AFC West: Peyton Manning

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."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – When all was said and done as the Denver Broncos’ football decision-makers worked through their offseason plan earlier this year, the team essentially traded one wide receiver for another when they re-tooled parts of the roster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Denver Broncos Rewind: Offense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My confidence has never failed," Thomas said. “I know I am able to go out and make big plays and able to have great games. It was just getting back and concentrating and not letting one play bother me."
DENVER -- Somewhat lost in a 21-point win when the Denver Broncos rolled up 568 yards worth of offense, were two injuries that could affect how the team does its business when they have the ball in the coming weeks.

Running back Montee Ball, who finished just 7 yards on his six carries in the 41-20 victory over the Arizona Cardinals Sunday in Sports Authority Field at Mile High, left the game early in the third quarter with a groin injury and did not return. Wide receiver Andre Caldwell also left the game with a knee injury and did not return.

Both players will be evaluated more on Monday, but following Sunday’s game there was some concern among Ball’s teammates and others in the organization that the running back's injury could cause him to miss significant time.

“My prayers are with Montee,’’ said quarterback Peyton Manning. “He just looked like he was in a lot of pain down there on the field, so I hope he’s OK.’’

For Ball, an avulsion fracture would be one of the worst case scenarios in what appeared to be an injury to his right groin. An avulsion fracture occurs when the muscle is pulled with such force that the tendon or ligament it’s connected to tears a chip away from the bone as well.

For the Broncos any missed time from Ball would move Ronnie Hillman into the lead role at running back. Hillman rushed for 64 yards on his 15 carries Sunday. Rookie Juwan Thompson finished with 15 yards on his three carries, including his first career touchdown -- an 8-yard run in the fourth quarter.

C.J. Anderson was a game-day inactive Sunday, so he was not in uniform against the Cardinals.

If Caldwell, who has played as the team’s No. 4 receiver, were to miss time, it would move rookie Cody Latimer into the lineup. Latimer has played 10 special-teams snaps this year, but has not yet appeared on offense.

Rapid Reaction: Denver Broncos

October, 5, 2014
Oct 5

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next: The Broncos take their pass-first show on the road against New York Jets' battered secondary. The Chargers, with an offensive playbook in part penned by former Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, piled up the points on the Jets Sunday, including two touchdowns by San Diego tight end Antonio Gates.

W2W4: Broncos Week 5

October, 4, 2014
Oct 4
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos, after exiting their bye week, finally get a chance to get back into what defensive tackle Terrance Knighton has called "that grind we grind" against the Arizona Cardinals.

The Cardinals (3-0) have been resilient, opportunistic and aggressive and will arrive in Denver as one of the league’s two remaining undefeated teams. The Broncos (2-1) have been dominant at times, choppy at others and, to a player, have said they have yet to play a complete game.

"We just need to have that complete, four-quarter effort," said safety Rahim Moore. "And show that consistency, week in, week out."

Some things to keep an eye on:
  • Manning
    Quarterback Peyton Manning's next touchdown pass will be his 500th, and only one other quarterback has reached that milestone (Brett Favre). The Broncos aren’t going out of their way to get it done, but believe it will happen quickly, and organically, if they run their offense with efficiency. But make no mistake, most in the locker room would a like a shot to catch the 500th, including Knighton, who has said he wants to lobby for the chance. But 500 TD passes is a staggering number, even to the guy who is No. 7 on the list with 300 -- John Elway. "I just know how hard it is to throw it down in the red zone, how small those windows really are, and for him to have the accuracy, the touch that he has, is amazing," Elway said.
  • Speaking of Manning, if the Cardinals stick to what they’ve done previously under defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, Arizona’s defense will come after Manning more than most do. In particular look for Bowles to send extra rushers into the A gaps -- between the guards and center -- in most any down-and-distance situation, because that’s where defenses have had some success finding some creases, especially against the Broncos' run game. Bowles likes to add extra rushers on passing downs from off the line of scrimmage, often brining defensive backs and linebackers. As a result the Cardinals’ linebackers are often asked to cover wide receivers. So if the Broncos can protect and give Manning time to find the mismatch, there will be some speed matchups that favor the Denver offense in the intermediate routes.
  • Brown
    Much like the Broncos have used Emmanuel Sanders in their offense, the Cardinals have quickly found a spot for rookie John Brown, who was one of the fastest players clocked at the scouting combine last February. With plenty of size and athleticism in the two outside receivers spots in Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd -- Floyd leads the league in yards per catch (22.3) in the early going -- Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians uses Brown all over the formation, including as a runner. Brown often works out of the slot in the passing game, and the Cardinals have been particularly effective putting him on the inside position in a bunch formation. He’s undersized -- 175 pounds -- so that look gives him a free release, and he has been left unattended several times. The Broncos used Chris Harris Jr. to shadow the Seahawks' Percy Harvin in Week 3 and Harris Jr. will likely be the one asked to handle Brown.
  • Arians will trot out the trick play as well. Sanders, who played with the Steelers when Arians was the team’s offensive coordinator, called him "one of the most aggressive guys in the league." Arians likes to use wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., who threw a pass in Arizona’s Week 3 win against San Francisco. The Cardinals also have run plays in the playbook -- the fly sweep, like the Seahawks use with Harvin -- for Ginn Jr. and Brown.
  • Ginn
    The Broncos’ special teams haven’t had too many impact plays, but should be wary of the Cardinals' work in a variety of situations. Ginn Jr. is an impact returner with a punt return for a score already this season, and Arizona has also blocked 17 field goal-attempts since the start of the 2008 season, most in the league over that span. Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, at 6-feet-6-inches tall, blocked one against the 49ers. The Cardinals also use 6-8 Calais Campbell, a Denver South High School graduate, in the middle of the formation. The Broncos are still using Brandon McManus as their kicker after parting ways with Matt Prater, who had been eligible to return Monday from a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

One has been a league power broker, one wants to be.

And when the Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals get together Sunday afternoon in Sports Authority Field at Mile High, the Broncos (2-1) will try to knock some of the rough edges off while the Cardinals (3-0), one of just two teams to arrive to Week 5 undefeated, will try to show they are ready to be at the front of the line.

Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold take a look at the game.

Legwold: At 3-0, how do the Cardinals see themselves? Upstart in NFC? Or team that believes it should have made the playoffs last year and is ready to take the next step to be in this postseason mix this time around?

Weinfuss: If there's one thing the Cardinals don't see themselves as, it's an upstart team. That much was instilled in them by Bruce Arians last season. Especially after upsetting Seattle at home last December, this team believed it should've been in the playoffs. And with how they played in the second half of the season, it's hard to argue with them. But the Cardinals who returned this year learned a lot from last season's first half, most notably how important it is to win those early games. What they're doing now isn't a surprise to those who pay attention to this team, and a lot of it is a direct result of Arians' demeanor. His straight-shooting personality -- curse 'em out on the field but hug 'em off of it -- has rubbed off on everyone in the locker room. It has led to this team to believe it could win for the first time since Kurt Warner was here.

Speaking of learning from last year, what was the main thing the Broncos took away from last season's loss in the Super Bowl, and how have they used it in 2014?

Legwold: The main thing GM John Elway took away was he wanted far better personnel on defense and some more receivers who could battle their way through physical play from defensive backs. The result was an offseason spending spree that reeled in DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward on defense to go with wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. The Broncos also used a first-round pick in the draft on cornerback Bradley Roby and a second-rounder on wide receiver Cody Latimer. So, the 35-point loss certainly forced a roster makeover and for the holdovers it did provide plenty of incentive as they went through the offseason workouts. There is a feeling, after the overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round of the 2012 playoffs followed by the Super Bowl blowout, of trying to finally close the deal this time around.

In terms of roster makeover, with all that has happened to the Cardinals' defense with the injuries, etc., how have they pushed themselves into the league's top five?

Weinfuss: Nobody expected Arizona to be among the league's top five defenses this year after losing the likes of Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington before the season and then Darnell Dockett during training camp and John Abraham in the first few weeks of the year. But credit must be given to the Cardinals' front office. The brain trust has done a good job of finding veterans who still have gas in the tank, such as linebacker Larry Foote and defensive lineman Tommy Kelly. But the biggest reason for the defense's success is defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. His single-gap scheme revitalized this defense last year and all he has been doing is adding wrinkles here and there to adjust to his personnel. For example, Arizona is running a lot of nickel and dime packages because it gets rookie safety Deone Bucannon on the field. For as good of an offensive mind as Arians is, Bowles is his equal on the defensive side.

Have the additions to the Broncos' defense been paying off? Or is it too early to see a difference? Do you think they'll be the difference between another ring and a consolation prize?

Legwold: The new arrivals have all had impact in the season's early going. Ware leads the team in sacks (2.5), Talib has been every bit the No. 1 corner they hoped he would be and Ward is one of two players on defense who have played every snap in the first three games, having been used in a variety of roles. The Broncos have seen enough from Roby. They've tossed him into the deep end of the pool as the rookie and he has matched up with some of the league's front-line receivers. All of that said, however, the Broncos still haven't consistently shown the kind of play they'll need to hoist a trophy, particularly on third down. As linebacker Von Miller and cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who both had ACL injuries last season, continue to work back to full speed, the Broncos should continue to improve. Also, linebacker Danny Trevathan, who was the team's leading tackler last season and who suffered a fracture on the top of his tibia in training camp, will play in his first game of the season Sunday. It will mean the Cardinals will be the first team to face the revamped defense with all of the starters in place.

Sticking to defense, Manning heads into this game with 499 career touchdown passes. Between the two of them, Cardinals' assistant head coach/offense Tom Moore and head coach Bruce Arians have seen many of those up close as former Colts assistants. To that end, with that kind of up-close-and-personal knowledge, how do you think the Cardinals will defend Manning and the Broncos' offense?

Weinfuss: One thing the defense has stayed consistent on this week is that they don't want to tip their hand to Manning before the snap. With that being said, I think they'll blitz him constantly -- all three of his sacks this season have come off the blitz, which, I can imagine, was good news to Bowles. But they won't blitz Manning like they'll blitz other quarterbacks because he's so good at adapting so quickly. Arizona plans on giving Manning the same look every snap. But guys who have played Manning know he'll wait until the very last second to make a decision because the defense will have to show their blitz by then, but the Cardinals will try to hold their disguise as long as possible.

With Manning coming up on such a historic mark, has it been a distraction for this team in the sense of more non-football attention has descended upon them? Are they ready for Manning to pass Brett Favre so they can just get back to focusing on football?

Legwold: One thing about this team is the swirl around them doesn't get to them very often. Last season they had Miller's suspension in training camp, John Fox's open-heart surgery during the bye week and five defensive starters on injured reserve by the time they were preparing to play in the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl loss may have been the first, and worst, time for the Broncos not to play to the level of a game's standing last season. Before the title-game blowout, they had handled everything that had come their way without losing their edge. This time around players here simply assume Manning will hit 500 and then go on and break the record through the natural course of things. The record is nice, but they want another shot at the title and, for the most part, they see whatever happens along the way as issues that must be dealt with to get that chance.