AFC West: Emmanuel Sanders

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders was sent home Saturday from the team’s complex because he suffered from what head coach John Fox called "flu-like symptoms."

Sanders did not participate in the team’s practice and was officially listed as questionable for Monday night’s game against the Bengals. However, Fox said Sanders will make the Sunday afternoon trip to Cincinnati with the Broncos and is expected to play in the game.

Sanders is the team’s second-leading receiver with 89 catches and 1,261 yards.

Quarterback Peyton Manning was limited in Saturday’s practice because of a right thigh injury he suffered in this past weekend's win against San Diego, and also listed as questionable. However, Manning, too, is expected to start. He threw in drills during the workout after participating in the team’s walk-through.

Other than when he missed the 2011 season following spinal-fusion surgery, Manning has not missed a start in his 16 other NFL seasons. Asked about Manning’s workload in Saturday’s practice, Fox said:

"(It was) fairly normal to the rest of the season ... He looked good in practice."

Manning also participated in the walk-through and threw in individual drills Friday. On Thursday, Manning participated in the Broncos’ walk-through, went through the team stretch and then went back into the Broncos’ complex to get treatment.

Manning, who played Sunday’s game with flu-like symptoms after getting four IVs Saturday night and Sunday morning combined, injured his thigh when he rolled out right to throw a 12-yard completion to Sanders with 5 minutes, 39 seconds remaining in the first half.

Manning stayed in the game for the next eight plays, but left the field following a C.J. Anderson run for no gain on a third-and-goal from the Chargers’ 1-yard line. Brock Osweiler finished out the first half before Manning played the entire second half.

Also Saturday, linebacker Brandon Marshall (left foot) and tackle Paul Cornick (toe on right foot) did not practice and will not play Monday night. Marshall is the Broncos’ leading tackler.

Running back Juwan Thompson (hip, knee), running back Ronnie Hillman (left foot), left tackle Ryan Clady (right thigh), and cornerback Kayvon Webster (right shoulder) were also limited in Saturday’s practice and officially listed as questionable for the game. Clady is expected to start at left tackle, and Thompson and Hillman are expected to be available to play.

Hillman has not played since he suffered his injury Nov. 9 against the Oakland Raiders.

Center Will Montgomery (knee) and tight end Jacob Tamme (ribs) participated fully Saturday and will play. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (right ankle), Anderson (left ankle), and tight end Julius Thomas (left ankle) all took part fully in Saturday’s practice as well and will play.
SAN DIEGO -- It was close, as in rough night, bad morning, caught some kind of renegade germ close.

But Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said following the team’s 22-10 victory over the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium, that he had to think long and hard about playing on Sunday.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/Denis PoroyPeyton Manning made his 46th straight start for the Broncos despite falling ill on Saturday night.
"I had a rough night, I’m not gonna lie," Manning said. "It was not an enjoyable night. I don’t know what happened, it just kind of came out of nowhere. ... Obviously, you can play just to play, to be out there to start.

“I take a pretty honest assessment of myself, can I perform? Am I going to hurt the team? I have zero selfishness when it comes to I have to be out there. ... I was counting on [offensive coordinator Adam] Gase, [head coach John] Fox to look at me, evaluate me, kind of tell me what they thought as well."

Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said the Broncos knew it was something out of the ordinary when Manning did not attend the usual night-before-game meetings at the team’s downtown hotel. Manning said he was meeting with Gase, about 6:30 p.m. locally, when he began to feel ill and his condition worsened as the night wore on.

Manning said between Saturday night and Sunday before the game he had four IVs. But Manning said he became dehydrated in the first half and attributed that to a thigh injury he suffered before halftime. The quarterback felt enough discomfort that he went to the locker room with just under two minutes remaining in the half.

Brock Osweiler played the Broncos’ last four snaps of the half. Osweiler said he was told to warm up after halftime as if he would play in the second half, but Manning came jogging out of the tunnel, helmet on, and played the rest of the way.

"Adam was kind of evaluating me this morning, how I looked, how I felt," Manning said. "I kind of thought I would feel better throughout the day. Then my leg injury wasn’t really part of the plan. I have to believe it was related to the symptoms last night, being dehydrated, if I had to guess."

Other than the 2011 season, when he missed every game following his fourth neck surgery, Manning has never missed a start. Sunday was his 254th career regular-season start, including his 46th consecutive since signing with the Broncos in 2012. His teammates will tell you that streak looked in jeopardy before kickoff.

"We knew it wasn’t just something small," Sanders said. "It wasn’t like him, how he was before the game."

Manning still kept his sense of humor when asked if he believed in flu shots.

"I had one this year -- Broncos supply those for no charge, I think," Manning said. "I believe in them."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders likes the idea that people think he’s a tough player.

He likes bouncing back up from a big hit, showing the defender he's ready to go, maybe taking a bow after one of those collisions, as he did this past Sunday against the Buffalo Bills.

But maybe he doesn’t want to have so many chances to show that toughness.

[+] EnlargeEmmanuel Sanders
Joe Mahoney/Associated PressEmmanuel Sanders recovered from this hit, but he'd rather not take as many bone-jarring hits as he's taken lately.
“Obviously I take pride in being a tough guy, but I don’t want to be a crazy guy saying, ‘Yeah I like to get hit’," Sanders said. “No. I want to go into every game and not get hit, and score a lot of points and catch a lot of balls, but sometimes the game is a tough game, it’s a physical game, and sometimes I get put in tough situations. I don’t really care too much about that as long as I’m able to get back up and continue to play ball.”

Sanders has been everything the Broncos had hoped he could be when they signed him as a free agent in March. He is second on the Broncos in both catches (86) and receiving yards (1,208), totals that are tied for fourth and sixth, respectively, in the league.

He has lined up outside and in the slot. Sanders has made plays down the field -- he has 20 of the Broncos’ 53 receptions of at least 20 yards this season -- and in high-traffic areas in the middle of the field.

But of late, with defenses loading up the middle of the field in an attempt to keep the Broncos from connecting on crossing routes, Sanders has been on the receiving end of jarring hits by physical defensive backs.

“It’s rare to see a guy like that, especially some of the hits he’s taken to his lower body," Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase said. “He’s not as big as D.T. [Demaryius Thomas]. Obviously when [Thomas] gets hit it’s a little different. It’s more of the defenders feeling it. [Sanders] has done a good job of making sure he’s protecting himself for the most part, but when he’s taken those tough hits, he’s tough enough to bounce back. We’d not like him to take those hits like that, especially the one last week. That one was pretty ugly. We’ll try to avoid those."

“[Sanders] is very tough," Thomas said. “He’ll get back up and he’ll want to play. I’m glad I’ve got a man like him beside me playing every week because he’s a tough guy and you’ve got to have tough guys to win football games."

Sanders took two huge hits against the Bills, first from safety Duke Williams on a 37-yard completion with 1:17 left in the first quarter, followed by another big hit on the following play, this time from safety Aaron Williams on an incompletion.

The Broncos are hopeful some of the congestion in the middle will dissipate a bit when tight end Julius Thomas returns to the lineup -- he's missed the last three games with a left ankle injury -- and if the Broncos can keep running the ball with some consistency.

“Julius Thomas is one of the top tight ends in the National Football League," Sanders said. “He’s a mismatch. He’s the guy that you can put out wide and defenses go crazy because they’ve got to figure out if they want to put a cornerback on him, which is a mismatch because of height, if they want to put a safety on him, which is a mismatch because of quickness, or a linebacker. So that brings another weapon to this offense and we’re happy to get him back."

Demaryius Thomas also believes Julius Thomas' return will give both him and Sanders more room to work.

“We already have guys that go out and make plays now, and with Julius back and able to throw the ball and run the ball, the defense will never know what to expect," Demaryius Thomas said. “So I look forward to it."

Denver Broncos Rewind: Offense

December, 2, 2014
Dec 2
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- What a difference two games, 80 rushing attempts and one potential breakout running back can make for the Denver Broncos.

In their last two games, the Broncos have pounded the ball for 201 and 214 rushing yards in two victories; C.J. Anderson has accounted for 167 and 168 rushing yards in those two games; and the Broncos have gone from 27th in the league in rushing at 89.9 yards per game to 18th at 109.5 yards per game.

Broncos head coach John Fox said it’s a product of "you get what you emphasize" and just part of making in-season progress as the jockeying for postseason position begins in earnest over the next four weeks.

“It’s something you build," Fox said. “You’re in a journey and we’re not at the end of the trip yet. We’re making progress, and that is what you’re trying to get accomplished. You don’t want to get too far, you don’t want to be looking in the rearview mirror, you just want to try to continue to get better."

And after a long look at the game video from Sunday's 29-16 win in Kansas City, here are some thoughts on the Broncos’ offense:
  • The Broncos are still among the league leaders in false-start penalties -- they’ve had 19 for the season, making them 30th in the league with that total. But in one of the league’s loudest environments, the Broncos played with poise all evening. After not having a false-start penalty in the home win over the Miami Dolphins the week before, the Broncos had just one Sunday night -- wide receiver Demaryius Thomas was flagged with 3:44 left in the game. The Broncos used a huddle more than they have in most games this season, and quarterback Peyton Manning worked under center plenty as well. Manning was under center for the Broncos’ first four plays on offense in the game and for four of 10 plays in the second drive -- the Broncos' two touchdown drives in the game. In one third-quarter drive, Manning was under center for eight plays in a nine-play possession.
  • Vasquez
    When the Broncos made three switches in the offensive line four games ago, the key move was taking perhaps their most consistent player up front over the last two seasons -- Louis Vasquez -- and moving from where he was an All-Pro at right guard to what had been the Broncos’ biggest trouble spot, at right tackle. The Broncos have had some significant growing pains since -- i.e., the loss in St. Louis or Justin Houston beating Vasquez to the corner Sunday night to force a fumble from Manning -- but a commitment to the run game over the last two weeks has helped the new look settle in. And Manning’s first touchdown pass was an example of what was in need of repair and what happens if the Broncos make the fixes. On the third-and-5 play from the Chiefs’ 23-yard line, Kansas City defensive coordinator Bob Sutton sent two extra rushers at Manning, criss-crossing them into the middle of the formation -- an extra-man look that has consistently created free runs at Manning by defenses this season. This time, however, the Broncos clustered all of the rushers in the middle of the field together, didn’t leave any gaps and pushed the outside guys wide with the available room. Manning then dropped a 23-yard scoring pass in to Thomas.
  • Rod Smith made a career of making the play-to-play transition from pass catcher to run blocker when duty called. And the Broncos’ current crop of receivers, even with their double-take numbers in the passing game, have shown themselves to be willing participants in Anderson’s big days. Against the Chiefs, Emmanuel Sanders got just enough of Chiefs outside linebacker Tamba Hali, who outweighs Sanders by 95 pounds, on a 16-yard run by Anderson in the fourth quarter. Four plays later, on a 20-yard run by Anderson, both Thomas and Wes Welker were locked on Chiefs defenders as Anderson finished the run.
  • Of all teams, the 1-11 Oakland Raiders have started a trend. The Raiders knocked down four of Manning’s passes in the first half of the Broncos’ win in Oakland Nov. 9. The thinking being that Manning gets rid of the ball so quickly anyway, take some defenders with big reaches, get some push and get the hands up into the passing lanes. Rams defensive end Robert Quinn knocked down three passes the following week, and Houston knocked down two passes Sunday night. The Buffalo Bills have those kind of edge players in Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes to go with power players in the middle with Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus.
  • While there are many things about Manning that frustrate opposing defensive players, a look at his instinct and feel in the pocket was on display on a third-and-5 play from the Chiefs’ 46-yard line early in the second quarter. Hali beat left tackle Ryan Clady around the corner and quickly chased Manning from the pocket. But Manning, never letting his eyes drop from what was going on downfield, moved past the first option on the play -- Thomas -- and kept moving right until he saw Sanders come across the formation. Manning let the ball go just before Hali got to him for what was a 15-yard gain and a first down.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Emmanuel Sanders has been such a good find for the Denver Broncos that even when things don't quite work out, there is a silver lining in tow.

On Sunday, quarterback Peyton Manning tried and tried and tried to hit Sanders for the game-changer up the right sideline on the drive that bridged the third and fourth quarters. They never connected, but the Broncos eventually carved out a touchdown on the drive. Demaryius Thomas is the Broncos' Alpha receiver, but it's clear from that sequence that Sanders has been every bit the 1-A the Broncos had hoped he could be.

"I'm so glad we scored on that one drive I overthrew him three times in a row," Manning said. "He's a hard guy to overthrow so I take a little bit of pride in that. That means my arm must be hanging in there because it's late in the season. ... He's a great route runner. ... He has that deep threat, which is going to allow some of the shorter stuff and the crossing routes to be open."

[+] EnlargeDenver Broncos
Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsReceiver Emmanuel Sanders (10) is the Broncos' 1A option to Demaryius Thomas (88).
Sanders already, with five regular-season games remaining, has single-season career-bests in catches (76), yards receiving (1,079) and touchdowns (seven). His dives, deep down the field with a cornerback often trying to close the gap, have become a signature, as have his jaunts into the high-traffic areas in the middle of the field. And as teams continue to rotate coverage to Demaryius Thomas and put cornerbacks on tight end Julius Thomas, Sanders has become the choice that consistently makes them pay.

Broncos head coach John Fox often says "they can't double everybody," and that often leaves Sanders running past single coverage to reel in another Manning pass. His 105 targets are only behind Demaryius Thomas' 124.

Not bad for a guy who had interest from several teams in free agency because many believed he could do more than he had done in the Pittsburgh Steelers offense during his first four seasons in the league. Still, Eric Decker, Golden Tate, DeSean Jackson, Julian Edelman and Andre Roberts all signed larger contracts than the three-year, $15 million deal Sanders signed with the Broncos.

Sanders was the Broncos' top target because of his ability to line up and contribute in the formation, outside or in the slot. The Chiefs, the Broncos' opponent this week, were public in their belief they had a verbal agreement from Sanders to sign. Sanders has consistently maintained the Broncos were his top choice because of Manning's presence in the huddle and the playbook the Broncos use.

Asked if his best career season may have opened some eyes around the league, Sanders deferred.

"I don't look at it like that," Sanders said. "I just enjoy this game, I try to be passionate about it. I wanted to come here, in this offense, everybody knows what this offense can do, what they did before I was here and what it can do on a weekly basis. The best thing is any day can be your day because Peyton can put the ball so many places."

And while Demaryius Thomas' presence means Sanders will have a difficult time leading his own team in any of the major receiving categories. But only Thomas, the Steelers' Antonio Brown and the Colts' T.Y. Hilton have had more receiving yards than Sanders this season and only Thomas and Hilton have more catches.

"(Sanders) makes it hard on defenses," Demaryius Thomas said. "They can't really get right up on him because he's so quick, but if they give him room he can run by them. … He fits in this offense like he's been here more than just this season."

Manning will always credit time and effort as the keys to success and Sanders has certainly put that in. Sanders regularly worked with Manning after practices in offseason workouts and in training camp. And on the rare occasion Sanders felt the on-field sting of a heat-of-the-moment dressing down from Manning, Sanders just kept grinding.

"You don't need any more proof for what Peyton can do for wide receivers," Sanders said. "If you're in the right spot, where he expects you to be, he will find you. Sometimes just put your hands up and the ball is there. As a wide a receiver that's a dream situation, you can't ask for more than that so you don't leave anything undone."

DENVER – Don't say you weren't warned.

Last Monday, coach John Fox said the Broncos had to run the ball more. Last Wednesday, quarterback Peyton Manning said they had to run more efficiently and might be an “old-school run team" against the Miami Dolphins.

Last Thursday, C.J. Anderson said he’d be ready to carry the ball as many times as the Broncos wanted to hand it to him, and the Broncos' offensive linemen, who had worn the biggest target for the what’s-wrong-with-the-Broncos arrows, promised they were ready.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Anderson
AP Photo/Jack DempseyC.J. Anderson rushed for 167 yards as the Broncos leaned on the running game against Miami.
Sunday the Broncos turned all of those words into deeds as they sported offensive equilibrium -- 35 rushing attempts, 35 pass attempts -- in pounding out 201 rushing yards in a 39-36 victory over the Dolphins in Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

“It was important for us just to come out here and hold up for our teammates," Broncos guard Orlando Franklin said. “… We knew we had to come out here and do our job. That’s all it is, do your job and your team is going to be good."

Anderson had 27 carries for 167 yards, the most carries and rushing yards for a Broncos running back since Knowshon Moreno had 37 for 224 in an overtime loss last Nov. 24 at New England. Sunday, Anderson ran with vision, with power and perhaps most importantly, with decisiveness.

He also put the action back in play-action after a bit of a sluggish start for Manning, who was at his ruthless best with 28-of-35 passing for 257 yards and four touchdowns. The Dolphins were unable to consistently keep the pressure on Manning and the Broncos were able to muscle their way back into a game they trailed 14-3 early in the second quarter and 21-10 just before halftime.

“I think it’s better to be mad," wide receiver Demaryius Thomas said. “All of us, we talk about playing with a pissed-off attitude and it came out; we did that. I think if we can keep doing that, we’ll have a better chance each week."

“That was certainly part of the game plan," Manning said. “ … We kind of felt the plan was working; we just needed to get the ball more and stay on the field."

In the piles of touchdowns the Broncos have put up since Manning signed in 2012, one overriding criticism has been not only if they could consistently win a slug-it-out game on offense when December turns to January and January turns toward the Super Bowl, but that they weren’t always that committed to trying to slug it out.

An offense with a quarterback who has now thrown 126 touchdown passes in his 43 regular-season starts with the team -- and 13 games with at least four touchdowns in his past 27 regular-season starts -- is going to throw the ball. But the Broncos know that 10 rushes will not cut it, which is what they did in the loss to the Rams. The Broncos' offense needs balance to win a championship.

“When you’re able to have that balance, it helps everybody’s efforts … we got in a chuck-and-duck game a week ago," Fox said. “We needed to reel that back in."

Reel it in they did, but nobody should expect the Broncos to be 50-50 run-pass all the time. Because the postal-service games are coming, in the wind, rain, sleet, snow and perhaps all of the above in New England.

For one day, the Broncos' offensive line offered an alternative for the Broncos to get done what they want to get done, and all involved want, need and expect that they’ll need to do it again.

“Tonight was their night," said wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, about the offensive line. “They wanted to show we can run block, we can pass block, we can get the job done. We go as far as they take us. We understand that and they understand that."

Dolphins vs. Broncos preview

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
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. -- 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.
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.

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.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Since John Elway signed Peyton Manning as the Denver Broncos quarterback and then went about the business of surrounding the future Hall of Famer with as balanced a team as possible, the Broncos have done many things well.

Like score touchdowns. And win games, 32 of the last 40 regular-season ones to be exact.

They also haven't let one loss become a losing streak.

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Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesThe Broncos haven't lost consecutive games since Weeks 2 and 3 of the 2012 season, Peyton Manning's first with the team.
"Elway has done an exceptional job of putting together a world championship roster and we've got to have a world championship mindset around here," said wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. "And I think that we have that."

Following the Broncos' previous loss this season -- Sept. 21 in Seattle -- they won games against the Arizona Cardinals, New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers and San Diego Chargers by 21, 14, 25 and 14 points, respectively.

In Manning's tenure, the Broncos haven't lost consecutive games since Weeks 2 and 3 of the 2012 season, the second and third regular-season games he played for the team. With that in mind the Broncos have tried to hit the re-set button on all things this week with the big picture, still-a-lot-of-season-to-be-played, plenty-of-things-left-to-do approach.

"Of course we lost, but sometimes you've got to swallow that humble pie and I think it makes the core of the group a lot stronger," Sanders said. "So we kind of hit the re-start button and are just trying to get this thing right again.”

"I've seen teams lose games and they don't recover from it, for whatever reason," said Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. "I think we are focused on trying to respond and play better. Can (a loss) be a good thing? Yeah, if you respond. I think you'd like not to get slapped in the face to get refocused. I think you'd like to be focused every week."

There are times when the mea culpas about self-inflicted errors being the difference aren't really the case. But in terms of Sunday's loss, the Patriots' 24-point second quarter featured an interception by Manning, some special teams breakdowns that resulted in an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown by Julian Edelman, a missed field goal by Brandon McManus, a failed fourth-down conversion on offense and defensively the Broncos didn't slam the door after those any of those mishaps.

Offensively, defensively or on special teams, the Broncos simply didn't halt the trouble after one mistake.

"Certainly when you get kicked right in the stomach, like we did on the road last week, you get chance to take a good, hard look at yourself," said Broncos tight end Jacob Tamme. "We need to continue to get better and I think we're all on that same page."

Which is why the Broncos say they're completely locked in on the Raiders at this point, 0-8 or no 0-8 start in Oakland, as Denver tries to dial in for the second half of the season.

"You can't lose track of your goals," said tight end Julius Thomas. "This thing started in April for us. So, every day isn't always the day you want … you get back to work and do the right things."
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It is a question that will linger with the Denver Broncos, hover over them, surround them, as they go about their business for the remainder of this regular season.

A curious football riddle as to why they do so much right against other teams but turn into something else when they cross the threshold into Gillette Stadium. One mistake here turns into two mistakes, three mistakes, even four and beyond.

Add Sunday night’s cave-in to the list, as the Broncos lost, again, to the New England Patriots, coach Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the thousands of leather-throated souls who chanted “Bra-dy’s bet-ter" into the night. The final score was 43-21, but you didn’t need CSI to follow the clues as to where the Broncos’ train left the rails.

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Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesPeyton Manning's QBR of 54.3 was, by far, his worst in eight games in 2014.
“[I] thought they were better than us," Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said. “I thought we were pretty dead average on offense. I thought I was very below average, didn’t play well … I’ve got to play better."

“We didn’t play our best," Broncos safety T.J. Ward said. “Far from our best -- maybe our worst."

In the end, it was a 24-point second quarter by the Patriots that was the difference. Whereas against most teams, in most places, the Broncos dig in after a mistake, pick themselves up and move on, they find only frustration in Foxborough, the place where they fall and don't get up.

Last year, a 21-point third quarter was the biggest reason a 24-0 lead eventually got away in overtime. On that day, Montee Ball fumbled early in the third quarter and started things rolling the wrong way.

On Sunday, a Manning interception opened the box. On a first-and-10 from the Broncos’ 35-yard line, just after the Patriots had made a field goal, Belichick did what he has done so often with success against Manning: He played a coverage wrinkle rather than commit too many extra players to the pass rush.

He dropped outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich into the passing lane, and when Manning tried to slip the ball to Demaryius Thomas, Ninkovich was there. Ninkovich returned the interception to the Broncos’ 5-yard line, the Patriots turned the turnover into a touchdown one play later, and what had been a 7-6 lead for Denver was suddenly a 13-7 deficit.

But 13-7? That’s not a big deal. It’s a BB off a battleship for a team that scores touchdowns in piles. The Broncos, however, didn’t stop it right there. They continued to make it worse.

“Bad play, bad play, thought that was a critical play," Manning said. “It gave them a lot of momentum, and for whatever reason, we didn’t recover as well as we would have liked."

On the next possession, punter Britton Colquitt dropped an on-target snap as the Broncos were set to pin the Patriots deep in their own territory. He scooped it up in time to get the ball away, but the Broncos didn’t cover like Colquitt had gotten the ball away.

Julian Edelman returned the punt 84 yards for a touchdown, and Patriots were suddenly up 20-7.

“We didn’t let him get lit up back there by the gunners," Patriots special-teamer Matthew Slater said. “The guys did a good job blocking, and Julian did what Julian does."

Again, the Broncos failed to escape without more damage. On the next possession, the Broncos drove to the Patriots’ 23-yard line and had Brandon McManus set up for a 41-yard field goal -- with the wind, no less. But McManus hit the right upright.

Minutes later, after forcing a Patriots punt, the Broncos allowed Manning to be sacked -- on a three-man rush, no less -- on a fourth-and-6 to hand the ball back to Brady and the Patriots. The Patriots took that possession 57 yards in nine plays, including converting a second-and-21 for a first down and scoring on a third-and-goal from the 5-yard line for the 27-7 lead.

The rest was window dressing. The Broncos were left with the uncomfortable idea they were not up to the challenge when fighting in their own weight class.

“It was definitely embarrassing," wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. “We were not at our best. If we want to get where we want to get -- and that’s the Super Bowl -- we've got to get much better and bounce back."

Rapid Reaction: Denver Broncos

November, 2, 2014
Nov 2

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A few thoughts from the Denver Broncos' 43-21 loss to the New England Patriots in Gillette Stadium.

What it means: For all the talk about how things could go in the AFC, it's going to be Patriots-Broncos in a game that matters come January. The Broncos better get to work in the second half of their season if they don't want to come back to Gillette to play that game. The Broncos again were unable to recover from an early mistake and watched it all cave in around them after a Peyton Manning interception was just the first of many errors.

Stock watch: It's clear opponents don't think the Denver offensive line can protect Manning in the middle of the field. The Patriots sacked Manning with a three-man rush, much like the New York Jets did twice on three-man rushes the past month. Defenses are increasingly coming after center Manny Ramirez as well as guards Orlando Franklin and Louis Vasquez. The Patriots sent linebacker Jamie Collins into the middle plenty through the night.

Dime for their thoughts: The Patriots won the matchup when the Broncos went to their usually reliable dime package (six defensive backs). Over and over, the Broncos put the Patriots' offense in longer yardage situations only to see New England convert with efficient and clean routes against their dime look. In the first three quarters, before the Broncos were in pure desperation mode, the Patriots had six conversions for first downs against the Broncos' dime, to go with one on fourth down. Three of those came on one third-quarter drive, when New England quarterback Tom Brady hit Brandon LaFell for 8 yards, Julian Edelman for 13 and Danny Amendola for 14 yards, all against the Broncos' six-defensive back look.

Game ball: On a night when the Broncos didn't look to be up to the big game challenge, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders finished with his fifth 100-yard game of the season. Early on, when the Broncos needed somebody to step forward in a game with a playoff feel, it was Sanders who fueled the offense. He even made a tackle on an interception return by Patriots outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich.

What's next: The Broncos slugged it out with the Colts (5-3), Chiefs (5-3), Seahawks (5-3), Cardinals (7-1), Chargers (5-4) and Patriots (7-2) during the first half of the season. They now have to get back to business, with the Super Bowl bandwagon perhaps downshifted a bit after Sunday's effort, with four AFC West games in the second half of the season, starting Sunday with the Oakland Raiders. They have work to do if they want home games that matter the most -- in the postseason.
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."

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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.

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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."