AFC West: Jack Del Rio

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – When the Denver Broncos opened their offseason program, the middle linebacker spot in their defense was one of the few spots on the depth chart that was considered wide open.

And Nate Irving got the first shot.

All these weeks and months later, the Broncos are just two days out from their regular-season opener against the Indianapolis Colts and Irving is still in there, having done his part to take what was characterized as a competition and turn it into a chorus of crickets.

[+] EnlargeNate Irving, Jermaine Kearse
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesNate Irving figures to have a hand in more action this season for the Broncos.
“Nothing is ever set in stone,’’ Irving said after Friday’s practice. “And this is a production-based job, if I’m not doing it somebody else is going to have to come in and do it. But right now I’m not happy to be here, I’m still going to work, trying to help my team, become a better player overall.’’

This time around Irving seized the opportunity in front of him. Last summer they tried him at middle linebacker as well and while he eventually went on to fill in well for Von Miller at strong-side linebacker, especially following Miller’s Week 16 ACL injury and into the postseason, the middle linebacker thing just didn’t go the way Irving had hoped it would.

The Broncos moved Wesley Woodyard into the middle early in the season and after Woodyard suffered a stinger Oct. 6 against the Dallas Cowboys, the Broncos then put Paris Lenon, who they had signed during training camp, in the middle.

This time Irving has gone in and stayed in.

“For the coaches to have that faith in me, for my teammates to have that faith in me and to have faith in myself was a pretty big deal to me,’’ Irving said. “And I thank them for it.’’

In these current pass-happy times, the middle linebacker in the base defense is essentially a specialty position. But defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has consistently said the Broncos’ ability to keep opposing offenses in down-and-distance situations that favor the Broncos’ pass rushers, the ones where a defense can get sacks, force turnovers and change games, will be dependent upon standing tall in the base defense.

Some scouts said when Irving, a third-round pick in the 2011 draft, entered the league that they weren’t sure Irving could consistently square up blockers in run defense to be in position to shed blockers and make tackles as a middle linebacker without surrendering a running lane, Perhaps he was better suited to play on the outside. And at times, when Irving previously played at middle linebacker, the Broncos wanted more from him in that role.

And they’ve seen it so far.

“I think he’s very familiar with our defense, he has some confidence with the way he played last year when he filled in for Von, he understands what he’s supposed to do, where he’s supposed to be,’’ Del Rio said. “He’s a heavy-handed guy, who’s done a good job in what we’re doing. We like what he’s done.’’

The Broncos, with the Indianapolis Colts’ injury struggles in the offensive line, expect the Colts to pound away out of some heavier formations at times in the run game. That would put the Broncos in their base defense, with Irving in the middle, in position to stop the run, especially early in the game.

“I just think you try, each year, be better than you were at that point last year, that’s the goal,’’ Irving said. “How much have I progressed? From my rookie year until now? Mountains, man. I’ve come a long way, but I haven’t arrived yet, so I still have a long way to go. But I’m excited to have the chance.’’

Jack Del Rio sees 'Crush' potential

September, 4, 2014
Sep 4
5:50
PM ET
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The names still roll off the tongues of the die-hards in this football-mad region, especially those longtime ticket holders with more than a little gray in their hair whose memories of the Denver Broncos go to any year B.E. – before Elway.

The likes of Rubin Carter, Lyle Alzado, Barney Chavous, Randy Gradishar, Tom Jackson, Joe Rizzo, Bo Swenson, Steve Foley, Louis Wright, Bernard Jackson and Billy Thompson, the names of the Orange Crush defense that not only powered the Broncos to the franchise’s first playoff appearance in 1977, but into the franchise’s first of what has now been seven Super Bowl trips.

They were the Orange Crush. And Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio turned back the clock at a team function this week, just as he had to open training camp, and showed the current Broncos a collection of highlights from the ’77 team. That’s because Del Rio wants some Crush 2.0.

[+] EnlargeJack Del Rio
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsJack Del Rio wants a Denver defense that has as good a reputation as the Broncos' offense.
“Despite all our offensive prowess, the productivity and how special our offense is, this town loves its team to play great defense," Del Rio said after practice Thursday. “And I look forward to bringing back some of that Orange Crush feel."

“Oh, I like that a lot," said Joe Collier, the Broncos’ longtime defensive coordinator, including in ’77. “That’s good, that was a year you love to be a part of, it’s great Jack thought enough to do that. That was the year that kind of got it going here, I always call it that ‘get over the hump’ year for the franchise."

Del Rio has spent much of the offseason extolling the potential virtues of the Broncos’ current defense in the team’s quest to get back to its 2012 status, when it finished among the league’s top five scoring defenses and top five defenses overall.

The Broncos dove into free agency to sign safety T.J. Ward, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and cornerback Aqib Talib. They selected cornerback Bradley Roby in the first round of the draft. They have a recovered Chris Harris Jr. And they have a rejuvenated Von Miller, who is fully recovered from knee surgery and has his weight back down to where it was in 2012, when he had 18.5 sacks.

The Broncos hope they are a far cry from a defense that was missing five starters, all on injured reserve, in Super Bowl XLVIII. The Broncos finished in the bottom half of the league in many defensive categories.

"We’re talented, we’re deeper and we understand there are a lot of challenges in front of us, so we’re just gearing up to play good football," Del Rio said. “ … I tell our guys all the time, you know, Coach Fox says it, just show me. We want to see it. Because we know that this is a good, talented group, but it’s about coming together, playing together, playing well, feeding off each other at home, getting the crowd into it, giving them something to cheer for."

Gradishar was honored by Del Rio's sentiment. “I’m surprised, and honored, Jack would reach back almost 30 years to show them something," Gradishar said just after quickly naming the other 10 starters in the unit. “We were proud of the way that defense played, proud of what we did. We had great coaches, had great players. But I’m excited to see what these guys can do. If they keep themselves focused, they have a Super Bowl team, a Super Bowl-winning team."

After a predictably vanilla preseason with Del Rio sticking to the basics – Harris didn’t play at all while Miller played just nine snaps, as both are returning from knee surgeries – Sunday night’s opener against the Indianapolis Colts will be the first time the team shows the changes that arrive with the new personnel and the starters who are returning from injury.

“At the end of the day, this is an offensive-minded regime," Ware said. “But we’re trying to be the No. 1 defense and we’re bringing that Orange Crush back."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When the Denver Broncos take the field against the Indianapolis Colts Sunday night, the team’s defense will feature several players who have come all the way back from injury to regain their spots in the team’s rotation.

Linebacker Von Miller, cornerback Chris Harris Jr., safety Rahim Moore and safety Quinton Carter, who were all on injured reserve last season by the time the Broncos had reached Super Bowl XLVIII, all continue to be on track to take their places back in the defense.

"There’s so much to be excited about," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said following Thursday’s practice.

Carter spent two years coming back from knee troubles, while Harris, Miller and Moore all spent time on injured reserve in 2013. But as the Broncos move into the final days before their regular-season opener Sunday night at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, they continue to be healthy and ready.

Harris has declared, "I’m a 100 percent, ready to go."

Del Rio said Harris, who did not play in the preseason and is still less than seven months removed from ACL surgery, will be monitored, but Del Rio expects no issues.

"We’ll work through it," Del Rio said. "We have an idea of what we would like to have happen and we’ll adjust if we need to. He’s anxious and ready to go. He’s been terrific. The guy is the ultimate competitor."

Overall the Broncos continue to have a light showing on the injury report.

Guard Ben Garland (ankle) and linebacker Danny Trevathan, who suffered a fracture on the top of his tibia early in training camp, were again the only players held out of practice with injuries.

Guard Louis Vasquez (back) and wide receiver Isaiah Burse (heat related), who left Wednesday’s practice and did not return, practiced fully on Thursday.

Broncos defensive end Malik Jackson was excused for personal reasons.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Often when Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio is offering up something for public consumption, he will turn down the volume on the compliments.

Things are “fine.’’ Players do a “nice job." And if, out from behind the closed doors of the defensive meeting room, he really wants to lay it on thick, a player is “quality."

But when Del Rio talks about Von Miller’s return, the coach is emphatic.

[+] EnlargeVon Miller
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesVon Miller is close to his playing weight from his All-Pro season in 2012.
“I have no doubt, and I’ve said this before, no doubt Von is going to come back and be the player he was (in 2012)," Del Rio said. “He’s a player of unique characteristics and we like what we’ve seen out on the practice field, like how he’s gone about his work, and that’s why I say no doubt."

Miller, a first-team All-Pro in 2012, is looking to bounce back from a turbulent 2013 season that included a six-game suspension to open it and a torn ACL to close it. He feels the same way about his outlook for 2014.

“Things happen and you have to deal with things, but I know I’ve said it about 100 times, but I’m in a great place right now, mentally, physically, everything," Miller said. "I go one day at a time right now, but I want to be the player they think I can be and the player I know I can be."

ESPN used 85 voters from across its many NFL platforms, as well as Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus, to rank the league’s top 100 players on offense and top 100 players on defense, and Miller checked in at No. 11. That's still plenty of respect after what Miller called “not the kind of season I want,’’ but not what his standing would have been following an 18.5-sack season in 2012 when Miller was so disruptive, so game-changing, he was in the same top-shelf conversations as Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt.

And after all of the off-the-field issues last season, to go with Miller having made the decision to come back from his suspension far heavier -- he said about 270 pounds -- than when he was at his best, there were at least some questions inside the Broncos’ organization about Miller’s future as well as his maturity to handle both what he had done and what was ahead.

But by all accounts, Miller attacked his injury rehab and the structure of that rehab in his offseason seemed to suit him. He remained in Denver for much of the offseason, and when the rest of the Broncos opened their offseason workouts on the field, Miller was far closer to 255 pounds, when he was at his best.

The Broncos also signed DeMarcus Ware in the offseason and Ware has been a quality mentor for Miller, a member of the league's 100-sack club and someone Miller looked up to even before Ware arrived in Denver.

“For all the chatter that they talk about Von not being the guy they want him to be, when I first got here, he was one of the first guys in the treatment room, working out really hard, over and beyond," Ware said. “You can see how he’s rehabilitated himself to be an even better player than he was. That comes with mental toughness. He’s doing really well. I was very surprised with how athletic he was. He’s very fast and agile. He’s a really quick guy. I thought I was quick, but he’s actually quicker than I am. … When you see a guy that uses the offseason to get himself right … I think that really shows he’s really focused this season."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In those opening weeks of training camp, which coincidentally were the opening weeks of Bradley Roby's first NFL summer, Roby learned quickly, somewhat painfully, that things were going to be different.

“I'm not going to lie; it opened my eyes,” Roby said. “But I knew I was going to have struggles early, you have to kind of accept that. It's all about fixing your mistakes. It's all about once you mess up, ‘OK, what happened?' Deciding what you can do to fix it and repping it so you don't do it again. Then you're good, eventually your game will show it, but at first you get a look at how far you have to go.”

[+] EnlargeBradley Roby
Jack Dempsey/AP PhotoAfter a rough start to training camp, Bradley Roby has earned a spot in the defensive back rotation.
And there's a good reason for that. It is the age-old math of play calling: Next-level quarterback plus aggressive offensive coordinator equals problems for the rookie cornerback across the line of scrimmage. So, Mr. Roby, meet Mr. Manning.

“And early on, we were probably picking on him a bit to let him know -- a ‘welcome-to-the-NFL'- type deal,” Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase said. “He's done a good job, and he's really matched up well against our older guys. It seemed like last week, he did a really good job.”

When the Broncos did their pre-draft due diligence on Roby and checked out off-the-field issues and maturity questions, they came away with their profile. And their assessment was that, like a lot of gifted college players, Roby had been coddled some, needed to grow up some and that he was well worth the 31st pick of the first round.

The Broncos took him there because they saw what John Elway has called “maybe the best cover corner in the draft” and saw a player with the physical capabilities to play right now in a defense that could use players with Roby's size, speed and physicality.

But a fresh start in the NFL isn't always what a newly minted rookie expects. And the Broncos' clean slate for Roby came with some opening remarks from defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio.

“Right away, first day,” Del Rio said. “First day I met with him, I let him know that I don't want you to be frustrated come November or October if you spend the first part of the season not playing much, because that could happen because we've got a good group. So if you want to play, earn your way. You're going to have to come out here and fight every day; you're behind because these guys have been here and they know what it takes. But I don't think he was fazed by it; I think he appreciated that and he went about his work and continues to go about his work. My message to him is you still have a long way to go, so keep grinding.”

Not exactly hugging it out, but it's why as the Broncos prepare to close out the preseason Thursday night against the Dallas Cowboys, Roby has earned his way into the rotation in the secondary. Roby, especially over the past two weeks, has shown aggressiveness in coverage and the athleticism to maintain his footwork and play the ball.
With Chris Harris on schedule to start the Sept. 7 opener against the Indianapolis Colts to go with Aqib Talib, Kayvon Webster and Roby, Del Rio has the ability to play a dime package (six defensive backs) that has four cornerbacks physical enough to play along the line of scrimmage if needed and athletic enough to play in coverage.

That's not always been the case over the past two seasons, when the Broncos at times have used a dime look that included three safeties and three cornerbacks. But Roby's presence overall gives Del Rio more options and the ability to have size/speed players on the outside, with Talib, when Harris moves inside to work in the slot.

And while some scouts questioned Roby's maturity and effort, especially in his final season at Ohio State, the Broncos have seen, at least so far, what Champ Bailey has always said separates the ability of some young cornerbacks to make it from the ones who don't. And that's the ability to show some vocational backbone and bounce back from the inevitable tough play in these pass-happy times.

“Being a rookie at this position, in this league, going against these players, you've got to expect you're kind of going to have a little rough beginning, and I'm not going to say it's not going to be rough sometime later on. I just want to make sure when something happens I learn from it,” Roby said. “I don't see it as me messing up, you know ‘OK, that sucks,' and maybe in college I would have beat myself up about it. I'm realizing one play is one play, you have to bounce back from that and make another one. Just win a lot more plays that you lose, and hopefully that gets me a role with this team where when we win, they feel like I helped in some way.”
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Step by step, player by player, a defense that saw five starters finish the 2013 season on injured reserve, has closed in on its desired staffing.

Safety Rahim Moore has participated fully all through training camp as has defensive end Derek Wolfe. Defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson was limited in camp's early going, but has been back to full participation as well over the last two weeks

Miller
Harris
And now linebacker Von Miller and cornerback Chris Harris Jr. -- both had ACL surgery, Miller in January and Harris Jr. in February -- are back practicing in team drills. Miller has steadily worked his way into more and more team drills and over the past week and has appeared in those drills in fully padded practices.

Thursday, Harris Jr., went through team drills in what was a fully-padded workout as well.

"I've been saying I feel great," Harris Jr. said. "I don't even feel like I had an injury or anything. My knee feels stronger and I've felt like I could do everything for a while. I didn't want to rush it and do something I shouldn't, but I wanted to work as hard as I could to get back as fast as I could, too."

It means -- other than linebacker Danny Trevathan, who suffered a fracture to the top of his tibia in Tuesday's practice -- the Broncos have the personnel they expected, and wanted, to have when they put the depth chart together.

Both Miller and Harris are expected to participate at least some next week when the Broncos and Houston Texans hold joint practices at the Broncos complex. And Miller is on schedule to play at least some in the Aug. 23 preseason game against the Texans.

That game is the Broncos third preseason game, when the starters typically play into the third quarter. Asked after Thursday's practice if people were close to seeing the Miller who had 18.5 sacks in 2012, Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said:

"If you mean the suddenness and the ability to bend and those things we appreciate and love from him, then yes. I think he is working his way back and is doing a good job with the way we have increased his work load and the way he's been able to handle it. I said it earlier in camp that I have no question in my mind that Von Miller will be back to his old self for this camp."

For his part Miller says he believes he is ready for big season and has drawn raves for his approach thus far. Many with the team repeatedly say the proof will be in how he handles himself on and off the field after his suspension- and injury-marred season in '13.

Or as Miller has put it:

"I'm in a great spot -- spiritually, emotionally, physically. And I think that's where it all starts. I wake up every day, it's great. I've got great teammates around me, great coaches. We've got colorful people in the locker room. It's great coming to work every day. It was like that last year, but this year it's just different. I'm looking forward to seeing what we can do as a team this year.”

Both Miller and Harris Jr. have repeatedly said going through the rehab from their respective injuries together has likely kept them both on track and moving toward their return.

Miller suffered his injury in the Broncos' Week 16 victory over the Houston Texans while Harris Jr. suffered his injury in the team's divisional round win over the San Diego Chargers in January. Their return to full participation will also allow the Broncos to line up in the personnel groupings in practice over the last two weeks of the preseason that will most closely resemble what they will play when they open the season Sept. 7 against the Indianapolis Colts.

"I'm glad going through it I was around a guy like Von," Harris Jr. said. "We could push each other every day. I think it helped us both and I think we both look as strong as ever, quick as ever, it will great to be back in our defense."

Broncos Camp Report: Day 22

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
7:35
PM ET
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Denver Broncos training camp:
  • C.J. Anderson, who had suffered a concussion in the preseason opener against the Seattle Seahawks, was back on the practice field Thursday morning, a week after leaving the Broncos' 21-16 victory. The Broncos will steadily work him back in, but Anderson did take a smattering of snaps with the starting offense while sporting a new type of helmet, similar to what Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker wears. With Montee Ball still working back from an appendectomy, Ronnie Hillman took most of the work with the starters. Anderson and rookie Juwan Thompson also got snaps as well. Asked how he felt Thursday, Anderson said he was sluggish. "I mean, I've been off as far as conditioning. Headache and all that, all that's done. I've got a new helmet. It's brand new, so I'm trying to break it in. Kind of tight at times, but I feel fine and you don't miss a beat."
  • The Broncos haven't been able to allow fans to watch their training camp practices this year because of construction in and around their complex, but folks would have enjoyed a highly entertaining set of 1-on-1s Thursday between the wide receivers/tight ends and the defensive backs in the red zone. Quarterback Peyton Manning was at his best, consistently throwing the ball into the tightest of windows with the defensive backs doing quality work of their own to try to prevent it. In one quality battle after another, Manning dropped scoring passes worthy of GPS, especially those into back corners of the end zone, to Emmanuel Sanders, Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Andre Caldwell. Cornerback Aqib Talib and rookie Bradley Roby had interceptions in the drill and Chris Harris Jr. knocked away a pass.
  • As expected, Brandon Marshall lined up at Danny Trevathan's weak-side linebacker spot in the base defense. Marshall, who spent most of the 2013 season on the team's practice squad before being signed to the active roster last December, showed he was prepared. He practiced with decisiveness in his movements in both the base defense as well as the specialty packages. "He is athletic," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. "I am excited to get a chance to really evaluate him in a more prominent role." Trevathan is expected to miss six to eight weeks with a fracture at the top of his left tibia.
  • Rookie wide receiver Cody Latimer showed his ability to snare passes in traffic -- one of the things the Broncos' evaluators liked best about him before the team selected him in the second round of the draft -- when he leaped between cornerback Tony Carter and safety Duke Ihenacho up the left sideline to reel in a pass from Brock Osweiler. With Demaryius and Julius Thomas as well, the Broncos will have plenty of potential size to put in red-zone formations with the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Latimer as well.
  • With the second preseason game looming Sunday, the Broncos are still not consistently fielding punts as well as they're going to need to once the regular season begins. Wide receiver Jordan Norwood has looked the most consistent so far. Isaiah Burse bobbled a punt in a special teams period. The Broncos have been spotty at times in kickoff return work as well so far in camp. Both return jobs are open and could be an avenue for a player to make an established roster where there may not be room for him at a position alone.
  • Odds and ends: Rookie tackle Michael Schofield has worked at right tackle with the second-team offense of late ... Safety John Boyett, who is trying to carve out a spot in a crowded secondary, had two interceptions in Thursday's practice -- one on backup quarterback Brock Osweiler, the other on No. 3 quarterback Zac Dysert in a 7-on-7 drill.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In their first significant tackle-for-real effort of the 2014 preseason the Denver Broncos scooped out plenty of vanilla on defense, but it was clear they’re going to be able to rush the passer when they get down to business.

And beyond any reckless preseason sack prediction that are often are tossed out in the August sun, the Broncos have a variety in personnel and a defensive coordinator in Jack Del Rio who is apt to rotate, switch out and use as many players as he can.

“Our guys know, and I say this to them and to you, if you have a uniform on game day and you’ve shown us you have something to offer, you’re going to play,’’ Del Rio said.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
AP Photo/Joe MahoneyThe Broncos got to Russell Wilson twice in Thursday night's preseason opener.
And then Del Rio added, with his best ex-linebacker half smile; “What that means specifically will have to wait. We’ll wait and see. We’ll wait and see until it all shakes out and we’re game-planning for our opponents. But I think we like our possibilities.’’

So, while the Broncos sacked Seattle Seahawks quarterbacks three times Thursday night -- Russell Wilson twice in his 24 snaps, Tarvaris Jackson once -- and they will likely sack the quarterbacks to come here and there over the next three preseason games. But how it’s all going to look and if it really is better than what the Broncos had to offer last season, that will remain under wraps for the most part.

At least until the Colts and Andrew Luck shows up Sept. 7 for the regular-season opener.

“It is still training camp to where you can throw everything out there, you throw the kitchen sink out there,’’ defensive end DeMarcus Ware said. “And then at the end once you’re done with training camp we have the tool box ready for the season. Now that is what this game is about, that is what each preseason game is about ... to get better each week.”

However it turns out it will be a convergence of returning players, including those who missed out on the Super Bowl because they were on injured reserve, players such as linebacker Von Miller, cornerback Chris Harris Jr., defensive end Derek Wolfe and defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson to go with those they’ve added. And they added three players -- Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward -- who have all been named to the Pro Bowl in their careers, including seven for Ware.

Former Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey has always said the defenses that make life the most miserable for quarterbacks essentially have three elements. They have more than one player who can consistently create pressure off the edge, they have a secondary good enough to make the quarterback hold the ball that little bit extra so the front can get there, and they can send players from all over the formation.

Again, while preseason optimism is a rite of summer to be sure, the Broncos would appear to have all three of those elements, even if Miller isn’t yet full speed.

“You don’t really get that chemistry until it’s like third-and-7 at the beginning of the fourth quarter and you’re down like three points, or you’re up by three points and you need a sack or a big play,’’ Miller said. “You don’t really get that chemistry until you’re in those types of situations. You develop that in those types of scenarios. When we get to that point, I’m confident that we’ll be able to perform to the best of our abilities, and I’m looking forward to getting in those situations.’’

Miller
Other than the injuries that eroded the defense as it dropped from fourth-best in points allowed per game in 2012 to 22nd last season, the loss of Elvis Dumervil in the fax fiasco rippled through the defense. Though the Broncos hit on free-agency bingo when late signee Shaun Phillips ended up leading the team with 10 sacks, Dumervil’s presence off the edge was not replaced.

Toss in Miller’s suspension and that even he admits he wasn’t quite himself when he returned, heavier by design.

“We never sort of replaced Elvis … I think we’re closer now to what we want to do on defense,’’ Broncos coach John Fox said. “ … I always say we’ll get what we earn, but we like where we are.’’

Where they will go will depends plenty on Ware’s health -- he battled elbow and leg injuries last season as he missed the first three games of his career -- and Miller’s ability to bounce back to something close to his 2012 form when he finished with 18.5 sacks. The Broncos have the kind of options Del Rio likes in the team’s specialty rush packages, which at times feature a swirl of players moving all over the formation, often with just one or two in a three-point stance.

It also creates competition to get snaps. Del Rio will use as many players as are in uniform on most game days, but the battle for playing time figures to be spirited. A group that will include the high-profile guys like Miller and Ware as well as Quanterus Smith, who spent his rookie year on injured reserve, Malik Jackson and Ward having moved down from safety to linebacker in some of those looks.

“At the end of the day, everybody knows their job,’’ Vickerson said. “At the end of the day, everybody knows what their responsibilities are and where they’re supposed to be at on each call. With everybody doing their job and playing fast and physical and violent and doing the things on this side of the defense … that’s when you get done what you need to get done.’’
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos' annual summer scrimmage is a good time to gauge where things are with the team’s depth chart. The first of four preseason games is closing in on the horizon and choices will soon be made.

The Broncos, however, didn’t have many available spots on the depth chart when training camp began. Like many teams with the pieces in place to be in the postseason conversation, their personnel folks could have likely quickly listed 46 or 47 names of what will eventually be a 53-player roster even as camp opened.

So, this isn’t some scrape-it-to-the-foundation effort. This is a team that’s gone 26-6 in the last two regular seasons, with a Super Bowl appearance. The Broncos don’t have what-to-do questions in tow. They have is-it-enough questions. And after their first real live tackling effort this weekend, there are a few things for them to consider.
  • Running back is one of the few places where multiple spots on the depth chart are still in play. C.J. Anderson, who made the team as an undrafted rookie last summer, was on the shakiest of ground when OTAs and minicamp ended and his weight was up over 230 pounds. He was sluggish and lacked the spark he had shown in his 2013 training camp. The team’s decision-makers loaded up on undrafted rookies at the position and Anderson had been moved from good-depth-player status to may-not-make-it status. But after he lost almost 20 pounds before camp, he has shown a little more pop and has consistently worked as the No. 3 back so far behind Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman. He needs some quality preseason work to keep that spot. Juwan Thompson has clawed his way to the front of the line among the undrafted rookie runners. But other than Ball and Hillman, things are still undecided there, especially if the Broncos see a name on the waiver wire that intrigues them in the coming weeks.
  • Somebody in the return game is going to have to catch the ball with some consistency -- rookie Isaiah Burse mishandled a punt in Saturday’s scrimmage, and overall the team has bobbled far too many kicks and punts so far. The Broncos have fallback options at kickoff returner and punt returner, most of which involve using a starter like Emmanuel Sanders or Wes Welker in some way. Omar Bolden and Andre Caldwell could offer workable options as a kickoff returner, but the Broncos need a player to latch on to the punt return role. Otherwise, the Broncos project to pile up fair catches as they reluctantly accept whatever field position comes with them.
  • It is to be expected, at least some, given how training camp and offseason workouts are structured now, but the Broncos' tackling in many of the 43 plays (including penalties) they ran in Saturday’s scrimmage was choppy at times. Now, nobody should advocate a return to football cave painting and put teams in full pads for six hours every day. Those days are done and aren’t coming back. But several defensive players acknowledged things need to be better in the coming weeks -- an honest assessment about something that needs attention. Or as safety Rahim Moore put it, “We’re holding each other accountable. We understand our system, too, and what Coach (Jack) Del Rio preaches and where we fit in the run, where we are in the pass, how we challenge the throws. Our defense can be very special, but you don’t play defense on paper. You’ve got to go out there and make plays on the field."
  • They’re working at crowded spots, but among the team’s undrafted rookies, Thompson, defensive end Kenny Anunike and linebacker Shaquil Barrett have made the most of their time with the team. All three are getting quality snaps and are just the kind of players to keep an eye on through the preseason games to keep the Broncos' streak of an undrafted rookie making the roster alive.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos spent plenty of money trying to add a little more teeth to their defense this offseason.

Included in their ample free-agency haul were safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib. The Broncos wanted players like Ward and Talib because they want to be more physical on defense. The Broncos want to affect opposing wide receivers before those pass catchers get too deep into their routes, something they did not do consistently well last season.

[+] EnlargeTalib
Barry Chin/Getty ImagesFormer Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib was acquired to give the Broncos a more physical presence in the secondary.
But with that the league has also , again, told the officials to make illegal contact –- contact by defensive players in coverage outside the 5-yard chuck zone -- and defensive holding among the “points of emphasis" this season. The Broncos tied for the league lead last season in illegal contact and defensive holding penalties -- 16 combined, 13 for defensive holding -- so this is no small matter for the team on Front Range.

The Broncos will get their first look at what all that might mean Thursday morning when referee Scott Helverson and his crew is on the field for the team’s practice. During his time at the Broncos complex, Helverson will also meet with the players and coaches as well as show the league’s video about the rules changes and those “points of emphasis."

Broncos coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio have said they can adjust to how penalties are called if there is some consistency to how the rules are enforced.

“I think a lot has changed even since the owners’ meetings," Fox said. “They [the officials] have had plenty of meetings, they have had their offseason, they began their training camp, so it will be fun to get them in there and visit with the players and show the videos — not just rule changes but even the enforcement and how they are going to attack that in the preseason."

“You want to know how they’re going to call it," Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “You know the league wants points, so you just have to play it how they are calling it."

Broncos Camp Report: Day 7

July, 30, 2014
Jul 30
7:45
PM ET
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Denver Broncos training camp:


  • Maybe it was the weather, or that Demaryius Thomas still isn’t in the full rotation at wide receiver after missing the first five days of practices, or just the way Broncos defense was aligned Wednesday, but Wes Welker was quarterback Peyton Manning's favorite target in a downpour. Manning consistently worked the ball to Welker in both 7-on-7 and team drills. On a tough weather day the Broncos were at their catch-and-run best on offense. and it was difficult for the defensive players to keep their footing at times. Rookie linebacker Lamin Barrow slipped and fell chasing tight end Jacob Tamme at one point.
  • The practice was the Broncos’ second open-to-the-public session at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Despite the terrible weather and the fact the practice was a on weekday morning -- it started at 11:30 a.m. MT -- there were still 9,207 brave souls who came through the turnstiles. “I’ve got to give a shout-out to those fans," coach John Fox said. “It was very hard conditions to practice in, I thought our team handled it great ... people who don’t have to be here, those Broncos fans are tremendous, to weather all that for two-and-a-half hours." The last of three stadium practices will be Saturday.
  • The Broncos will get their first taste of what the league’s emphasis on illegal contact and defensive holding will mean for defensive players, as referee Scott Helverson and his crew will be in the Broncos’ complex starting Thursday. They will give a presentation to the Broncos players and coaches as well as call penalties in practices through the end of the week. “It will be fun to get them in there to visit with the players, show the videos, not just rules changes, but also the enforcement and how they’re going to attack that in the preseason," Fox said. It’s an important time for a team who wants to be more aggressive on defense, particularly in the secondary, where the Broncos have added Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward this past offseason. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said the Broncos can adjust to how things are called as long as there is consistency. The Broncos were tied for the league lead in combined defensive holding and illegal contact penalties (16) last season.
  • Even with Thomas, Welker and Emmanuel Sanders already in the mix, the Broncos believed second-round pick Cody Latimer could find a way in the rotation when they drafted him in May. Latimer, who consistently won the ball on contested catches during his college career, has shown that aggressiveness already in camp. He made a diving catch on a throw from Manning Wednesday after splitting the Broncos' starting safeties and beating fellow rookie Bradley Roby for a grab up the sideline earlier in the day.
  • Undrafted rookie wide receiver Isaiah Burse has gotten plenty of work in the return game thus far. The Broncos signed him following the draft in hopes he could compete for the punt return or kickoff return job -- he had two punt returns for scores for Fresno State last season. Burse has flashed some of those skills while also bobbling a few in the early going but has also quickly learned a lesson of NFL life. “In college and high school I was able to dance. I would cross the field, stop and come back all across the field. The speed here is different ... Here you have to make a cut and go. You’ll be way more success if you just make a cut instead of dancing.’’
  • Odds and ends: The Broncos held DeMarcus Ware (right lower leg) out of Wednesday’s practice. Ware did some conditioning work off to the side and looks poised to return soon ... Kayvon Webster had a pick six on Manning, cutting in front of Welker to snag Manning’s throw ... Rookie cornerback Lou Young left the practice with a groin strain.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- If you sifted through all of the words both the Denver Broncos’ football decision-makers and players have already said a week into training camp, there are three that have routinely been peppered into the conversations.

Toughness.

Attitude.

Mentality.

If you’re looking for a theme, a mantra, a way of doing things in the 2014 season for the Super Bowl hopeful on the Front Range, there it is.

“No question,’’ safety T.J. Ward said. “They already had a great team here, Peyton Manning, they won a lot of games. Some of us came in new and we just want to help, add a little thump if we can. I know I wanted to be a part of a team like this.’’

The Broncos are a week into training camp, and as we work through the hope-for-the-best stories about better leadership, depth and the luxury of the fresh start each summer gives to every NFL team, they are working to clear their own hurdle to go from last February’s Super Bowl loss to what they hope this season will be.

There was plenty good about what they did last season as the highest-scoring team, with the highest-scoring quarterback in league history. They can’t just abandon that because of one dismal February night. But for all of the records, fireworks on offense and piles of touchdowns, it wasn’t enough to win the title.

So, hence the search for toughness, for attitude and for what the team’s football boss John Elway has consistently called that “championship mentality.’’

Elway has said “it’s hard to win a world championship. Nobody just waves you by so you can walk up and have it handed it to you. You have to go get it.''

A few days into camp and it’s already clear, moving Orlando Franklin to guard should help. In live run-game drills, the Broncos showed the ability to move people in the middle of the field. They still haven’t found a right tackle -- Chris Clark has taken most of the snaps with the regulars -- to play as well as Franklin did.

But the Broncos want, and need, to be tougher on the interior, to run better inside, to protect Manning more consistently from inside rushers. Franklin can aid that cause.

Then there’s the defense, which got most of the attention and money in the offseason. And their progress, which includes the return of some players who were on injured reserve last season, can be measured in how much better they have stared down Manning and Adam Gase’s high-flying offense in their own practices so far. It isn't as if there is a more proficient offense waiting on the schedule.

It’s been far more difficult for the Broncos' offensive starters to move the ball on the defensive starters already. And it’s not because the Broncos have lost traction on offense, it’s because to 11 players across from it are better than they were in 2013.

DeMarcus Ware has the look of a team captain a few months into his tenure with Denver, and he physically looks as if he will make a high-profile team to the East feel some regret about losing him. And while the preseason figures to be two scoops of vanilla from Jack Del Rio and his cast, this defense should be top 5 if it’s healthy.

In the end, the games decide how much improvement was really made. Through the years, the league has been littered with team who are happy in the summer only to miss the playoffs when December rolls around. But if people believe they will see a shell-shocked Broncos team, still limping after a 35-point title game loss, they won’t.

They think that one is so last year.

Broncos Camp Report: Day 3

July, 26, 2014
Jul 26
9:15
PM ET
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Denver Broncos training camp:
  • Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, who is slated to return to practice Monday after spending the first four days of training camp in Georgia after the death of his grandmother, will be eased into drills upon his return. Or as offensive coordinator Adam Gase put it; “He has got a great grasp of our offense. There is no concern with me. Once he gets back, he will just jump right in. We will probably be smart with him, make sure that we don’t do anything crazy. He is not going to come out here and just run all go routes -- none of that on the first day. We will work him back in, we will be smart, make sure he gets caught up to speed with his conditioning, but then he will slide right in.’’
  • Another day, another reason the Broncos signed Aqib Talib. The Broncos practiced in full gear for the first time in this camp Saturday morning. As a result, they did plenty of work in the run game, including some one-on-one drills when the team’s wide receivers were asked to block the cornerbacks as if it were a running play. Talib was easily the toughest cornerback to block in the group as he repeatedly tossed aside the receiver who had tried to block him. The Broncos believe safety T.J. Ward and Talib will significantly improve the Broncos’ ability to pressure the line of scrimmage in run defense behind the team’s front seven.
  • In the usual ebb and flow of training camp, the defense tipped the scales its way much of the time Saturday. That figures to change a bit as the offense continues to dial in over the coming days and weeks. But as the offense went through some of its offerings in the run game, but Broncos' defensive front was stout and aggressive, particularly in the middle of the field. Ward also was easy to find, arriving first on many run plays outside the tackles. “I like what I’ve seen in the meetings. I like the way he conducts himself,’’ defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “He’s going to bring some toughness to our defense, and we’ve got some tough guys on our defense so he’ll fit right in with that. A welcomed addition.’’
  • During Elvis Dumervil’s time with the Broncos, he routinely credited his work against Broncos left tackle Ryan Clady on a day-to-day basis as a big reason Dumervil became a Pro Bowl player. And while those battles were always of high quality, Saturday gave a quality glimpse into one that could be even better as Clady and DeMarcus Ware went at it both in one-on-ones and when the Broncos' starting offense went against the starting defense. Ware, who said he has dropped some weight this season, was consistently quick off the ball and repeatedly tested Clady’s ability to get into his pass sets. The work will certainly benefit both players.
  • Chris Clark, who is getting the first look at right tackle with the starters, had some tough moments in the one-on-ones as well as on some two-on-twos, when the Broncos offensive linemen were working on their footwork against a variety of stunts. Guard Louis Vasquez spent some time off to the side with Clark, going over hand placement to maximize the first contact on the opposing rusher.
  • Odds and ends: Ward forced a fumble on wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in the morning practice … Ben Garland, who has spent two years on the Broncos’ practice squad as both an offensive and defensive lineman after completing his service commitment in the U.S. Air Force, has been at the left guard spot with the second-team offense. … Paul Cornick, who was on the Broncos’ practice squad last year, has worked as the No. 2 right tackle, behind Clark in the early going … Quote of the day fromlinebacker Danny Trevathan on Ward and Ware: “Those guys are savages.’’ ... The Broncos moved their second practice of the day indoors because of lightning in the area. They held a walk-through on an undersized field adjacent to the team's weight room.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The Denver Broncos have made no secret they want to be more physical on defense in the coming season.

They want to do a better job slowing down opposing receivers, they want to disrupt the timing of opposing offenses and they want to get opposing pass-catchers out of their routes.

And yet they’ll have to do all that with the NFL’s officials looking, under the “points of emphasis’’ edict from the league, to tighten things up even more on defenses when it comes to illegal contact on receivers and defensive holding.

[+] EnlargeTony Carter
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsPenalties were a problem for Tony Carter and Denver's defensive backs last season.
“It’s hard on defense these days, man,’’ cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “They want scoring, they want touchdowns, you just have to see how they’re going to call things and go from there.’’

It is certainly a potential issue for the Broncos because when you combine defensive holding and illegal contact penalties the Broncos were tied for the league lead last season – with the Kansas City Chiefs – for those two fouls combined. Harris, who plays both on the outside and in the slot in the Broncos defense had four of the team’s 13 defensive holding penalties while Duke Ihenacho had three and Tony Carter had two.

In all it does mean a Broncos defense that is looking to be more rugged will have to find the line about how far it can go.

“My biggest thing is to really understand how they’re trying to emphasize and call it and make sure we’re teaching our guys, so we can play within the rules,’’ Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “I don’t waste a whole lot of energy worrying about whether I like it or don’t like it. To me, it’s about helping our guys understand what they have to do to play well and spending your energy on that and teach and instruct. Hopefully, they get an understanding of how we can play within the rules and make sure we’re prepared to do that.’’

As part of the effort to show players and coaches what the officials will be looking at on that front, officials will visit each team in the preseason. Several of the league’s officials will be at the Broncos complex next week to break it all down during video sessions as well as on-field during several practices.

But the Broncos didn’t sign the likes of cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward in the secondary because they’re interested in playing back on their heels. Denver is looking to make life far more difficult for opposing receivers, who were too often allowed to get free releases off the line of scrimmage and run free beyond the coverage.

Some of the issues were traced directly to injuries – five defensive starters were on injured reserve by season's end, including Harris Jr. and safety Rahim Moore in the secondary alone. But many personnel executives around the league simply believed the injuries showed the Broncos didn’t have championship level depth and lacked team speed at the defensive skill positions once the second- and third-teamers were forced into the lineup.

Overall the team was 27th in pass defense in the regular season, surrendered an alarming 61 pass plays of at least 20 yards – an enormous jump from 38 such plays surrendered in the 2012 season – and data from ESPN’s Stats & Information group shows the Broncos allowed 58 completions on passes that traveled at least 15 yards in the air before being caught, tied for fourth most in the league.

The Broncos believe a healthy Von Miller to go with free-agent signee DeMarcus Ware in the pass rush will help significantly, given the best pass defense is often played by those defenses that are the most proficient at preventing the quarterback from throwing the ball.

Del Rio, however, said he believes the Broncos' defensive coaches have a good idea on what the boundaries are going to look like in pass coverage in the coming season. Asked Saturday if he felt like he had a good understanding of what would constitute illegal contact or defensive holding, Del Rio said, “I do, based on what I heard when they came through [earlier in the offseason]. [The officials will] be in next week, and we’ll get a better feel for it as they work with us in practice. It’s always beneficial for us.’’

Del Rio added: “You know there are things that are going to be emphasized. Depending on how that goes—if the emphasis results in a five hour game, then they probably would de-emphasize it. Again, I don’t think I need to worry about that kind of thing. It typically takes care of itself. We just make sure, as coaches, that we instruct the best we can so guys are well-prepared.’’

But it’s an issue that’s going to come up, and come up quickly, with quarterbacks like Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Carson Palmer, Colin Kaepernick, Philip Rivers and Tom Brady all on the Broncos’ schedule in the season’s first eight games.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When you spend much of your on-field workday going against a quarterback like Peyton Manning operating in a fast-paced, no-huddle attack, you have a pretty good idea of what a big play looks like.

And as the Denver Broncos' defense has moved through its offseason work, taking a bite out of some of those big plays has been on the front burner.

“Too often last year we let people go over the top of us or run through us," Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said.

[+] EnlargeAqib Talib
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos bolstered their secondary this offseason, signing T.J. Ward (not pictured) and Aqib Talib.
The Broncos allowed 40 run plays of at least 10 yards last season, the 10th highest total in the league. Not bad, but as a guy with a don't-give-an-inch mindset, Del Rio wants that number to go down this season.

But the real trouble came through the air. Logically, it fits. If your offense is on the way to a single-season record of 606 points, if your quarterback is on the way to a single-season record of 55 touchdown passes, you’re playing with the lead much of the time. And usually the leads were big enough that there was plenty of chuck-it-around desperation on the other side.

No matter how it came about, however, the results were ugly. Opponents had 61 pass plays of at least 20 yards against the Broncos last season (27th in the league). By contrast, the Seattle Seahawks led the league in fewest big-play passes allowed with 30.

Eleven opponents in the regular season had at least three pass plays of 20 yards or more against the Broncos, and their three playoff opponents had three pass plays of at least 20 yards, including the Seahawks in their 35-point win in Super Bowl XLVIII.

“[It's] leveraging and tackling," Del Rio said this week. "The biggest thing is the back end. It typically comes from the back end and if you're leveraging properly and then tackling, you can minimize plays and make people go the hard way."

So it's no shock the Broncos devoted most of their free-agency capital to their defense, and the position group that saw the biggest expenditure was defensive back with the signings of cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward. The Broncos also used their first-round pick on cornerback Bradley Roby.

Talib and Ward are physical players who Del Rio said “will show up and tackle you." Roby, the Broncos believe, showed that same kind of potential during his time at Ohio State. Broncos executive vice president John Elway said he thought Roby was the best man-to-man cover cornerback on the board and was a "top-15 talent" that the team took at No. 31.

“We were a top-five defense two years ago," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “Last year, that wasn’t us, that wasn’t the kind of defense we think we have. When you have an offense like ours, we want to give them the ball back as many times as possible after we hold people to three-and-outs."

The early returns of these latest workouts say Ward will have a variety of roles, given his ability to play with a physical edge down near the line of scrimmage -- Del Rio has often lined a safety up at weakside linebacker in some of the team's specialty looks -- as well as his ability to work in coverage downfield. Talib and Harris can both play as matchup cornerbacks, playing receivers out of the slot and on the outside. They both have proven to be willing tacklers in the run game as well.

As Harris continues to rehab from ACL surgery, Roby has found himself inserted with the starters in workouts. Roby projects to play in the team's nickel package, which was on the field for almost 70 percent of the team's defensive snaps last season.

Del Rio will point out that even with five starters on injured reserve by the time the Broncos earned their way into the Super Bowl, the defense had found itself a bit at the end of the regular season. After four teams had topped the 400-yard mark in the first 12 games, the Broncos held three of their last four regular-season opponents to fewer than 300 yards.

"I would suggest if you go back and review last year, that we were very good down the stretch when it mattered," Del Rio said. "That didn’t help our rank for the regular season but we were effective in the home win against San Diego and we were effective in the home win against the Patriots. And we helped our football team get to the championship game. So we did things that we're very proud of. And we did them short-handed."

During the past few weeks, the Broncos have pushed each other on both sides of the ball as Del Rio and offensive coordinator Adam Gase have their daily battles in team drills, each offering up a little surprise here, something unexpected there, to try to gain an edge. During the team’s mandatory minicamp this week, both sides were emotional when plays were made.

“We look at it like you can’t go against anybody better than Peyton and our offense every day," linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “That can only help us, that can only make us better. Because we're not going to face anyone better, so if we put in the work, play the way we're supposed to, we want to see those results."

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