AFC West: Virgil Green

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In is four seasons with the Denver Broncos tight end Virgil Green has caught 20 passes, he's run the ball twice and doesn't have a touchdown.

Yet, Green is a player quarterback Peyton Manning has called "one of our tough guys on this team." His work has been important enough that Manning has vowed to try and find a way to get Green his inaugural scoring catch. With Julius Thomas still working his way back from a left ankle sprain he suffered against the St. Louis Rams and Jacob Tamme having already missed practice time this week with a rib injury, Green is, at the moment, the only healthy tight end on the roster.

So, the guy who has largely been asked to block for other much of the time, may get a few more chances to catch a pass or two.

[+] EnlargeVirgil Green
Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsVirgil Green has played an important role in Denver's commitment to the run game.
"Absolutely. I'd be a fool if I said that wasn't in my mind," Green said when asked if he's like to be more involved in the passing game. "But at the same time, I have to do what the team needs me to do to win games and I'm a committed teammate and I want to do things to get wins. I'm not a selfish player. I don't look too much for my own stats. I just look to help my team win games."

For a team still searching at times to find itself offense, Green's presence in the offense allows the Broncos to add a little more power to all of the athleticism they have in the passing game. Green missed three games with a calf injury -- New England, Oakland and St. Louis -- and the Broncos were in a two-tight end look for 23, 0 and three snaps respectively in those three games.

Against the Rams, when Thomas also suffered an ankle injury in the first quarter, the Broncos ran the ball just 10 times for 28 yards, an eye-opening total for an offense even as proficient throwing the ball as the Broncos have been since Manning's arrival.

"[Green] is a physical player who gives us a presence," Manning said.

With Green's return to the lineup over the last two weeks, the Broncos have rushed 80 times combined, the highest total in back-to-back games this season and third-highest of Manning's tenure. Denver pounded the ball out of the two-tight end set 20 times against the Dolphins and 26 times this past Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Broncos rushed for 201 and 214 yards respectively in those two wins.

"I take a lot of pride in it," Green said. "In college we ran the ball quite a bit so it's something that has been ingrained in my mind to make those big blocks and spring guys to get them down the field."

Sunday, the Buffalo Bills will be the sixth defense the Broncos have faced this season currently ranked in the league's top 10 in scoring defense. But some offenses have found some room to run on the perimeter, especially outside the right tackle where teams have averaged 6.48 yards per carry against the Bills defense.

With Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes at defensive end, Buffalo leads the league in sacks with 48 and are one just two teams -- Philadelphia is the other -- to have topped 40 sacks on the season.

"I'd probably say 80 percent is ‘want to'," Green said. "As long as you go out there with the willingness to hit somebody, you can move somebody off the line of scrimmage. This week we've got big Mario Williams out there, so we're going to have to get our technique down pat because you just can't win with him just coming off the ball hard. You've got to use technique. … He's going to make sure you don't run that ball outside. He can set that edge and he's 290 [pounds]. I'm about 240, 250 so there is a huge weight discrepancy there, but at the end of the day, I'm going into the game with a mindset that regardless of how big he is I'm going to move him off the ball. Whether that happens on every play or not, I don't know, but that's my mindset and my goal for this game."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders were on the practice field for the team Wednesday, but only as spectators.

Sanders
Thomas
Thomas, who suffered a sprained left ankle in Sunday’s loss to the St. Louis Rams, and Sanders, who suffered a concussion, were among the Broncos players who did not take part in Wednesday’s practice. Thomas went through stretching with the team but did not take part in drills.

Thomas' current injury is not to the ankle that was surgically repaired in 2012 -- he had right ankle surgery in the months leading up to the 2012 season.

Sanders, dressed in sweats, came onto the field after practice had begun. Sanders is currently under the guidelines of the league’s concussion protocol and must clear certain benchmarks to return to practice. He has not yet cleared those benchmarks.

Running backs Montee Ball (groin) and Ronnie Hillman (foot) also did not participate in Wednesday's practice. Ball and Hillman are not expected to practice this week or play in Sunday’s game against the Miami Dolphins.

Hillman could miss several additional weeks and Ball is expected to miss at least two to three weeks in his recovery. That makes C.J. Anderson the primary back at this point, with Juwan Thompson working in the rotation as well.

Tight end Virgil Green, who has missed the last three games with a calf injury, did practice Wednesday on a limited basis, while left tackle Ryan Clady (groin) and safety Quinton Carter (knee) were also limited.

Nate Irving to have surgery on knee

November, 14, 2014
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Denver Broncos linebacker Nate Irving, who was placed on injured reserve Thursday, will have surgery within the next two weeks to repair the knee.

Broncos coach John Fox said following Thursday’s practice that “there’s too much going on in there to think he is just going to rehab it. We want to get it taken care of.’’

Ball
Irving suffered the injury in the Broncos’ Nov. 2 loss to the New England Patriots. Irving suffered a severely sprained MCL, which can mean some tearing in the ligament, but the Broncos now want to check for other damage in the knee.

The Broncos now believe, after the swelling in the knee has subsided somewhat, Irving might have a partial tear of the ACL, but that will be checked again when Irving has his surgery.

“(Surgery) was a consideration the whole time,’’ Fox said. “I think we became aware of it when some of the swelling came down that this would be the best way to pursue it going forward.’’

Irving was in the Broncos’ complex Friday rehabbing the injury with the Broncos’ medical staff.

The player the Broncos claimed off waivers Thursday and take Irving’s place on the roster, linebacker Todd Davis, will meet the team in St. Louis on Saturday. The Broncos, because of the 11 a.m. kickoff (Mountain time), were scheduled to leave for St. Louis Friday afternoon.

Irving was expected to miss several weeks even at the time of the initial diagnosis, but his surgery was scheduled after doctors continued to examine the knee in recent days. Irving is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end.

For Sunday's game against the Rams, running back Ronnie Hillman (foot) and tight end Virgil Green (calf) did not practice Friday. Hillman is expected to miss at least two to three weeks with his injury.

Neither Hillman nor Green practiced this week. While Hillman has been ruled out, the Broncos listed Green as doubtful. Both are expected to be among the team's seven gameday inactives.

Running back Montee Ball practiced fully through the week and will be in uniform and in the running back rotation for the game. C.J. Anderson is expected to start, but Ball will get some work as well.

It was Ball’s first week of full participation since an Oct. 5 right groin injury.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos tight end Virgil Green, who has missed the past two games with a calf injury, was dressed for practice Thursday in his helmet and jersey, but did not participate in the workout.

Green has said in recent days that he feels like he’s closing in on a return, but he also did not practice Wednesday.

"It’s just a healing process," said Broncos head coach John Fox following practice.

Green
Green’s absence meant the Broncos had just two tight ends on the active roster working in the offense -- Julius Thomas and Jacob Tamme. Thomas and Tamme traditionally work in more of a receiver role, and Green has usually been the player the Broncos like to use when they go to a two-tight end formation with the intent on working more in the run game.

That is an issue to address this week as the St. Louis Rams have 16 sacks over their past four games, so the Broncos have talked about the importance of slowing down the Rams' front with an effective run game as well as some play-action work in the passing game.

With Green out of the lineup against the Oakland Raiders this past Sunday, the Broncos ran every offensive snap out of a three-wide receiver look.

Running back Ronnie Hillman (foot) and linebacker Nate Irving (knee) did not participate. Irving is expected to miss several weeks with a sprained MCL in his right knee, suffered in the Broncos’ loss to the New England Patriots. Hillman suffered a left foot sprain against the Raiders that is expected to keep him out at least two to three weeks.

Montee Ball was again a full participant in practice -- Wednesday’s practice had been Ball’s first full team workout since his Oct. 5 injury -- and is on track to play Sunday. C.J. Anderson, coming off 163 total yards against the Raiders, including the game-changing 51-yard catch-and-run touchdown, is expected to get the start, with Ball and rookie Juwan Thompson in the rotation.

The Broncos, with frigid temperatures in the Denver area again Thursday, practiced indoors at their newly opened facility.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – With Ronnie Hillman now out at least two to three weeks with a left foot sprain, it is a good time for Montee Ball to be back in the Denver Broncos’ rotation at running back.

Ball
Ball, who practiced on a limited basis last week and was then held out of the Broncos’ 41-17 win Sunday over the Oakland Raiders, took part fully in Wednesday’s practice and looks on track to be uniform for Sunday’s game against the St. Louis Rams. It was the first time Ball had participated fully in practice since he suffered a right groin injury Oct. 5 against the Arizona Cardinals. The Broncos practiced, as is their custom on Wednesdays, in full pads.

The team also used its sparkling new indoor facility for the first time Wednesday as the temperature outside the team’s complex in south suburban Denver was minus-2 degrees when practice began.

“Was tremendous," said Broncos head coach John Fox. “ … We’ll evaluate that tomorrow and see if we’re back in there. It’s a great facility; they went the full distance on this."

Tight end Virgil Green (calf) and linebacker Nate Irving (knee) also did not participate. Left tackle Ryan Clady (groin) took part on a limited basis, but is expected to practice for the remainder of the week and play against the Rams.

Ball’s return comes at a good time not only for him – he’s a St. Louis-area native, so Sunday’s game is the first time he will play there as an NFL player – but for the Broncos as well. Hillman has the team’s only two 100-yard rushing games this season.

“[Ball] was out there practicing a week ago, made good progress," Fox said. “He practiced [Wednesday]; it went well."

Ball had been the starter at the time of his injury, but Hillman, and C.J. Anderson this past weekend, have been the backs to give the offense some spark. Anderson gained 163 yards of total offense in Sunday’s victory at Oakland, including a 51-yard catch-and-run reception when he broke several tackles.

For his part, Ball has said he is down to 212 pounds from the 224 pounds he weighed at the time of his injury and said he feels “faster, quicker to the hole. I think people will see a difference."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos running back Montee Ball participated in his first full practice Wednesday since he suffered a right groin injury in the Broncos' Oct. 5 win against the Arizona Cardinals.

Ball
Ball was limited in the workout, but he did take part in the padded practice. Up until Wednesday, Ball had only been working with the Broncos' strength and conditioning staff.

The second-year back was the team's primary runner at the time of his injury and Ronnie Hillman had two 100-yard games in the four games Ball has missed. It remains to be seen how much Ball works through the week as the Broncos go about re-entering him into the offensive game plan.

"It was his first day back in a while," Broncos head coach John Fox said following practice. "He's worked very hard ... lost some weight, he looks good."

Along with Ball, tight end Virgil Green was limited Wednesday with a calf injury. Green did not play against the New England Patriots and as a result the Broncos had just two tight ends in uniform -- Jacob Tamme and Julius Thomas.

Wide receiver Wes Welker (back), who left Sunday's game after taking a big hit on what became Peyton Manning's second interception of the game, took part fully in the workout.

Safety Quinton Carter (hamstring) and right tackle Paul Cornick (shoulder) were also limited in practice. At this point Cornick, who has started the past three games, is expected to play Sunday in Oakland.

Linebacker Nate Irving, who will miss several weeks with a sprained right MCL, did not participate.

Linebacker Steven Johnson, who didn't play against the Patriots because of an ankle injury, took part fully Wednesday. Johnson is one of the players expected to get some situational work in the defense in Irving's absence.

"I was close to playing (against the Patriots)," Johnson said. "I tried before the game and it was close, I think they just wanted to make sure."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos showed how their offense would operate without wide receiver Wes Welker in the win over the Indianapolis Colts.

And while the Broncos continue to be optimistic about the chances of getting Welker back before Week 6 if a new drug policy is put in place -- so much so they cleared a roster spot and are carrying 52 players -- their work against the Colts is worth a look for what it all means with, or without, Welker in the lineup.

First, if anyone doubted the Broncos could simply put Emmanuel Sanders into the offense in place of Eric Decker and roll on, they should put those doubts aside. Decker was second on the team in targets (137), catches (87) and receiving touchdowns (11) last season -- a productive, proven quality option.

[+] EnlargeDenver's Emmanuel Sanders
Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty ImagesEmmanuel Sanders caught six passes for 77 yards, including this one for 40 against the Colts.
But Sanders, with his ability to play on the outside and in the slot, will squarely be in the No. 2 role behind Demaryius Thomas. It’s what the Broncos signed him to be and what he showed he will be in his first regular-season outing. His ability to stretch the field from anywhere in the formation will create big plays for him and room for others to work.

"I thought it was a good start for him," quarterback Peyton Manning said.

With no Welker, the Broncos played their two-tight end set one snap more than they did their three-wide receiver set. While some said Andre Caldwell would start against the Colts in place of Welker, the Broncos actually opened the game in a two tight end look with Demaryius Thomas and Sanders as the wide receivers.

Virgil Green played 42 snaps as the second tight end and Caldwell played 40 snaps as the third wide receiver. Those numbers figure to shift whenever Welker returns and by what the Broncos believe the opposing defense has to offer week to week.

But their work in camp as well as the opener shows the two tight end look will likely be a bigger part of things than in 2013, when the Broncos had five games when they played out of a three-wide look for at least 69 snaps -- including penalty plays.

And then there’s the matter of how Julius Thomas fits moving forward. The Broncos saw, and enjoyed, his breakout year in 2013, but start charting how things could go in this offense and the most likely scenario is where Thomas is the third target rather than the third wide receiver.

He figures to get more attention moving forward, especially after what he did to the Colts linebackers and safeties. Sunday he was targeted eight times by Manning, just below Demaryius Thomas’ 11 targets and Sanders’ nine.

"When you’re on defense you have to pick your poison," Broncos coach John Fox said. "You can’t double everybody or you’d run out of numbers. I think part of what makes our offense successful is we do have those weapons and we have the trigger guy (in Manning). He can decipher exactly what is taking place in an instant and feed the ball to the guy the defense might be light on."

Rookie Cody Latimer also figures to enter the picture at some point. The Broncos have Latimer, as they do all of their receivers, learning all of the receiver spots in their scheme.

In their offense that means not only knowing all of the assignments at all of the outside spots and in the slot positions, it means being able to handle Manning checking out of a play into another play the team has either run in a game or practiced at any point since offseason workouts began.

When Latimer, who admits his head "is spinning sometimes, but you work," has a handle on those audibles, his size and speed will be too much to keep on the bench.

All in all, it means options against a schedule full of defenses that figure to dot the league’s top 10 when all is said and done.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo -- Denver Broncos wide receiver Jordan Norwood, who was making a significant push to make the roster as a sixth wide receiver, suffered a knee injury in Wednesday’s practice and will miss the remainder of the season.

Norwood
Norwood was taken for an MRI exam early Wednesday afternoon and the results confirmed the Broncos’ preliminary exams -- that Norwood had torn his left ACL. Norwood had four catches for 54 yards and a touchdown in the Broncos' two preseason games combined.

He had received a smattering of snaps with the starters on offense in practice of late and had been one of the team's primary punt returners. Norwood, who has made four starts over his previous four NFL seasons, had positioned himself to be in the mix when the Broncos make their roster cuts to get to 53 players following their final preseason game.

"They'll be tests run. We'll kind of play it by ear until we know something meaningful," said Broncos head coach John Fox.

Norwood was injured in a red zone drill when he battled Houston Texans cornerback Brandon Harris for the ball in the back left corner of the end zone. The two players jumped for the pass and Norwood landed somewhat awkwardly.

The Broncos and Texans were in the second of three days' worth of practices together before the two teams play Saturday night in Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

Also Wednesday the Broncos again held wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders out of practice with a thigh injury. Sanders has not practiced since last Thursday and did not play this past weekend against the San Francisco 49ers.

Sanders did do so some work with strength and conditioning coaches off to the side.

"We're just getting that quad back to 100 percent," Fox said.

Running back Montee Ball, who returned to practice Tuesday, did more in Wednesday's workout, taking part in individual drills as well as some work in 7-on-7 with the starters.

The Broncos also held cornerback Kayvon Webster (ankle), tight end Virgil Green (calf), tight end Gerell Robinson (knee, ankle) and linebacker Jamar Chaney (hamstring) out of practice.
Montee BallAP Photo/Jack DempseyMontee Ball enters training camp atop the running back depth chart.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- You can’t blame a guy with the football résumé Montee Ball has for feeling the way he does.

But Ball, who has been promoted to the No. 1 spot on the depth chart at running back for the Denver Broncos, thinks the ever-increasing reports of the demise of the NFL running back are premature. He believes there is plenty of room for some grind-it-out work, even in a fast-paced, throw-it-around, pass-first attack like the Broncos have.

“I’ve said it before, but I think it’s still a premier job -- to play running back in the NFL," Ball said. "I think there’s a role there, a job to be done that can impact the offense. It's needed."

The Broncos certainly agree, even with all they did with the ball in the air last season, and did not hesitate to clear the way to make Ball the starter this offseason. But the rest of the position group remains among the biggest questions on the Super Bowl hopefuls' depth chart.

And over the next week, we'll take a position-by-position look at where things stand with the team.

Today: Running backs.

How many coming to camp: 7

How many the Broncos will keep: After dabbling with the idea of a fullback in recent seasons -- the Broncos even traded for one (Chris Gronkowski) in 2012 -- they did not carry one on the roster last season.

And while they have tinkered with the idea of Virgil Green lining up in the backfield as both a blocker and ball carrier, they do not have a true fullback on this roster either. They kept five running backs in 2011 and four in both ’12 and ’13.

It is a youthful group overall, with Ronnie Hillman, who is entering his third season, the most experienced player at the position. The Broncos figure to keep four when all is said and done in the preseason, but they don’t have much size -- just two of the seven backs in camp are heavier than 215 pounds -- so Green could become the de facto fourth back if they feel they need a roster spot elsewhere.

The guy to watch: Ball showed every reason the Broncos have promoted him into the lead role during offseason workouts. While the proof will always be in how things go when the pads are on, he showed good vision in the noncontact work, a comfort level as a receiver that showed he's moved past the limited work he did at Wisconsin in that part of an offense and an improved sense of where to be in pass protection.

He projects to have a big year. But the guy who could help the Broncos’ cause, as well, is the last guy to earn the offseason promotion to the top spot, and that’s Hillman, who didn’t keep the job until the end of training camp last year.

Hillman -- who came into the league as one of the youngest players in the 2012 draft, having played just two college seasons, including as a true freshman at San Diego State -- has plenty of talent. And from the Broncos’ perspective, he is their best home run threat at the position.

But plenty of folks don't always make the most of talent, and he didn’t approach things the way the Broncos had hoped last season. It showed in both his play and playing time, as he was even a game-day inactive at times last season. However, Hillman said all the right things this offseason and looked better on the field, as well, in recent months.

The Broncos need the potential pop he can give the offense, and if he doesn’t give it to them, that would be a hefty third-round pick who didn’t work out.

Break it down: The bottom line is the Broncos, because of the way they play offense out of a three-wide-receiver look much of the time, consistently see lighter formations with as few as six players in the box.

They didn’t always take advantage of that in the run game last season, especially in the red zone, and would like to this time around. That takes an offense that is already the highest scoring in league history and gives it an unnerving ability to close out games or score touchdowns when there isn’t much room for receivers to work. Knowshon Moreno had the best season of his career in 2013, but the Broncos came away believing they left a lot of rushing yardage on the table because they either didn't block those smaller formations well enough or run well enough if there was room to work.

Also, there is the matter of pass protection, and the guy who shows he’s the most consistent -- it’s how Moreno got, and kept, the top job last year on the way to 1,000 yards rushing and 60 receptions -- will be the guy who gets the third-down snaps or the second-and-long plays as well.

“Protecting Peyton Manning is huge, just huge," Ball said. “We all know that."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Whenever the Denver Broncos' chief decision-maker, John Elway, describes the developmental process, he will routinely offer "we don't draft All-Pros, we have to make them."

And over the course of the next week we'll take a glimpse at a few key players who are at various stages of the developmental process. Some have been named to the Pro Bowl, while others will be starters for the first time in the coming season.

But what they all have in common is more is expected of them than they could give, for a variety of reasons, in last season's run to the Super Bowl.

Today: Tight end Julius Thomas

[+] EnlargeJulius Thomas
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsJulius Thomas averaged 64.4 plays per game in 2013, which could increase this season if the tight end improves as a blocker.
Thomas, who essentially recuperated for two seasons after suffering an ankle injury on his first NFL catch as a rookie, blossomed this past season into most everything the Broncos could have possibly hoped for during those arduous months of physical rehab.

This past season Thomas finished with 65 catches for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns in the highest-scoring offense in league history. He repeatedly created mismatches as a receiver wherever he was in the formation. His touchdown total as well as yards per catch (12.1) put him behind only Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis at his position and in today's NFL that is elite company as a tight end. Thomas' catch total ranked tied for eighth among the league's tight ends in the epically balanced Broncos' attack, and his receiving yards were good for eighth too.

Elway has been clear he wants to find a way to get a long-term deal done with Thomas, even as the team tried to hammer out a long-term deal for Demaryius Thomas. Julius Thomas may be a candidate for the franchise player tag following the 2014 season, depending on what kind of work the team can do against the salary cap.

But the business of business will certainly come later. Right now the Broncos' coaching staff is interested in elevating Thomas' play a little more. Sometimes -- as Thomas shows his athleticism and fluidity in pass routes or when he's winning a contested pass because of an innate ability to get his body in the right spot -- it can be easy to forget Thomas played just one season of college football.

It can be easy to forget Thomas' first two years on the developmental curve as a pro were largely spent with the team's trainers as he worked his way back from ankle surgery. In short, he has room to grow, a thought not all that exciting to some defensive coordinators around the league.

Thomas' options as a receiver will only open up when the Broncos can use him more down in tight in the formation, lined up just outside the tackle. Many defensive coaches believe Thomas is still a weapon as a receiver when he starts his route down inside, but they believe it's easier to gauge what's coming because of the Broncos' reluctance to put Thomas in some situations as a potential blocker.

Look, nobody should want a receiver as gifted as Thomas to be some kind of lock-it-down blocker instead of running a pattern. But the more Thomas can function in a variety of roles, the more places the Broncos can put him and the more Thomas can do from an inside position, especially in the play-action passing game when the linebackers are headed toward the line of scrimmage.

But blocking, as you would expect from a four-year basketball player at Portland State, has been a hurdle for Thomas at times. One of the adjustments the Broncos made last season was to let Thomas line up with his right foot forward when he was on the outside shoulder of either tackle.

That angled Thomas toward the middle of the field, rather than with his right foot back when lined up to the right, as would be customary. It was a fairly significant concession to try to keep him on the field as he worked through his blocking issues. But when Thomas has lined up in a traditional stance to the right, he often took an extra step as he moved into a blocking position which would end up with him off balance and with the improper foot forward as he engaged the defender across from him.

Certainly the Broncos like their depth at tight end with Jacob Tamme, Joel Dreessen (even as Dreessen works back from knee troubles) and Virgil Green. But there is room for Thomas to get even more playing time if he can attack this part of his game with the same zeal he has everything else so far.

Thomas was one of the few young players the Broncos had who made it a point to attend the player-organized workouts the Broncos offense had shortly after Peyton Manning signed with the team in March of 2012. Thomas never wavered in his effort as he returned from his injury.

"I never really lost my confidence, I knew I had it in me if I just kept working at it and didn't lose sight of the goal, which was to get healthy and get back on the field to show what I could do," Thomas said.

But last season he played 74 percent of the Broncos' snaps on offense, a total that likely would have been higher had he not missed two games with a knee injury. He averaged 64.4 plays per game, just behind Eric Decker's 65.6 plays per game and ahead of Wes Welker's 59.2 plays per game.

But if the Broncos could get Julius Thomas into the same range as Demaryius Thomas, who led the team's pass-catchers with an average of 69.1 plays per game, the tight end could get about 75 more plays over the course of the season. The Broncos believe Julius Thomas is among the most productive tight ends in the league, but they also see an opportunity for him to get even better if they get creative and he does the work.

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.

 

Upon Further Review: Broncos Week 16

December, 23, 2013
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- An examination of four hot issues from the Denver Broncos' 37-13 win over the Houston Texans.

Clean it up: The Broncos tightened things down as Sunday's game wore on, but penalties continue to be an issue for a team that has done so much right elsewhere this season. The Broncos were flagged nine times in the win -- one was part of offsetting fouls in the fourth quarter so the down was replayed -- the seventh time this season they've been flagged at least nine times in a game, including declined penalties or offsetting. It was a particularly rough start, as the Broncos had three penalties by the time they had run their first punt return and their first six plays on offense. The Broncos were flagged just twice in the second half, including the offsetting foul.

[+] EnlargeDenver's Knowshon Moreno
AP Photo/Patric SchneiderKnowshon Moreno rushed for 76 yards against the Texans.
High gear: Wide receiver Eric Decker has battled through a toe injury as well as a shoulder injury. Each seemed to affect his play at times early on this season. In the first 11 games combined, he had three touchdown catches. But as defenses have often directed help in coverage to Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas or Wes Welker, Decker has become the Broncos' closer in the scoring zone. He has seven touchdown receptions in the past four games, including four against the Chiefs on Dec. 1 and two Sunday against the Texans.

Big rebound: It might be difficult to scan the rosters of the playoff teams and find a player who has adjusted his standing on the depth chart more this season than running back Knowshon Moreno. Moreno's roster spot was shaky, in question, with some concerns over his durability when the Broncos opened training camp. He had had another surgical procedure on his knee this past offseason. But with Moreno's 76 yards on 11 carries Sunday, the former first-round selection in the 2009 draft has his long-awaited first 1,000-yard season. He is tied for the team lead among the Broncos' position players with 12 touchdowns (10 rushing, two receiving), has run with passion as well as power and has been consistently reliable in pass protection as well as a receiver. And he will be key to any Broncos postseason run.

Variety pack: Going into Sunday's game, the Broncos had run 77.5 percent of their plays out of a three-wide receiver set, but against the Texans' physical 3-4 look and with Welker sidelined with a concussion, they showed once again they can operate with impact out of a two-tight end look. The Broncos also adjusted that look depending on the situation. They opened the game in a three-wide receiver, two-tight end set -- no running back -- which they ran for their first six plays from scrimmage. In some other pass-first situations, they used Jacob Tamme and Julius Thomas at the two tight end spots, with Tamme lined up like a slot receiver. When they wanted a little more bulk in a run look, they used Thomas and Virgil Green together, often on the line of scrimmage. It stressed the Texans linebackers in coverage and gives the Broncos some quality options as they move into the postseason, even if Welker returns for the playoffs as expected.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Not quite a half-full, half-empty argument, but there are enough ripples in the pond for the Broncos over the past eight games to at least evaluate some things as they point to the final two games of the regular season and into whatever becomes of the playoffs.

A thank you note might be in order as the Miami Dolphins did the Broncos a favor Sunday with a 24-20 win against the New England Patriots that again puts the Broncos ahead of the pack in the race for home-field advantage in the AFC despite the Broncos' loss Thursday night to the San Diego Chargers. Friday, Broncos head coach John Fox, with the players set for a weekend off, attempted to at least stem some of the angst about Thursday night’s defeat with; “I think we lost our third game, not our 13th. We don’t think the sky is falling."

And it’s not, not at 11-3, with two wins already in hand against the Chiefs. The Broncos still have the AFC’s best record and the second-best record in the league behind the Seahawks’ 12-2. But there is still a bit of a cleanup to be had on Aisle Broncos if they are going to play in the Trophy Game.

Notably:

[+] EnlargeChamp Bailey
Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos will need the veteran experience of cornerback Champ Bailey as they try to get their defensive woes worked out heading into the playoffs.
Same players, still need better defense: The Broncos are 5-3 in their past eight games. In those eight games they have surrendered at least 27 points five times, including all three losses.

Their offense, with quarterback Peyton Manning fueling the performance, is poised to break a pile of single-season records. But in the end, a look-pretty-and-lose season would leave an empty feeling, something many of the league’s highest scoring offenses (including the current single-season record holder, the 2007 Patriots), have had to live with.

And the ’07 Patriots had performed far better on defense -- they finished No. 4 in scoring defense in the regular season at 17.1 points allowed per game -- than these Broncos have. The Broncos are surrendering 26.6 points per game, 25th in league. It would also be time to recall the Broncos have surrendered 83 points, 694 passing yards, nine touchdown passes and had just one sack in their past two playoff losses combined -- the double overtime loss to the Ravens last January and the 45-10 implosion against New England to close out the 2011 season that effectively ended Tim Tebow's tenure in Denver.

Significant help isn’t on the way beyond Champ Bailey's potential return to the defense, so whatever the Broncos do, they have to do it with the people on hand.

“It’s something that we’re working on," Fox said. “It’s something that we have to get better at. I don’t think it’s acceptable for anybody, including those guys in that room. I think they understand that, and we have to get better to get where we want to go."

Wave bye to flags: The Broncos have spent a lot of time discussing the character and talent in their locker room, and deservedly so.

But there are times when the Broncos lack the kind of down-to-down discipline that is essential in postseason football, and part of the rather enormous difference between cruising through an October blowout and winning a tight game in January.

You don’t have to look beyond a third-quarter drive Thursday night when the Broncos, in need of as many possessions as possible in a game they trailed 24-10 at the time, had a neutral-zone infraction on a punt that gave the Chargers first down. Denver had a 12-men on the field penalty later in the drive that turned what would have been a second-and-14 into a first-and-5.

After 14 games, before Thursday night’s affair and this weekend’s games, the Broncos were one of just five teams with at least 110 total penalties, including those that were declined.

Seattle, Oakland, St. Louis and Tampa Bay were the others. The Broncos have also had four games this season with at least 10 total penalties, including those that were declined, and after 13 games no team had more defensive holding penalties (13) than the Broncos.

Welker
Adjust for Welker injury: The Broncos might need a tactical adjustment with Wes Welker's concussion, his second over a four-game span.

It kept him out of Thursday’s game, and Fox said Friday that Welker had not yet been cleared medically to return to activity. It makes Welker’s availability uncertain, and even with Andre Caldwell's performance Thursday night, the Broncos lack a consistent presence in the slot when they go three-wide without Welker in the lineup.

That’s an issue, especially with an 0-for-6 performance on third down in the first half Thursday night, and the Chargers' ability to keep the ball away from Julius Thomas, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker in the second half -- just three catches combined after halftime. For the season, including penalty snaps, the Broncos have worked out of the three wide on 77.5 percent of their offensive snaps.

Against the Titans, the Broncos worked out of the three-wide set on 57.6 percent of the snaps, and still scored 51 points as they used a two-tight-end set that included Jacob Tamme and Julius Thomas, the best receiving combination at the position, much of the time when they weren't in three-wide. They worked out a two-tight-end set on 68.5 percent of the snaps Thursday night, including penalty plays, and finished with a season-low 20 points.

Tamme played just nine snaps in the game as the Broncos went with a more physical look in the two-tight-end set with Virgil Green and Thomas together against the Chargers’ 3-4 look. When the Broncos couldn’t run the ball effectively, that bigger set lost its benefit. And if they’re without Welker, it likely leaves them trying to decide between a little more protection for Manning in the formation or a little more pop with Tamme and Julius Thomas in with Decker and Demaryius Thomas.

Holliday
Get special again: By the time the season was a month old, Trindon Holliday had two touchdown returns. Then Holliday had a 40-yard return in Week 5, and David Bruton had a 35-yard run on a fake punt in Week 6. Toss in Matt Prater's NFL record 64-yard field goal against the Titans, and there has been plenty to like.

At their best, the Broncos' special teams units have been lock-it-down solid over the past two seasons. But as injuries, particularly on defense, have jumbled the depth chart there, the special teams units have looked unsettled as well.

Holliday has not looked confident fielding the ball of late, especially Thursday, when he returned after missing a game with a shoulder injury. He’s muffed five catches in the past eight games, losing two of them. The Chiefs’ Knile Davis had a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the Titans' Leon Washington had a 95-yard kickoff return that set up a touchdown, and a punt hit Tony Carter in the leg in the loss against New England in Foxborough, Mass.

Any one of those plays are just the kind that turn playoff games.

Jacob Tamme rides out winds of change

December, 11, 2013
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Change, former Denver Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith has often said, is "the only thing that stays the same" in the NFL.

Those who can't deal with that idea as they go about their football business "find themselves on the other side of the wall and they can't get back in."

There are those among this year's Broncos who have lived with change, wrestled with it, dealt with it, and still flourished with the team. A player such as Knowshon Moreno, who went from being a game-day inactive eight times in 2012 to the first choice at running back this season, is now on the doorstep of his first career 1,000-yard season.

Take a guy such as tight end Jacob Tamme.

[+] EnlargeJacob Tamme
Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsWith Wes Welker out of the lineup, Jacob Tamme's role in the offense should grow.
"I'm just ready for whatever I'm asked to do," Tamme said. "It changes sometimes, it varies from time to time, so be prepared to do what's needed. That's kind of how I go about things, take care of what I need to take care of and not worry about the rest of it."

With Wes Welker ruled out for Thursday night's game against the San Diego Chargers due to a concussion -- his second concussion in the past four games -- Tamme figures to become a far bigger piece of the Broncos' puzzle on offense. It's a role Tamme had last season, before Welker was signed.

In 2012, when Tamme essentially worked out of the slot like a third wide receiver, he finished with 52 receptions, including a nine-catch day in a late-season win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After Welker joined the Broncos last March, Tamme's role in the offense went from regular contributor to spotty at best. Tamme didn't play more than 10 snaps on offense in any of the first 10 games of the season.

"You just prepare, do the work," Tamme said. "Something that's been a focus here from the beginning at the position, they want people who can do a lot of things at tight end. I feel like I can do a lot of different things, play in a lot of different spots."

But with Welker taking most of the snaps that were once Tamme's in the offense, Tamme simply went about the business of leading the team in special-teams tackles. He has nine, two more than special-teams captain David Bruton.

Tamme has played 285 plays on special teams through 13 games compared to 101 special-teams snaps all of last season. And on offense he has played 154 snaps so far this season (15.4 percent) compared to 528 plays on offense (46.2 percent) all of last season.

"You want guys on your team to understand it takes everybody, every day, to win," said Broncos head coach John Fox. "It's part of building a team, from staff, coaches and players, everybody has to participate and contribute. Sometimes that requires different things, sometimes it's more of one thing and less of another. If you don't work through that as a team, and keep moving, you're going to have a hard time being successful, I don't care what you're doing."

But it isn't like Tamme hasn't experienced this kind of ebb and flow before. During his time with the Indianapolis Colts he went from three catches in 2009 to 67 receptions in 2010 when Dallas Clark was injured. This season, the two tight ends the Broncos signed in free agency, Tamme and Joel Dreessen, have seen their playing time in the offense reduced, not only by Welker's arrival, but by tight end Julius Thomas' emergence.

In Thomas' most extensive playing time in his career -- he spent most of two seasons dealing with an ankle injury he suffered on his first NFL reception as a rookie -- he has 50 receptions to go with 11 touchdowns. Thomas' combination of size, speed and athleticism, to go with the trust Peyton Manning has in the third-year player in tight situations, has made him the go-to tight end in the lineup when the Broncos go to their third-wide-receiver look.

When Thomas missed two games with a right knee injury, Virgil Green got the starts and most of the work in Thomas' place against New England and Kansas City. But with Welker out things change. It figures to be Tamme in the lineup with Thomas much of the time and Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas in the two wide receiver spots.

"[Tamme's] role has changed this year,'' Manning said. " … Obviously Julius has played well this year and Tamme hasn't had as much playing time, but he's had a great attitude. And when his number has been called he's come in there and been outstanding and has a chance to play more down the home stretch here and a real credit to him."

"He's a big part of the offense,'' said Demaryius Thomas. "I feel like you could spread Jacob out to any position because he has good speed, he's smart, he runs great routes and he knows every position on the field. So I think you can put him anywhere on the field to help the offense out and I think that helps us."

Broncos Rewind: Offense

October, 15, 2013
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – In a season when they have largely kept the pedal to the metal and simply overwhelmed those in front of them with the league’s highest-scoring offense, the Denver Broncos found things a little more difficult than most expected this past Sunday.

But after a long look at the win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, here are some thoughts on the Broncos' offense:
  • It can be camouflaged at times because of the impact the three wide receivers – Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker – have had this season, but people would be hard-pressed to scan the league’s rosters and find as good a collection of tight ends anywhere. And with all four of the Broncos' tight ends now back, healthy and circulating in the offensive game plan, the offense’s ability to find big plays down the field will improve as defenses have to deal more and more with the big guys in the pattern. The Broncos used all four tight ends – Julius Thomas, Joel Dreessen, Jacob Tamme and Virgil Green – against the Jaguars, with Thomas having played all 74 plays the team had on offense. Dreessen checked in at 19 plays, Green had 15 and Tamme had nine plays. It gives the Broncos the option of playing both big and small within the same personnel grouping. A look with Tamme and Thomas is closer to a three-wide-receiver set, whereas if the Broncos simply want to pound they put Dreessen, Green and Thomas in the formation. They can still put Demaryius Thomas out wide in the three-tight-end set, and with Thomas there it gives them the ability to play a power look with two matchup dilemmas in the pattern in the two Thomases if they want to go with play-action and throw the ball. In the second half Sunday, especially in their two scoring drives after right tackle Orlando Franklin left the game with knee and ankle injuries, the Broncos consistently moved the ball with the group in the lineup.
  • It was just one play, but you have appreciate the texture of quality design from time to time. And when the Broncos were able to convert a third-and-20 on their first possession of Sunday’s game, it was because of what offensive coordinator Adam Gase and the rest of the offensive staff drew up worked just fine. Peyton Manning hit running back Knowshon Moreno with a short dump-off after Moreno had leaked out of the backfield a little late and the Jaguars rushers were already working their way upfield. In a three-wide look, the Broncos had also constructed the pass routes on the play to put the three receivers in position to block for Moreno once he had the ball. So, when Moreno made the catch, the three receivers, already clustered in the middle of the field, simply turned and blocked the defensive back on them in man coverage. The result? Moreno had a clear path to pick up an improbable first down because the Broncos' three wide receivers were willing to roll up their sleeves and block it up for somebody else. “I just caught it and it was open in front of me,’’ Moreno said. “It worked great, those guys just cleared it out.’’
  • Manning has made a Hall of Fame living on playing the percentages against the defenses in front of him because of his otherworldly preparation. But there are times the defense gets a win on a play because they have studied Manning as well. Manning’s interception just before halftime, which Jaguars linebacker Paul Posluszny returned 59 yards for a touchdown, was a result of Manning trying to jam a ball into a route that has resulted in a pile of big plays over the years, and the Jaguars floated Posluszny into the passing lane just in case Manning tried it. Manning was trying to hit Welker, who was sprinting out of the slot on the left side of the formation. Welker was already essentially doubled, with Jaguars cornerback Mike Harris with inside technique and safety Josh Evans closing on Welker’s outside shoulder. Double coverage, yes, but certainly the kind of pass Manning has fit into similar spaces hundreds of times. But knowing when, and where, on the field and against what look on defense Manning likes to make that throw, the Jaguars then floated Posluszny underneath. The ball was slightly underthrown – Manning called it a “total force’’ – and the interception followed.
  • In reality, the time to make those coveted halftime adjustments is severely limited. At least by the time any injured players get some brief treatment, any uniform issues taken care of and 53 players take care of assorted other things. But the Broncos are money in the offensive bank coming out after halftime thus far, as defenses routinely have given them the same looks they used in the first half. The Broncos have come out after halftime knowing what they want to do and have executed those plans with ruthless efficiency. In six games this season, their first possession of the second half has ended with a touchdown five times and with a field goal once. Sunday was no exception as they opened the second half in their three-wide look for the first six plays of what became a touchdown drive until they went to their heavy package -- three tight ends and two backs, with defensive tackle Mitch Unrein at fullback, from the Jacksonville 1-yard line. “You just get together and decide what could work,’’ Manning said.
  • The Broncos prefer Moreno as the running back in their three-wide-receiver look because of Moreno’s skills in pass protection, but that doesn’t mean they have stuck to the plan when Ronnie Hillman is in the formation. When Moreno has been the back in the three-wide set the Broncos have thrown a little more than 70 percent of the time. When Hillman is the back in the three-wide set the Broncos have thrown the ball 69 percent of the time.

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