AFC West: Joe Flacco

What to watch for: Broncos-Giants

September, 13, 2013
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – It can be tough to follow such a high-end opening act, but that is the Denver Broncos' task this week as they make their first road trip since an Aug. 17 preseason game in Seattle.

“And our last outing wasn’t too positive,’’ said Broncos coach John Fox about that 40-10 loss to the Seahawks. “I think we’ve got a little bit to learn from that.’’

By the time Broncos jog onto the field Sunday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., it will have also been 10 days since Peyton Manning carved out another slice of football history -- and carved up the Baltimore Ravens' secondary -- with seven touchdown passes in a 49-27 opening victory. So, in that light, here are some things to consider about the third, and perhaps last, time Peyton will face his brother Eli’s team:

  • What comes after seven? Manning tied an NFL record with his seven passing TDs against the Ravens and became the first player to reach that mark in a game since 1969. Tough to top that. The Broncos would like to run the ball a few more times -- and a lot better -- against the Giants than they did against the Ravens, but Manning will still put the ball in the air plenty. The Giants have some uncertainty at cornerback -- Prince Amukamara suffered a concussion in the opener against the Cowboys -- and their linebackers struggled in coverage against Dallas. That’s a recipe for Manning to push the ball up the sidelines at times, especially out of play-action, and work the middle of the field with tight end Julius Thomas or Wes Welker. Running back Knowshon Moreno, who has the running back of choice in the three-wide-receiver set, figures to be busy in the passing game as well -- Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo completed 18 passes to his backs and tight ends, who consistently found room in the short to intermediate zones.

  • [+] EnlargeManny Ramirez
    AP Photo/Paul JasienskiDenver center Manny Ramirez could get a stiff test from the Giants' interior defensive line.
    Four of a kind. The Giants have always believed in the benefits of a four-man rush to bring pressure on opposing quarterbacks -- “That’s been true going all the way back to when I was coaching there,’’ Fox said. That allows the defense to use seven players in coverage in these pass-happy times -- and it's especially true for a Giants team with some uncertainly in its defensive back seven and that likely needs to play it a little more conservatively. Against the Cowboys, with end Jason Pierre-Paul still working his way back from offseason back surgery (he played 50 snaps in Dallas), the Giants did most of the consistent damage when they won on the inside. Defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Cullen Jenkins, a combined 628 pounds, repeated pounded away at Cowboys rookie center Travis Frederick. The two also made life difficult for right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau, so much so many in the league believe recent signee Brian Waters will be manning the position the next time the Cowboys play. The Broncos struggled at times against the Ravens' defensive front, particularly in the run game on the interior. The Giants figure to test left guard Zane Beadles and center Manny Ramirez plenty.

  • Short and not so sweet. The danger in all of the up-tempo frenzy going on in the league -- and the biggest reason the jury remains out on all of it -- is what it does to a defense when the team’s offense doesn’t get a first down when running at warp speed. The Broncos had a 48-second three-and-out possession in the second quarter against the Ravens, to go with a 59-second possession in the fourth quarter. “We have to avoid that,’’ said offensive coordinator Adam Gase. “When we go to our up-tempo stuff, we have to make sure that we’re staying on the field and put the (opposing) defense in a bad defense.’’

  • Three-pack. What the Giants could do with Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks at wide receiver was already a significant challenge for opposing defenses. And if Rueben Randle can consistently be that third option -- all three topped 100 yards receiving against the Cowboys -- it spreads things out even a little more. The alignment to watch was one that was repeatedly effective against the Cowboys, with Nicks and Cruz lined up to the offensive right and Randle as the lone receiver to the left. The Giants consistently got all three into open space with that set. It will be a significant challenge for the Broncos' defensive backs. “Real good third option," said Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said of Randle. "I described him to our guys, he’s like a No. 2 in the league, I think he’s a legitimate starting-caliber wide receiver (who) happens to be the third guy in their rotation."

  • Be in a rush. In of the rose petals tossed at the Broncos’ feet after what was a high-quality victory over Baltimore, it was easy to lose sight of the fact that Denver did not have a sack, or hadn’t really even stressed Joe Flacco all that much in the pocket, until right tackle Michael Oher suffered a severely sprained right knee on a 1-yard touchdown run by Ray Rice with 8 minutes, 3 seconds to play in the second quarter. All four of the Broncos' sacks, including the 2.5 for defensive end Shaun Phillips, came after the Ravens had to slide protections at times with Oher out. The Giants have had their own struggles in the offensive front, but the Broncos have to find a way to get some heat on Eli Manning -- or Manning will find the soft spots in coverage.

  • Adapt or punt. You don’t spend $12 million of Pat Bowlen’s dollars on Welker if you don’t want to go with three wide receivers on offense most of the time. But the Broncos struggled mightily early against Baltimore until they went to a two-tight-end look for five plays. They found their flow, played a little bigger for a few snaps ... and away they went. They have been more efficient at times over the past two seasons out of the two-tight-end look, especially early in games. The Broncos had eight plays among the first 20 that went for one yard or fewer or were an incompletion. The first 20 snaps, including penalties, resulted in three punts. The Broncos didn’t score the first touchdown until they went to two tight ends, then got back in the three-wide set on their fifth possession of the game. They scored a touchdown on a one-play drive, in three-wide, to close out their fourth possession after they got the ball on the Ravens’ 24-yard line, thanks to a Chris Harris interception.
Victor Cruz AP Photo/LM OteroThe Broncos will likely deploy more defensive backs when taking on the Giants and Victor Cruz.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Fresh off the feel-good season opener the Denver Broncos' secondary will get an entirely different kind of test Sunday against the New York Giants.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had limited options on the outside -- once Jacoby Jones left with a knee injury on a second-quarter punt return. Brandon Stokley is 37 years old and was signed after training camp opened; Dallas Clark is 34, has struggled with injuries in recent seasons and was signed after training camp open; Marlon Brown is a rookie; and Ed Dickson struggled mightily in a receiving role last Thursday night. So, despite not having either Champ Bailey (left foot injury) or Von Miller (suspension) in the lineup, the Broncos did not surrender a pass play longer than 34 yards in the game.

The Giants, however, present a different set of troubles. In their turnover-marred loss in Dallas, New York still had three wide receivers finish with at least 100 yards in the game -- Victor Cruz with 118 yards on five catches, Hakeem Nicks with 115 yards on five catches and Rueben Randle with 101 yards on, yes, five catches. Cruz finished with three touchdowns in the game.

“Their receivers are dynamic,'' said Broncos safety Rahim Moore. “ … They have so many targets.''

“Honestly, Cruz is getting the bulk of the attention, but they have weapons all over the place,'' said safety Duke Ihenacho.

The challenge will be how the Broncos matchup with the size the Giants have on the outside, especially if Bailey isn't ready to return to the lineup this week. Randle is 6-foot-2, Nicks is 6-foot-1 and Cruz comes in at 6-0. The Broncos can counter with 6-2 Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and the 6-0 Bailey, if the 12-time Pro Bowl selection is ready to return to the lineup.

Cornerback Chris Harris, an aggressive player who consistently fends off the challenges, is 5-foot-10 and cornerback Tony Carter, who has routinely come in when the Broncos go to the nickel in games Bailey doesn't play and the dime when Bailey is in the lineup, is 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds. When Carter plays in the nickel, he lines up in one of the outside positions and Harris goes inside to the slot.

Flacco sought Carter out in coverage on several occasions in last January's playoff win as well as last Thursday night. This is especially true if Carter allows the receiver to get a free release off the line of scrimmage, and Eli Manning would likely do the same.

The Broncos will also use rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster at times in some of their specialty looks and if they get into some of the longer down-and-distance situations, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio will use a seven defensive back package. The Broncos used it for two snaps against the Ravens, but figure to use it more against the Giants' attack.

  • Giants coach Tom Coughlin's peers in the league have long considered him one of the more aggressive coaches in the NFL, whether it be during his tenure in Jacksonville or now with the Giants. He signs players who once worked for an upcoming opponent in the days before his team plays that opponent. And if things go well for former Broncos running back Willis McGahee Tuesday, he could join the list. Per ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, McGahee will be one of three backs -- Brandon Jacobs and Joe McKnight are the others, who will work out for the Giants Tuesday. The Broncos released McGahee in June after McGahee had skipped the majority of the team's offseason workouts. The running back cited “family reasons.'' McGahee will turn 32 next month and hasn't played in a game since tearing an MCL on Nov. 18 against the Chargers on a hit from now-Broncos cornerback Quentin Jammer. McGahee had two years left on his deal when the Broncos let him go with a scheduled $2.5 million base salary this season and $2 million base salary in 2014. But with the Broncos having used a third-round pick on Ronnie Hillman in the 2012 draft to go with the second-round pick they used on Montee Ball in April's draft, the combination of McGahee's injury and contract pushed the Broncos toward the young guys at the position. So much so, the Broncos were willing to take a $1 million dead money hit against the salary cap to release McGahee. The Broncos had some concern about McGahee's ability to stay healthy over the long term and after he took part in the team's mandatory minicamp in mid-June, they released him. The Giants benched running back David Wilson Sunday after two fumbles and some bobbles in pass protection.
  • Wide receiver/kick return Trindon Holliday (left lower leg), cornerback Omar Bolden (left shoulder) and linebacker Wesley Woodyard (right ankle) were not on the field for the Broncos' workout Monday. The practice was essentially an extra opportunity for some on-field work for the Broncos -- what coach John Fox calls “a Broncos on Broncos practice.'' Wide receiver Eric Decker, who suffered a right shoulder injury in last Thursday's game, did participate in the practice. Bailey (left foot) did not take part. Tight end Joel Dreessen, who had two arthroscopic surgeries on his left knee since May, is closing in on returning to practice on at least a limited basis. Dreessen worked with strength and conditioning coach Luke Richesson. Rookie running back C.J. Anderson also did drills alongside Dreessen, work that included some short sprints.
  • The final Manning tally for the season's opening week: 912 passing yards -- both finished 27-of-42 passing in their respective games -- and 11 touchdowns. Peyton Manning was 27-of-42 for 462 yards with seven touchdowns without an interception in the Broncos' 49-27 victory over the Ravens on Thursday night. Eli Manning was 27-of-42 for 450 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions in the Giants' loss to Dallas Sunday. The two brothers will face each other Sunday at MetLife Stadium -- it's the third time they have played each other in the NFL.

Upon Further Review: Broncos Week 1

September, 6, 2013
An examination of four hot issues from the Denver Broncos' 49-27 win over the Baltimore Ravens:

  • [+] EnlargePeyton Manning
    AP Photo/Jack DempseyPeyton Manning's historic performance Thursday night should end speculation on whether he can still deliver.
    This just in: Peyton Manning's arm is just fine. Manning is in his 16th season and he often talks about how he’s a different player after his neck surgeries than he was before them. It was no small thing for him to come back from a missed 2011 season. But since his return to the field last season, questions about his arm strength have taken on a life of their own. That was especially true after he seemed to struggle with his grip in the frigid playoff loss to the Ravens last January. Even Thursday night as the Broncos were knocking off the rust in the first half, there were plenty of missives about what it looked like Manning couldn’t do. Bottom line: At 37 years old, the guy just tied an NFL single-game record with seven touchdown passes -- something nobody else has done since 1969, even in these pass-happy times. In short, he can throw it however he needs to throw it. Does he throw with the raw velocity he had as a 24-year-old? Probably not, but it doesn’t matter. You don’t need a hammer if you’re a surgeon.
  • The Broncos will need more than 2.8 yards per carry in the run game -- you know it, they know it and the American people now know it after Thursday night’s nationally televised affair. The best way to protect Manning from opposing pass-rushers will always be the Broncos' ability to use play-action and to pound the ball when they want to close things out. And if you can't run the ball, nobody is going to spend much time being fooled by play-action, and, really, there's no reason Manning should still be taking drop-backs up 22 points with a few minutes to play, but he had to because the Broncos couldn't get a first down if he didn't.
  • It’s never too early to crank up the hysteria in Denver. The Broncos, amid a three-decade sellout streak, have always been this region’s sports gemstone. But they're a team that hasn’t always handled success very well in recent years, and now they'll have plenty of verbal rose petals tossed at them. After an offseason filled with bad decisions and statement after statement from team officials that included “the Broncos are aware of the incident," their organizational composure will be tested in the coming weeks.
  • It remains to be seen if this defense can dig in and slug it out deep into a close game, especially without Von Miller in the lineup until Oct. 20. They had their defensive difficulties deep into the second quarter Thursday night. It's easy to forget that the Ravens led 17-14 at the half and Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco’s jersey looked like it still had creases in it. Until Miller’s return, they have to generate something more from the front seven in the pass rush, especially if teams go big and the Broncos have to rush out of their base 4-3 package.

It was 236 days ago when Joe Flacco threw that fateful, 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones, leading the Baltimore Ravens to a double-overtime playoff win at the Denver Broncos. The Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl, and the Broncos were left to think of what might have been. Flacco and the Ravens return to Denver's Sports Authority Stadium on Thursday night to kick off the 2013 season in a rematch of two of the top teams in the AFC.

The stakes are different, and so are the teams. Gone are Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Anquan Boldin from the Ravens. Baltimore is expected to have 10 different starters from the team that hoisted up the Lombardi trophy, and that doesn't include former Broncos defensive standout Elvis Dumervil, who is expected to play in passing situations.

The Broncos won't have Dumervil or Von Miller, who has been suspended for six games, rushing after Flacco this time. But Peyton Manning is back, along with the addition of Wes Welker to an already dangerous wide receiver group.

Broncos team reporter Jeff Legwold and Ravens team reporter Jamison Hensley discuss whether the opener will be a repeat of that memorable AFC divisional playoff game.

Hensley: Much has been made of the 50-foot Flacco banner hanging at the Broncos' stadium. Flacco has embraced the hate, saying it's not a bad thing for opposing fans to dislike you. The Ravens' focus, as it has been all offseason, has been to move forward. It's the start of a different era in many ways for the Ravens in their first game without Lewis and Reed. But it's easier to move forward when you're the ones sitting on top of the football world. How much will the "revenge factor" play into this game for the Broncos?

Legwold: Broncos coach John Fox, much like John Harbaugh with his "What's Important Now" mantra to leave the championship season behind, has tried to leave the past in the past. But questions about the kneel-down in the waning seconds despite Manning at quarterback and two timeouts in hand, as well as a third-and-7 running play late in the game, have trailed him all through the offseason. A lot of the Broncos players are willing to say memories of the playoff loss pushed them through the tedium of May and June. But over the past two weeks, they've stuck to the script -- that it's a new year, a new team -- but deep down they all know they let a potential Super Bowl trip, home-field advantage and a seven-point lead with less than a minute to play get away. And Dumervil's departure does add a little spice as well. How has Dumervil fit in and what kind of year do you think he'll have?

Hensley: Terrell Suggs has talked about Dumervil having the right mentality to play for the Ravens, and Harbaugh commented how Dumervil is already taking a leadership role. He really is a perfect fit for the Ravens on the field, too, where they have never had an elite pass-rusher to pair with Suggs. Over the past six seasons, Suggs has had only one teammate record more than seven sacks in a season. And being a pass-rusher is Dumervil's primary role. The Ravens will use Courtney Upshaw on early downs to set the edge against the run, which should keep Dumervil's legs fresh in pass-rushing situations. The Ravens have a familiarity with Dumervil because inside linebackers coach Don Martindale was Denver's defensive coordinator in 2010 and was Dumervil's position coach in 2009, when the linebacker-end led the NFL with 17 sacks. Baltimore is catching a break Thursday night with Dumervil now wearing purple and Miller serving his suspension. How are the Broncos going to generate a pass rush on Flacco?

[+] EnlargeElvis Dumervil
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyPass-rusher Elvis Dumervil was one of the Ravens' high-profile offseason acquisitions, and has become a leader on the field and off for Baltimore.
Legwold: That is the $380,687.50 question, which is how much of Miller's base salary he'll surrender during the six-game suspension. But without Miller (18.5 sacks in '12) and Dumervil (11.0 last season), the Broncos will mix and match on a variety of down-and-distances. Derek Wolfe is a key player, because of his ability to play inside and outside along the defensive line and still create matchup problems. Jack Del Rio believes Wolfe is ready to take an enormous step in his development, and among the defensive linemen only Dumervil played more snaps up front than Wolfe did as a rookie last year. The Broncos will ask Shaun Phillips, who they think has plenty left to give after 9.5 sacks for the struggling Chargers last season, to be a spot rusher. And Robert Ayers, who was a first-round pick in 2009, has always said he could put up the sack numbers if given the chance. He's played through four different coordinators -- Del Rio is his first to be on the job for two consecutive seasons -- but has just 6.5 career sacks. Now is his time. On Flacco, how has he dealt with all that comes with a Lombardi trophy and a nine-digit contract?

Hensley: The money and increased notoriety haven't really affected Flacco. If anything, he's become more vocal. There was a playful trash-talking exchange during training camp between Flacco and Suggs, who told his quarterback that the defense's "swag is on a thousand million." Flacco responded: "Then what's my swag at? I get paid more than you. A lot more!" What has really changed is the wide receiver group around Flacco. This unfamiliarity led to four interceptions in six quarters of work this preseason. His top two receivers from a year ago won't be there Thursday. Boldin was traded to San Francisco, and tight end Dennis Pitta is out indefinitely with a dislocated hip. They accounted for 36 receptions in the postseason, which was nearly half of Flacco's completions. That being said, it was Torrey Smith and Jones who did the most damage in the playoff game in Denver. The Ravens are hoping wide receiver Brandon Stokley can move the chains on third downs and tight end Ed Dickson (hamstring) can contribute in the season opener. There has to be more confidence in the Broncos' passing attack with Manning and his bunch of talented receivers.

Legwold: There is plenty of confidence in what the potential can be with Welker in the mix. The Broncos loved Stokley as a slot receiver, but Welker is younger and offers a bigger upside in terms of production. Welker will also have the best receivers to his outside shoulders in Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, the best combo he's had since the Patriots decided they didn't want Randy Moss around any longer. The 229-pound Thomas and the 214-pound Decker make the Broncos a tough matchup for any secondary. In the preseason, teams simply backed off into coverage and took their chances they could allow the catch and make the tackle before too much damage was done. The pace, especially at altitude, is a little something new as well. The Broncos ran 49 plays, excluding penalties, in the first half alone against the Rams in the preseason. They won't always go that fast, but if they get the look they want from a defense, they'll put the pedal to the floor and not allow a substitution. The key issue will be protection: Left tackle Ryan Clady missed plenty of the preseason after offseason surgery, and Denver has surrendered pressure in the middle of the field at times. The three-wide look is what the Broncos want their base formation to be on offense, but they can't do it if they can't protect Manning. It has to be a strange thing for a Baltimore defense that has been the franchise's signature for so long to have so many changes.

Hensley: There were a lot of changes to the Ravens' defense, but there were necessary changes. The Ravens weren't a top-10 defense for the first time since 2002. This defense had slumped to No. 17 in the NFL. It's never easy to part ways with the likes of Lewis and Reed. But the Ravens aren't replacing two Hall of Fame players in their prime. Baltimore had to replace two aging players who weren't the same playmakers from a few years ago. The additions of Dumervil, defensive lineman Chris Canty, linebacker Daryl Smith and safety Michael Huff have made this a stronger and more athletic defense. The Ravens' defense is going to be significantly better in two areas: stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback. The biggest concern, especially when you're starting two new safeties, is the communication in the secondary. One mistake there and Manning will burn you for a touchdown. How is the Broncos' secondary holding up this summer?

Legwold: The Broncos would feel better if Bailey felt better. Bailey did not practice Sunday or Monday because of a left foot injury he suffered in the preseason loss in Seattle and is still a major question mark for Thursday's game. Bailey has been on the field for practice, but has not participated in any of the drills. The end result means Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie would likely line up much of the time in Bailey's left cornerback spot. Rodgers-Cromartie is one of the more athletic sidekicks the Broncos have had for Bailey since Bailey arrived in 2004. Chris Harris and Tony Carter, the player who gave Jones a free release off the line of scrimmage on the game-tying bomb last January, will play in the nickel and dime as well. But overall the Broncos kept 11 defensive backs -- six corners, five safeties -- and can mix and match for almost every situation. They have flexibility and use it, so every defensive back in uniform Thursday night could see some action in the defense.

They go by many names -- "explosives," "backbreakers," or just "bigs" -- but it’s all bad, and if it’s all the same to Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, he’d rather not see any in Thursday’s regular-season opener against the Baltimore Ravens, and beyond.

“Explosive plays, big plays, they’re always on the don’t-allow list," Del Rio said. “Explosive plays are always something we’re looking to limit. We stumbled in a couple of those games last year and it’s not usually a good … well, it’s a barometer, really, that usually leads to a bad ending."

The Broncos did enough good work on the defensive side of the ball to close out the 2012 season as the league’s No. 2 defense overall, allowing 290.8 yards per game, and the No. 4 scoring defense, at 18.1 points allowed per game. Von Miller had 18.5 sacks, and Denver led the league in third-down defense, as opponents converted just 30.6 percent of the time. All quality stuff. But tucked away in there, the Broncos had three games when things blew up a bit -- games in which the defense allowed three pass plays of at least 30 yards. And the Ravens authored two of those efforts.

The Texans had pass plays of 60, 52 and 46 yards in a 31-25 Houston victory last September, a game that cost cornerback Tracy Porter his starting job before concerns over seizure symptoms cost him his season. In December, the Ravens had pass plays of 43, 31 and 61 yards -- two of those for touchdowns -- in a Broncos' win in Baltimore, with both scores in the fourth quarter, after the Broncos had built a 31-3 lead.

And then there was Denver's playoff loss to Baltimore in January, when the Ravens again broke out the fireworks with pass plays of 59, 32 and 70 yards. All three of those were touchdowns -- and the 70-yarder will be etched into the Broncos’ franchise memory as the one that allowed a potential Super Bowl trip to slip from the team’s grasp.

“Bottom line, if you’re a good defense, those plays don’t happen," cornerback Champ Bailey said. “We all need to own up to that and know that. Good defenses don’t give up the big ones -- you have to work too hard to keep offenses in check, you can't let them break out on you like that."

[+] EnlargeDennis Pitta
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsDennis Pitta's catch on third-and-13 in OT wasn't the backbreaker in Denver's playoff loss, but a bothersome one all the same.
All told, the Broncos allowed just 17 pass plays of at least 30 yards last season, a quality total. But the Ravens, with Joe Flacco at quarterback, had six of them, or 35 percent. And Del Rio, a former linebacker who can ring the bell on the old school when he chooses to with his players, has boiled the antidote down to its simplest form. It's not some mystical solution, tucked in a pile of new-age analytics; it's simply effort, reliability and the often-lost art of tackling that can prevent big plays.

“You understand you’re going to get your share, where guys in this league make a tremendous throw, make a tremendous catch. You understand that, you don’t ever accept it, but you do realize in the probability table, that’s going to happen from time to time with great athletes," Del Rio said. “But you really want to understand where you should be and be able to get that done. … If you understand where you belong and you tackle and you swarm, you’re going to minimize how many of those you’re going to get during the year. And we were good at that, but those games are examples of why that can’t happen."

Most frustrating, beyond the playoff loss, Del Rio said, were some of the plays that came before the touchdown tosses that could have changed the course of events. One of the most troubling, and often forgotten, was a third-and-13 the Ravens faced at their own 3-yard line late in the first overtime.

On that play, Flacco hit tight end Dennis Pitta for 24 yards. If the Broncos had held there, Peyton Manning and the offense would likely have had a short field for a potential game-winning field-goal try.

“Certainly, as we looked at the offseason and ourselves and how we can be better, obviously there’s the one play everybody wants to talk about, but we felt like even when we were ahead and in command, there were too many instances where people were kind of let off the hook and allowed to do some things," Del Rio said. “And maybe that led to them having a little more confidence in the other situations, who knows?

“I can’t speak for anybody else's approach, but from our approach, we don’t want to allow explosive plays. They are all bad."

Broncos practice report: LB added

September, 1, 2013
Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has assembled an all-time football resume, piles of 4,000-yard seasons, four MVP awards and a Super Bowl win.

And yet, as he approaches his 16th season opener, he said he remains as excited as ever at what a new season might bring. Asked Sunday if he still gets butterflies before the opener, Manning said:

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesHe might appear calm under center, but Broncos QB Peyton Manning admitted that he'll be a bit nervous before Thursday night's season opener.
“I do, I do. I think if you don’t you probably ought to be doing something else. Sixteenth opening day, having played in this opening game three times. It’s got a little something extra to it … Healthy butterflies, it’s a good thing.’’

Some things to consider as the Broncos formally kicked off their practice week Sunday for Thursday night’s affair:

  • With a night to sleep on it, the Broncos came to the conclusion – as expected, perhaps -- that six linebackers wasn’t enough on the roster after the initial cutdown to 53 players. That was especially true since one of the players they formally list at linebacker – Shaun Phillips – lines up at defensive end for the majority of his snaps. So, the Broncos claimed second-year linebacker Adrian Robinson off waivers Sunday and he’s expected to practice with the team Tuesday. Robinson is a 250-pounder who made the Steelers roster last season as an undrafted rookie largely because of his special teams play. The Broncos are also his third team since Aug. 23. That’s when he was traded to the Eagles, for running back Felix Jones and the Eagles then waived him Saturday. He played at inside linebacker in the Steelers’ 3-4 look and the Eagles tried them there in their new 3-4 as well. The Broncos use plenty of 3-4 principles in their defense, though their base look is technically a 4-3, but if his game video is any indication Robinson will have a chance to contribute quickly on special teams. To make room for Robinson, running back Jacob Hester was released.
  • The Broncos have obviously had their turn-the-page meeting leading up to Thursday’s season opener. Any and all questions about the crushing double-overtime loss last January, when the Broncos let the home-field advantage slip away, were met with some kind of what’s past is past response. That is Gameweek 101, to be sure, but those in the seats at Sports Authority Field at Mile High may be a different matter entirely. Football fans in the region have done little else but re-hash the playoff loss, the kneel-down the Broncos took just before the end of regulation with two timeouts in hand and the Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones touchdown to tie the game late in the fourth quarter. Should the Broncos start slowly Thursday, it will be curious to see how those on hand respond. Asked Sunday if revenge played any part in the discussion about the game, from his perspective Manning said: “If people need that as extra incentive that’s fine. But I think there’s plenty, just with the schedule and the timing of when we’re playing.’’ Some players said thinking about the loss may have helped push them through offseason workouts at times, but that Thursday’s game is the fresh start for the 2013 season.
  • Hester’s release unquestionably makes Knowshon Moreno the most accomplished back in pass protection for the Broncos. Because of that, Moreno could see plenty of work in some longer down-and-distance situations in place of rookie Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman. Hester was signed last season, in large part, because the Broncos believed they needed help in pass protection at the position. Hester had spent most of this year's training camp and the preseason at fullback. And the Broncos will run the offense with three wide receivers or two tight ends in the formation far more than they will out of a traditional two-back look, so Hester’s spot became somewhat expendable given the numbers at linebacker. Tight end Virgil Green would line up in the backfield much of the time if the Broncos wanted a lead blocker in front of the running back. It also confirms how determined the Broncos are to keeping rookie quarterback Zac Dysert on the roster at the moment.
  • A look at the starting lineups for the playoff game last Jan. 12 does show how change arrives in the league. Nine players who started for the Ravens in that game are not on this year’s roster, including seven on defense. The Broncos weren't hit quite as hard by full-blown departures, but some things have changed. The Broncos had four starters in the game who are no longer with the team – Justin Bannan, Brandon Stokley, Keith Brooking and Elvis Dumervil. Also, Dan Koppen is now on injured reserve, Von Miller is suspended for the first six games of the season and neither Chris Kuper nor Joel Dreessen are expected to start Thursday. "Both teams have a lot of new guys,'' said wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. "They were other places for that game.''
  • Broncos safety Rahim Moore, when asked if he had won back the fans after last year’s playoff loss: “Camp is camp, there is nothing you can really tell by just practice. You can go out there and just show your hard work, but you’re judged by your games. What you’re doing week in, week out is how people judge you.’’
  • The Broncos signed seven players to their practice squad Sunday, including two draft picks from this past April they had released in tackle Vinston Painter and wide receiver Tavarres King, who were the team's sixth- and fifth-round picks, respectively. Also signed to the practice squad were wide receiver Gerell Robinson, running back Edwin Baker, defensive tackle Ben Garland, tackle Paul Cornick and defensive end John Youboty. Baker is the only player of the seven who was not in training camp with the Broncos. The 200-pound second-year back rushed for 1,201 yards as a sophomore at Michigan State in 2010.

Not a banner day for Broncos

August, 27, 2013
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The NFL may market the regular-season opener like a stand-alone playoff game, one for the whole nation to see, but somebody in the league's marketing department forgot to tell folks in Denver.

An enormous banner of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco hangs next to one of Peyton Manning on Sports Authority Field at Mile High as part of promoting the Sept. 5 "Kickoff'' game between the Broncos and Ravens. It has been the target of plenty of honked horns and a shout or two from the cars cruising by on I-25 right outside the stadium. The banners, with Flacco's picture on them, are scattered in several downtown locations as well.

Here's the report from the local CBS affiliate.

As Super Bowl champions the Ravens were slated to host the regular-season opener, but the team had a conflict with the Baltimore Orioles, who have a game that night, and the teams could not reach a resolution. So the NFL eventually moved the regular-season opener for the league to Denver.

Asked following practice about the banners, Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe said, "We'll take care of that, you guys come to the game.''

The space for the banners was purchased by the NFL from the Downtown Denver Partnership.
There is a chance, in fact it’s a very good chance, the Broncos will open the season Sept. 5 against the Baltimore Ravens with 29.5 sacks missing from the lineup.

Elvis Dumervil will be on the other sideline in that national primetime affair having signed with the Ravens after his messy departure from the Broncos and Von Miller is facing a suspension of at least six games – the NFL Players Association is trying to get it reduced to four games – for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. The last time the Broncos faced the Ravens in Denver -- that little January affair that still sends the die-hards on the front range into convulsions -- the Broncos had both Miller and Dumervil in the game and still sacked Joe Flacco just once.

And from a football perspective that means defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio will have to conjure up something to keep his defensive backs from getting hung out like clean sheets in the summer breeze. And while Del Rio and coach John Fox have repeatedly shown creativity on defense, that will be no small task. Especially, when in these pass-happy times, most defensive coordinators believe you can't be truly good on defense if you have to junk it up to often to get to opposing quarterbacks.

That blitzes are fine, well designed rush packages great, but that the best defenses consistently get there with four rushers. Pick any four in the formation, but that the best ones get there over and over again with four guys doing the heavy lifting. But it will all certainly affect how the Broncos go about their business in the secondary and how aggressive they are overall.

Consider how Champ Bailey breaks down the relationship between rush and coverage.

“They go hand in hand. They always go hand in hand. We have to hold it together long enough so those guys can get there and they have to get there to give us a chance. If you don’t rattle the quarterbacks in this league, they’ll pick you apart. It used to be a few guys were really accurate, but now everybody’s accurate because they don’t let you play back there any more if you’re not.’’

While Peyton Manning’s arrival certainly played an enormous role in the Broncos' rejuvenation from a four-win season in 2010 and an eight-win year in 2012 when the won a wobbly AFC West, Del Rio’s ability to crank things up on defense was a significant piece of the puzzle as well.

The Broncos tied for the league lead in sacks last season, with 52, led by Miller’s 18.5 and Dumervil’s 11. Take those two out of the equation and defense that used a variety of fronts and personnel groupings to generate indecision by opposing quarterbacks last season is suddenly faced with the prospect of quarterbacks having the time to stand and pick away at the Denver secondary.

Especially if players like Shaun Phillips and Robert Ayers, a first-round pick in 2009 who has just 6.5 career sacks as he has ridden the carousel of defensive coordinators until Del Rio arrived -- Del Rio is the first coordinator to work back-to-back seasons in Denver since Larry Coyer did it in 2005 and 2006.

Which brings us all back to accuracy. In Bailey’s rookie year, before touching a receiver down the field was an annual point of emphasis, seven quarterbacks finished the year with at least a 60 percent completion rate. Last season, with offenses having tossed it around at record rates, 16 quarterbacks with at least 265 attempts finished with at least 60 percent completion rate.

Or, as Bailey put it early in training camp; “If you don’t get there, make them uncomfortable, you can’t stop them. These guys will carve you up. No matter who is in there, we have to find a way to get there. If we don't, it's going to be hard to be the defense we need to be.’’
By the time the Broncos are done in the preseason, their defense will have at least kicked the tires on how they will play quarterbacks at each end of the spectrum.

In the preseason opener last week, they got a look – albeit a short one – at Colin Kaepernick. And in his 12-play cameo the Broncos saw every bit of the mobility and upper-tier arm strength that helped power the 49ers into the Super Bowl last season.

In his only drive, Kaepernick was 4-of-4 passing for 38 yards to go with a 6-yard run as he led the 49ers on 13-play, 67-yard jaunt through the Broncos defensive starters. In all, the 49ers held the ball for 7 minutes, 7 seconds, closing out the possession with a field goal.

Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III
AP Photo/Evan VucciThe Broncos are likely to play against two of the most mobile young quarterbacks in the NFL in Russell Wilson on Saturday night and Robert Griffin III on Oct. 27.
"That’s a good offense, but we know that’s not really us," said cornerback Champ Bailey. “We have to be better than that and we are. But that’s what the preseason’s for, to work all that out. But that’s a pretty good offense with a special guy at quarterback. Just the kind of thing that shows you what the season’s about."

Saturday night the Broncos get a look at Russell Wilson, another mobile passer with the kind of arm that made him a Colorado Rockies draft pick. Wilson also carries himself with a wise-beyond-his-years composure when things get tight to go with almost unshakable confidence. The Broncos regulars are expected to play most, or all, of the first half Saturday night in Seattle.

And in the third preseason outing, likely the last gameday work the Broncos defensive starters will get in August, the Broncos will see the St. Louis Rams’ Sam Bradford, a largely pocket passer with quality accuracy.

“It’s probably a good thing for us,’’ Bailey said. “It kind of gets everybody in that routine of getting ready for one kind of quarterback, then turn around a week later and get another one. That’s how the season goes.

“The young guys need to see that. In college, it can look the same a lot of times: similar offenses, similar quarterbacks. I think in this league you learn every guy brings a lot to the table or they wouldn’t be here and every guy can hurt you in different ways. If you can't adjust, they'll score points and hurt you.’’

It does mirror -- at least some -- how the Broncos will open the regular season. In the first two weeks they’ll get the Ravens Joe Flacco and the Giants Eli Manning, pocket passers in the more traditional mode, each with at least one Super Bowl win on his resume.

In Week 4, they have the possibility of facing Michael Vick in Chip Kelly’s high-speed attack with the Eagles if Vick indeed wins the quarterback competition. And in Weeks 7 and 8, the Broncos get Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III in back-to-back games, the two quarterbacks who top what could the be the remember-when draft class of 2012.

“I think that is true -- you don’t see that big a difference in college with the guys back there,’’ said Broncos defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson. “It changes how you rush, what you play on the back end, all of those things. We all have to adjust every week, you know, but for the young guys that’s kind of the thing -- you have to be ready to go from one quarterback to a totally different guy in a few days. That’s the way this league goes. If you can’t get prepared every week, they don’t keep you around very long.’’

Camp Confidential: Denver Broncos

August, 13, 2013

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Live on Colorado's front range long enough, and you live with an unshakable, that's-the-way-it-is truth. That most days, as in 300 or so a year, the sun shines brightly and the skies are blue.

But when the storm clouds come rolling down the mountains, it's an ambush -- they come fast and with menacing intent. And that, really, is the story of the Broncos' offseason.

"Hey, you have to deal with all kinds of things along the way," said Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, now entering his 10th season with the team. "And we've had plenty of things to deal with around here over the years; sometimes we've done a good job with it, sometimes we haven't. I tell the young guys all the time, we'll see how we handle things. We can be good, but we have to get to work, because thinking you're good and being good are always two different things."

The Broncos entered free agency as Super Bowl favorites, then they signed Wes Welker to a Peyton Manning-led offense that had already been good enough to be No. 2 in scoring in 2012. They drafted well, and filled some other needs with veteran signees Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Stewart Bradley and Shaun Phillips.

Yep, football sunshine and blue skies.

Then there was Faxgate and Elvis Dumervil's rather messy exit from the team that drafted him in 2006.

Then two high-ranking front-office executives -- director of pro personnel Tom Heckert and director of player personnel Matt Russell -- were arrested on drunken driving charges a month apart. Heckert was eventually suspended a month without pay -- he's due to return to the team Thursday -- and Russell was suspended indefinitely.

Then defensive playmaker Von Miller was slapped with a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, a revelation that came with the rather troubling fact that Miller had previously violated the policy to get to the suspension phase.

Miller's appeal will be heard Thursday by league officials, and a decision is expected before the regular-season opener against the Ravens.

Toss in a pile of injuries, especially to the offensive line, and it's clear coach John Fox's task will be to keep a talented team on track as it wrestles with the expectations around it, as well as the pothole-filled road it has already traveled.

"It's been my experience if you don't expect a lot, you don't get a lot," Fox said. "Keep the bar low, and that's where people go. We're going to keep the bar high -- I don't mind expectations -- and I think the guys have had good focus. They know the work that has to be done, and I know they'll do it."


1. Deal with it. Former Broncos defensive end Alfred Williams might have said it best. Williams said the Broncos are the only team in the league "with 20 preseason games."

So true. After a 13-3 finish that included an 11-game winning streak dissolved into a crushing playoff loss to the Ravens, the team's fan base essentially sees the coming regular season as little more than an inconvenience before another postseason chance.

That can be a lot to handle for a team, especially if players and coaches get too focused on the potential lack of appreciation from the outside world for anything that happens along the way. More than one person inside the team's Dove Valley complex has expressed frustration in the past six months over the fact that few folks bring up the 13-3 record, the win streak or the division title, and that it is all Ravens, all the time in any discussion about the 2012 season.

Frustrating indeed, but the Broncos have to find some peace of mind somewhere as they move through the next four months.

[+] EnlargeRyan Clady
Harry How/Getty ImagesWhile the Broncos wait for star left tackle Ryan Clady to return from shoulder surgery, the team has many questions on the offensive line.
2. Front-line issues. Left tackle Ryan Clady, a newly minted five-year, $52.5 million contract in hand, is still working back from offseason shoulder surgery and is not yet 100 percent.

Center J.D. Walton had ankle surgery just before minicamp and isn't expected back in the lineup until late October or early November at the earliest. He was just seen at the Broncos' complex this past week without a walking boot on for the first time since the operation.

Walton's backup, Dan Koppen, tore his ACL in the first week of training camp and is done for the year.

It leaves Manny Ramirez, who just started his first career game at center in the Broncos' preseason opener in San Francisco, and 31-year-old Ryan Lilja, who was signed out of retirement after two surgeries (knee, toe) earlier in the offseason, as the options in the middle.

Given that defensive coordinators routinely believe the best way to pressure Manning is through the middle of the formation, the Broncos will need an answer to protect him.

3. Defense will tell the tale. We get it, it's a quarterback league. The rulebook essentially begs/demands that people put the ball in the air almost nonstop in any situation. Offense puts people in the seats.

Whatever. Remind me, but wasn't the Super Bowl -- a Super Bowl played by the two teams that ran the ball the most during the playoffs -- won on a goal-line stand when an offense couldn't/wouldn't punch it in from the doorstep?

The Broncos put up 35 points this past January and were sent home to the collective couch. And when you get right down to it, in back-to-back playoff losses, the Broncos have surrendered 694 passing yards and nine passing touchdowns with just one interception and one sack combined against Tom Brady to close out the 2011 season and Joe Flacco to close out 2012.

So, Manning to Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker looks nice on a magazine cover, but how the guys on the other side of the ball do will have plenty to say about how far this team goes.


It's a talented roster with one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time behind center and a remember-when defensive talent bursting with potential in Miller. Denver is a balanced team that finished in the top five in both offense and defense last season with one of the great home-field advantages in the league. Oh, and the guy running the team is a Hall of Fame quarterback who knows a thing or two about what a title-winning locker room should look like.


There are some in the league who looked at the Broncos' drama-filled offseason and said they had the tumultuous profile of a team that had won the Super Bowl instead of losing two rounds before the title game. The Broncos have had the infamous fax issues, the off-the-field troubles, a reality show, a looming suspension of a superstar and more than their share of injuries. Maybe when the games count, none of that will matter, but history is littered with teams that put the championship cart before the horse, content to enjoy the fruits of potential rather than the actual title.


  • [+] EnlargeWes Welker
    Marc Piscotty/Icon SMIThere will be plenty of opportunities for Wes Welker in Denver's offense.
    Welker's signing is going to work out -- barring injuries, of course -- exactly the way everybody wanted it to, including Welker. He fits the offense. Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase will even expand Welker's reach in Denver's playbook compared with what Welker did in New England, and Welker has worked hard to fit in. There has been some hand-wringing both near and far about where the "catches" were going to come from for a guy with five 100-reception seasons. The answer is that the catches are already in the offense. Working mostly out of the slot last season, tight end Jacob Tamme and wide receiver Brandon Stokley combined for 97 receptions, 1,099 yards and seven touchdowns. Those numbers from Welker would fit quite nicely.
  • The offensive line is an issue to keep an eye on until the Broncos prove it's not. Getting Clady back in the lineup -- he's still on track to start the opener -- will help greatly, but they've struggled to protect the quarterbacks in practice against their own high-end defense, as well as in the preseason opener. If things don't improve, the Broncos will spend an awful lot of time tossing dump-offs to the hot receiver or shallow crosses because they can't protect long enough to go down the field.
  • Miller's potential and ability are almost limitless. Former longtime Broncos defensive coordinator Joe Collier, the guy who called the shots for the Orange Crush defense, has said Miller has the potential to be the franchise's best-ever defensive player. But Miller, the results of his appeal of his four-game suspension notwithstanding, has to hold up his end of the bargain, both on and off the field, to make that happen. And the Broncos will have to decide over the next season or so -- his contract is up after 2014 -- just how high they'll want to go on an extension and whether the investment will be worth it over the long term.
  • Folks can wish it were different, especially as they wrestle with their fantasy lineups each week, but every indication on the practice field -- as in EVERY indication -- is that Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball are going to share the workload in a variety of down-and-distance situations. And Knowshon Moreno and Jacob Hester figure to at least be in the third-down mix as well at times.
  • Hillman, however, should benefit from Gase's concerted effort to create more impact in the run game outside the hashmarks. The Broncos weren't all that good, or committed, to the outside runs last season. And if Hillman runs with decisiveness and the Broncos can get it done up front -- they brought longtime assistant Alex Gibbs back to help with the zone-run game -- there are some big plays waiting.
  • The games will ultimately be the gauge, but safety Rahim Moore has had a quality camp in an offseason in which many wondered how he would bounce back from the ill-fated leap in the playoff loss to the Ravens. But the bottom line is Moore played more snaps (1,044) than any other player on the defense last season with substantial improvement over his rookie year in 2011, and if everyone else had played their assignments on the Jacoby Jones touchdown, Joe Flacco wouldn't have even thrown the ball that way in the first place. So, those guys should buy Moore a nice dinner for taking the heat and watch him in the starting lineup again.
  • Thomas sported a heady 15.3 yards-per-catch average on the way to 1,434 yards receiving last season. But that per-catch average should go up given the choices defenses are going to have to make with Welker in the formation. If defenses double in the short and intermediate area to deal with Welker, the Broncos' tight ends and Thomas can overpower most defensive backs down the field.
  • Defensive end Robert Ayers has consistently said, since the team made him the 18th pick of the 2009 draft, that he has far more to offer when the opportunity comes. And the opportunity has arrived with Dumervil's departure. Ayers has just 6.5 career sacks in his four seasons and has played for four defensive coordinators along the way, each of whom wanted something a little different from him. But Jack Del Rio is back for a second consecutive year, and Ayers is the starter at rush end. Now's the time.
  • Reports of Bailey's demise are exaggerated, but he is certainly a 35-year-old entering his 15th season. Or as he put it: "I had some plays in the playoff game I should have made, pure and simple. I didn't, but I can let it drag me down or just get back to it. I still think I can play and I think I have shown I can still play at a high level." The Broncos will pick their spots more when they single him up, but he has been top-shelf throughout training camp while running stride for stride with the Broncos' best receivers.
  • The Broncos have an awful lot riding on how Gibbs and offensive line coach Dave Magazu get things worked out on the offensive line. If the Broncos can add some pop out of the play-action run game and consistently protect Manning out of a three-wide receiver set, the points should follow.
  • Some say Welker's presence in the offense means the Broncos will throw more in '13. However, Manning's 400 completions last season amounted to the second-highest total of his career, and his 583 attempts were the third-highest. In a perfect world, the Broncos would like those totals to be slightly lower this time around -- Manning himself has said "we'd like to run it more" -- because it would mean they simply ran the ball to close out games in which they already had the lead.

John Fox stands behind Rahim Moore

February, 21, 2013
INDIANAPOLIS -- The last we saw of Rahim Moore, he made an unforgettable, inconceivable error that cost the Denver Broncos their 2012 season.

However, it will not be the last we see of Moore in Denver.

In the final seconds of regulation in the AFC divisional playoff round, Moore, a second-year safety, inexplicably allowed Baltimore receiver Jacoby Jones to get beyond him on a desperation 70-yard bomb from Joe Flacco that sent the game to overtime. The Ravens won 38-35 in double overtime. Denver was a Super Bowl favorite and were seconds away from punching a ticket to hosting the AFC title game.

There has been speculation that the Broncos will move away from Moore. Instead the Broncos are embracing him. The team fully expects him to be a major part of the defense in 2013.

“Craziness,” Denver coach John Fox said Thursday at the NFL combine. “He made a huge leap from Year 1 to Year 2 and I expect the same leap to be made this year … He made a mistake, we all did. We have to perform better and we have to coach better.”

Fox said the team began to work on getting Moore to move on from the play “the next day.” The coach also said the bitterness of the defeat lasted through the Super Bowl and that he and the team had “spit out” the bad taste of the Baltimore loss. As for Moore, Fox said: “he spit it out, too.”

How Denver can improve in 2013

February, 16, 2013
The winter doldrums of a football-less mid-February are taking over in the Rocky Mountains. The days are a little colder and a little darker as the Denver Broncos come to grips with what could have been.

Watching confetti fall on the jubilant Baltimore Ravens after their Super Bowl victory Feb. 3 had to further damage the Broncos’ collective psyche -- part of a haunting winter theme of “it could have been us.”

The Broncos saw their Super Bowl push end in a 38-35 double-overtime defeat to the visiting Ravens in the AFC divisional round. Denver was 13-3 in the regular season, had the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs and entered the playoffs on an 11-game winning streak in which it won every game by at least a touchdown. Its early exit from the postseason was stunning -- and particularly painful for the Broncos because they know it was so avoidable.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Dustin Bradford/Getty ImagesFilling a few holes, including at receiver, could give Peyton Manning and Denver a better end in 2014.
Baltimore sent the game to overtime on a 70-yard bomb from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones on a play in which Denver safety Rahim Moore inexplicably allowed Jones to get behind him in the final seconds of regulation. Countless former players said they had never seen an NFL defensive back make that type of play. Had Moore simply done his job, Denver would have advanced.

Instead, the Broncos will try to regroup and move forward. Despite the sobering end of the season and its painful aftereffects, the Broncos should feel good about themselves heading into the 2013 season as NFL Comeback Player of the Year winner and MVP runner-up Peyton Manning prepares for his second season in Denver at age 37.

“There’s a lot of young players in this locker room that need to use this as motivation, as a spark to have that fire burning inside of them this offseason and come back stronger,” veteran middle linebacker Keith Brooking said shortly after the season. “This is a great locker room. The Denver Broncos are really close.”

The Broncos are not alone in building high expectations for the immediate future. The Las Vegas oddsmakers have made the Broncos the early favorite to win next year’s Super Bowl. In an Insider piece, pegged them as a strong early contender for next season Insider.

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. had this to say about the Broncos heading into next season: “I think their roster is exceptional.”

Still, it would be inaccurate to say this is the perfect roster. The Broncos, two years removed from a 4-12 season, need to upgrade at certain spots. With the No. 28 pick in the draft and expected room under the salary cap, Denver should be able to improve. Let’s take a look at some areas the Broncos should look at as they aim for a long Super Bowl run next season:

Running back: The Broncos have the making of a decent stable of running backs but could use another pair of legs. I think Denver needs to find a bigger back to help in short-yardage situations. Jacob Hester did a nice job at the end of the season, but Denver might want to find a better back. Again, with Willis McGahee, a revived Knowshon Moreno and young Ronnie Hillman, there is a lot to like in the immediate future. But another talented runner wouldn’t hurt.

Receiver: Brandon Stokley did a nice job at age 36 as the slot receiver, but I could see Denver looking for a younger, more special option. There will be some interesting options available, including Wes Welker in free agency and perhaps Percy Harvin in a trade. Denver could even try to go big and add a player such as Mike Wallace. If Denver’s brass decides it can afford to make a big splash, this could be an area where Manning can take advantage. The truth is that the future is now in Denver. Manning has only so many years left, so Denver could be intrigued by striking big at this spot.

Defensive tackle: Denver’s defense made huge strides in 2012 under first-year defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. Veteran defensive tackles Kevin Vickerson and Justin Bannan were good in their roles. But both are free agents, and Denver might want to get younger. There could be some solid options in the first round at this position, such as Purdue’s Kawann Short and Georgia’s Johnathan Jenkins. Denver should find a good, young run-stuffer to plug in the middle of an explosive defense.

Middle linebacker: Brooking played well last season, but he was 37 and Denver needs to find a better starting option, whether via free agency in the form of someone like Baltimore’s Dannell Ellerbe or in the draft if Notre Dame’s Manti Te'o, Georgia’s Alec Ogletree or LSU’s Kevin Minter is available. Denver has a lot of young pieces on defense. Adding another one at this position wouldn’t be a terrible idea.

Secondary: The last time we saw the Broncos, it wasn’t a great day for Denver’s secondary. In addition to Moore’s last-second gaffe, surefire Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey was torched. But Bailey, who will turn 35 in June, had a good season and the Broncos will keep him for another year with young, promising Chris Harris and Tony Carter. As at receiver, though, Denver could be tempted to go big and try to get into the Darrelle Revis trade talks if the Jets make a move. I also could see Denver looking to upgrade at safety. Moore, a second-round pick in 2011, made strides in 2012, and the team likely will not give up on him because of the one bad play. But adding another safety might be smart.

Dream free-agent pairings

February, 11, 2013
Free agency begins March 12. A lot will happen between now and then.

Pending free agents will be franchised and re-signed. But for now, let’s connect each AFC West with a dream free agent for them.

Denver: Mike Wallace, WR, Pittsburgh: Wallace may make it to the open market, so Denver can get him. A receiving crew of Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wallace would make Peyton Manning a very happy dude.

Kansas City: Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore: The Ravens are not going to let him go, but if something stunning happened, the Chiefs would jump on Flacco. He is an upper-level quarterback. The addition of Flacco would make the talented, but quarterback-less Chiefs a top level team.

Oakland: Aqib Talib, CB, New England: He is troubled, but he is talented. We saw the impact Talib had in New England. He is a talented player. Cornerback is Oakland’s greatest need. Getting Talib in the free agency (Oakland will be hard pressed to afford him) and a pass-rusher with the No. 3 overall pick would go a long way to fix this defense.

San Diego: Ryan Clady, LT, Denver: New San Diego coach Mike McCoy will love to bring Clady with him from Denver. Left tackle is the Chargers' greatest need. Clady would be a huge help to this offense. But the Broncos have no plans of letting Clady walk.
Want to learn how not to play defense in crucial situations against the Baltimore Ravens?

Just watch tape of the AFC West.

According to U-T San Diego, the San Francisco 49ers have watched and learned from the Chargers’ awful defense on the famous Ray Rice fourth-and-29 first-down conversion that turned what looked like a sure San Diego win into a Baltimore overtime victory. The last-gasp play came late in regulation Nov. 25.

I’m sure that, as they prepare to face the Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday, the 49ers have also watched Rahim Moore's horrendous defense in the Broncos' meeting with the Ravens in the divisional playoffs. The 70-yard bomb from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones over Moore tied the game late in regulation and set up the Ravens’ win in double overtime.

I witnessed both gaffes in person. And, no, I still can’t believe either happened. But the truth is, if the Ravens win the Super Bowl, they can thank the two colossal AFC West misplays for helping them get there.
NFL Network passed along an interesting nugget saying that the camp of Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco is aiming for him to be paid more than Peyton Manning.

Why do Flacco’s representatives think he deserves more than the five-year, $90 million deal Manning got from the Denver Broncos last March? Because, according to the report, they think Flacco is playing better than Manning.

I heard from a lot of outraged Broncos fans about that claim. My thoughts?

Well, Flacco is in the Super Bowl and one of the reasons why he is in New Orleans is because he and the Ravens beat Manning and the Broncos in the playoffs. For the moment, Flacco is playing better than Manning because he is still playing and Manning is not. It’s the old-fashioned "scoreboard" reasoning.

Of course, Manning is an MVP favorite and he had a better year than Flacco. If you polled 32 teams, I’d bet the vast majority would rather have Manning, who will be 37 in March, than Flacco in 2013.

But Flacco is 28 and he in his prime. Thus, a Super Bowl quarterback who is a free agent in the prime of his career is definitely going to try to beat the contract of the last huge contract signed by a premier veteran quarterback. It doesn’t mean he is disrespecting Manning. It’s just business.

In other AFC West-related news:

My thoughts on the report that the New York Jets are exploring the idea of signing former Oakland quarterback JaMarcus Russell?

Man, the Jets are a mess. Russell is in the early stages of his comeback. He hasn’t played in four years and he was awful when he played. He has to prove himself to earn his way back into the NFL. I just don’t know why the Jets are having any interest before Russell shows he belongs.