AFC West: Robert Ayers

The fine folks at ESPN's Stats & Information group have confirmed what many have long thought about the 2009 NFL draft.

There were many scouts and personnel folks in the league who didn't like what they saw on that draft board in the weeks and month before they had to make those picks and they've all tried to dig out of it over the five drafts since.

Turns out their instincts were right with the benefit of some quality hindsight.

Of the 256 players selected that year, there are almost as many out of the league -- 122 -- as there are still on one of the 32 teams -- 134. However, just 38 of 256, or a not-so-sizzling 14.8 percent, remain on their original teams.

For the Broncos, the grand total of 2009 players selected in the 10-player draft class who still has a spot on the depth chart is one. As in safety David Bruton, the first of two fourth-round selections that year.

And while that was clearly a difficult draft board for the entire league to figure out, it was a dismal year for the Broncos since they had more premium picks in it than they've had in any draft since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.

The Broncos had five selections in the draft's top 64 picks that year, two first-round picks and three second-round picks. Handled the right way, it should have been the foundation of what they have now, but none of those five top 64 picks remain with the team and of those five only running back Knowshon Moreno started more than 10 games in multiple seasons.

Moreno just had his first 1,000-yard rushing season in 2013 to go with 60 receptions in the Broncos' high-flying offense. It was easily his best overall season with the team, but concerns over his long-term health -- he had multiple knee procedures, including to repair a torn ACL, to go several other soft-tissue injuries in his time in Denver -- led to the Broncos to decide not to re-sign him in free agency. Moreno signed a one-year deal in Miami.

Robert Ayers, taken at No. 18 overall that year, had the same number of sacks in 2013 -- 5.5 -- as he had in his first four seasons combined, including none as a rookie when the Broncos tried to fit him into their 3-4 defense under Josh McDaniels. The Broncos let Ayers sign elsewhere, too, and he signed with the New York Giants earlier this year.

McDaniels used a second-round pick (No. 64 overall) on Richard Quinn, a tight end who had all of 12 receptions in his career at North Carolina. McDaniels' hope Quinn would be a factor as an on-the-line blocking tight end simply never materialized at any point after Quinn arrived.

McDaniels also traded a first-round pick, in 2010, to move up in the second round to select cornerback Alphonso Smith and then traded Smith, to the Detroit Lions, a year later. And safety Darcel McBath (No. 48 overall) showed some potential, but had injury issues with the Broncos and ended up playing in a Super Bowl for the San Francisco 49ers with just one career start in the league.

It is a draft that has left a substantial hole in the Broncos' developmental plans to be sure, but the Broncos can take heart there. They were obviously not alone.

Top free-agent roundup: AFC West

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
10:00
AM ET
The AFC West produced three playoff teams and the eventual AFC title winner in the Denver Broncos, so it should come as no surprise that many top free agents come from the division. Oakland Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez, Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold, Kansas City Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and San Diego Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams break down the top 15:

1. Branden Albert, Chiefs offensive tackle: Kansas City won’t franchise him this year. Albert will get a nice contract elsewhere.

2. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Broncos cornerback: He’s not yet 30 and still a top-tier athlete.

3. Eric Decker, Broncos wide receiver: Productive in scoring zone, will be one of the biggest wide receivers on open market, but rarely faced opponents’ top cornerback in Broncos offense.

4. Lamarr Houston, Raiders defensive end: Better suited to the left side because he’s not the prototypical speed-rusher.

Moreno
5. Knowshon Moreno, Broncos running back: Has had multiple knee surgeries, including one on a torn ACL in 2011, but he runs with passion, is solid in pass protection and a productive receiver.

6. Jared Veldheer, Raiders offensive tackle: Didn’t have a very good season in 2013 but would attract some attention as a free agent.

7. Geoff Schwartz, Chiefs guard: Was a free-agent find for Kansas City last season. Can play right tackle if needed.

8. Jon Asamoah, Chiefs guard: A better pass-protector than run-blocker. He will be only 26 in July.

9. Shaun Phillips, Broncos linebacker: He’ll be 33 in May but showed last season that he can still be an effective situational pass-rusher.

10. Zane Beadles, Broncos guard: For a movement-based front, he’s a smart, durable option who played in every game while with Denver.

McCluster
McCluster
11. Dexter McCluster, Chiefs wide receiver/punt returner: Hasn’t had a huge impact on the offense in Kansas City, but he will be only 26 in August.

12. Robert Ayers, Broncos defensive end: Had his best season in 2013, so maybe he’s a late bloomer.

13. Tyson Jackson, Chiefs defensive end: Like Ayers, he had his best season in 2013, so maybe he’s figuring it out as well.

14. Tracy Porter, Raiders cornerback: He’s versatile enough to cover the slot receiver, and he had one of his better seasons in 2013.

15. Kendrick Lewis, Chiefs safety: He’s only 25 but was a better player earlier in his career. He hasn’t been the same since a shoulder injury in 2012.

Free-agency primer: Broncos

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
11:00
AM ET
» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

 Key free agents: WR Eric Decker, RB Knowshon Moreno, LB Wesley Woodyard, G Zane Beadles, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, DE Robert Ayers, DE Shaun Phillips, S Mike Adams, LB Paris Lenon, CB Quentin Jammer.

Where they stand: The Broncos have significant issues on defense. They have six defensive backs who are unrestricted or restricted free agents; they have told Champ Bailey, who had a year left on his deal, they will release him; they don’t have a middle linebacker who started any games in 2013 on the roster; and two of their top three players in sacks in 2013 (Phillips and Ayers) are free agents. That’s an awful of uncertainty on the depth chart with starters at defensive end, linebacker, cornerback and safety now on the open market. They also have two of the four wide receivers who were on the 53-man roster last season -- Decker and Andre Caldwell -- as free agents.

What to expect: Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has consistently said he believes that free agency is where a team should target “glaring needs," so the draft can be a best-player-available affair. So, with some cap room to work with, the Broncos will be aggressive with a few targeted deals -- as they have done in both 2012 and 2013 with Elway calling the shots -- before they back out and then wait for the first waves to pass. But they lean defense early in the checkbook frenzy because they need pass-rush help, have already worked out linebackers D'Qwell Jackson and Lofa Tatupu -- Jackson eventually signed in Indianapolis -- and likely will sign a veteran receiver as well. The Broncos are selling a potential Super Bowl shot with Peyton Manning back at quarterback, so they figure to be a popular stop for players looking for a run at a ring.

McShay Mock 3.0 reax: Broncos

March, 6, 2014
Mar 6
5:10
PM ET
When ESPN’s Todd McShay worked his way through his third mock draft in recent weeks, he kept the Denver Broncos’ attention on the defensive side of the ball.

McShay has the Broncos, at No. 31, selecting Misouri defensive Kony Ealy, a pass-rusher who carries a first-round grade through the pre-draft season. McShay had the Broncos selecting TCU cornerback Jason Verrett in his second mock draft.

Here's Todd's latest first round Insider:

Ealy measured in at 6-foot-4 and weighed 274 pounds at the league’s scouting combine last month. He also, with a 34 -inch arm, had one of the biggest armspans among the pass-rushers invited to Indy, something Broncos head coach John Fox has consistently said is an important piece of the pass-rush puzzle given the size of offensive tackles in the NFL.

Ealy’s 40-yard dash of 4.92 seconds wasn’t one of the best, but he consistently shows up on game video as quick off the ball and finished with eight sacks this past season in the speed-first Southeastern Conference.

The Broncos certainly have openings with Shaun Phillips, Robert Ayers and Jeremy Mincey all free agents who are expected to test the open market.

Franchise/transition tags: Broncos

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
8:00
AM ET
In each of the previous two years, the Denver Broncos used the franchise tag on an impending free agent they hoped to lock up to a long-term deal but just needed a little more time to cross all the T's and dot all the I's in the contract.

In 2012, it was kicker Matt Prater, who got the tag before he signed a new multiyear deal with the team. Last year it was left tackle Ryan Clady, who was still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery when the Broncos placed the tag on him.

Clady, who would have earned $9.828 million on that one-year deal had the tag remained in place, eventually worked out a five-year, $52.5 million contract with the team just before training camp.

But don’t look for the Broncos to use either of the tags this time around. Their most prominent free agents -- most notably running back Knowshon Moreno, wide receiver Eric Decker, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and linebacker Wesley Woodyard -- have been productive starters with the team, but none are so deep in the team’s plans that the Broncos would use the tags to have them guaranteed of being on the roster next season.

Decker has back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons since the Broncos signed Peyton Manning, but the franchise-tag salary on a one-year deal at wide receiver was $10.537 million last year and is expected to be slightly higher this time around.

At running back, the franchise tag was $8.219 million last season, and at linebacker, it was $9.619 million.

The Broncos will make offers to most of their impending free agents, but it’s likely all of their more high-profile unrestricted free agents could get better offers, in terms of overall money, elsewhere.

Decker, Moreno, guard Zane Beadles and defensive end Robert Ayers are among the team’s free agents who, next month, will complete deals they signed with the Broncos as rookies. It will be their first opportunity in the open market. Woodyard, who has been a team captain in each of his six seasons with the Broncos, just finished his second contract with the team, while other unrestricted free agents, like Rodgers-Cromartie, safety Mike Adams, linebacker Paris Lenon and defensive end Shaun Phillips, came from elsewhere.

Part of the issue for the Broncos this time around is securing the players who are set to become free agents following the 2014 season, a group that includes wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas.

Denver Broncos season wrap-up

February, 5, 2014
Feb 5
2:00
PM ET
video Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 2
Preseason Power Ranking: 3

Biggest surprise: It took 19 games, a pile of league records and a few slices of history along the way, but by far the biggest shock for an organization that believed it had the moxie to win a title was its Super Bowl meltdown. Broncos head coach John Fox had said his team was “calloused" by all it had to overcome this season, including linebacker Von Miller's six-game suspension, five defensive starters eventually landing on injured reserve and Fox's open-heart surgery. But on the biggest stage with the biggest prize on the line, the Broncos had a night when they didn't respond to any of the adversity they faced.

Biggest disappointment: Other than losing in the title game -- “I'm not sure you ever get over that," said quarterback Peyton Manning -- it would have to be the way Miller's season dissolved. After his 18.5-sack season in 2012, the Broncos expected even more this time around. Instead, he was out for the first six games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. He came back heavier after the suspension and often looked less explosive according to many personnel executives in the league. He then suffered a season-ending torn right ACL in December. He won't be ready for training camp and may not be full speed by the start of the regular season.

Biggest need: In their past three playoff losses, the Broncos have had a combined one sack against Tom Brady, Joe Flacco and Russell Wilson. Miller has played in two of those games, albeit with a cast on his surgically repaired thumb to close out the 2011 season against the New England Patriots. They have used their opening pick in each of John Elway's three drafts as the team's top football executive on a pass-rusher -- Miller, Derek Wolfe and Sylvester Williams. It still needs some attention, as does the team's secondary; the Broncos will need to address cornerback and safety as well.

Team MVP: Manning, with 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yards passing for an offense that set an NFL record with 606 points, was the league MVP and was the Broncos' as well. Manning's drive, preparation and no-nonsense approach pushed the team past every bump it faced during the regular season, and he powered the franchise into its seventh Super Bowl. But cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and linebacker Danny Trevathan deserve special mention for being the defense's most versatile and productive players outside the glare of the team's offensive fireworks in the regular season. Trevathan and Harris were consistently the guys asked to do more in Jack Del Rio's defense.

 

Broncos' D will need an A effort

January, 31, 2014
Jan 31
8:00
AM ET
Wesley Woodyard, Danny TrevathanDoug Pensinger/Getty ImagesHow will Wesley Woodyard, Danny Trevathan and the Denver defense impact Sunday's result?

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- The most prominent storyline of Super Bowl XLVIII, at least beyond what Richard Sherman said, what Marshawn Lynch didn't say and just how much wobble is in the average Peyton Manning touchdown pass, has been the Denver Broncos' No. 1 offense and the Seattle Seahawks' No. 1 defense.

It has been the classic matchup of league best on league best and the first of its kind since Super Bowl XXXVII, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with the league's No. 1 defense, defeated the Oakland Raiders (the No. 1 offense) to close out the 2002 season.

But how a Broncos defense battered by injuries throughout the season responds against Seattle's power offense with Lynch at running back, the mobile Russell Wilson at quarterback and wide receiver Percy Harvin playing in just his third game of the season, will have a lot to say about how things go for the Broncos. In fact, it may have everything to say about whether or not the Broncos get to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

"We feel like we need to be the defense we know we can be," linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. "We've been better as the season has gone on, we've adjusted some, overcome some and now we feel like we're ready to play our best football."

The Broncos have four defensive starters on injured reserve -- cornerback Chris Harris Jr., defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, defensive end Derek Wolfe and linebacker Von Miller -- and they have not always played with the consistency defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio would have liked because of it. But after holding opponents to fewer than 17 points only once in 14 games, the Broncos have held opponents to 17 points or fewer in four consecutive games. The total includes both of their playoff wins -- 24-17 against the San Diego Chargers and 26-16 over the New England Patriots.

"In spite of all the things that could have derailed us, we stayed on point, stayed on message, continued to grind, continued to believe," Del Rio said.

Del Rio has used a variety of lineup combinations until settling on the current one that includes Woodyard, an every-down player for much of the season, now playing in the specialty packages. Del Rio also has put Paris Lenon at middle linebacker in the base defense to go with Danny Trevathan and Nate Irving at the other two linebacker spots.

The combination gives the Broncos a little more bulk against opposing run games, especially one such as the Seahawks'.

The return of Champ Bailey, who played just five games in the regular season because of a left foot injury, has given Del Rio more options of late in the coverages the team can play and stabilized things, even with Harris Jr. having torn an ACL against the Chargers in the divisional round. After initially returning to the lineup, playing in the slot as part of the nickel defense (five defensive backs), Bailey will likely start on the outside against the Seahawks and then move inside to the slot if Seattle goes to a three-wide receiver look. In the nickel, Bailey would likely face Harvin or Doug Baldwin.

[+] EnlargeJack Del Rio
John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty Images"I don't want to hear a reason that we can't," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. "I want to talk about how we're going to get it done."
And the Broncos have gotten enough from Shaun Phillips, Robert Ayers, Malik Jackson and Terrance Knighton in the pass rush to at least try to work past Miller's injury, a torn ACL he suffered in Houston in Week 16.

"We think we can play the way we need to, we know we have to if we're going to win this game," Bailey said. "We don't think too much about the injuries. We would love to have those guys because you always want your best out there. But [Del Rio] isn't going to let you talk about that anyway and we wouldn't want to."

Said Del Rio: "I don't even want to hear it, I don't want to hear it from our staff, I don't want to hear a reason that we can't. I want to talk about how we're going to get it done. I don't spend a lot of time entertaining how we can't. I understand that we can and want to figure out exactly how we can get it done. It's a little bit of scheme, it's a little bit of technique, there's a little of mentality you've got to build. It can be pretty good if you put it all together and everybody buys in."

While the Broncos' record-setting offense and the Seahawks' bone-rattling defense have parked themselves in the headlines this week, Sunday's game may well be decided by what Seattle's offense does against Del Rio's defense.

"We feel underrated a little bit, but we've got to expect that," Broncos safety Mike Adams said. "I probably would say the same thing because we had a slow start as a defense early in the season. But one thing we did: We finished the season strong and we carried it on to the playoffs, and we're trying to continue that streak that we're on."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When the Denver Broncos’ defense lines up in Super Bowl XLVIII, it expects to see Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Percy Harvin somewhere in the formation across from them.

Harvin
But to plan for that eventuality, the Broncos will have to do some digging. They're going to have to sift through the Seahawks' body of work to find those plays when Harvin was in the lineup in what was an injury-marred year.

“I don’t know how they’re going to use him, we don’t have a lot of tape on him," Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. “But they’re going to use him. You don’t have a weapon like that and not use him."

Harvin was the crown jewel of the Seahawks’ busy offseason last March. He signed a six-year, $67 million contract with the them, but then had hip surgery on Aug. 1 to repair a torn labrum. He missed the first 10 games of the season before he played 19 plays Nov. 17 against the Minnesota Vikings, his former team.

Harvin had one catch, for 17 yards, and a 58-yard kickoff return in the game, but aggravated his surgically repaired hip and did not practice again until the week before the Seahawks played the New Orleans Saints in the divisional round.

He then played just 19 plays against the Saints -- he three receptions in the game for 21 yards -- before he suffered a concussion and was held out of the NFC Championship Game last weekend. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said this week Harvin was ready for whatever the team wanted him to do in the Super Bowl.

For the Broncos, it means the Seahawks could break out a few more three-wide receiver looks to challenge some of the Broncos’ specialty packages on defense. It may also mean when Harvin moves around the formation, the Broncos may send Bailey with him.

“That’s a dangerous man right there," Bailey said. “He can change the game if you allow him to. I remember playing him in Minnesota and he was one of the most explosive guys I've seen coming off the ball."

With Harvin having missed one of the Seahawks' playoff games and having played less than two quarters in the other, Seattle has lined up with at least three wide receivers in the formation on just 12 first-down snaps, 16 second-down snaps, but have used it more on third down – 24 snaps. If Harvin is indeed full speed, the percentages figure to go up.

“The thing about the playoffs is that it’s a one-weekend thing," defensive end Robert Ayers said. “ … You look at the film, you think about what they've done, but you know you have to be ready to see something you haven’t seen much before. [Harvin] is like that. We know he’ll be in there and it might be for something we have to adjust to."

The next big thing: Broncos

January, 22, 2014
Jan 22
12:00
PM ET
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos still have one game to play -- Super Bowl XLVIII -- and virtually all of the organization's energy is pointed in that direction at the moment.

But the Broncos still have to think about life after the Big Game and had a full contingent at the East-West Game last week to go with one at Senior Bowl practices this week. And when all is said and done in MetLife Stadium Feb. 2, the Broncos will be left to their offseason duties in a far more compressed timeframe.

One of their first items, and executive vice president of football operations John Elway touched on it last week in a sit-down in the days leading up to the AFC Championship Game, will be to address head coach John Fox's future.

The 2014 season is the last year on Fox's current contract and no coach wants to go into the final year of his deal and try to direct a team. Elway said the two sides will sit down when the season is over and talk about what's next. The Broncos will also be awaiting the results of an end-of-season medical exam for quarterback Peyton Manning.

Win or lose in the Super Bowl, Broncos officials expect Manning to return for the 2014 season if the doctors give him the thumbs-up to keep playing. Elway said last week that he still considers Manning "young" and at the top of the his game.

On the roster the Broncos will face a decision in Eric Decker, who is poised for unrestricted free agency, as is cornerback Chris Harris Jr., linebacker Wesley Woodyard, guard Zane Beadles, defensive end Robert Ayers, safety Mike Adams and running back Knowshon Moreno. The Broncos will also have to decide on the veterans they signed to short-term deals last offseason: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Shaun Phillips and Paris Lenon (all are set to be free agents).

The choices they make will dictate where they look in the draft, but they'll be looking at the defensive line, inside linebacker, the interior of the offensive line, and cornerback to start.

Kiper mock 1.0 reaction: Broncos

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
3:00
PM ET
Even as the Denver Broncos continue to live their double life of Super Bowl hopeful as well as a franchise already working toward the 2014 season with scouts dispersed into the all-star game circuit, ESPN’s Mel Kiper has the Broncos looking for defensive help in the first round of May's draft.

In Kiper’s first mock draft Insider, he has the Broncos selecting Oregon State defensive end Scott Crichton with their opening-round pick. The Broncos will always lean toward best available player rather than need with John Elway calling the shots in the personnel department, and Crichton would certainly be a high-value pick.

The Broncos believe Derek Wolfe, who was placed on injured reserve Tuesday as a result of seizure-like symptoms he suffered in late November, will participate in their offseason programs as scheduled. Wolfe had practiced just twice since the incident and the Broncos still see him on schedule to be back to his usual workload by the time training camp starts.

But defensive end Robert Ayers is scheduled to head into free agency, Shaun Phillips’ one-year deal will have expired and linebacker Von Miller will be recovering from a torn ACL well into training camp and possibly early in the regular season. So defensive end will certainly be a position that will get a look, as will cornerback and wide receiver.

Crichton, who will come into the draft after his junior season, may not test as well in workouts as some others at the position in the weeks leading up to the draft, but he is a high-energy player who can fill multiple roles up front -- two things that will intrigue the Broncos. Despite a pile of double-teams and chips, Crichton still finished with 7.5 sacks this past season, battling through all of that attention.

He usually lined up at end, but a look at the video did show him at nose tackle against Oregon this past season. Malik Jackson had a similar profile before the Broncos selected him in the 2012 draft. He has found a home in the defensive line rotation, playing at both end and tackle in a variety of personnel groupings.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In the end, the Denver Broncos and Shaun Phillips find themselves in a need-need situation.

Now, more than ever.

The defense continues to be a question mark, sometimes a small one, sometimes not so small, in any outside assessment of the team’s Super Bowl chances. Now, the players on that side of the ball, in a season that has been filled with varying “narratives," about the team are certainly sick of that one.

But the three other teams that remain in the AFC’s playoff field accounted for the Broncos’ three losses this season, and they did it, in large part, by finding a way to slow the Broncos’ next-level offense. And they did it by rushing for at least 118 yards in each of those games (including 177 by the Chargers on Dec. 12), and they did it with three-touchdown outings by quarterbacks Tom Brady (Patriots) and Andrew Luck (Colts).

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesWith Von Miller out of the lineup, the Broncos need Shaun Phillips, 90, to regain the pass-rushing form he showed early in the season.
“We’re just looking forward to playing good football," said Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. “What was, and whether it was good or bad really doesn’t matter going forward. We need to play well and help our football team win, that’s all it comes down to.”

With the list of marquee quarterbacks left in the postseason -- Brady, Luck and Philip Rivers in the AFC, and Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick in the NFC -- the Broncos have to find a way to make the opposing uber-thrower uncomfortable.

Enter Phillips, who led the Broncos in sacks this season after the team’s original plans up front on defense took a few hits along the way. There was the fax fiasco with Elvis Dumervil, there was Von Miller's six-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy to open the season, and there was Miller’s season-ending right knee injury in Houston last month.

Phillips closed out the regular season with 10 sacks, the third time he has hit the double-digit mark. He certainly delivered every bit the Broncos could have hoped for when they signed him to a one-year, $1 million deal during draft weekend last April.

Phillips facing his former team, the Chargers, adds a little spice for him in the Broncos’ playoff opener, and Denver needs him to regain his early season pace no matter what team is in front of him if their pass rush is going to be what they need it to be.

“For me, it doesn’t matter what team it is, it just happens that it’s the Chargers on the schedule," Phillips said. “But of course I’m excited -- it’s your old team. You always want to play against them. And they’re playing good football right now, so it’s going to be a great challenge for us, and it’s going to be a great challenge for them.”

Phillips, with an average of 48.3 snaps per game over the season’s first 10 games, had nine sacks in those games, including 2.5 in the season opener against the Baltimore Ravens and two in the win in Dallas. But the sacks didn’t come in the stretch drive, even with Miller in the lineup some of the time.

Phillips averaged 47.8 snaps per game over the final six games, and Phillips had one sack, against Rivers Dec. 12, in those six games.

Without Miller the Broncos might have to be a little more creative in their rush schemes, add a cornerback here, a safety there as they often choose to rush out of six- and seven-defensive back looks. And they certainly need players like Robert Ayers (5.5 sacks for the season, 4.5 of those in the first five games) and Malik Jackson (6.0 sacks) to be in the mix.

But many personnel executives believe Phillips will be the key moving forward, especially if the Broncos do move on past Phillips' former team.

“Yeah, it’s definitely a chip on my shoulder,’’ Phillips said. “I think I’ve had good games both times we played them. I always want to play well every game. Again, for me, it’s no hard feelings, because they’re a great organization. They brought me in, they drafted me and they treated me well. So I’m not saying anything negative at all. But of course, anytime you play against your old team, you always have a little chip on your shoulder, a little extra edge to get after them. And that is what’s going to happen .. It’s all about who wins now, who plays better now. We’re up for the challenge. We’re looking forward to it.”
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller had surgery Thursday to repair his torn right ACL, the team has confirmed. The procedure, performed by a surgeon in Dr. James Andrews' group, was completed and the Broncos' training staff had been notified by late Thursday afternoon.

Miller
Miller's recovery time is expected to take between six to nine months. Miller, sporting a brace on the knee for support in recent days, has been receiving treatment at the Broncos' facility since he suffered the injury last month.

Miller tore the ACL in his right knee midway through the first quarter of the 37-13 victory over the Houston Texans in Week 16. Miller underwent an MRI the following day and the exam confirmed what some team officials had feared after the game.

His recovery is expected to keep him out of the team's offseason program and likely at least some of training camp. Miller played in only nine games this season. He was suspended the first six games for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

Miller left the Dec. 22 game after his leg buckled as he was fighting to get off a block on a 3-yard completion from Matt Schaub to Keshawn Martin.

Miller finished the season with 33 tackles and was fourth on the team in sacks with five. The third-year linebacker has 35 career sacks, fifth-most in the NFL since his rookie season of 2011, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Nate Irving has played in Miller's strongside linebacker spot in the Broncos' base defense while the Broncos have used Robert Ayers more in Miller's absence in pass-rush situations.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- If the category was Super Bowl hopefuls and the question was what, exactly, was the biggest reason the 2013 Denver Broncos wouldn't win a title despite their never-seen-before output on offense, the answer from most of the Broncos' faithful, worry beads in hand, would almost certainly be swift.

[+] EnlargeShaun Phillips
AP Photo/Ric TapiaBroncos defensive end Shaun Phillips leads the team in sacks, but he's only had one since Week 10.
It would be the Broncos' defense.

Some of that skepticism across the Front Range may be rooted in cold, hard facts, but some may simply be rooted in the transitive property of football doom as well. That the Broncos' defense was in the top five in virtually every major defensive category in the 2012 season, including No. 1 in sacks, No. 2 in yards allowed per game and No. 4 in points allowed per game, and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco still threw for 331 yards and three touchdowns on the way to a Ravens' 38-35 win in double overtime last January.

So, some feel, if the Broncos couldn't go deep into the playoffs with that defense, this year's is going to be a bit of a hurdle.

"I don't think we see it that way, even if some people do," said cornerback Chris Harris. "I've been saying I think we're tougher and a lot smarter compared to last year in how we scheme, how we're going to scheme up and play against teams. People are going to talk about the numbers, because people always talk about the numbers, but I know as players we feel like we're way more confident going into this year's playoffs than we were last year.”

Ah, the numbers. Oh, people are going to talk about those all right. Consider in the Broncos' last two playoff losses, to close out the 2012 and 2013 seasons respectively, the team has surrendered 83 points, 694 passing yards and nine touchdown passes to Flacco and Tom Brady combined, to go with just one interception and one sack in those two games.

The Broncos have also spent most of the season among the bottom dwellers in the league's defensive rankings, having only dug their way out slightly over the last month. Denver entered the postseason 19th in the league in yards allowed (356.0 per game), 22nd in points allowed (24.9) and tied for 13th in sacks (41). And all of their numbers were bolstered with some stingy performances in recent weeks against some of the league's have-nots -- 240 total yards by the Texans in Week 16 to go with just 255 yards by the Raiders this past Sunday.

"We know we've played well," said Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio after Friday's practice. "We've been very stingy in the run, we've gotten people off the field, we've held the point totals down and we expect to play good defense. It's been closer to what we're looking for the last few weeks and that's a good sign for us as we get ready to go into these playoffs."

But no question it has been a bumpy ride. There was the matter of linebacker Von Miller, having opened the season with a six-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy and now having finished the regular season on injured reserve with a torn right ACL. And that defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, a key part of the run fronts, is on injured reserve with a hip injury.

Or that Champ Bailey played in just five games this season because of a foot injury. Or that the Broncos' defense has seemed unable to regain its mojo of the 2012 regular season since Elvis Dumervil's contract arrived a few minutes too late on the fax machine just before the team released him because of the tardy document.

It's all resulted in some wild swings that have included 506 passing yards allowed to Cowboys' quarterback Tony Romo to the blown 24-0 halftime lead against the New England Patriots.

And while yards allowed is not something most defensive coordinators believe is a worthy yardstick on defense, it is worth noting just four teams have won a Super Bowl ranked below No. 20 in that category and that one of them had Peyton Manning at quarterback. But the 2011 New York Giants (No. 27), the 2009 New Orleans Saints (25th), the 2006 Indianapolis Colts (No. 21), with Manning at quarterback, and the 2001 Patriots (No. 24) won the Super Bowl after a season ranked below 20th.

That Patriots team, however, finished sixth in points allowed that season (17.0) to play well above those yards allowed. The '06 Colts were 23rd in points allowed at 22.5 per game, the '09 Saints were 20th in points allowed at 21.3 and the '11 Giants were 25th in points allowed at 25.0.

A small sample size to be sure, but certainly one the Broncos are wrestling with at the moment. However, Del Rio said this week, he believes his unit is playoff worthy.

"I think we're ready to play good defense, we've got a good group," Del Rio said. "We've played really well in spurts. I think the worst thing we've done this year is play with a big lead, maybe giving up a little bit of garbage points and yards and ... that would only affect rankings. We're 13-3; we're as good as anybody in the league. We feel good about the work we're putting in and we're anxious to get into the single elimination tournament."

Their biggest task, now with Bailey having solidified what the Broncos can do in some of their specialty packages upon his return to lineup over the past two weeks, will be to consistently generate a pass rush without Miller in the formation. Shaun Phillips leads the team in sacks with 10, but he's had just one in the past six games.

Robert Ayers has 5.5 sacks, good for third on the team, but just one of those -- against Houston in Week 16 –-- came after Miller returned from his six-game suspension. Those two players have to find a way to win some 1-on-1 matchups in whatever becomes of the postseason, to force opposing offensive lines to have to think about a double-team somewhere across the Broncos defensive front.

Also, while the Broncos have generated some quality pressure by bringing defensive backs out of formations with five, six or even seven defensive backs, those come with a risk of leaving bare spots in coverage behind. And in an AFC playoff field that includes the likes of Brady, Philip Rivers, Andrew Luck and Alex Smith at quarterback, the veteran quarterbacks will be more difficult to fool with those kinds of plays.

"It's all about how you play now," Harris said. "The numbers re-set when the playoffs start. We'll be ready to go."

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It has often been said after a comma in conversation, a piece of the yeah-but response about the Denver Broncos' defense.

The Broncos, despite some rather alarming numbers like 25.7 points allowed per game, have stood by that their defense is coming around. That it had some high-quality moments and it just needed smaller gaps between those moments, needed more consistency to get things right as week after week went by with only marginal change.

That when Champ Bailey recovered from a foot injury he suffered in training camp, that when Von Miller rounded into form, then things would look up and those two-alarm numbers would begin to go down.

Even immediately following the Broncos' 37-13 victory over the Houston Texans Sunday, a game where they surrendered a season-low 13 points on a season-low 240 yards, the Broncos were holding firm to that belief even though Miller had left the game midway through the first quarter with a knee injury.

"With the people we have in here, the people we have in our meeting rooms, we know we have it in us," safety Mike Adams said after the win. "It's all about making strides -- I keep saying that because I think it’s true. Things didn’t always go the way we wanted in some games, but we have to keep making strides, keep being a little better each week and we can get there."

Now, however, time's up. The buzzer has gone off and the Broncos need to buckle up and get to it because Monday morning brought another hill to climb with an MRI that confirmed a torn ACL in Miller's right knee. He won’t be rounding into form because his season is over and his place in the defense is on hold until he goes through surgery and rehab over the next six to nine months.

"It's a blow," Broncos coach John Fox said Monday. "Much like losing a guy like [left tackle] Ryan Clady earlier in the season ... but our guys will deal with it ... we'll sort it out, figure out what we need to do ... We’ll take a couple of minutes to move on and sort that out as we go."

It ties a rather unsightly bow on what has been a difficult football year for Miller. He was suspended for six games to open the season because he violated the league's substance-abuse policy, he had some off-the-field issues that included multiple traffic violations, as well as being arrested at a local gun shop when a background check revealed a missed court appearance. His play on the field since his return? It had been everything the Broncos had been waiting for at times and fairly nondescript at others.

But the Broncos, with Miller's three sacks in a four-game span before the trip to Houston, believed the corner was about to be turned. Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio kept hope alive, often saying Miller's "best football is ahead of him."

Now a defense with Bailey still working his way back, having played in just his fourth game of the season Sunday, with defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson on injured reserve with a hip injury and safety Rahim Moore still on injured reserve designated to return with a lower leg injury, will be without Miller as well.

"We've had some adversity on defense, no doubt, and now we can’t just expect to lean on Von to make the greatest play at the best time," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "It’s going to take everybody doing their jobs the best they can. Not doing too much, but doing their jobs the best way they know how."

What does it mean? It means Shaun Phillips, who leads the Broncos in sacks with 10, has to find the sweet spot again. Phillips has one sack in his past five games and will get most of the snaps from the rush end spot with Miller out of the lineup.

It means Robert Ayers, who had 4.5 sacks in the Broncos' first five games and has had just one sack -- Sunday against the Texans -- in the past nine games, has to be the guy the Broncos have hoped he would be since he was the 18th pick of the 2009 draft.

There was the belief Ayers had found a groove of sorts in the early going when Miller was out because of the suspension. But since a shoulder injury made him a game-day inactive Oct. 13 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Ayers did not have a sack in limited playing time until Sunday, when Miller was out of the lineup again.

Ayers played 47 snaps Sunday against the Texans, his highest total since he played 59 snaps against the Giants in Week 2. The Broncos need Ayers to rise with the tide of the postseason.

The Broncos need Malik Jackson, already in the midst of his best work as a pro, to find a little more. They need Derek Wolfe to come back for the postseason to contribute in some way. They need Nate Irving, who replaced Miller in Sunday's win, to be the kind of starter the Broncos thought he would be when they picked him in the 2011 draft.

In short, with the trophy games on the near horizon, they need everybody, from Bailey to Ayers to Wolfe to Phillips to Terrance Knighton to Wesley Woodyard to Danny Trevathan to anyone and everyone who has a seat in the defensive meeting room to find a little more.

Or, with the way this season has gone for the defense, exactly what they would have had to do even if Miller didn't hurt his knee.

Broncos Rewind: Defense, special teams

November, 20, 2013
11/20/13
7:00
AM ET
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It took a few weeks and some heavy lifting in a 27-17 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs this past Sunday night, but the Denver Broncos have clawed their way back to the top of the AFC West.

Quarterback Peyton Manning had his ninth 300-yard passing game and was not sacked. The Broncos defense collected three sacks of its own while keeping the Chiefs from getting running back Jamaal Charles going at his usual pace. Charles finished with 78 yards rushing to go with minus-6 yards receiving.

And after a long look at the video from Sunday night's win, here are some thoughts on the team's defense and special teams:

  • Their 13-penalty evening against the Chiefs was fueled by plenty of defensive miss-steps, including many “non-contact'' penalties. In all, Broncos defenders had nine penalties in the game, including a taunting penalty from safety Duke Ihenacho after an incomplete pass on a second-and-8 plays from the Broncos' 12-yard line in the second quarter. Not only did Ihenacho taunt Charles roughly 24 inches from an official, but he turned what would have been a third-and-8 at the 12 into first-and-goal at the Broncos' 6-yard line. The Chiefs scored a touchdown three plays later. That is just the kind of play an undisciplined team laments when it happens in the squeaky-tight atmosphere of the postseason. Those types of penalties become get-you-beat plays. The Broncos also had an encroachment penalty on defensive end Robert Ayers, a delay of game on rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster and a neutral zone infraction on Ayers to go with Ihenacho's taunting penalty, all in the unforced error category. Overall the Broncos have also been flagged for defensive holding 11 times, which is the most in the league. “We've got to be better,'' said Broncos interim head coach Jack Del Rio. “There are some -- I call them silly, focus-type issues. ... We want to play smart and tough. Coach Fox talks about that all the time. It's something I believe in very much -- to be smart and tough, to not beat ourselves. There were some situations where we made some mistakes that can really haunt you.”

  • [+] EnlargeKansas City's Alex Smith
    AP Photo/Jack DempseyThe Broncos defense sacked Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith three times.
    Del Rio wants to have a couple swing players in the defensive line, those who can play at defensive end on early downs if they have to and then move inside in some of the team's specialty packages. Malik Jackson has played 47 percent of the defensive snaps this season because of his ability to produce when he's on the field, no matter where Del Rio puts him. That total included 34 plays on defense in the win over the Chiefs and in those 34 snaps, Jackson had three tackles, a half of a sack, hit Chiefs quarterback twice and knocked down two passes. That's high-end efficiency and Jackson will get a snap or two more worth of work in the coming weeks.

  • The Broncos liked Webster in the weeks leading up to last April's draft because in a time when few college cornerbacks play press coverage more than just a handful of snaps in a season, let alone in a game, Webster had done far more work in tight, up-on-the-receiver situations. And his transition into the lineup has been quick because of it, so much so Del Rio frequently asks the rookie to hold up in single coverage against some of the better receivers in the league. He knocked a potential scoring pass down Sunday, but also had a touchdown tossed his way when he wasn't prepared for the shove Dwayne Bowe gave him just before the ball arrives. Webster will get better with his hands as time goes on, or he should, but on Bowe's 6-yard touchdown, Bowe waited until he needed the space and got Webster off balance.

  • Rookie defensive tackle Sylvester Williams lost positioning when he tried a spin move in run defense with just more than eight minutes left in the second quarter. Williams tried to spin to get himself free, but as soon as his back was to the point of attack the Chiefs linemen simply just drove him down toward the middle of the formation. Chiefs tackle Branden Albert then pushed defensive end Robert Ayers up the field as he had taken a wide path to try to get the corner. The combination of Williams having surrendered his gap and Ayers pushed out wide gave Charles the chance to run through the alley left behind for 35 yards, the Chiefs' longest play of the day.

  • The Broncos, as they have done from time to time since Von Miller returned from his suspension and Wesley Woodyard returned from missing two games with a neck injury, flashed a 3-4 look on defense for a few snaps against the Chiefs. After showing it for 20 snaps against the Redskins to help keep Robert Griffin III from getting loose, the Broncos showed it for three snaps against the Chiefs in the first half Sunday. It enables them to use Miller and Shaun Phillips in a stand-up role as edge players.

  • The Broncos rushed three or four players at Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith on 79.6 percent of Smith's dropbacks, including penalty snaps. They got one sack in those rushes. They sent five rushers at Smith on nine dropbacks and got one sack and rushed at least six rushers at Smith on just one snap in the game and got a sack on the play. Two of the Broncos three sacks came when they were in their nickel package (five defensive backs).

  • Broncos tight end Jacob Tamme continues to show high-character play on special teams. Tamme was a 52-catch player last season in the Broncos offense, but has seen most of his playing time gobbled up by Julius Thomas this season. However, Tamme has consistently made plays on special teams and leads the team in special teams tackles with seven. Sunday he came within inches of blocking a punt. Tamme has played just 57 snaps on offense in 10 games, or 7.6 percent of the team's plays, but has already played 221 snaps on special teams (63.7 percent).

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider

AFC WEST SCOREBOARD