AFC West: Tony Carter

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The Denver Broncos have made no secret they want to be more physical on defense in the coming season.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it’s an issue that’s going to come up, and come up quickly, with quarterbacks like Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Carson Palmer, Colin Kaepernick, Philip Rivers and Tom Brady all on the Broncos’ schedule in the season’s first eight games.

Denver Broncos season wrap-up

February, 5, 2014
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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 Rewind: Defense, special teams

December, 4, 2013
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos put a firm grip on the AFC West race this past Sunday with their second win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the span of three weeks.

It's difficult to throw a new wrinkle at a division opponent, especially with just 14 days in between games, but the Broncos showed the Chiefs a little different look on both sides of the ball.

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:
  • Linebacker Von Miller has four sacks in the six games he has played for the Broncos since he returned from his six-game suspension to open the season. At times, especially in the first half against the New England Patriots he has looked every bit the All Pro he was last season when he finished with 18.5 sacks. And at times he has not. Sunday, he had several quality pressures, including on a Danny Trevathan interception that was negated by a penalty on Chris Harris Jr. as well as late in the game when Chiefs left tackle Branden Albert hyper-extended his knee trying to slow Miller down. He also had a tackle for loss and was often “impactful'' as defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio puts it. But in the end, at least at this stage of his return, Miller is a different kind of player than he was. He's looked different in practice and looked different in games. Personnel executives around the league now use words like “good'' and “potential Pro Bowl level,'' to describe him when last season they used words like “elite'' and “special.'' Miller is making his tackles close to the line of scrimmage or for loss and he is, at times, pressing the pocket and forcing offenses to adjust. But the game video shows a player more intent on playing with power, using the added bulk he intentionally put on his frame during his suspension. No question he is often good at the power game. He rushes with leverage, moves tackles back into the quarterback and gets the corner with a two-hand swipe to get the tackles hands off him right after the snap. But while good is good, Miller was an elite speed rusher in 2012, as in a rare talent, top of the line. And no matter the letter grades or numerical designations put next to what he's done thus far, the simple truth is, and many personnel folks around the league agree, he hasn't been elite yet for an entire game. Miller himself has said he's a “work in progress'' and the Broncos need some more progress.
  • There were times, particularly in the early going Sunday, when the Chiefs found some room to run against the Broncos' nickel package (five defensive backs). Included during that early damage was a 13-yard run by Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith and a 26-yarder by Smith. The Broncos have a slightly bigger nickel look they use with Quentin Jammer at one of the three cornerback spots and they fared better as the game wore on. Jammer, rookie Kayvon Webster and Harris Jr. were in the three cornerback spots in the nickel in much of the second half. It is something others will take a look at down the stretch, however. The Broncos will need safeties Duke Ihenacho and Mike Adams to be physical when they are asked to moved to the point of attack.
  • Not every team has a running back like Jamaal Charles, who was the top priority for the Broncos' defense in both the run game and the passing game. But the Chiefs were able to swing Charles out of the backfield at times to Miller's side to get Miller out of the pass rush. Miller was forced to go with Charles, leaving the Broncos with a three-man rush going after Smith. Miller played it well, however, and it is part of his overall game that has progressed a great deal since his rookie season when the Broncos would often pull him off the field on passing downs.
  • Without defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson -- he's now on injured reserve with a hip injury suffered in the loss to New England -- and defensive end Derek Wolfe in the lineup Sunday, the Chiefs often found a little room to work in the middle of the field. On a first-and-10 play from the Broncos' 37-yard line late in the first quarter, the Broncos were in a base defense with a bigger as they expected a run. Jammer and Harris were the two cornerbacks while Mitch Unrein and Terrance Knighton were the two defensive tackles with all three Broncos' starting linebackers in the formation as well. The Chiefs still carved out a lane and Knile Davis, who also had a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the game, went up the middle for 20 yards. With Vickerson out for the remainder of the season, it is a play -- an old school lead play in these pass-happy times -- that figures to get repeated from time to time in the coming weeks to see if the Broncos can hold their ground.
  • Davis' 108-yard kickoff return was the longest surrendered by the Broncos in the franchise's history and also the first one returned for a touchdown in Jeff Rodgers' tenure as the Broncos special teams coordinator. If you polled the Broncos players about who the team's fastest players are, safety David Bruton and cornerback Tony Carter are two of the names that would quickly come up. And it was Bruton and Carter who the 227-pound Davis ran away from to close the deal on the play. Davis did run a 4.37 40-yard dash at last February's scouting combine so he has top-tier speed. Davis also suffered a fractured ankle three times -- the right twice and the left once -- in a four-year span as he moved from his prep career to the University of Arkansas, so some teams did have a medical red flag on him coming into the draft.

Broncos Rewind: Defense, special teams

November, 27, 2013
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When the Broncos roared through the first six games of the season, piling up the points and wins, Broncos interim head coach Jack Del Rio often preached composure to his defensive players, that how they went about their business week to week was far more important than getting swept up in the team's successes.

It is the same tact Del Rio has taken as he addresses the whole team these days in the wake of Sunday night's loss in New England. That the players should keep the ebb and flow of opinions about the Broncos' postseason prospects on the outside and get to work inside the building.

"I know everyone is going to ride that roller coaster, last week we're the greatest, this week not so good," Del Rio said. "We'll just keep working at it."

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:

  • Del Rio has said he would prefer to use a lot of personnel combinations to both improve the Broncos' ability to create the match-ups they'd like on defense as well as to keep everyone in the defensive meeting rooms engaged and involved through each week with the lure of at least some playing time. Nowhere has that been more evident of late than in the secondary. Against the Patriots, Del Rio used a variety of groupings, even before Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie left the game at halftime with a shoulder injury. Del Rio used Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris Jr. at the cornerback spots in the base defense at times and used Harris Jr. and Quentin Jammer at the two cornerback spots in the base as well against some of the Patriots' bigger personnel groupings. And Del Rio had used both combinations at cornerback in their base 4-3 look before the Broncos had played 10 snaps in the base in the game. The Broncos also had a grouping in the base defense on a first-and-10 play early in the game that didn't include either linebacker Von Miller or Rodgers-Cromartie. The play was an incomplete pass. Miller then entered the game on the next snap, sacking Brady and forcing a fumble. Wesley Woodyard was only linebacker who was on the field for every defensive snap for the Broncos -- 87 in all. That first quarter snap was the only one Miller was held out. But Woodyard, Miller, Danny Trevathan, Nate Irving and Steven Johnson all played snaps at linebacker at varying times in the game, Irving, with 15 plays, usually when Miller was moved into a defensive end spot while Johnson played one snap.

  • [+] EnlargePatriots' Nate Ebner
    AP Photo/Elise AmendolaPatriots players celebrate Nate Ebner's recovery of a muffed punt in overtime.
    Given the success the Patriots had after halftime with pick plays -- with the receivers as well as wheel routes from their running backs hooking out of the backfield -- the Broncos can expect more of the same in the coming weeks. Few coaches bring out the copycats like Bill Belichick. The Patriots made a concerted effort to free their receivers against the Broncos' man-to-man coverage with a few more high-traffic routes, something the Broncos do on offense regularly to get their receivers free. The Patriots were particularly effective getting tight end Rob Gronkowski free by crossing him with another receiver, especially down the field when the Broncos were trying to cover him with one of the safeties.

  • The Patriots were down to a third-string right tackle in the first quarter after Marcus Cannon left with an ankle injury. With Sebastian Vollmer already on injured reserve and Cannon out of the lineup, the Patriots moved Will Svitek into the right tackle spot. Even with that the Broncos were not particularly effective generating pressure from that side of the formation, even when they flipped Miller to that side in longer down-and-distance situations. After sacking Brady three times in the first half, two of those before Cannon left the lineup, they did not sack Brady in the second half or overtime. The Patriots did use two tight ends at times to help things along and Svitek is no newbie -- it's his eighth year in the league -- but the Broncos should have been able to make a little more of the situation whether it was from Miller, Robert Ayers or Shaun Phillips.

  • It was a raw and difficult night for punt returners -- both teams lost possession on a muff from their top punt returner -- but the Broncos' Trindon Holliday has now muffed a punt against Indianapolis, San Diego, Kansas City and New England over the past five games. The Broncos only lost possession on the one against the Patriots', but it was obviously a trend headed the wrong way before Sunday night. Things are tighter down the stretch and into the postseason and few things change momentum like a special teams gaffe, both for the team that forces it or commits it. Holliday spent plenty of extra time in training camp and the offseason catching punts and perhaps it's time to break out the JUGGS machine again. The Broncos need him to be decisive about when he is or isn't going to field a punt, and to keep his elbows in when the makes the catch.

  • Many offensive coaches around the league would prefer for Denver not to be in their base defense -- because of the Broncos' team speed and their bigger front. In their first seven snaps in base defense against the Patriots the Broncos forced two fumbles to go with a sack. They scored on one of the fumbles -- Miller's 60-yard return -- and Terrance Knighton returned the other fumble to the Patriots' 10-yard line. The Broncos scored two plays later.

  • The play that gave the Patriots the field position for their game-winning field goal in overtime came down to both communication and execution. Wes Welker had to make the call sooner -- the Broncos use the word "Peter" to signify everyone needs to get away from a kick -- to make sure all of his teammates had a chance to stay clear. And Tony Carter, whose leg the ball hit, has to be aware of where he is on the field. He was moving laterally in front of Welker just before the ball hit his leg. He had an opportunity to see he was close enough, even if Welker waited slightly too long to make the call. Or as Del Rio put it; "Certainly, Wes would say, ‘Hey I've got to be more emphatic getting the guy out of there' and then Tony I'm sure would say, ‘Hey I've got to be more aware there.' ... It's just one of those fluke deals that can occur. We work hard and practice that to ensure it doesn't and it just got us -- it bit us there."

Broncos' defense is found and then lost

November, 25, 2013
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Rob GronkowskiStew Milne/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos allowed Rob Gronkowksi and the Patriots to erase a 24-point deficit in the second half.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In the end, the Denver Broncos had some of their own medicine shoved down their throats Sunday night.

Yes, a team that launched itself on an 11-game win streak in 2012 after erasing a 24-point lead in San Diego just over a year ago, got to see how the other half lives at Gillette Stadium. After a half of football in which the Broncos' defense was a swirling, playmaking, turnover-forcing machine, all involved were forced to come in from the cold in the early morning hours after letting one get away in overtime, 34-31 to the New England Patriots.

"We just didn’t get enough stops," cornerback Chris Harris said. "We didn’t get those stops we usually get. We are usually good about forcing teams to kick field goals, even if they get a short field or whatever, but we kept giving Tom Brady touchdowns."

It was the first time any team quarterbacked by Peyton Manning lost a lead of more than 22 points to lose a game. It was the biggest comeback in Patriots history. It was an improbable flip-flop after a short trip to the locker room for halftime.

Cornerback Tony Carter, who was the player lined up across from Baltimore's Jacoby Jones on the game-tying play last January, the play that will always raise the hackles of the Broncos faithful, was the player in the wrong place at the worst of times in the closing minutes of overtime Sunday night.

A New England punt with 3 minutes, 11 seconds remaining in the extra period, after the Broncos' defense got the kind of stop that had eluded them for much of the third and fourth quarters, bounced off Carter’s leg and was recovered by the Patriots on the Broncos’ 13-yard line. Three plays later, Stephen Gostkowski kicked the game-winning field goal.

Wes Welker, back to field the punt, had tried to wave everyone off just before the ball hit the ground, yelling “Peter, Peter’’ -- the Broncos' code word to stay away.

"I was just kind of blocking my guy, and at the last second I heard the call," Carter said. "I was trying to get out of the way and felt [the ball] hit my leg. It was just one of those deals, I was hoping it wasn’t the ball. That’s all, I was just hoping it wasn’t the ball."

And while it was Carter’s play that turned out to be the exclamation point on an OMG night for the Broncos, the heartbreak can be traced to some ill-timed turnovers by an offense that surrendered one too many short fields to Brady, but most of all to a defense that lost its mojo once the second quarter ended.

On the Patriots' first three possessions of the game, the Broncos’ Von Miller returned a fumble 60 yards for a touchdown; Miller sacked Brady, forcing a fumble that led to a second Broncos touchdown; and Duke Ihenacho forced a fumble that led to a Matt Prater field goal.

In 12 minutes of game time the Broncos had scored 17 points and the defense had three takeaways. For 12 minutes they were the defense that made the Broncos far more than just another pretty face that could only throw the ball and win games on sun-splashed days. They were the turnover-forcing, Miller-time defense that could rattle even a quarterback headed to Canton.

And then they were not. Then Brady found tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had one catch in the first half and six after halftime, including a touchdown. Then Brady had time to throw. After being sacked three times in the first half, the Broncos didn’t get him again for the remainder of the game.

With the Broncos working plenty of one-on-one coverages, Brady made a concerted effort to get the ball out more quickly after halftime. He targeted Gronkowski far more often, and the Patriots tried to create more traffic in their routes to shake free from the Broncos' defenders. So when Miller and the rest of the pass rush didn’t get there, the completions followed.

"[We] played a lot of tight coverage, did a couple things with pick routes, wheel routes, and they started to take advantage of some of that," Broncos interim coach Jack Del Rio said. "But nothing we didn’t see in the first half, nothing we didn’t handle better in the first half."

"We didn’t do enough," Harris said. "We feel like we let one slip away for sure."

So, for all the Broncos have done this season -- they are still the highest-scoring team in the league, with 123 points more than any other team -- they still have an enormous question mark as to whether they have the defense to win a postseason slugfest in an environment where water might freeze and things could get tight. About whether they could dig in and take down one of the game’s elite quarterbacks or a game-tested coaching staff on the opposing sideline.

Because they didn’t have it Sunday night. The past two times the Broncos have faced the Patriots right off Route 1, New England has churned out 444 and 440 yards of offense to go with 31 and 34 points. There is also the matter of the Ravens putting up 479 yards and 38 points in last January’s playoff game.

The Broncos showed they could run the ball, muscling up on offense when the situation called for it -- for 280 yards, with 224 by Knowshon Moreno -- even as Manning threw for just 150 yards, his lowest total since the 2009 regular-season finale.

"We’ll deal with this and learn what we can out of it," Del Rio said, "... learn the lessons that are there to be learned."

It was a tale of two halves for the Broncos on Sunday, but how the season's final chapters unfold, well, that just may be up to the defense. That same defense that simply has to find whatever it left behind on this frozen November night.

Rapid Reaction: Denver Broncos

November, 25, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A few thoughts on the Denver Broncos' 34-31 overtime loss to the New England Patriots.

What it means: The Broncos' 2012 season turned with a Week 6 comeback in San Diego, when the Broncos trailed 24-0 at halftime and roared back to beat the Chargers 35-24. This season, they must now work from the other end of the spectrum after having let a 24-0 lead of their own slip away on a night when Peyton Manning again struggled in the cold and the offense went into the deep freeze until a game-tying drive. In the end, the Broncos couldn't overcome a special-teams mistake by Tony Carter.

Stock watch: At least for one half, the Broncos saw the Von Miller they have been waiting for since his suspension ended in Week 7. Miller dominated the opening half with a 60-yard fumble return for a touchdown to go with two sacks, including a strip of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady that forced a fumble. However, Miller didn’t have near the same impact after halftime, particularly in the pass rush, as Brady threw for well more than 200 yards in the second half and overtime combined.

The sequel: Patriots coach Bill Belichick is noted for picking away at what you don’t want to do, and in recent meetings with the Broncos, he has often chosen to throw the ball against the Broncos defense when it’s in the bigger base look and run on the Broncos when they are in a smaller nickel package (five defensive backs). Of the Patriots' 251 rushing yards in last season’s meeting, 140 came against the nickel, and through three quarters Sunday night, the Patriots had ground out 65 of their 87 rushing yards in the nickel.

Go with what you know: Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was targeted just twice by Brady in the first half and had just one catch as the Broncos used a combination of linebackers and safeties to track the Pro Bowler. The Patriots obviously wanted to make sure he got far more involved after halftime. Gronkowski had three catches in the third quarter alone, including a touchdown.

What’s next: When the Kansas City Chiefs came to Denver in Week 11, they were 9-0 and at the top of the division. Next Sunday, the Broncos will go to Arrowhead Stadium to face a 9-2 Chiefs team with two of Kansas City's best defenders -- Tamba Hali and Justin Houston -- dealing with injuries. And the Broncos are a battered group after Sunday night's old-school scrap.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- With the fast-paced Philadelphia Eagles on deck, the Denver Broncos got a little healthier in the secondary as the week wore on and are still hoping to add Champ Bailey to that mix before Sunday's kickoff.
Bailey
Safety Duke Ihenacho (right ankle) practiced for the first time this week on Friday. He was limited in the workout and is officially listed as questionable for Sunday’s game, but is expected to be ready to play if he has no additional issues in the coming days.

Cornerback Tony Carter (right ankle) practiced fully Friday and was listed as probable. As for Bailey (left foot), he practiced on a limited basis for the second consecutive week. And as the Broncos did last week, they formally listed Bailey as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Eagles.

Asked if he could make a decision on Bailey’s status after Friday’s practice or would have to see Bailey work on the field in the hours before Sunday’s game, Broncos coach John Fox said: “We’ll make it official an hour and half before kickoff on gameday." Bailey characterized his status as "close, very close.''

Linebacker Paris Lenon (thigh) was the only player held out of practice Friday and was formally listed as doubtful. Lenon is not expected to play against the Eagles. Tight end Joel Dreessen (knee), who like Bailey has yet to play in a game this season, was limited Friday and listed as questionable.

Safety David Bruton (neck), wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (left ankle), long snapper Aaron Brewer (rib), running back C.J. Anderson (knee), cornerback Omar Bolden (left shoulder), wide receiver Wes Welker (left ankle), wide receiver Eric Decker (right shoulder), tackle Orlando Franklin (shoulder), guard Chris Kuper (ankle) all practiced fully and were all listed as probable.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Broncos safety Duke Ihenacho and linebacker Paris Lenon were the only two players held out of Thursday’s practice at the team's Dove Valley complex

Ihenacho (right ankle) and Lenon (thigh) also did not practice Wednesday. Cornerback Tony Carter (right ankle), who had been held out of Wednesday’s practice, did participate Thursday on a limited basis. Ihenacho was originally injured in the Broncos’ win against the Giants, then tweaked the injury against the Raiders this past Monday night.

Cornerback Champ Bailey (left foot), who has missed the Broncos’ first three games, took part on a limited basis.

“It’s been tough, still is tough, because it’s still up in the air," Bailey said. “I’ve never dealt with anything like this, I’m just trying to make the right decision."

Asked if he would be ready to return for Sunday’s game against the Eagles, Bailey said; “Hopefully."

Tight end Joel Dreessen (knee) was also limited. Safety David Bruton (neck), wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (left ankle), long snapper Aaron Brewer (rib), running back C.J. Anderson (knee), cornerback Omar Bolden (left shoulder), wide receiver Wes Welker (left ankle), wide receiver Eric Decker (right shoulder), guard Chris Kuper (ankle) all practiced fully.

Broncos Rookie Report: Defense

September, 26, 2013
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Some in the Denver Broncos' first-year class have found ways to contribute to a historic 3-0 start for the team with some situational work, especially in the wake of some recent injuries.

With that in mind, here’s the rookie report, a weekly check-in with how Denver's first-year class on defense is doing:

Defensive tackle Sylvester Williams: Williams remains a rotational player, but with the Broncos playing a three-man front of Robert Ayers, Malik Jackson and Shaun Phillips in longer down-and-distance situations, Williams has lost some game-day opportunities because the Broncos have spent so much time in that rush package. Williams finished with eight defensive snaps Monday against the Oakland Raiders to go with one snap on special teams. He did not have a tackle.

Cornerback Kayvon Webster: With Champ Bailey out for the third consecutive game and Tony Carter suffering an ankle injury in Monday's first half, Webster was suddenly thrust into a far more prominent role than expected. He played in the Broncos’ nickel and dime looks for the remainder of the night, finishing with 25 snaps on defense to go with 18 on special teams. Webster showed himself to be prepared, finishing with a pass defensed in man coverage in the deep middle. Webster has also showed a physical edge and been a sure tackler, and the Broncos will continue to try to figure out ways to get him on the field, even after Bailey returns.

Practice squad: Defensive end John Youboty, who spent training camp with Denver, continues to play a variety of roles for the scout team.

Carter, Ihenacho held out of practice

September, 25, 2013
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- With the Philadelphia Eagles' fast-break attack on the docket for Sunday, the Denver Broncos found themselves a little short-handed in the secondary in Wednesday’s practice.

Cornerback Tony Carter (right ankle) and safety Duke Ihenacho (right ankle) were both held out of the workout. Carter left Monday night’s win over the Raiders in the first half and did not return. His was the most serious injury the Broncos had in the game and he remains a question mark for Sunday’s affair. Ihenacho was originally injured in the Broncos’ win over the Giants and then tweaked the injury against the Raiders. Linebacker Paris Lenon (thigh) was also held out of Wednesday's practice.

Broncos coach John Fox had classified the injuries Tuesday as "nothing serious.''

Cornerback Champ Bailey (left foot), who has missed the Broncos’ first three games, was limited Wednesday. Bailey looked fluid in his movements in the open period of practice.

“He practiced all last week … and felt good, no setbacks,’’ Fox said. “And now we’re in the first day of a fresh week … when you don’t play football for a minute, it takes a little bit to get back in football shape and that’s kind of where we are now.’’

Tight end Joel Dreessen (knee) was also limited. Safety David Bruton (neck), wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (left ankle), long snapper Aaron Brewer (rib), running back C.J. Anderson (knee), cornerback Omar Bolden (left shoulder), wide receiver Wes Welker (left ankle), wide receiver Eric Decker (right shoulder), guard Chris Kuper (ankle) all practiced fully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Denver Broncos, like the rest of the league, will tie a bow on the preseason Thursday night. Most of the team’s regulars will get the night off against the visiting Arizona Cardinals, but decisions still need to be made at a few spots at the back end of the roster.

With that in mind, some things to keep an eye on:

One of the most difficult spots for the Broncos to make cuts ahead of Saturday's deadline to pare the roster to 53 players -- the bulk of which will come Friday -- will be in the secondary.

The Broncos kept nine defensive backs on the opening-weekend roster in 2011 and 10 last season -- five cornerbacks and five safeties. The issue this year is that Denver has two young, homegrown cornerback prospects in Omar Bolden and rookie Kayvon Webster, who have shown themselves to be worthy of the roster and would raise the overall athleticism at the position.

With Champ Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Rahim Moore, Duke Ihenacho, Chris Harris, David Bruton and Tony Carter having worked in the top seven slots all through the preseason, that doesn’t leave room for Webster, Bolden, Mike Adams and Quentin Jammer to all make it.

If the Broncos stick with nine players in the secondary, they are essentially choosing between youth and experience for those final two spots. If they keep an extra cornerback, however, it may be an indication they feel they need to open the season with some insurance for Bailey’s foot injury.

Unless Denver takes the uncharacteristic step and keeps 11 defensive backs, Bolden and Webster both figure to play plenty against the Cardinals to state their cases.

  • Brock Osweiler is slated to get the start at quarterback behind what is largely a backup line. That has been a tough combination thus far in the preseason for Osweiler, who has been sacked eight times in the three previous games behind the reserves. It makes it difficult for the Broncos to work out of the three-wide look as much as they’d like given that they haven’t consistently protected the quarterback in it -- even when the starters have been in the game -- this preseason. If things get dicey they might have to go big again, as they did last weekend against the Rams. After opening the game with three wide receivers and allowing too many rushers to get too close to Peyton Manning, the Broncos went to a two-tight-end look. They lined up in a two-tight-end look on 29 of the next 35 plays after the opening three-and-out, including all 12 in a drive that ended with a blocked field goal. The Broncos might feel like they need to give Osweiler a little more beef up front.
  • The last few rosters spots will be decided on special teams, and the Broncos could use a good showing there. In the past two games they have surrendered a 107-yard kickoff return for a score, a 33-yard punt return, an 81-yard punt return and seen a field goal blocked. Many of the Broncos' youngest players will have a chance to help their causes against Arizona, with Denver special-teams coach Jeff Rodgers looking for those who display speed and smarts.
  • [+] EnlargeKayvon Webster
    AP Photo/Eric BakkeCornerback Kayvon Webster, a third-round pick, gets a last chance tonight to show he deserves a roster spot.
    The Broncos have lost five fumbles in three preseason games -- two by Osweiler, two by Ronnie Hillman and one by Julius Thomas. Hillman is not expected to play Thursday, but things need to be cleaned up. Lance Ball and Jacob Hester figure to get some work as the Broncos face some tough decisions at running back as well. Hester has not had a carry in the preseason and is the only back that has lined up at fullback thus far.
  • The Broncos have to sort things out in the offensive line, where they kept nine players in both 2011 and last season. After the starting five -- Ryan Clady, Zane Beadles, Manny Ramirez, Louis Vasquez and Orlando Franklin -- the Broncos need a swing tackle, likely Chris Clark, and a swing guard/center or two, with Ryan Lilja, Steve Vallos and Philip Blake in the mix. Blake, a fourth-round pick in 2012, has been headed the wrong way on the depth chart -- the Broncos didn’t even work him much at center in the preseason, a position he played in college and one they originally drafted him for. Blake is decidedly on the bubble -- a long way down for a player some believed was pushing to start before a thumb injury ended his rookie season. He has regressed since that point, so he's either not getting the message about the changes in the offense or is not reacting well to the coaching he's getting. Rookie tackle Vinston Painter has shown the kind of athleticism that deserves a roster spot, but the Broncos may be in a position where they have to hope he makes it through waivers so they can sign him to their practice squad. Lilja is a tough call, too. Denver certainly likes him in the offense, but he had microfracture surgery on his knee just a few months ago and has missed significant amount of practice time of late because of the knee.
  • Rookie quarterback Zac Dysert will likely get his most significant work of the preseason. Dysert has shown some quality scrambling skills in practice, so he could have an entertaining down or two if he gets loose. He projects to the practice squad, but the Broncos would like to see some better accuracy from the pocket, especially in the shorter and intermediate routes.
  • Linebacker Lerentee McCray and wide receiver Lamaar Thomas are the undrafted rookies with the best chance to make the final 53 -- especially McCray. If the Broncos don’t keep McCray, there are at least two other teams that would consider signing him. He’s a big-bodied linebacker who, while not always showing good instincts, has the ability to disrupt an offense and closes to the ball with speed and intent.
DENVER – The Broncos' battered secondary took another hit Saturday night, with some difficult decisions to come.

Omar Bolden, who had regularly worked in some of Denver's specialty packages, suffered a left-ankle injury in the Broncos' victory over the Rams. Bolden limped to the locker room in the fourth quarter and is scheduled for an MRI on Sunday.

Bolden’s injury did give Quentin Jammer, who has worked at safety the majority of the time in the preseason, a chance to play cornerback with the second-team defense. Jammer, signed as a depth player late in the offseason, was decidedly on the bubble in a crowded secondary heading into the game, and could help his cause if he can show he can multi-task.

To that end, he got plenty of work in the second half, working at cornerback opposite rookie Kayvon Webster. Jammer was active, finishing with three tackles and two pass breakups. The Broncos have some tough calls to make in the secondary overall, with Champ Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Tony Carter and Chris Harris to go with Bolden and Webster at corner, and Rahim Moore, Duke Ihenacho and David Bruton at safety to go with Mike Adams and Rodgers-Cromartie.

That’s 11 players at a position where the Broncos traditionally keep nine or 10. The Broncos kept 10 players in the secondary when they cut their roster to 53 last season -- five cornerbacks and five safeties.

Bailey (foot) did not play Saturday and is still a question mark for the regular-season opener. Rodgers-Cromartie left Thursday’s practice after being kneed in the lower back, but started Saturday’s game and played until halftime.
Dominique Rodgers-CromartieAP Photo/Jack DempseyDominique Rodgers-Cromartie practiced Saturday for the first time since spraining his ankle July 31.

The Denver Broncos looked at the available cornerbacks in the offseason and saw Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as a still-in-his-prime, high-value target. Personnel boss John Elway went so far as to call him a "Pro Bowl talent."

Rodgers-Cromartie looked at his available options in free agency and saw the Broncos as a Super Bowl contender, making the decision to sign what is essentially a one-year deal something he called "really a no-brainer."

And how all this works out for both sides likely will depend on how cooperative Rodgers-Cromartie's left ankle is in the coming weeks and months. Rodgers-Cromartie returned to the practice field Saturday for the first time since suffering a high ankle sprain July 31 during practice.

"It's good to be back ... I'm just easing my way back in," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "I'm just trying to get a feel for it, some days you feel good, some days you don't."

It is often a notoriously difficult injury for a player to shake, especially at a position like cornerback where top-flight speed and the ability to change direction in the open field are integral parts of the job. It is the kind of injury that also resurfaces at times if a player lands awkwardly on the same spot.

And there is the matter that Rodgers-Cromartie previously suffered what he said were torn ligaments in the same ankle earlier in his career, during the 2011 season in Philadelphia.

Certainly the Broncos can function without Rodgers-Cromartie in the lineup -- they simply play their 2012 rotation, with Chris Harris as the starting right cornerback. In nickel and dime looks, Harris then moves inside to the slot and Tony Carter lines up outside.

But Rodgers-Cromartie gives them the size -- 6-foot-2, 193 pounds -- and speed they want in an outside corner. He would also allow the Broncos use Harris almost exclusively in the slot and keep size on the outside when they do go to the specialty looks. (Harris is 5-10 and Carter checks in at 5-9.)

The Broncos have not expressed concern about Rodgers-Cromartie over the long haul, but the injury, as well as his recovery, will bear watching as the team works toward the regular-season opener.

Before their bye in Week 9 the Broncos will face a cast of quarterbacks that includes Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Tony Romo, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. They are going to spend plenty of time in the nickel and dime -- they played the nickel over 60 percent of the defensive snaps last season -- and certainly want Rodgers-Cromartie in that mix.

(Read full post)

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- News and notes from Broncos training camp Thursday:

  • Ryan Lilja, who arrived in Denver on a Thursday morning flight and was set to sign his contract after going through a physical, did not participate in practice, but he was expected to be on the field for a Thursday evening walk-through. Broncos coach John Fox says Lilja is a swing guard/center signed for depth at the moment. But as a former teammate of Peyton Manning's in Indianapolis, Lilja has far more experience with the long list of audibles Manning uses in the offense.If he's healthy -- he had toe and knee surgeries following the 2012 season -- he could find his way into the starting lineup sooner rather than later. The Broncos coaches cited his two quality outings against the Broncos last season when Lilja was with the Chiefs.Lilja started at center last season against the Broncos on Nov. 25 and Dec. 30.
  • [+] EnlargeTony Carter
    AP Photo/Jack DempseyWith Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie sidelined, the Broncos put Tony Carter back in the starting lineup at right cornerback.
    With Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie out for what is expected to be at least two weeks with an ankle sprain, the Broncos took a look at Tony Carter in the right cornerback spot in the base defense during Thursday's workout, keeping Chris Harris as the nickel corner.Harris started 12 games at right corner in 2012, including the playoff loss to Baltimore, but the Broncos prefer his toughness and quickness in the slot. Carter has a bit more speed in the open field and is far more comfortable on the outside.The Broncos signed Rodgers-Cromartie in the offseason, however, because they were looking for more size at the position overall. Rodgers-Cromartie is 6-foot-2 with a big reach, while Harris is 5-foot-10 and Carter is 5-foot-9. The Ravens went after Carter on the game-tying touchdown at the end of regulation in the divisional-round playoff game.Carter missed the jam on the Ravens' Jacoby Jones on the touchdown play.

    It has potential to be something the Broncos will have to consider moving forward from time to time. Rodgers-Cromartie has had ankle troubles in the past having torn ligaments in the ankle during the 2011 season in Philadelphia.
  • Rookie defensive end Quanterus Smith left practice Thursday with a sore knee. That will bear watching in the coming weeks.With the departure of Elvis Dumervil and the possibility Von Millerwill face a four-game suspension for a violation of the league's substance-abuse policy -- Miller is expected to have his appeal hearing later this month -- Smith is a big part of the pass-rush plan, especially in the specialty packages.He suffered a torn left ACL during his senior season at Western Kentucky and was limited for much of the offseason workouts. Thursday was the first time he has left a practice in training camp.
  • The Broncos continue to work toward a contract extension for punter Britton Colquitt. Colquitt signed a one-year, $1.323 million tender as a restricted free agent in the offseason.But the two sides have had extensive talks and are closing in on a multiyear deal.
  • Rookie defensive end Sylvester Williams (knee), tight end Jacob Tamme (thigh) and safety Quinton Carter (knee) were among those held out of practice Thursday. Broncos coach John Fox has characterized all three as "day-to-day."

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