Broncos make special deliveries

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When many of those who design defenses around the league look at the Broncos they see a swirl of touchdowns, a Hall of Famer at quarterback who may have reached a new level of elite and an array of matchup problems lined up at wide receiver or tight end.

Given all that, nobody needs next-gen analytics to figure out the chances of beating the Broncos these days if they find another way to score when that offense isn't even on the field.

So, what, exactly, comes after slim and none?

"It makes it tough," Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. "I've said I feel like every time our offense has the ball, I feel like they're going to go out there and score. And I also feel like if we find other ways to score, especially on special teams, that's tough to deal with and we want to be tough to deal with."

Not only are the Broncos the highest-scoring team in the league at the moment, but Jeff Rodgers' special teams unit has scored more than anyone else's. In fact, Rodgers' guys have scored almost as much as all of the league's other special teams units put together.

The Broncos have three special teams touchdowns in four games -- a blocked punt returned for a score by Steven Johnson against the Eagles last Sunday to go with two touchdown returns by Trindon Holliday. After four weeks, the rest of the league combined had only four special teams touchdowns. Even after the Browns' Travis Benjamin returned a punt for a touchdown Thursday night, the rest of the league is just two special teams touchdown ahead of the Broncos.

"I don't think it's any different than Peyton hitting [Eric] Decker for a 60-yard pass," Rodgers said. "... You're trying to give the offense the ball back in the most advantageous position possible and the impact is usually the field position ... you change the field position quickly, minus to plus. If you score it means a lot of things went well and our guys made some things happen."

For the first time in the John Elway-John Fox era, the team made a concerted effort to open the checkbook and put players on the depth chart who can offer something. Over the last two offseasons, the Broncos have signed kicker Matt Prater and punter Britton Colquitt to lucrative extensions. As a result of that commitment, the Broncos' special teams unit is improved in most major categories.

To put that in perspective, the Broncos have blocked at least two kicks or punts in a season just five times in franchise history. The three blocked kicks in 1992 is the team record. This is just the third time in Broncos history that the team has recorded multiple punt blocks and return for scores in the same year, with 1976 and 1982 being the other seasons.

Then there was the waiver claim the Broncos made last Oct. 11. With the Texans needing help at linebacker after Brian Cushing's season-ending knee injury, Houston waived Holliday. The Broncos quickly claimed him and in the 16 games since -- the playoff loss to the Ravens included -- Holliday has six touchdown returns.

Rodgers believes there may be more to come as those who clear the way continue to adjust to Holliday's world-class speed.

"I think guys have to get used to how Trindon runs the ball," Rodgers said. "What I mean by that, our guys realize they don't have to beat somebody up for five seconds. They've got to hold a guy up long enough to get Trindon started ... if a coverage guy is having to fight a block, Trindon is hard enough to tackle in the open field ,and now you put a buy in between them and if they have to get off a block [Holliday] is usually gone."

Added Johnson: "Trindon's a guy, you give him an inch, he's gone. You can also feel him go by, it's just wind."

Holliday has done his part. In his early days with the Broncos and throughout the 2012 season, he struggled to catch the ball. Fox often used another player to catch punts deep in the Broncos' territory because of it.

"But I caught a tons of balls, over and over again, I want to be the guy they use all the time," Holliday said. "You have to work ... I don't want them taking me out. I want to make plays for this team. I can't do that on the sideline."

It helps that the Broncos do the little things well to complement Holliday's explosivenes. In David Bruton's punt block in the opener, Ravens punter Sam Koch -- who allowed two touchdown returns to Holliday in the playoff game -- was trying to punt away from Holliday and out of bounds. Knowing that, Bruton rushed accordingly.

"You have to account for that in the protection," Rodgers said. "David was able to push the guy to the inside and the punter happened to be walking that way."

In Johnson's block, scoop and score Sunday against Philadelphia, the Broncos had lined up with running back Montee Ball in the middle of the formation when Eagles long snapper Jon Dorenbos first took a look at the defense. When Dorenbos dipped his head to make the snap, Ball backed out. But after the snap, Dorenbos came up out of his stance to block as if Ball were still there. Johnson roared through the gap left behind when Dorenbos turned away from him.

"Sometimes I think they feel like they've got to get down field and tackle [Holliday]," Rodgers said. "That all works hand in hand. And so far, we've had some things work hand in hand pretty well ... hopefully we can keep doing that."