a game, a total that a team that prides itself on precision will need to address.

“We had a couple penalties we shouldn’t have had, or maybe a few penalties we shouldn’t have had -- too many penalties’’ said wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. “We just have to clean that up.’’

The totals were lopsided to be sure -- the Jets were penalized just twice for 9 yards in the game -- and Broncos head coach John Fox said following the game he doesn’t expect to agree with all of the flags that were thrown, but the mistakes still marred the Broncos’ effort overall, especially on offense.

The Broncos were flagged seven times on offense (two were declined) as four of the Broncos’ starting five offensive linemen were assessed fouls in the game.

“When we did execute, we moved the ball and scored touchdowns, but there were too many series when we had just some mistakes that made it tough to move the ball against a good defense,’’ Manning said. “When we had those penalties, first-and-20, second-and-20, they didn’t care if you ran the ball because they were going to stop you. First and second down production is key against those guys and I thought overall we were just average.’’

The Broncos let a quality scoring chance slip away in the second quarter when, after recovering a fumble by rookie punt returner Walt Powell and taking over on the Jets’ 43-yard line, left tackle Ryan Clady was flagged for holding on first down.

That led to a first-and-20 and the Broncos punted three plays later. The Broncos opened another drive in the third quarter with a first-down penalty -- a false start by guard Louis Vasquez -- and had an illegal motion penalty on Julius Thomas on the same drive.

In the fourth quarter, the Broncos opened a drive from their own 6-yard line while trying to protect a 7-point lead with just over six minutes left in the game. Guard Orlando Franklin had a false start that pushed the ball back to the 3-yard line and the Broncos punted again.

“First-and-20s, second-and-20s, those are tough to overcome,’’ Manning said. “We’ve got to fix that quickly.’’
ENGLEWOOD, Colo -- A week ago the Denver Broncos believed wide receiver Demaryius Thomas had shaken himself loose from an early season struggle. They could see his work in practice, see the explosiveness, the trademark catch-and-run efforts.

Then last Sunday, in a 41-20 victory against the Arizona Cardinals, everyone saw the proof. Thomas had a career-best 226 yards on his eight receptions to go with two touchdowns. Now, with another week of practices in the books, both the Broncos and Thomas believe that was just a good start.

"I am not going to say it’s easier," Thomas said. "It’s a little different to finally go out and make plays and to do what I think I can do, go out and make plays for my team, big plays. The first three weeks I wasn’t doing that, so it was in the back of my mind and I was still beating myself up, and now after the bye week just go out and play and forget whatever happened that play and don’t worry about it."

[+] EnlargeDemaryius Thomas, Rashad Johnson
AP Photo/Jack DempseyThe Broncos believe Demaryius Thomas is back on track after a big game against Arizona.
If this season’s form holds true, there is potential for Thomas, or perhaps Emmanuel Sanders, Wes Welker or Julius Thomas, to put up some double-take numbers this week as well. New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan likes to roll the dice on defense, he likes to be aggressive and take some chances to get to the opposing quarterback.

Though the Jets are playing more zone coverages than they have in the past when Ryan had cornerbacks like Darrelle Revis or Antonio Cromartie, the Jets still load the line of scrimmage and gamble that they can get to the quarterback before the quarterback can find any room to throw downfield.

However, these Jets (1-4) have had mixed results with all of that thus far. They are tied for the league lead in sacks (17), but they have also surrendered some big receiving days along the way. The Packers' Jordy Nelson (209 yards), the Bears' Alshon Jeffery (105 yards) and the Lions' Golden Tate (116 yards) all topped the 100-yard mark in Jets losses over the past four weeks.

And opposing tight ends have caught five touchdown passes in the Jets’ four losses combined, including two by the Chargers’ Antonio Gates last Sunday. And the Broncos array of playmakers might present the Jets with a far more difficult task sideline-to-sideline, because Demaryius Thomas, despite some uncharacteristic drops in the first three games, is still tied for seventh in the league in yards per catch (17.5), Sanders is tied for ninth in catches (32), and Julius Thomas leads the NFL in touchdown receptions (seven).

It’s something Ryan covered this week when he said: "This (Demaryius) Thomas kid might be as good a receiver as there is in the league, and by the way you’ve got the best slot receiver in Welker ... The good news is this (Julius) Thomas kid has only got 19 touchdowns since last season. Really a group that’s struggling. It’s a joke, they’re loaded offensively."

Demaryius Thomas is the linchpin, however. The Cardinals tried to play him, ironically with the former Jet Cromartie, in man coverage. And after what Demaryius Thomas did to the Cardinals, any other defense would be hard-pressed to try it again without the best of the best at cornerback, because the Broncos see their Alpha receiver locked in, ready for more.

"You could tell he was kind of tired of not feeling like he was playing like himself," said Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase. "(I) think he just shut everything out and just played ball."

"When he’s doing what he can do, that’s tough for any defense," Sanders said. "We have a lot of guys who can make plays with one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. So when (Demaryius) has it going, people can’t cover him with one guy, or if they do it’s a long day."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – When all was said and done as the Denver Broncos’ football decision-makers worked through their offseason plan earlier this year, the team essentially traded one wide receiver for another when they re-tooled parts of the roster.

And back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons or not, the Broncos never made Eric Decker an offer last March, so Decker moved on to sign a five-year, $36.5 million deal with the New York Jets that included $15 million in guaranteed money.

[+] EnlargeEric Decker
Al Pereira/New York Jets/Getty ImagesEric Decker has seen his production slip with the Jets, who are 28th in the NFL in total passing yards.
Instead the Broncos looked around, then reeled in Emmanuel Sanders, whom they considered a more versatile receiver for their offense, with a three-year, $15 million deal that included $6 million guaranteed.

Both players will be on the same field this Sunday at MetLife Stadium as Decker is slated to return to the lineup for the Jets after missing last week’s game in San Diego with a hamstring injury.

"When I was drafted out there, I felt like it was a place I could play a lot of my career," Decker said Wednesday. "I understand the business side of it -- it’s a two-way street. … I knew I wasn’t going to get signed back before that time, I kind of knew what direction they wanted to go in. I’ve got all the respect in the world for John Elway and that organization and what they’re doing. Obviously they made good choices and I wouldn’t say I’m frustrated or mad that they didn’t [re-sign him], but I would say I definitely enjoyed my time out there."

"I was sorry to see him go," Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said. "The business part of the NFL is the worst side of it. You like to keep every single player or play with every single teammate your entire career but it’s not like college. There is a small window and guys move on. I was happy for him with how he was rewarded by the Jets."

Decker’s hamstring has been a lingering problem and couple that with the Jets’ issues at quarterback as well as on offense as a whole – New York is 28th in the league in passing yards – Decker has 14 catches, no plays longer than 29 yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile, Sanders is sixth in the league in both receptions and yards receiving -- he’s played one fewer game than the five players with more in each of those categories. Sanders has often said the Broncos' offense is "wide receiver heaven."

"Obviously he’s having a lot of success and I assumed he would," Decker said. "It’s hard not to with a quarterback like Peyton Manning."

Like Demaryius Thomas, who was one of the Broncos’ first-round picks in the 2010 draft, the same year the Broncos selected Decker in the third round, Decker flourished with Manning’s arrival in 2012. Decker had 24 touchdown receptions combined in the 2012 and ’13 seasons.

But even with all of that production there were times when the Broncos believed Decker was stymied at the line of scrimmage by the more aggressive defensive backs the team faced, particularly in a one-catch performance during a 35-point loss in the Super Bowl this past February. One of Sanders’ chief attractions for the Broncos was his ability to consistently get a free release at the snap.

Sanders also plays both in the slot and outside, while the Broncos primarily saw the bigger Decker in exclusively an outside role.

"I knew making the change was going to be different," Decker said. "We weren’t going to be, or all of a sudden become, a power-passing team. I knew what the philosophy was here, I knew the challenges we have. Right now we haven’t played consistently, we haven’t done enough to win ballgames."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – A somewhat beleaguered voice, the one belonging to New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan, took a few moments to recite what he believes awaits his struggling defense Sunday when the Denver Broncos arrive at MetLife Stadium.

Ryan, asked about what he sees in Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning since Manning’s return to the field in 2012 following his fourth next surgery, said in a conference call Wednesday;

Ryan
Manning
“I don’t see a difference. I just see one of the best, if not the best player in the league, like always. To say he’s a machine, he’s not a machine. The guy’s just awesome. He’s the best offensive coordinator in the league; he just happens to be playing quarterback, and a Hall of Fame quarterback at that."

And on the Broncos’ offense in general, Ryan offered, with tongue in cheek at times;

“This [Demaryius] Thomas kid might be as good a receiver as there is in the league and by the way you’ve got the best slot receiver in [Wes] Welker, [Emmanuel] Sanders is second in the league in catches. The good news is this [Julius] Thomas kid has only got 19 touchdowns since last season. Really a group that’s struggling. It’s a joke; they’re loaded offensively."

As an NFL defensive coordinator or head coach, Ryan has faced a Manning-led offense seven times. Manning is 5-2 as a starter in those games, though in one of the losses – in the 2009 regular season – then-Colts head coach Tony Dungy pulled Manning from a Week 16 game after one series in the third quarter against the Jets because they Colts had entered the game at 14-0 with their playoff seeding already determined. The Colts beat Ryan's Jets in the AFC divisional round four weeks later.

In their four losses, the Jets have surrendered at least 272 yards passing in three games, and opposing offenses have averaged 5.7, 4.1, 5.5 and 6.2 yards per play. In the last two Jets losses, Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford completed 70.6 percent of his passes and San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers completed 71.4 percent of his. They combined for five touchdown passes and one interception.

Denver Broncos Rewind: Offense

October, 7, 2014
Oct 7
3:00
PM ET
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There was a point in the Denver Broncos' 41-20 win over the Arizona Cardinals when things had simply gone into another-play, another-record rhythm.

Thomas
Thomas
Manning
Quarterback Peyton Manning set personal bests, wide receiver Demaryius Thomas set personal bests and the Broncos set some franchise bests. But as Thomas said following the game, “You’re always going to find some things to look at."

So, after a long look at the game video, here are some thoughts on the Broncos’ offense:
  • Often you can see both the lock-it-down, play-the-percentages approach of Nick Saban as well as Mike Martz's wild side in Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase’s play calling. The two coaches have been important mentors in Gase’s career. But against a Cardinals defense that came into the game No. 2 in fewest points allowed per game and in the league’s top five in total defense, Gase opened the game channeling Martz to be sure. On the Broncos’ first three snaps on offense they were in a four-wide-receiver, no-running-back set. On their first drive they emptied out the backfield four times. The Cardinals like to crowd the line of scrimmage, so Gase spread them out to force them into one-on-one situations in open space. No, the Broncos didn’t run the ball particularly well out of those open formations, especially in the first half. But in the end, 41 points and 568 yards are attention-grabbing numbers. In all, the Broncos ran eight plays with an empty backfield, or more than they had in their first three games combined.
  • There are habits and then there are ingrained habits after 17 years in the NFL. But on a first-and-10 from the Broncos' own 28-yard line with 4:56 remaining in the third quarter, quarterback Peyton Manning carried out the kind of precise play-action fake he always has in his career. However, this time the Broncos were in one of the empty sets, with running back Ronnie Hillman lined up in the left slot, so Manning simply faked a handoff to air. Cardinals linebacker Larry Foote did, albeit briefly, still take a look -- i.e. habits, ingrained -- before going to chase where the pass was headed. The play, set up to be a screen to Thomas, was finished when Cardinals defensive end Kareem Martin batted down the throw.
  • Amid all the offensive fireworks, it can be easy to lose track of some of the little things. But saying you stay mentally engaged and ready to go on the sideline in a game and actually doing it week to week, down to down, are two different things. But tight end Jacob Tamme makes it a point to be ready to roll. With just more than three minutes to play in the third quarter, the Broncos opened a possession in a two-tight-end set (with tackle Paul Cornick playing as the second tight end). Julius Thomas had a 25-yard catch-and-run to get a first down and Thomas was then blocking on 2-yard run by Juwan Thompson on the following play. Thomas waved Tamme on to take a breather and Tamme, lined up in the right slot, immediately made a 17-yard reception for a first down and went to the sideline as Thomas and Virgil Green came in the game. “I’ve been in all the situations, I’ve started, been a backup, been a situational guy, played special teams," Tamme said. “I make it point to keep myself ready to go in at any moment because any moment can mean something."
  • Against two of the more physical defenses on the Broncos' schedule, both from NFC West teams, the Broncos have run 58 and 62 plays out of the shotgun (penalty snaps included) against the Seattle Seahawks and Cardinals, respectively, in the last two games. They have also run the ball out of the shotgun/pistol 12 and 21 times, respectively, in those two games with decidedly mixed results.
  • The Broncos, with wide receiver Wes Welker under a suspension for the first two games, showed more two-tight-end sets in their opening two games -- they ran just one play out of a three-wide-receiver formation in a Week 2 win over the Chiefs after having roughly a 50-50 split in the season opener. But over the last two games, they have begun, as they did last season, to lean more on the three-wide. They had 43 plays in three-wide in the overtime loss in Seattle, with 30 snaps in two tight end. They ran 63 plays in three-wide against the Cardinals, three with four wide receivers. The Cardinals did bring at least some of that on themselves by, sometimes with far too much bull-headedness, constantly challenging one of the greatest matchup quarterbacks in the league’s history with a steady diet of man coverage on the outside. Had the Cardinals adjusted as the Broncos continued to shred their defensive game plan, the Broncos may have felt more inclined to respond with some variety.
DENVER -- In the end, Demaryius Thomas wasn’t lost, nowhere to be found in the Denver Broncos offense.

It’s just Thomas wasn’t playing the way he thought he should be. So maybe don't call it comeback, but it's certainly spells some trouble for the defenses left on the Broncos' docket.

“I don’t think it’s a slump," Thomas said after the Broncos’ 41-20 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in Sports Authority Field at Mile High. “You have some bad games, you have some good ones. I can say I never had three like my first three, but to come back on a game like this, I think it helped me out and my team."

Thomas finished Sunday’s victory, which pushed the Broncos to 3-1 on the season, with a franchise record 226 yards on his eight receptions and scored two touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeDemaryius Thomas
AP Photo/Jack DempseyAny worries about a slow start from Demaryius Thomas were erased Sunday.
In fact, Thomas was just one penalty flag away from the sixth 300-yard receiving game in NFL history. A 77-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Peyton Manning to Thomas in the third quarter was wiped out because of offsetting penalties that included a chop-block penalty on Broncos tight end Julius Thomas.

Asked after the game if it had crossed his mind how close he came to a 300-yard game, Demaryius Thomas said: “Yeah, it already had. Only thing that matters to me is getting the win."

In the usual afterglow a three-touchdown win brings, Broncos players said they knew the game would take that form because they knew the Cardinals would choose to crowd the line of scrimmage to stop the Broncos from running the ball, that they would blitz Manning more than most teams and would rely on their cornerbacks to match up on the Broncos receivers.

The Cardinals also chose to match Patrick Peterson -- at least before Peterson left the game with an ankle injury -- on Emmanuel Sanders and put Antonio Cromartie on Thomas. That decision had even Cromartie a little rattled after the game.

“Everything we saw on film, they came out and did," Cromartie said. “… For me, it’s probably by far the worst game of my career. … There were opportunities when I fell. Playing against a receiver like him, you can’t get into situations where you fall. He got the best of me. … When you give up 238 damn yards to any damn receiver, that’s not your best day."

Thomas has been frank in assessing his play in the season’s early going. Because he was playing more in the slot during Wes Welker’s suspension -- which was reduced from four games to two when the NFL and NFL Players Association agreed to a new drug policy -- Thomas said he was thinking too much, letting the dropped passes get to him too often.

Thomas dropped four passes in the Broncos' first three games after dropping five all of last season. The day after the Broncos' loss in Seattle, and just before the team went on its bye week, Thomas went to the Broncos complex before the team’s meetings that day and caught 250 balls.

“I did challenge myself," Thomas said. “Every game I had drops -- and not like I am used to that -- so I came in and caught balls. Throughout the week, once we got back to practice, I tried to do a little more than what I usually do. I did that, and my team is behind me, my coaches are behind me, and they stayed on me."

Manning said he didn't put any extra pressure on Thomas.

“Somebody asked me, ‘Did y’all challenge Demaryius?’ Demaryius challenged himself during the bye week," Manning said. “He knew he wasn’t playing up to his capabilities. He has high goals and high standards, and for whatever reason, I think he’s been thinking a lot."

On Thomas’ 31-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter, he showed the array of skills that make him among the league’s elite at the position. After he caught the pass, he stiff-armed linebacker Larry Foote and ran away from the fleet Cardinals secondary on the way to the end zone.

Sunday’s victory was also a glimpse of what the Broncos offense can be as it moves forward this season. Sanders, who leads the team in catches (32) and receiving yards (435), doesn’t have a touchdown catch yet. Neither does Welker.

“My confidence has never failed," Thomas said. “I know I am able to go out and make big plays and able to have great games. It was just getting back and concentrating and not letting one play bother me."

Rapid Reaction: Denver Broncos

October, 5, 2014
Oct 5
7:27
PM ET

DENVER -- A few thoughts from the Denver Broncos41-20 win over the Arizona Cardinals at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

What it means: The Broncos have slugged it out with half of the NFC West in their first four games and now come away with an overtime loss in Seattle, where their defense began to show its real teeth, and Sunday’s win over the Cardinals, who came into the game as one of the league’s only two undefeated teams. The Broncos weren’t at their best on offense because of a run game that carved out little room for itself, but they continued to plow through a schedule that has included four teams that won at least 10 games in 2013 and sit at 3-1.

Stock watch: By his own admission, Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas didn’t play up to the standard he has set for himself over the Broncos’ first three games. Thomas had four drops in those games combined and didn’t have an outing with more than 62 yards. Sunday, however, was a far different matter as Thomas had 226 yards receiving and two touchdowns.

Miller time and time again: With each passing game, Broncos linebacker Von Miller continues to gain momentum toward finding the form of his 18.5-sack season in 2012. The Broncos have used Miller, who had ACL surgery this past January, more and more as the season has progressed. On Sunday, he was consistently in the face of Cardinals quarterbacks Drew Stanton and Logan Thomas. Miller had 1.5 sacks and it was a clean hit from Miller that knocked Stanton from the game with a concussion on the Cardinals’ third play from scrimmage in the second half. Miller, at his best, has the potential to take the Broncos' defense into the league's top five.

Game ball: Yes, Thomas certainly deserved one, Miller deserved one and Ronnie Hillman filled in admirably for an injured Montee Ball. But only one guy added another piece of league history to his already full career mantle as quarterback Peyton Manning threw his 500th career touchdown pass to close out the Broncos' opening drive. Manning and Brett Favre are the only players to reach the 500-TD plateau as Manning also threw for three more scores in the game, every bit of which was needed against the stubborn Cardinals.

What’s next: The Broncos take their pass-first show on the road against New York Jets' battered secondary. The Chargers, with an offensive playbook in part penned by former Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, piled up the points on the Jets Sunday, including two touchdowns by San Diego tight end Antonio Gates.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There are times when John Elway the football executive looks every bit like the go-for-it, take-the-risk-to-get-the-reward guy he was as a Hall of Fame quarterback.

And Friday, when the Denver Broncos released their Pro Bowl kicker, Matt Prater, was one of those times. Prater, who had served three games of a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, was poised to be reinstated on Monday.

[+] EnlargeMatt Prater
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesThe Denver Broncos released Matt Prater on Friday.
But Elway looked at the team’s salary-cap situation, the Broncos' long list of impending free agents, Prater's off-the-field trouble and the performance of Brandon McManus and made the call. The Broncos released a proven late-game performer at a position where late-game performers can decide the biggest games.

"I think part of it is evaluating Brandon," Broncos coach John Fox said following Friday's practice. "… But you take the leap of faith and a lot of personnel decisions. It's no different than any one we've made up to this point in our tenure."

It is a leap of faith for a team that considers itself in the Super Bowl conversation. Prater was a proven player, a guy who made 25 of 26 field goal attempts in the Broncos' 13-3 finish in 2013 and had made 51 of his career 54 attempts in the fourth quarter or overtime.

But Elway is a financial conservative, at least -- for the most part -- when it comes to the salary cap, yet he's a football daredevil as well. Elways doesn't like the Broncos dancing on the salary cap's edge, has consistently talked of keeping the roster stocked with youth and athleticism and that "I like to have the room to deal with all of the things that come along and keep us competitive over the long haul. I see a big part of my job as making sure we're two and three steps ahead in what we do."

But Elway is also the guy who, after signing a still-recovering Peyton Manning, said, "There is no Plan B."

The Broncos' actions show Friday's move has been in at least the back of their collective mind for some time. They didn't just sign any kicker to deal with Prater's suspension. No, they traded a conditional draft pick to the New York Giants in August to acquire McManus.

Given that McManus is now on the Broncos' roster in Week 5 of the season, the conditions of the pick kick in, and the Giants will now get a seventh-rounder from the Broncos in the 2015 draft.

For his part, McManus, at least given he hasn't yet faced a late-game situation with a win or a loss in the balance in the regular season or playoffs, believes he has essentially kicked with his job on the line with the Colts, Giants and Broncos over the past two seasons. It has prepared him for kicks when the clock nears 0:00.

"Going into the preseason the past two years, I wanted go in and compete and earn that job, so I knew I couldn’t miss any kicks," McManus said. "So I have full confidence with myself with the game on the line."

There is no question -- physically, McManus fits the job profile. His right leg is nuclear, and he has consistently made 59-yard field goals in warm-ups. Several Broncos players, including punter/holder Britton Colquitt, said Friday that McManus has had many days when he hasn't missed in practice. But practice is practice and a far different endeavor than kicking into the wind/rain/snow/knee-buckling pressure for a regular-season win, a playoff spot or title on the line.

Privately, the Broncos believed Prater was not at his best in training camp with the suspension hanging over him. Given that, as well as the fact he is subject to increased testing in the league's substance-abuse policy because of the suspension and a 2011 DUI charge that could result in an indefinite suspension with another positive test, the Broncos have taken a chance.

There is also the matter of money, as is always the case in any football decision or otherwise. Prater's cap figure was originally $3.107 million for this season, but the Broncos will save $2.294 million off the cap this year and $3.25 million off their 2015 salary cap.

The list of impending free agents for the Broncos is also a who's who on the depth chart. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, tight end Julius Thomas, wide receiver Wes Welker, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, tackle Orlando Franklin and safety Rahim Moore are just some of the players poised for the open market following whatever becomes of the season.

Colquitt said McManus has "big shoes to fill," but just as the Broncos once didn't really know what they had in Prater -- who had been cut by three different teams before he was signed by the Broncos in 2007 -- the Broncos hope they have again made the right call on an unproven kicker with potential.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos quietly reached a roster milestone for the 2014 season at the opening of Thursday's practice.

Trevathan
For the first time since the team opened training camp July 24, the Broncos had every player on the roster in uniform and participating in practice. Safety David Bruton Jr. (ankle) and guard Louis Vasquez (rib cage) were limited in Thursday’s work but did participate in most of the workout.

Because of injuries and excused absences, the Broncos had not had 100 percent participation for any full practice before Thursday. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas had missed the opening days of training camp because of a death in his family, and by the time he returned the team had a smattering of players suffer injuries that required them to miss time.

Linebacker Danny Trevathan also returned to practice last week after he had suffered a fracture on the top of his tibia in an Aug. 12 practice. Trevathan has practiced fully all week and is set to return to the lineup in his weakside position.

Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said Thursday that given Trevathan didn’t play in the preseason or in the Broncos’ first three games of the regular season, the linebacker’s snap count would likely be monitored.

“I think we’ll anticipate -- I’m not sure exactly -- but at some point we will spell him during the game and not count on him going out there playing 80 plays or whatever right away," Del Rio said.

Asked if he was really hoping the Broncos would play a defense-sapping 80 plays, Del Rio added, “Well, 45 would be fine."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Many defensive coordinators, frustrated at watching Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning shred their best-laid plans into small pieces through the seasons gone by, have stopped blitzing the 17th-year veteran all that much.

The feeling is, why bother if Manning is simply going to toss touchdowns before any of the rushers get close to him.

That is one of the reasons Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals will have some intrigue. Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles takes more risks in the pass rush than any of his peers.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesPeyton Manning typically doesn't see as many blitzes as other quarterbacks, but he's likely to see quite a few against the Cardinals.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, since he was hired in his current job in 2013, Bowles has had the Cardinals blitz more than any other defense in the league. In that timeframe, Bowles has brought pressure on 49 percent of opposing quarterbacks’ dropbacks.

The Houston Texans, at 44 percent since the start of the 2013 season, were a distant second.

The Cardinals have both feasted on, and lived with, the results, with the most interceptions as the result of the blitz (13) as well as surrendering the most touchdowns on blitz plays (22) in that span.

But a review of the Broncos game video shows the Broncos three opponents have not blitzed Manning often this season. He’s attempted just 28 passes against blitz pressure in the Broncos' three games, completing 15 (54 percent) with a touchdown.

Part of the issue is the Broncos have plenty of choices in the pass pattern, a point Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians referenced this week.

“John [Elway] has done a great job of putting weapons around [Manning]," Arians said. “He probably has the best weapons he’s ever had, aside from the couple of years with Dallas [Clark], Marvin [Harrison], Reggie [Wayne] and [Brandon] Stokley. Those guys [from the Broncos] are tremendous weapons to have around him … so the numbers don’t surprise me at all."

If the Broncos believe a defense wants to try some pressure packages against Manning, they often either line up in a two-tight end set to balance out the formation and push the edge rushers a little farther from Manning, or they open up the formation to spread out the defense and pick up the pace in their no-huddle look to keep the defense from substituting.

“Peyton, he’s hard to blitz because he’s seen everything," said wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. “We always feel like we have to be ready for it, and as a receiver, be aware if he needs to get you the ball fast."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – When the Denver Broncos were busy going about the business of revamping the league’s record book last season, quarterback Peyton Manning was ruthlessly efficient working the ball all over the field to an array of pass catchers.

It was the classic take-what-the-defense-gives-you approach, with the Broncos taking all they could and a little more as four different players had at least 10 touchdown receptions on the way to Manning's 55 scoring passes on the season. This time around, through their first three games, the Broncos’ offense has been dominant at times, sluggish at times and a little of both at times, even a little of both during the same possession. And something is still a little off.

[+] EnlargeDemaryius Thomas
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesDemaryius Thomas is off to a slow start compared to a season ago.

Offensive coordinator Adam Gase has said it, Manning has said it, that there have been good things, but at times the rhythm of what is an offense rooted in right-spot, work-fast timing has not been what they want.

Manning has worked the ball all over the field, to a variety of receivers, but there are some noticeable differences between how things have been spread around this year as compared to last season’s first three games.

Emmanuel Sanders, already on track for a career year, has been slightly busier in the first three games this year than Eric Decker was over the first three last year -- 33 targets for Sanders to go with 25 catches compared to 28 targets and 19 catches for Decker. Tight end Julius Thomas is on a similar pace as in '13. Last year he had 20 targets, 14 receptions and four touchdowns in the first three games. This year he has 17 targets, 14 receptions and five touchdowns.

The big differences this time around are with Demaryius Thomas’ output and Wes Welker’s as well. Welker, of course, was suspended for the first two games of the season and reinstated two games earlier than originally expected when a new drug policy was approved, so his work thus far consists of nine targets and six receptions against the Seahawks.

Last season, after three games, Welker had been targeted 27 times and had 19 catches and four touchdowns.

And then there’s Demaryius Thomas and at the moment, other than a run game with far too many negative plays, it is Thomas’ work in the offense that is among the biggest differences between what the Broncos have done in the early going this season as compared to last year’s assault on the record book.

While the 2013 season is not a fair gauge for the seasons that come after it given that the Broncos scored more points than any team in league history, Manning has still tried to get the ball to Demaryius Thomas this year at almost the same pace as last year.

Manning has targeted Demaryius Thomas 27 times in the first three games this year as compared to 28 times i ’13. But last year Dnemaryius Thomas turned those 28 targers into 20 catches and two touchdowns. This time around Thomas, with four drops, has 13 catches and one touchdown.

His 10.8 yards per catch is far lower than last year’s 15.5 yards per catch over the first three.

The gap this year between targets and catches -- a difference of 14 -- is an indication of Thomas’ drops, that perhaps he has had a sore left foot as well as Manning’s desire through it all to still get the ball to the team’s No. 1 receiver and shake things loose. And there's no reason to think those targets will go down since the belief is Thomas will find his groove soon.

It all means there’s room to grow for the Broncos in their passing game, that being 11th in scoring is fine, but not what they were looking for and they can, as offensive coordinator Adam Gase often says, “clean things up ... get things the way we want them.’’

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