AFC West: Jacob Tamme

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.
When he was behind center for the Denver Broncos, John Elway was a 30-something player, was one for quite some time in fact. He was a Super Bowl starter as a 37- and a 38-year-old as the Broncos won back-to-back titles in the final two years of his playing career.

So he knows the value a productive, respected, proven veteran player can bring to a team, on the field and in the locker room.

But as an executive charged with spending Pat Bowlen’s money wisely and keeping the Broncos relevant in the Super Bowl chase every season, Elway has been particular about handing out the team’s biggest checks in free agency to the over-30 crowd.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
AP Photo/James D. SmithJohn Elway on signing pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware: "We feel like he's got a lot of football ahead of him."
In fact, three trips into free agency in his current job, the list is essentially two -- Peyton Manning and now DeMarcus Ware -- and Elway is pretty clear on why he made them exceptions to the rule.

“I like to get Hall of Fame players with chips on their shoulders," Elway said.

In 2011, Elway’s first year in his role as the team’s chief football decision-maker, the Broncos only dabbled in free agency, sticking with short-term deals for the likes of Marcus Thomas, Daniel Fells and Dante Rosario.

In 2012, the Broncos dove in for Manning for a $96 million deal that included a pile of guaranteed money when Manning was ready to turn 36 following four neck surgeries. That has worked out with back-to-back 13-3 seasons and back-to-back division titles with some NFL single-season records tossed in.

The rest of the deals in 2012 were largely short-term, low-impact contracts. Tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen received three-year deals. Tamme turned 27 just after signing his deal, and Dreessen was 29 when he signed. The 30-and-over crowd of Keith Brooking, Jim Leonhard, Dan Koppen and Brandon Stokley received one-year deals.

Safety Mike Adams was 30 when he signed and received a two-year deal. Adams, however, had played in at least 15 games in five of the previous six seasons before arriving in Denver. The rest, players such as Shaun Phillips and Quentin Jammer, both 30 or older, received one-year deals without signing bonuses.

In 2013, the Broncos’ biggest contract in free agency (four years, $23.5 million) went to guard Louis Vasquez, who was 25 when he signed his deal and went on to be named All-Pro. Terrance Knighton received a two-year deal, as did Wes Welker.

This past week, the Broncos were one of the most aggressive teams in free agency, but they still largely stuck to the younger-is-better plan when the big money was in play. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and safety T.J. Ward are 27 (Sanders turned 27 this week), and cornerback Aqib Talib is 28.

“It’s not [win] for now. We want young football players who are going to be here for a long time," Elway said. “... The age thing is big."

But in Ware, the Broncos saw a durable, high character player with 117 career sacks who has been a team captain and performed over the long haul. Ware, who soon will be 32, received a three-year, $30 million deal from the Broncos.

For that deal not to sting the salary cap, however, Ware simply has to play at least two of those seasons and be a major contributor. But the Broncos like that Ware’s preparation is unquestioned and that he has missed just three games in his career -- all in 2013.

“With 117 sacks, yeah, we feel like he’s got a lot of football ahead of him," Elway said. " ... We think he's going to perform at a high level, and with the way he practices, prepares and his knowledge of the game, he's going to help us on a lot of levels."

Elway the player made a career of taking risks with the ball and often turning those opportunities into history. Elway the executive has been more prudent -- a guy looking down the road, avoiding the franchise-crushing confines created by a we'll-worry-about-it-later approach to the salary cap.

“You have your wish list," Elway said. “We’re fortunate enough on our wish list we were able to X off a lot of guys on our wish list and [they] were able to come here. ... We want to plug in the right guys, the guys that make sense for us as an organization and guys who can be here and help us win for a long, long time."

Denver Broncos season wrap-up

February, 5, 2014
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video Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 2
Preseason Power Ranking: 3

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

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

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

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

 
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos will return to the practice field Thursday morning, their first full team workout since they punched their ticket to Super Bowl XLVIII with Sunday’s win in the AFC Championship Game.

Though the coaches have been grinding away in recent days -- as have many players, including quarterback Peyton Manning -- the Broncos will really get down to the football business at hand in the on-field workouts in the coming days. The early part of this week was spent on the other part of getting ready for a Super Bowl, the part that covers simply being one of the teams in the game.

The part where everybody -- as in everybody who knows you, or knows somebody who knows you -- wants tickets. Everybody wants hotel rooms, everybody wants a piece of the action. People you know now, people you knew a decade ago, people who roamed the hallways of your elementary school.

[+] EnlargeDenver
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos have several people in the organization experienced in handling Super Bowl hype, including John Elway, left, and Peyton Manning.
Just people, everywhere. Enough so the most important person a player from a Super Bowl team can have around him is the person in charge of saying “yes’’ or “no’’ to everybody else. The evidence is largely anecdotal, but players who handle their own ticket requests often play in the game as if they handled their own ticket requests.

Then the questions will come. Questions from every corner of the media world, and from media from many corners of the world.

Questions about things, all types of things, some good, some bad, some simply tossed in to get a response worthy of late-night television. The early leader in the clubhouse for the most likely nonfootball questions -- asked by those in a tie or a superhero costume of these teams from Washington and Colorado -- will have the words “legalized’’ and “marijuana’’ in them.

Certainly football is an enormous part of deciding a Super Bowl, but plenty of teams have put themselves in position to lose on the field because they didn’t handle the people around them or the questions posed to them with any sort of dexterity.

“We’ll address that,’’ said Broncos coach John Fox when asked about handling all the things that come with a Super Bowl. “I think there are enough young players in that locker room that can get some information from guys that have been through it before. There are a lot of things you deal with during these two weeks. We’ll try to educate our guys to the best of our know-how.”

For the Broncos, Fox has been to a Super Bowl previously as both a head coach and an assistant. Certainly the Broncos' chief football executive, John Elway, has plenty of Super Bowl experience and might know a thing or two about living in the glare of the hot lights, having seen the title game from all sides.

But in the locker room, the Broncos have just four players who have been through the big game week, which is four more than the Seahawks have. Manning (twice), Wes Welker (twice), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Jacob Tamme will have to be sounding boards at times for everyone who needs one.

Asked about what the Broncos have in place, which included a “spouse day’’ to brief family members on all the details, Fox said; “We’ve got a good plan.’’

Asked if he would share the plan, Fox added with a laugh, “No.’’

It’s all part of navigating the next 11 days until the football is finally placed on the tee and the cameras flash. The teams that come through what happens off the field in the best shape often win on the field.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- They are the hottest team remaining in the AFC's postseason field. They are confident, they say they have been in playoff mode for over a month, they have momentum, and they are ... not the Denver Broncos.

When the Broncos and San Diego Chargers face off Sunday in Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver will carry the league's highest-scoring offense into the game as the AFC's top seed, fresh off a playoff bye.

But the Chargers will arrive having won their final four games of the regular season -- five of the last six -- to make the postseason field. They then upset the Cincinnati Bengals in Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday. The only longer winning streak underway in the league is San Francisco's seven-game span that includes last weekend's road victory against the Green Bay Packers.

As momentum has repeatedly trumped rest in the NFL's tournament recently, the Broncos find themselves trying to buck the trend on the AFC side of the Super Bowl bracket. Since 1990 -- the first year of the 12-team format -- the No. 1 seeds in the NFC are 19-4 in divisional round games while the AFC's top seeds are just 13-10.

The past three Super Bowl winners -- Green Bay, the New York Giants and the Baltimore Ravens -- played during the wild-card weekend.

It's all why, over the past two weeks, the Broncos have spent a lot of time pushing the idea, from the top down, that the postseason is a new start. As wide receiver Eric Decker put it Wednesday, "The past is the past. Stats, they don't matter anymore. Records, they don't matter anymore. It's a tournament. It's a one-game, win-or-go-home type of mentality."

The Broncos used their bye week -- coach John Fox called it a "get better week" -- in large part to rest the team. They had plenty of meeting time but kept the on-field work to two practices. And at the moment, the Broncos, who have repeated as the AFC's top seed with their second consecutive 13-3 record, see themselves as the team with the momentum that comes with a season like that.

"We won 13 games this year, so I don't know what you consider us if you consider them a hot team," said Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. "We went on our streaks here and there, we had our bumps in the road, and I think that's made us a better team. We faced a lot of adversity this year, and now it's time to put up or shut up. All of the injuries and guys not playing or things like that -- no more excuses.”

Also working in the Broncos' favor, at least many of the players say, is San Diego's Dec. 12 win in Denver. The 27-20 Chargers victory, after the Broncos did not handle a short week very well leading up to the Thursday night affair, has wrung out every last possibility the Broncos would get too comfortable this week.

"They kind of put it on us last time," Decker said.

There is also that not-so-small matter of last January's double-overtime loss to the Ravens that ended the Broncos' postseason run. That game has been a reminder for almost every Broncos team activity since.

"I would say that there's a lot more confidence in the locker room this year than last year," Decker said. "Last year, we went on a little run there, and I don't know if we got comfortable but we didn't finish. We were hungry this year as far as coming into the offseason, coming into training camp making sure that, when we go out and play, we make sure we finish everything we do."

"We just need to have a good week of preparation," said tight end Jacob Tamme. "… And go out there Sunday and, like I said, let it loose, play aggressive."

Broncos believe Caldwell ready for more

December, 20, 2013
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It was a sunbaked August day one year ago, just after a training camp practice, when newly signed wide receiver Andre Caldwell sat at a picnic table behind the team's complex and offered up what he hoped Denver could mean for his career.

“I always believed I could be a starter, I could be a go-to guy for a quarterback, be a guy they trusted," Caldwell said then. “That if I was healthy and had some opportunities I could be that guy."

[+] EnlargeAndre Caldwell
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsAndre Caldwell helped fill the void left by Wes Welker's injury, catching six passes for 59 yards and two TDs against the Chargers.
The road hasn't always been as smooth as he would have liked, but this December, Caldwell has the chance to be that guy at a time when the Broncos sorely need one. With Wes Welker sidelined after suffering two concussions in a four-game span, the touchdown factory that has been the Broncos offense will have to make some rather large adjustments.

Welker is still tied for second on the team with 73 receptions and has been targeted by Peyton Manning 111 times, which is good for third on the team in that category. His 10 touchdown catches are also third on the team.

In short, Welker has been exactly the player the Broncos hoped he would be when they signed him to a two-year, $12 million deal in March.

He is slated to miss Sunday’s game against the Texans -- expected to be formally ruled out after Friday’s practice -- and will likely be held out of the regular-season finale as he goes through medical evaluations. Welker has not been cleared to practice, but Thursday he spent some time working with the Broncos’ strength and conditioning staff in the team’s weight room. Broncos coach John Fox said Welker had done some limited on-field work outside as well.

Welker has not practiced since leaving the Broncos’ Dec. 8 victory over the Tennessee Titans just before halftime. He was taken from the field after being hit by Titans safety George Wilson, suffering a concussion and a neck injury on the play.

Losing Welker is no small matter for a quarterback in Manning and a playcaller in Adam Gase who prefer the Broncos work out of a three-wide receiver set most of the time. In 14 games this season, the Broncos have lined up in a three-wide formation on 77.5 percent of their offensive snaps, including penalty plays.

Most of the rest of the time, they have been in a two-tight end look, but never for more than 24 snaps in any game before Welker’s most recent concussion. After Welker left the game against the Titans, however, the Broncos used a two-tight end look on 36 snaps, all in the second half.

[+] EnlargeDenver's Wes Welker
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty ImagesThe Broncos could be without Wes Welker for a couple more games as he recovers from his second concussion within a four-week period.
With Caldwell and tight end Jacob Tamme, who made most of his 52 receptions in 2012 working out of the slot, the Broncos believe they have the personnel to deal with Welker’s absence.

“I don’t think it’s a big difference offense-wise," said wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. “I think it’s a little different for preparation by the defenses because now we don’t have Wes. But we still have weapons. I think we’re still capable of doing what we want to do with the guys that we’ve got, so I don’t see a big difference.”

While the 20 points the Broncos scored against the Chargers was a season low, the game did reveal that Manning was still willing to move the ball around the formation without Welker in the lineup and that he trusted Caldwell in almost any situation. Caldwell led the team with 10 targets against the Chargers and finished with six catches for 59 yards and two touchdowns. Caldwell has 11 catches on the season, three for touchdowns.

“All the hard work is paying off," Caldwell said. “I’ve been around here for two years and finally got a chance to make something happen. … I’ll just go out there and do what I’ve been doing -- working hard every day. If the ball comes my way, I'll do my best to make a play. I just want to win the ballgame, so I’m going to do whatever they want me to.”

When the Broncos put Caldwell in the lineup in a three-wide set, he'll likely go to one of the outside spots while Eric Decker or Demaryius Thomas would work out of the slot more to go with either Julius Thomas or Tamme in the opposite slot. Former Broncos coach and current Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels always believed Decker could be a highly productive receiver in the slot.

If the Broncos go with a passing-friendly combination of Julius Thomas and Tamme in a two-tight end set, Tamme would work out of the slot much of the time, just like he did for most of last season.

Overall, the immediate issue will be on third down and in the red zone. Even though Welker has missed the past six quarters, he still leads the Broncos in third-down catches with 18. The Broncos were just 2-for-9 on third down against the Chargers, including 0-for-6 in the first half.

But the Chargers game came on a short week. The Broncos have had time to adjust since and had an extra practice Monday, so they'll likely see at least some of the fruits of that work over the next two games. Manning has been ruthlessly efficient in where the passes have gone this season, and that can be seen in how often he targeted Caldwell last week.

“[That’s] the way that [Manning] operates. He’s going to go to the guy that the coverage kind of dictates to him," Gase said. “He’s not worried about who is where. Like I’ve said before, it’s amazing how the balls have been spread out because usually it’s dictated by what the defense has done. And he’ll find the open guy. [Caldwell] did a great job of getting open when he had his one-on-one matchup.”

Added Caldwell: “I don’t think it changes much. I think we had a great group of receivers. They put Decker inside, they put Tamme in there, and they moved me to the outside. I think we’re still explosive, still can put up big points and big numbers every week.”
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.
Phillip Rivers, Peyton ManningGetty ImagesExpect a high-scoring AFC West fight when Philip Rivers' Chargers take on Peyton Manning's Broncos.
For the second time in six weeks, the San Diego Chargers and the Denver Broncos will square off, with each team working through its postseason checklist.

The Broncos (11-2) want the division title and the AFC's top seed. Due to a loss to New England last month, they will likely have to win out to get both, unless the Patriots stumble down the stretch. The Chargers (6-7) know the time is now if they are going to snag an AFC wild-card spot, so much so that Jarret Johnson called Thursday night's game "a playoff scenario for us."

ESPN.com Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold take a look at Thursday night's game.

Legwold: Eric, former Broncos coach Josh McDaniels once called the Chargers the "measuring stick" of the division, but the Broncos are 4-1 against San Diego since John Fox replaced McDaniels and 3-0 since Peyton Manning became Denver's quarterback. How is former Broncos coach Mike McCoy framing this one, especially with the Chargers clinging to at least some postseason hopes?

Williams: McCoy has done a good job of making sure his players are staying in the now and not looking too far ahead. But with their postseason aspirations on life support, San Diego players view the trip to Denver as a playoff game. Defensively, the Chargers are frustrated with how sloppily they played against Manning in Week 10, giving up several big plays in the passing game. San Diego's secondary has played much better in the past two games, allowing just two touchdown passes. So the Chargers are looking to redeem themselves on Thursday.

Wes Welker will miss Thursday's contest due to lingering concussion symptoms. How will Denver replace his production?

Legwold: Even in the Broncos' ultrabalanced attack in the passing game, Welker will certainly be missed given he's second on the team in targets (111), receptions (73) and touchdown catches (10). But how the Broncos deal with that should look familiar to McCoy because the Broncos figure to field a lineup similar to the one McCoy called plays for here last season. The Broncos will move to a two-tight end look with Jacob Tamme working out of the slot. Tamme caught 52 passes last season, with the majority of those receptions coming when he was lined up as a slot receiver. It was a job he did well enough that Manning called him one of the most important players in the offense last season. Manning has confidence in Tamme -- they played together in Indianapolis -- and Manning threw to Tamme this past weekend in many of the situations where Manning usually throws to Welker.

The Chargers' secondary had a quality day against the Giants this past Sunday. How do you think they'll line up against the Broncos?

Williams: Cornerback Derek Cox was replaced by eight-year veteran Richard Marshall in the starting lineup two weeks ago, bringing stability to the back end defensively. San Diego has given up 20 passing touchdowns this season, but just two touchdown passes in the past two games. The Chargers had just four interceptions through the first nine games, but have hauled in five picks in the past four. Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said his defensive teammates just made too many silly mistakes against the Broncos earlier this season, and that they need to make Manning work for Denver's touchdowns by playing sound fundamental defense with multiple looks up front.

How has Broncos coach John Fox made the transition back to the sideline after heart surgery?

Legwold: Fox had surgery to repair a condition that was diagnosed during his time with the New York Giants in the late '90s, so he knew the surgery was coming at some point. He has also lived with the difficulties a faulty aortic valve brought on. He says he now feels better than he has in 20 years. Doctors cleared him to return to work the Monday before the Titans game and he worked through the week without any difficulties. He coached from the sideline during the game this past Sunday and was on the field last week even though the team practiced outside in below-zero temperatures for three days.

Manning is five touchdowns away from tying the NFL single-season record, but Philip Rivers has two three-touchdown days over the past three games. Do the Chargers feel like they left some points on the field the last time these two teams met?

Williams: Yes, that's certainly the case. Rivers mentioned this week during his conversation with reporters here in San Diego that even though the Chargers had the ball for more than 38 minutes the last time these two teams played, the Chargers scored only 20 points. Rivers understands that can't happen again on the road at Denver. The Chargers seem to have a better plan for how they will attack teams when they get into the red zone. Running back Ryan Mathews has emerged as more of a focal point of the offense when they get near the end zone. Mathews has scored four touchdowns in San Diego's past seven games.

While Denver's offense purrs, the defense continues to sputter. What has Fox done to change his fortunes on that side of the ball?

Legwold: The Broncos have surrendered at least 17 points in every game this season and four times they have trailed by at least 11 points in games they eventually went on to win. They have certainly missed cornerback Champ Bailey, who has played in just three games this season, and defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, one of their best run defenders up front who is now on injured reserve. Fox juggled things some this past weekend when he essentially benched linebacker Wesley Woodyard, a team captain, in the base 4-3 look, playing veteran Paris Lenon there instead. Fox also switched out Duke Ihenacho at safety, putting in Omar Bolden instead. Woodyard will still play the specialty packages, but the Broncos have juggled things in the base. Von Miller has had a dominant half against the Patriots and a dominant half against the Titans, but the Broncos are still waiting to see the impact player he can be for an entire game. The last time they played the Chargers, they were in the nickel most of time -- 42 snaps in all to go with 11 in the dime. They are far more consistent in those looks and have struggled more against teams that make them play out of their base defense.

Manning hits 'next level' in prep work

December, 11, 2013
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Football on your helmet means football all the time.

At least when you ask Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning to sit out a Wednesday practice or two.

The photo, taken by one of the Broncos’ trainers last week, of how Manning spent at least some of the recent Wednesday practices he did not attend. It was first shown during CBS’ broadcast of the Broncos’ win over the Tennessee Titans, and is now making the rounds. It shows Manning, helmet on, soaking his right ankle, as he watches game video of the Titans on an iPad.

Manning had the helmet on to listen to offensive coordinator Adam Gase make the play calls to backup quarterback Brock Osweiler during Wednesday’s practice. Manning, shown the photo Wednesday after practice, said Gase would also offer some additional commentary after some plays as well.

At first Manning simply had the helmet sitting next to him as he soaked his right ankle, but he couldn’t hear the play calls, so he picked it up and simply wore it the rest of the time.

Also shown the photo after Wednesday’s practice Broncos tight end Jacob Tamme said; “That’s a good one. I’ve never seen that one before until the other day. I didn’t know that that was out there but … that’s next level type stuff.’’

Asked if he thought Manning used hand signals to the other people in the trainers’ room before the plays were run, Tamme said; “Yeah. We’re lucky he didn’t drop the iPad there. Going through the mental reps.’’

Manning had tried to use the helmet to listen in during an indoor practice the Broncos held at a nearby recreation center the previous week, but the coach-to-player communication system wouldn’t broadcast several miles back to the Broncos’ facility.

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."

Upon Further Review: Broncos Week 14

December, 9, 2013
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- An examination of four hot issues from the Denver Broncos' 51-28 win over the Tennessee Titans.

[+] EnlargeDenver's Wes Welker
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty ImagesWes Welker's touchdown gives the Broncos four players with at least 10 touchdowns.
Balanced history: The Broncos' offense continues to vex defensive coordinators around the league because of the assortment of options for quarterback Peyton Manning. And when Manning connected with Wes Welker on a 1-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter Sunday, the Broncos became the first team in the league's history to have four players with at least 10 touchdowns. Welker had his 10th touchdown reception of the season on Sunday, while tight end Julius Thomas and receiver Demaryius Thomas each had his 11th. In addition, running back Knowshon Moreno scored a rushing touchdown, giving him 11 total TDs this season (two receiving, nine rushing). The Broncos have been able to move the ball to wherever the single coverage is and adjust to most any defensive approach.

Second impression: One of the most powerful words any of the Broncos have uttered of late has been "defer." The Broncos love to defer when they win the coin flip, so they have the first possession of the second half. Sunday was the sixth time the Broncos have won the coin toss, elected to defer and then used that opening possession of the second half to score a touchdown. The only time they have won the toss, deferred and not scored a touchdown to open the second half was in their loss in Indianapolis. This season, the Broncos have scored on their first possession of the second half nine times -- eight touchdowns and one field goal.

Tamme now slot machine: When Welker left the game just before halftime with a concussion, the Broncos had used a three-receiver set on every offensive snap to that point. After Welker left, the Broncos moved to a two-tight-end look, but still played like a three-wide look because of what tight end Jacob Tamme can do. Tamme took Welker's spot in the slot, which is how Tamme had lined up in the offense last season much of the time before Welker's arrival. Tamme was effective as he finished with 47 yards on five catches. It will allow the Broncos to use that three-wide section of the playbook moving forward with Welker unlikely to play Thursday night against the Chargers.

Special concerns: For the second consecutive week, a mix-and-match group on special teams allowed a big kickoff return. In Kansas City a week ago it was a 108-yarder by Knile Davis, and Sunday it was a 95-yarder by Leon Washington. The Broncos aren't consistently getting off blocks of late, and returners are finding some gaps the Broncos weren't leaving behind earlier this season. Those are momentum plays, the kind, at the wrong time of a season, even the Broncos' offense won't be able to overcome.
Eric Decker, Jason McCourty AP Photo Jason McCourty, right, and the Titans' secondary face a formidable challenge in defending Eric Decker and the Broncos' passing attack.
It seemed a little out of place, but as the Denver Broncos were about to get to work on the Tennessee Titans this week, quarterback Peyton Manning said he was going to prepare for an "unfamiliar opponent."

Granted, Manning hasn't faced a Titans team with Mike Munchak as its head coach, but he has faced Tennessee 19 times previously in his career (including a playoff game in the 1999 season), all with the Indianapolis Colts. So, while this is the Titans' first look at Manning in a Broncos uniform, the quarterback is a familiar face as Denver tries to keep its grip on home-field advantage in the postseason.

Here, ESPN.com Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday's game.

Legwold: Paul, you've been around the team since it arrived in Tennessee and, before we get to the on-field matchup, how would you say the team has dealt with franchise founder Bud Adams' death earlier this season? Who is making the decisions now and who will make them in the coming offseason, both on and off the field?

Kuharsky: It was a big loss, of course, for Munchak and general manager Ruston Webster and team employees who worked for Adams for a long time. Most of the players hardly knew him, as he was not around much in his final couple of years, when his health began to fail. So there is a lot of uncertainty now. Three branches of Adams' family share control of the franchise, and Bud's son-in-law, Tommy Smith, is the team president and CEO. He's apparently been paying close attention to things in anticipation of taking over. But we know very little about how he will operate going forward. That means there is some tension, because not every team employee knows if he's secure. That starts with the struggling head coach, Munchak.

Leadership in Denver appeared to remain strong as Jack Del Rio stepped in for John Fox. How much of a boost will Fox's return give the team?

Legwold: Del Rio, the team's defensive coordinator, earned praise from everyone in the organization, including Fox and the players, for how things were handled in the head coach's absence following open-heart surgery. His return has given the team an emotional boost, because after a month away, Fox came back feeling better than he had in some time and enthusiastic to see where this season can go. It should help the Broncos avoid a late-season stumble as they try to get home-field advantage for the playoffs again. Tactically speaking, not much will change. Coordinator Adam Gase is still calling the plays on offense -- Del Rio has said that, other than being a sounding board from time to time, he left the offense solely in Gase's hands during Fox's absence. Del Rio will continue to call the defense on game day as he has all season. Overall, though, it's likely Fox's return will keep the Broncos from hitting an emotional lull over the final month of the regular season.

On the field, the Titans have seen Manning plenty over the years. How do you think Tennessee will approach things on defense and does it see some differences in the Broncos' offense compared to what it saw from the Manning-led Colts?

Kuharsky: Well, it's a relief the Titans don't see Edgerrin James, I am sure. And while Denver's pass-catchers are a remarkable bunch, I'm not sure there is a Marvin Harrison in it yet. They know blitzing Manning can be fruitless no matter what matchups they like against offensive linemen. They'll try to be unpredictable and force him to throw to a certain spot a few times. But plenty of teams have that idea and fail with it. Under Gregg Williams' influence, the Titans have used an ever-shifting front, and we know that's a popular way to play against Manning in an attempt to minimize his ability to make pre-snap reads. The front is pretty good, especially Jurrell Casey, though there is no dominant edge rusher. The secondary has been quite good. It's the linebackers, particularly in pass coverage, who seem vulnerable to me, and I don't know what the Titans will do there to prevent abuse. Bernard Pollard's been a leader whose play has matched his talk, but the Titans have kept him out of tough coverage situations and I wonder whether Manning will find ways to try to go at him.

The Titans are rooting for freezing temperatures even though they've been awful themselves in their past two frigid games. I know some all-time great quarterbacks have excelled in the cold even if they haven't loved it. How much of an issue is it for Manning at this stage of his career?

Legwold: That is the elephant in the room with the Broncos given their playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens last January. Manning threw for 290 yards and three touchdowns in that game, even though the temperature at kickoff was 13 degrees. But folks seem to remember a wobbly incompletion here and there to go with an interception to close out the Broncos' final possession. Until Manning simply cranks it up on a cold day and the Broncos get a key victory, people are going to ask him about it. He had spots in the overtime loss to New England two weeks ago -- in frigid, windy conditions -- in which he threw as well as he ever has, particularly on a sideline pass to Demaryius Thomas and a touchdown throw to tight end Jacob Tamme. It's not so much his arm that has been an issue post-surgery, it's his grip when he throws. Overall, though, the Broncos push the pace more on offense at home. Manning has terrorized defenses that have played a lot of man coverages against the Broncos' offense, including his five-touchdown game last weekend in Kansas City. The Broncos like that matchup in any weather.

Denver has some injuries on defense that have affected how it plays, especially with the run defense. Where does Chris Johnson fit in the Titans' offense these days?

Kuharsky: He's really had one big game all season. Even when he seems to get going, the Titans can't find a rhythm or a way to stick with him. This was supposed to be a run-reliant, run-dominant team. It isn't. With Ryan Fitzpatrick now the quarterback, the Titans like to put him in an empty set and let him do his thing. It's been good at times, but it doesn't do much to enhance the chances of the running game. Johnson doesn't get yards after contact. So if he doesn't find a big hole, he's not going to do a lot of damage. Watch out on a screen or little flip pass -- that's where Johnson has been more threatening.

Denver's defense has dealt with quite a few injuries and Von Miller's suspension. How's his health and how is that group playing together?

Legwold: The Broncos have yet to play the 11 starters on defense in any game this season they expected to have coming out of training camp. They never will now that defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson has been moved to injured reserve. Vickerson was a big part of the plan on early downs -- and the Chiefs tested the middle of the defense plenty this past Sunday, so the Broncos are working through some adjustments there. Champ Bailey (left foot) has played in just three games this season -- just one from start to finish -- and safety Rahim Moore is on injured reserve/designated to return. (The Broncos hope Moore will be back for the postseason.) Toss in Derek Wolfe and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie not being in the lineup against the Chiefs and the Broncos are not nearly as consistent as they were last season, when they were a top-five defense. Miller has had moments of top-shelf play since his return, but hasn't been a consistent force like he was last season.

Broncos Rewind: Defense, special teams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broncos careful to avoid a bad mix

November, 19, 2013
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Peyton ManningWesley Hitt/Getty ImagesThe Broncos have been deliberate when adding veteran free agents like Peyton Manning.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- On his way through 15 NFL seasons that have included 12 Pro Bowl selections, Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey has seen players come and seen players go.

He’s seen good signings and some not so good, he's seen teams with guys all rowing in the same direction, and teams with guys who won't even put the oar in the water. And he’s seen it takes just one bad veteran apple to push the whole tree down.

Or as Bailey put it: “One thing you don’t want to do is put a bad vet in your locker room."

It comes to light as the Broncos, now 9-1, have had some veteran players do what they’ve been asked to do, whether it was what they expected or not, and not made waves. Players who have had bigger roles for the team or in other places, with different job descriptions now.

“The locker room, the team spirit, it’s all connected in how you relate to each other," Broncos interim coach Jack Del Rio said. “If you’ve got a guy who’s sour, that’s always complaining about something, his own situation, whatever it may be, it sucks the life out of the group."

Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway has always said one of his first goals as the team’s top football decision-maker was to “get the locker room the way it needed to be," and the best way to do it is building a foundation of homegrown players by “stacking those draft classes." But Elway also wants free agency to be a tool to fill in around the edges, or in the case of signing quarterback Peyton Manning, as the ultimate dip into the annual veteran talent grab.

“But you always want to make sure, whether it's one-year deal or somebody like Peyton, that it’s the right guy, that he’s going to be what we want for the Denver Broncos," Elway said.

Jammer
The Broncos signed Quentin Jammer, a 12-year veteran, on May 30 in hopes he could make a move to safety and be a physical player who could play in coverage deep down the middle of the field. But once he arrived and practiced with the team, Del Rio said the thought was Jammer simply played better at cornerback, but the Broncos also had some depth there.

As a result Jammer played just one snap in the first seven games of the season combined.

“But there aren’t many guys like him," Broncos cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said. “He just gets to work, and when we needed him he was ready. Guys like that, who have done as much as he has, they make you go. We all can see how to go work from guys like him and Champ."

With some injuries and Jammer’s play through the week in practice, he has since played 19 snaps on defense against the Redskins, 33 against the Chargers, including two snaps to open the game when Rodgers-Cromartie told Jammer to take his spot to make the start against Jammer’s former team. And Jammer had 20 plays on defense in Sunday night’s win against the Chiefs.

“I think that’s another great example of a guy, when you talk about a proud veteran that has played at a high level for a number of years in the league, and for him to remain a positive teammate -- I think that’s why you saw that kind of tribute start that he got (against the Chargers), because the group recognizes this is a guy that has a lot of skins on the wall, and this guy has played a lot of good football," Del Rio said. “ ... For a guy -- a veteran guy with all his experience, all his accomplishments -- he’s accepted his role and been a great teammate. It’s such a positive thing to have for your football team."

Tight end Jacob Tamme played 46 percent of the Broncos' snaps on offense in 2012 on the way to 52 receptions. This season, with Julius Thomas having been the primary receiver at the position (Thomas already has 10 touchdown catches this season), Tamme has played just 52 snaps on offense over the first 10 games, and has three catches.

But Tamme is the team leader in special teams tackles, has played on 63 percent of the plays on special teams, and came within an eyelash of blocking a punt against the Chiefs on Sunday.

Safety Mike Adams, a 10-year veteran, started 16 games last season, but lost his starting job in training camp to Duke Ihenacho. Adams has since played in some of the defense’s specialty packages to go with one start this season when Ihenacho was injured. Adams will likely be looked to again with free safety Rahim Moore having had surgery on his lower right leg Monday morning.

“But a guy like Mike, he knows what he has to do and he’s always ready," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “We have a lot of good guys in our room who just want to win. We all want to play for sure, but we all want to win, and I think everybody does what they have to do to make that happen."

Phillips
Then there’s Shaun Phillips, another 10-year veteran, a player the Broncos signed to a one-year deal during the draft weekend this past April. Some personnel executives said before Phillips signed in Denver they believed he could still have an impact in a defense if he went to a successful team with a strong locker room after his frustration in the Chargers’ failure to make the playoffs in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Phillips currently leads the Broncos in sacks with nine, and has enabled the Broncos to overcome Von Miller's six-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy to open the season.

“From some of the things that we determine in evaluating the tape and then working with him and getting him here, he’s been a pleasant surprise," Del Rio said. “I mean, he’s been a little better than we’d hoped in terms of his impact and his leadership. Smart, tough guy. He’s a great communicator ... Yeah, very happy with him."

But if things don’t go nearly as well, the solution is fairly simple to say, but often difficult to perform in these salary-cap times. But Del Rio said there is only one real repair to make for a signing gone bad.

“I’ve seen those guys disappear, which is the best thing a team can do," Del Rio said. “It’s abracadabra time. They disappear. That’s what typically happens, if it’s disruptive, you would hope a team, at least a team that wants to be successful, would relieve that situation, because you have to relieve it to cure it."

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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