AFC West: Peyton Manning

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

Bill Belichick and Peyton Manning. Again.

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

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

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Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesPeyton Manning, right, passed for 400 yards and two TDs in a 26-16 win against Bill Belichick and the Patriots on Jan. 19 in the AFC title game.
Manning was asked this week if he thought deep down Belichick, who is 12-10 when facing Manning as a coordinator or head coach, might be tired of facing Manning after all these years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welker said he feels more "comfortable" going back to play against New England this time around and that "I'm just so excited about the opportunity and a big game like this."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- For all of the time and verbiage expended on the discussion of quarterbacks in recent meetings between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots, the bottom line has often been found, not in well-constructed spirals thrown from here to there, but at ground level.

Yes, since the start of the 2006 season, these two teams have played eight times, including twice in the playoffs, and the team that has pounded out more yardage in the run game has won six of the games.

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Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsAqib Talib and the Broncos will need to rely on its top-ranked run defense to beat the Patriots.
"Doesn't surprise me," said Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. "Not at all. I think people on offense know every defense wants to stop the run, make you do one thing because then you go after the quarterback. If people run the ball on you, then the quarterback stays clean and he gets do what he wants when he wants. And with Tom Brady that's never a good thing."

There was the Patriots' 257-yard rushing day in 2008, their 251-yard rushing day in 2012 -- both wins for New England -- to go with the quirks as well. The read-option Broncos of 2011 ran for 252 yards on the Patriots' defense, but lost when Patriots head coach Bill Belchick's plan stymied Tim Tebow into an 11-of-22 passing day with no touchdowns.

Or the 280 yards rushing the Broncos pounded out in last year's regular-season meeting when the Broncos launched themselves to a 24-0 halftime lead before losing 34-31 in overtime. But, in the end, the rushing numbers have been a quality crystal ball for how this rivalry between AFC power brokers has gone over the past 13 seasons even with Peyton Manning behind center for the Broncos since 2012 and Brady behind center for the Patriots in all but one of those games (the Patriots' win in '08 when Brady was recovering from season-ending knee surgery).

The Patriots have often pounded out game-changing running room against the Broncos' lighter defensive formations, in the nickel and dime, when New England spreads the field, forcing the Broncos to respond with additional defensive backs. The Broncos, with rookie cornerback Bradley Roby having added the athleticism and the willingness to tackle in the run game as the nickel corner to the already physical tandem on Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib, tackle better on the outside than they have in recent seasons.

"I think at the end of the day there's no doubt that they've had some great battles, had great success over time, both of them," said Broncos head coach John Fox. "In Peyton's case (with) two different teams. Obviously with Tom (Brady), one team. But I think so much more -- it's a team game. That doesn't get a lot of publicity but at the end of the day it's going to be the Broncos versus the Patriots."

This past Sunday, even with Brady having thrown the ball 35 times in his five-touchdown blitz of the Chicago Bears, the Patriots still ran the ball 32 times -- for 122 yards -- including an 86-yard day from Jonas Gray. Gray is a player who has already spent time on the Baltimore Ravens' practice squad in his career and been cut by the Miami Dolphins.

The Broncos enter Sunday's game with the league's top run defense, with opponents having rushed for an average of 72.4 yards per game. Since the Kansas City Chiefs pounded out 133 yards in Week 2 to go with 129 yards by the Seattle Seahawks in Week 3, the Broncos have surrendered 37, 31, 62 and 61 net rushing yards.

And 23 of the San Diego Chargers' 61 rushing yards last Thursday night came on the game's final play with the Chargers running out the final 18 seconds of the game from their own 31-yard line.

"It's the same mindset every week," said Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall. "We don't want people running the ball on us. We want to get to all of the things we can do with our packages in the pass rush. To do that we have to stop the run."

"We've had a good start, but each week we want to get that number lower and lower," Knighton said. "Two specific categories we look at in our D-line group and that's run defense and sacks. We put a lot of emphasis in that. We talk about it off the field, it's on our minds all the time. When you have corners like Aqib and Chris coming in and making tackles, safeties like our safeties, that means everybody on the field is committed. And the number shows how you swarm."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It's not an issue, a point of controversy or even bulletin board material even if there had been an actual bulletin board in the locker room at any point over the past decade.

But it is a riddle of sorts, an unanswered question, the Denver Broncos say they feel like they're asking almost annually.

That if the NFL schedule is indeed based on predictable rotations, with pre-ordained slots, that offer a different collection of non-divisional opponents each season to go with a team that finished in the same place in their division as you finished in yours, how, then, do the Broncos keep facing the New England Patriots in Gillette Stadium.

"That's what I'm asking y'all," said Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. with a laugh. "Y'all supposed to tell me that."

Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has pointed it out, just before each of the previous two trips "it's always random they say, but it's been strange how that works out."

Sunday's game in Gillette Stadium will mark the third consecutive season the Broncos have played a regular-season game in the Patriots' home park, following a Nov. 24 game last season to go with a Oct. 7 game in 2012. Add in regular-season trips to the grounds just off Route 1 in 2006 (Sept. 24) and in 2008 (Oct. 20), and that brings the grand total to five regular-season trips in the past nine years.

Toss in a playoff game -- a 45-10 Patriots' win to close out the 2011 season that was Tim Tebow's last game as a starting quarterback for Denver -- and the Broncos are well acquainted with area hotels. Perhaps it stings a little more for the Broncos given the Broncos are 1-3 in those previous regular-season meetings, including last season's 34-31 overtime loss when the Broncos led 24-0 at halftime.

Asked Monday if he's every inquired about the scheduling quirk, Broncos head coach John Fox said: "I actually did ask that question and I was reassured that it'll flip in the future. So, when exactly that is, I'm not sure."

The schedule template for the 2015 season does include a home game for the Broncos to play the AFC East team that finishes the regular season in the same slot in that division as the Broncos finish in the AFC West this year.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – It’s a simple equation: First eat the veggies then you get dessert.

And for the Denver Broncos to turn loose their pass rushers they first have to put opposing offenses in favorable down-and-distance situations where, as Broncos linebacker Von Miller put it, “We can just go.''

With Thursday night’s 35-21 victory over the San Diego Chargers, the Broncos sit among the league leaders in most of the major defensive categories, including No. 2 in sacks and No. 1, by a tenth of a yard on average, in run defense.

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Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesThe Broncos have given up only 191 rushing yards in their past four games combined.
Things could change at least some when the remainder of the games get played this weekend, but since the Broncos have already had their bye , they are ranked, at the moment, with most of the other top 10 teams on defense that had played seven games before the Broncos played Thursday night’s affair.

“In order to keep a defense honest you have to be able to run the ball, and whenever they felt like they had an opportunity to run the ball we shut them down and that was our main focus this week as a front,’’ Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. “That’s something we improved on this year.”

The Chargers finished with 61 yards rushing Thursday night and that total included a meaningless 23-yard run by Branden Oliver on the last play of the game. The Chargers were the fourth consecutive opponent, and the fifth for the season, the Broncos have held to fewer than 63 yards rushing.

The Kansas City Chiefs put up 133 yards in Week 2, and the Seattle Seahawks had 129 in Week 3. In both of those games the Broncos allowed mobile quarterbacks to get free with 42 yards rushing by Kansas City’s Alex Smith and 40 by Seattle’s Russell Wilson, including 21 in the Seahawks’ game-winning drive in overtime.

The Broncos continue to make progress as a group. And the thing they have done far better this season than last is defend the run out of their specialty packages, such as the nickel and the dime, something opponents used to take advantage of as they pounded away at the smaller personnel groupings.

Though most teams haven't been able to get games into a grind-it-out mode to keep the ball away from the Broncos offense yet this season, especially if the Broncos get an early lead, the Broncos' defense sees its job as getting the ball back for Manning and Co. as many times as possible.

“It all starts when we stop people from running,’’ cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “It’s a passing league, but teams still want to run the ball to keep you from coming after the quarterback. If teams can’t run, we get to rush the passer and if we get to rush the passer we’re going to get off the field. And if we get off the field that just means Peyton and our offense get the ball more and that’s always good.’’

It is a trend, at least if the numbers are to be trusted, that should continue if the Broncos can hold up their end of the bargain. In their remaining nine games they face just two teams -- Kansas City (No. 10) and Miami (No. 11) -- that are ranked higher than 15th in rushing offense, and the Broncos have five games against teams currently ranked 23rd or lower.

That is plenty of road still to travel so, as Fox put it in so many words Friday, hold the confetti just yet.

“We’re a work in progress,’’ Fox said. “I’m not too big into statistics when you’re not even to halftime yet. It doesn’t really matter who is leading at halftime. The important thing is where you’re at at the end of it. That’s kind of where we are.’’

“We just want to get the ball and give it back to our offense,’’ Ward said. “If you give more and more possessions to Peyton and our offense, that’s a long day for you … and we want it to be a long day for you.’’
DENVER -- A few takeaways from the Denver Broncos' locker room after the 35-21 victory over the San Diego Chargers:
  • Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. had a good start to what he said would be a "great weekend" when he nabbed his second interception of the season with 13:35 to play in the second quarter. Harris' wife Leah is also scheduled to give birth to the couple's first child and was being induced late Thursday. "We were in the second half, and in first half my mind wasn't really in the game to me, and I just told Coach [John Fox] that I was going to turn up and make a play for us, and I did that."
  • Running back Ronnie Hillman now has two 100-yard games in this past three starts since Montee Ball suffered a right groin injury Oct. 5 against the Arizona Cardinals. Hillman finished with 109 yards on his 20 carries against the Chargers and has had 37-yard runs in back-to-back games. He has averaged 4.2, 5.3 and 5.5 yards per carry in those three starts. "I feel like I can do a lot more," Hillman said. "... I just plan on getting better every week, and if getting better every week helps this offense, I'll do my best. ... When you understand the offense, you understand what's going on, the angles, you start to realize it gets easier, you see the play."
  • Broncos linebacker Lamin Barrow, a regular on the special-teams units, suffered a concussion and did not return to the lineup. Barrow is now under the guidelines of the league's concussion protocol.
  • The Broncos like how the defense has played in recent weeks, but defensive tackle Terrance Knighton is still looking for the complete game, as it were. "We just have that one series [every game] where it looks like we don't know what we're doing," Knighton said. "And our coaches are putting us in good position to make plays, and we just have to make them."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – With the kind of speed that would make any overnight delivery service proud, the football Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning threw to Demaryius Thomas on Sunday night for Manning’s 509th career touchdown pass is on display in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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

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

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

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

The Film Don't Lie: Broncos

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
A weekly look at what the Denver Broncos must fix:

A lot of what the Broncos had on the drawing board this past offseason has come to pass over their first six games: The defense is more athletic, the pass rush is disruptive and quarterback Peyton Manning directs an offense that can stress an opposing defense all over the field.

But the Broncos' offensive line? The group is still trying to figure things out. With San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano next on the docket, the Broncos will need the line to settle in to deal with the aggressive, unpredictable looks the Chargers can offer.

The Broncos made a change this past Sunday with Paul Cornick moving to right tackle in place of Chris Clark. Coach John Fox said “things hadn’t gone real good’’ before the change. Manning has routinely muted pass-rush plans with his ability to locate the extra rushers in the formation before the snap and deliver the ball quickly. But the fact remains the Broncos, low sack numbers or not, have not handled how defenses have chosen to attack them.

The Broncos have struggled up front at times with stunts from opposing defensive linemen or rushers coming from off the ball, off the line of scrimmage and too often rushers have simply come free. San Francisco 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks tackled running back Ronnie Hillman for a 3-yard loss this past Sunday after Brooks was unblocked in a formation with the three tight ends and one extra tackle -- and that was after the Jets had sacked Manning twice with a three-man rush a week ago

Pagano will try to create some indecision as the Chargers have 12 players with at least one sack this season, especially through the middle of the formation where opponents have consistently attacked the gaps between center Manny Ramirez and guards Louis Vasquez and Orlando Franklin.
San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has a unique history with Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, one that goes beyond their time together with the Indianapolis Colts.

And yet, it might not matter as far as an advanced scouting report goes.

“Well, I’ve known him since he was a teenager, a young guy back in New Orleans,” Fangio said Thursday. “His dad was involved with the Saints and Peyton used to come around to our practices. Back in those days, there were no OTAs. If you had guys around, you maybe have a little skelly. And some of the times, he was a freshman and sophomore in high school, he came over and quarterbacked in those [scrimmages]. So, I’ve known him a long time.”

Wait, a teenaged Manning used to follow his father Archie to Saints unofficial offseason workouts and throw the ball around with the pros who happened to be in the facility?

“I said, now, there were no formal practices back then,” said Fangio, who was the Saints’ linebackers coach from 1986 through 1994. “OTAs did not exist. It might be 10, 15 guys hanging around. We’d have a little playground-type skelly. Not an OTA that you’re thinking that we have [now].

“I’d say [he was] 14, 15 [years old]. You just knew that he loved football. He was thrilled to be there with some other NFL players, but yet he was focused on the task at hand and he wanted to throw the ball good.”

Their paths crossed again in Indianapolis when Fangio served as the Colts’ defensive coordinator from 1999-2001.

“Vic is an outstanding coach,” Manning said in a conference call with Bay Area reporters on Wednesday. “I enjoyed the [three] years that he and I were together in Indianapolis.

“I used to enjoy talking ball with him and competing against his defenses in practice. It was always very competitive and the different places he’s been, his teams have always been very well coached.”

Fangio recalled a young Manning -- the No. 1 overall pick of the 1998 draft -- being a sponge.

“He would spend a lot of time at the facility,” Fangio said. “I’m talking day and night. Many times, I’d walk by the film room where he was watching tape, he’d pull me in and ask me what the defense was doing here, why they’re doing this or he’d come in my office and ask me. We would always have football conversations.

“He loves football. He really does. He’s 38 years old ... and he still loves the game, loves playing, loves preparing. I’m sure he’s studying just as he always has. He’s a true football junkie.”

49ers vs. Broncos preview

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Prime time is the right time for a game between teams that entered the season at the front of the Super Bowl conversation.

At least that is how Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. sees it.

"You face any other top teams in the league, you always want to get up for them," Harris Jr. said. "It’s Sunday night prime time, so we want to have a good showing. We want to go out there and show we’re definitely a contender, definitely one of the top teams. ... They have a great team; they’ve been together for a while, so they know how to play together in these big games."

The San Francisco 49ers will be the fifth team the Broncos (4-1) have played this season that won at least 10 games in 2013 -- "we’ve had a salty schedule," is how Broncos coach John Fox has put it -- and the 49ers (4-2) own the only win against the Dallas Cowboys this season and have won three in a row.

ESPN's 49ers reporter Paul Gutierrez and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss the matchup:

Legwold: Paul, it seems, at least from the outside, like there has been plenty of turmoil this season with reports 49ers players are tuning Jim Harbaugh out and that Harbaugh won’t return after this season. What’s the mood in the locker room? And how do you think Harbaugh interacts with the team?

Gutierrez: It’s important to note that most, if not all, of these reports have come from national reporters, particularly from a certain league-owned media outlet. And to the conspiracy theorist in me, that means the leaks are coming from within the 49ers and above Harbaugh’s pay grade. As I’ve said before, Harbaugh likes to make his players uncomfortable because he believes that brings out the best in them. I wonder if that same mentality is being thrust upon Harbaugh’s coaching skills. As far as the locker room goes, to a man and on the record, the players say they have Harbaugh’s back, with quarterback Colin Kaepernick saying he would go to "war" with his coach. And technically, Harbaugh still has a year left on his deal. It’s just that talks of extension have been tabled until after the season. It has made for a wild ride thus far, no doubt, and Harbaugh has made a point to wander through the locker room to chat with players during media access periods during the week.

Speaking of bedside manner, Fox has been seen as a folksy players' coach from yesteryear, at least, to the outsider. How much of his personality has rubbed off on the players, and is that a reason the Broncos have been able to shake off the sting of last February’s Super Bowl disaster?

Legwold: When Fox missed four games last season because of heart valve surgery, the word most of the players, as well as the coaches on Fox’s staff, used to describe what was missing while Fox was away was "energy." Those who have worked with him say Fox’s greatest attribute, beyond the on-field work, is giving those in the organization the belief their job is an important part of the process, no matter where the job fits within the organization. Yes, the Broncos have won plenty of games along the way, and having Peyton Manning at quarterback is a spectacular starting point for any head coach, but Fox has support in the locker room, in the executive offices, and a contract extension signed this past offseason. That said, he has also been the guy in charge when the Broncos have come up short, and in the case of the Super Bowl, 35 points short.

Moving toward the field, how have the 49ers' wide receivers helped Kaepernick?

Gutierrez: At first, it was a hot mess. The 49ers seemed to forget they were a team built on a power running game, and Kaepernick looked out of sorts with all of the shiny toys at his disposal, with Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd joining Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin as wideouts, and tight end Vernon Davis. Then, about Week 4, the 49ers rediscovered their identity behind running back Frank Gore and, voila, the passing game blossomed. This past week, Kaepernick threw three touchdown passes to three different wideouts without an interception. Crabtree might be his favorite receiver, and Lloyd has become his most explosive down the left sideline, but Boldin is his Mr. Dependable underneath. It is, without a doubt, helping Kaepernick’s maturation process. Especially since there does not seem to be any selfishness going on with the receivers. Just healthy competition. At least, that’s how it looks when the team is winning.

Manning, meanwhile, does not seem to have missed a beat after losing receivers Eric Decker to the New York Jets and Wes Welker to injury. Is Manning simply so good that he elevates the play of those around him, or is it a scheme thing in Denver?

Legwold: In all that Manning has done in his career, the fact he has lifted his play to its current level following spinal fusion surgery in 2011 -- his fourth neck surgery -- is a remarkable achievement. The guy has started 37 games for the Broncos and thrown 107 touchdown passes in those games. The offense was built for him; he runs it with complete freedom to change any call to any play at any time. And at this stage of his career, with his work habits, he might think the game better than anyone who has played the position. But all of that said, there is a perfect-storm effect in Denver as well. Adam Gase is an innovative risk-taker as an offensive coordinator who paid his coaching dues to earn his spot. Receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas are elite players, Welker is routinely called the best slot receiver in the NFL by opposing coaches, and in his time with Manning, Emmanuel Sanders will go from a player folks thought was pretty good to Pro Bowl worthy. So Manning has been very good for the Broncos, and the Broncos, with Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway calling the personnel shots for the team, have built a quality landing spot for Manning.

Some teams have been aggressive coming after Manning with the blitz, like the Cardinals, while the Jets consistently dropped eight into coverage last weekend. How do you think the 49ers will approach it?

Gutierrez: Let’s just say, both ways. Yes, the 49ers brought the house against the St. Louis Rams’ Austin Davis, sacking him five times (the total doubled the 49ers’ season sack total to 10) and pressuring him on 44 percent of his dropbacks (a season high for the 49ers), but, as you know, Manning loves it when teams blitz him. His 2.25-second release is the second best in the league, again, per our friends at ESPN Stats & Info. Yet, his 92.8 total rating when not pressured since joining Denver in 2012 is the league’s best, and the 49ers rank 23rd in pressure percentage. So yeah, the best way to affect Manning is by bringing pressure. Just pick your poison in doses, I guess, right? What might make it all a moot point is the potential loss of All-Pro inside linebacker Patrick Willis, who injured a toe Monday night. We’re talking about a linebacker corps already missing the suspended Aldon Smith and the recuperating NaVorro Bowman.

Manning, who needs two touchdown passes to tie Brett Favre's career record (508), always comes across as disinterested in records and his legacy. But surely, holding the passing touchdown record would mean something to him, right? How important do you think holding the mark would be to him?

Legwold: This is all something he will have to get used to as many of these records approach, especially if he plays one or two more seasons following this one. Certainly his legacy is important to him, but it gets lost sometimes because he is so competitive. People talk about his intellect and his ability to digest information and recall things he has seen in his career. But it would be impossible to play as many consecutive games as he played before his spinal fusion surgery kept him out of the 2011 season (208 consecutive regular-season games) and to push himself as hard as he does if he were not one of the most competitive people in the game. So, in that vein he wants Super Bowls and knows his career clock is winding down. So, though the records will be something he respects, and at some point enjoys, his desire to play for a Super Bowl champion trumps everything right now, including the touchdown mark.

The Film Don't Lie: Broncos

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- A weekly look at what the Denver Broncos must fix:

In an offense built on precision and making split-second changes at the line of scrimmage to put itself in the best possible play, the Broncos continue to give defenses too many second chances with penalties.

Yes, 4-1 is, and always will be, the bottom line. The Broncos win pretty, they win not so pretty, but penalties are self-inflicted items that seem to hurt worse the deeper a team is into the football calendar, so what gets overcome now might not be with a Super Bowl trip on the line.

And while the Broncos might not agree with all of the flags -- and they don't -- their 51 penalties in five games put them in not-so-good company. Of the 13 teams which have been flagged at least 51 times this season, only the St. Louis Rams (1-4) and Broncos have not yet played six games.

The team’s offensive line continues to draw many of those flags, even as it struggles to tighten up the gaps in the run-blocking scheme. The Broncos are always going to draw the occasional holding penalty to keep any rushers who get free from hitting quarterback Peyton Manning -- better a 10-yard walk-off than a clean shot on Manning -- but some defensive coaches in the league say the Broncos linemen are tipping their hand with their footwork in the run game by having the linemen back out slightly before they pull to run wide.

Defensive linemen are shooting those gaps as soon as they see the movement. Broncos linemen have been flagged for several holding penalties in the run game, including two more Sunday against the New York Jets, as they have tried to combat that.

In all on Sunday, four of the five starting offensive linemen drew flags in the game. The one who didn't, right tackle Chris Clark, is the most penalized player on the team at the moment.

Right guard Louis Vasquez, who has played through some back and rib issues this season, has already drawn three flags, or the same number he did in all of the 2013 season when he was named an All Pro.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – When it comes to divvying out playing time in the Denver Broncos defense, Jack Del Rio believes in the more-the-merrier approach.

Or technically the more-the-engaged approach And “engaged’’ is a word Del Rio uses a lot when it comes to any discussion as far as who plays and how much for the Broncos.

“You earn your way,’’ Del Rio said. “That’s always the start, we tell all the guys earn your way, but I think we’ve shown in our time here, and we’ve been consistent in how we talk about it, how we do it, is if you earn your way, show us you can contribute something to what we’re doing, we’ll find a place for you.’’

[+] EnlargeBradley Roby
Jack Dempsey/AP PhotoCB Bradley Roby has been the most successful member of the Broncos' rookie class thus far.
That has certainly been the case for the Broncos rookies on defense in this season's early going. Part adjustment to injuries and part those first-year players carving out some room, the draft picks on defense have been in the rotation more than their offensive counterparts to this point.

The Broncos had a six-player draft class this past May, three players on defense, three on offense. Defensively, cornerback Bradley Roby (first round) was a defensive regular right from the start who has played at least 69 percent of the team’s snaps in all five of the Broncos’ games thus far.

The Broncos have used him in any and all situations, including matching him on the likes of Reggie Wayne and Larry Fitzgerald already this season. Roby had his first sack Sunday against the Jets and is one of the team leaders in passes defensed as quarterbacks have consistently elected to test him late in games.

With Danny Trevathan’s knee injury early in Sunday’s win over the New York Jets, linebacker Corey Nelson (seventh round) was moved into the Broncos’ nickel package and was certainly efficient. Nelson was credited with a team-leading seven tackles in the game in his 36 snaps of work.

Nelson, made his first appearance on defense in a two-play cameo against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 3 as the Broncos wanted to get more speed on the field to try to hem in Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.

And linebacker Lamin Barrow (fifth round), who was ejected from Sunday’s game for throwing a post-play punch at a Jets player, was also used on defense against both the Seahawks (11 plays) and Arizona Cardinals (eight plays). Barrow also has been a special teams regular.

“We’ve got the depth to match personnel … we’re not scared to put anybody in this room in the game,’’ Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib said. “Guys get ready to play, they get in there, they play, man.’’

The depth of the Broncos playbook on offense, as well as quarterback Peyton Manning doing plenty of work at the line of scrimmage with a bevy of audibles run at no-huddle pace, has made it a little more difficult transition early on for the offensive rookies.

Wide receiver Cody Latimer (second round), who has consistently shown his potential in the team’s practices, has appeared in one game and been a gameday inactive four times. Tackle Michael Schofield (third round) has been a gameday inactive for all five of the Broncos’ games and center Matt Paradis (sixth round) is on team’s practice squad.

“I just know we will need every one of them before this is all over,’’ Broncos head coach John Fox said. “We have a lot of football in front of us, a lot of things can, and will happen. Those guys, like all our guys, show up and go to work and get themselves ready to play. Not everybody gets a uniform on gameday, that’s just the rules. But we like where all those guys are right now.’’
videoEAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In the end the Denver Broncos will take a win, but could do without the pile of flags that came with it Sunday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“First-and-20s, second-and-20s, those are tough to overcome,’’ Manning said. “We’ve got to fix that quickly.’’

Rapid Reaction: Denver Broncos

October, 12, 2014
Oct 12

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- A few thoughts from the Denver Broncos’ 31-17 victory over the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium.

What it means: Although it became more of a struggle than it should have been, the Broncos continue to grind their way through the array of physical defenses that have dotted the opening half of their 2014 schedule. The Broncos sit at 4-1, with their only loss coming in Seattle in overtime in Week 3. They certainly didn’t have their best fastball Sunday and looked out of sorts at times on offense to go with far too many penalties (10 in the first three quarters), but they had just enough for the struggling Jets.

Stock watch: With linebacker Danny Trevathan having left Sunday’s game with a left knee injury after the Broncos’ second play from scrimmage on defense, the Broncos again turned to Brandon Marshall to work in the weakside linebacker spot. Marshall had started the Broncos’ first three games in place of Trevathan, who had suffered a fracture at the top of his left tibia in training camp. Marshall was the team’s leading tackler when Trevathan returned to the lineup in last Sunday's game against the Cardinals, and the Broncos expect to need that kind of production from him moving forward as well.

Hillman, Thompson the 1-2: With Montee Ball out of the lineup because of a right groin injury, Ronnie Hillman started at running back for the Broncos, and Thompson worked as the No. 2. Both flashed some quickness to the hole against a physical Jets front, as Hillman finished with a career single-game high of 100 rushing yards. The Broncos had particular success when they moved into a two-tight end set in the third quarter, often using reserve tackle Paul Cornick as the second tight end.

Game ball: You likely could hand one to Peyton Manning each week, including after this game. But with Ball out, the Broncos needed Hillman to be the kind of back they’d hoped he'd be when they selected him in the third round of the 2012 draft. Although he did fumble once -- after a 26-yard third-quarter run, and Andre Caldwell recovered it -- Hillman finished with his first career 100-yard game. The Broncos had moments when they still looked unsure of what they want in the run game, such as when they kept Hillman in with just over six minutes remaining in the game and he was stuffed on a third-and-short, but they needed some impact from Hillman in this one, and they got it.

What’s next: The Broncos have what is likely their toughest turnaround of the season. They will face the run-heavy, pound-it-out San Francisco 49ers next Sunday followed by a now-key AFC West matchup with the San Diego Chargers a week from Thursday. The Chargers, on a Thursday, were the only team to defeat the Broncos at home last season.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo -- A week ago the Denver Broncos believed wide receiver Demaryius Thomas had shaken himself loose from an early season struggle. They could see his work in practice, see the explosiveness, the trademark catch-and-run efforts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"When he’s doing what he can do, that’s tough for any defense," Sanders said. "We have a lot of guys who can make plays with one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. So when (Demaryius) has it going, people can’t cover him with one guy, or if they do it’s a long day."