Denver Broncos: Danny Woodhead

W2W4: Broncos-Chargers

January, 11, 2014
Jan 11
7:00
AM ET
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos have said many things this week as they moved toward Sunday's divisional round game against the San Diego Chargers. And they've tried not to say some things as well.


Words like "playoffs" or "postseason" have been replaced in and around the team's suburban Denver complex. Those words have been dumped, from head coach John Fox on down, in favor of something they believe fits the situation a little better.

The Broncos simply call it "the tournament."

"Because once you lose, you're out," running back Knowshon Moreno said. "It's a tournament. Once you lose, you're going home. No one wants to be that team to go home so you have to do everything you have to do throughout the week to make sure those things don't happen -- and see what happens on Sunday."

The Broncos' three losses this season have come to the three other teams remaining in the AFC bracket. That includes a Dec. 12 loss to the Chargers, the Broncos only loss in Sports Authority Field at Mile High this season. But to survive and advance in the tournament format, the Broncos will have to deal with important matchups.

First and everything: Last season's double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens came on Jan. 12, 2013, so the Broncos will have waited a year to the day for a second chance, an opportunity to make things right. For months, they have been asked to discuss, analyze, characterize and sift through that crushing loss.

And quarterback Peyton Manning's 9-11 playoff record has been the topic of the week, both near and far, as has the weather, the wind, the Chargers' defense and anything else that has caused the Broncos' faithful to commence the hand-wringing.

That all certainly brings a lot of pressure to bear over the course of a year. How the Broncos gather themselves and execute early on could have a lot to say about how things go.

If the Broncos are tight and feeling the heat, the Chargers will have an easier time getting the tempo they want. When the Broncos have been at their best this season, they have jumped all over opposing defenses and given their own defense the luxury of playing with the lead. They have to find a way to lock in and get it done in front of a crowd that will have last season's loss in front of its collective mind, at least until the Broncos get another postseason win to push it out.

Left has to be right: Chargers defensive end Corey Liuget repeatedly created problems against the left side of the Broncos' offensive line -- tackle Chris Clark and guard Zane Beadles -- in the Dec. 12 game, including hitting Manning's arm on an interception.

The Chargers used a variety of looks in the rush in that game, bringing defensive backs from off the ball and dropping front seven players into coverage, but in the end Liuget was the disruptive player in the San Diego front and made it all work. Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano created enough uncertainty with the variety that the Broncos had uncharacteristic assignment mistakes.

Linebackers in the forefront: Yes, both of Chargers rookie Keenan Allen's catches Dec. 1 against the Broncos went for touchdowns, but for the Broncos defense to have the kind of night they want linebackers Danny Trevathan and Wesley Woodyard will each need a quality day in coverage.

Allen is the only wide receiver among Rivers' top three targets this year. Tight end Antonio Gates was targeted 113 times by Rivers in the regular season -- the most on the team -- and running back Danny Woodhead was third, having been targeted 87 times.

But when Rivers throws to Woodhead, he gets a high percentage of completion with a double-take worthy 87.4 percent of those targets being caught. When the Broncos go to their nickel look -- and they played the nickel more than any other personnel grouping in the Dec. 12 game (34 snaps) -- that often puts Woodyard and Trevathan on duty in the intermediate routes.

To keep the Chargers from grinding out drives they have to keep the ball out of the hands of Gates and Woodhead.

Play big when small(er): When the Broncos are in those smaller personnel groupings, they also have to defend the run with an edge. In the Chargers win, San Diego held the ball for 38 minutes, 49 seconds, and limited the Broncos' offense to a season-low 54 plays, including penalty snaps.

And they did it, at times, by finding just enough room to convert third downs against the Broncos' specialty packages when they had to, including Ryan Mathews' 23-yard run for a touchdown in the third quarter when the Broncos were in the dime. Champ Bailey's return to the lineup as the Broncos' nickel cornerback gives the Broncos a far more versatile look, especially with Bailey's sure tackling around the line of scrimmage.

Knowledge is power: Certainly plenty has been made of Chargers head coach Mike McCoy's familiarity with Manning's game, offensive coordinator Adam Gase's philosophy and the Broncos' playbook as a whole because of McCoy's time in Denver.

But the Broncos know McCoy just as well and in the end these two division rivals won't have many secrets unless they break out something they haven't done much, or at all, already this season.

So how things get done will matter far more than who knew what before kickoff.

But the Broncos may need a little curveball to shake things loose and Gase has shown some precedent already this season to break out a little something new.

When Gase had the Broncos open the Dec. 22 win over the Houston Texans in a three-wide receiver, two tight end set -- no running back in the formation -- it was a look Denver had played for just once previously this season. The Broncos played the first six snaps of the game out of the look and effectively moved the ball against the Texans' base 3-4 defense.

With Wes Welker back in the lineup -- he did not play in the Dec. 12 game -- the Chargers will face more difficult choices in coverage and the Broncos will have more options, particularly with Welker and tight end Julius Thomas in the slot. The Chargers can't double both, and San Diego can't play safety Eric Weddle everywhere. So look for Pagano to try to muddy the water in coverage, dropping seven or even eight players into the passing lanes and look for the Broncos to turn up the heat on the Chargers cornerbacks, especially in the middle of the field.


When the 2013 season began, the AFC West didn't really come up when the national conversation turned toward divisions that would provide the most playoff teams or Super Bowl potential from top to bottom.

Yet with four teams left in the AFC's postseason bracket, two of them call the division home, with the No. 1 seed Denver Broncos and the No. 6 San Diego Chargers set for the season’s third meeting on Sunday. They split the two games in the regular season, with each team winning on the road -- the Broncos by eight in San Diego and the Chargers by seven in Denver.

It will be the first time the Chargers and Broncos have met in the postseason, but San Diego is 2-0 in playoff games against Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning with wins in the 2007 and 2008 postseasons.

ESPN.com Chargers reporter Eric Williams and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss the matchup.

Jeff Legwold: Eric, there were some who questioned the Chargers’ playoff worthiness when all of the dominoes fell in the regular season’s final week and they earned the AFC’s No. 6 seed. But with the win in Cincinnati, how do they see themselves at the moment -- playoff underdog or a team with a chance for more?

Eric Williams: Veteran players emphasized this week that playoff opportunities are precious, noting the fact that the Chargers have not made the playoffs since 2009. So guys like Philip Rivers and Eric Weddle want to see how far they can take it. Both mentioned the Chargers are only eight quarters away from the Super Bowl -- unbelievable when six weeks ago this team was 5-7 and an afterthought at making the postseason. Giving players more confidence is the fact that San Diego beat the Broncos in Denver just a month ago. The Chargers understand the deck is stacked against them facing a well-rested Manning. But they are playing with house money, and I suspect they will play with a lot of confidence and urgency on Sunday.

How is Manning handling all of the questions concerning his so-so record in the playoffs? And will that serve as motivation on Sunday?

Legwold: If you had to make a list of questions that cause Manning to put up the verbal deflector shields the fastest, the glove, anything that includes the phrase “all the way back," cold weather and the playoff record would be among the top items. He handles most everything in the public domain with a professional mixture of grace and the ability to move the conversation on -- he’s got plenty of experience in front of people to be sure. But in the end, Manning is a driven player -- one of the most driven players to have worn a helmet -- and everything is motivation. He doesn’t often let people on the outside see all that, but offered a glimpse after his 400-yard day against the Titans this season on a frigid afternoon when he told the team’s flagship radio station people could take the Manning-struggles-in-the-cold narrative and “stick it where the sun don't shine." So, the lure of the Super Bowl is always powerful for him, but he certainly uses plenty of things to maintain his focus, and any sort of criticism is in that pile somewhere.

Rivers has always been a thorn for the Broncos, but he attempted only 20 passes -- completing 12 -- in the Chargers’ win in Denver on Dec. 12, and he went 12-for-16 passing in the Chargers’ win over the Bengals last week. Is relying on the run the best thing for the Chargers’ offense, and would you expect a similar approach Sunday?

Williams: It all depends on the health of Ryan Mathews. The Fresno State product probably does not get enough credit for San Diego’s resurgence this season. But the Chargers have morphed into a running team the second half of the year. San Diego is 7-1 when Mathews rushes at least 19 times in a game. His ability to get to the edge of a defense with his speed, along with his physicality, has created a nice balance to San Diego’s offense so that Rivers doesn’t have to make all the plays. Mathews has a lingering ankle injury. He’s expected to play on Sunday, but how effective Mathews will be remains to be seen. If Mathews can’t play, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown will pick up the slack. San Diego coach Mike McCoy has confidence his team can win in a shootout if they have to open the offense up.

You’ve talked about Denver’s inconsistencies on defense, which has been a problem all season. Will Champ Bailey play in this game? And if so, how will that help the secondary?

Legwold: Bailey played, essentially as the nickel corner, in the Broncos’ final two games of the regular season and will be in the lineup on Sunday. He played 35 snaps against the Houston Texans and 22 snaps against the Oakland Raiders. While those offenses had their fair share of struggles this season, the Broncos had two of their best outings of the year, surrendering 13 and 14 points to go with 240 and 255 yards, respectively, in those two games. Bailey hasn’t played out of the slot a great deal in his time with the Broncos, save for when the receiver he was matched with would line up there, but he has all the tools to be very good in there -- smart, plays with anticipation and has the ability, even in his 15th season, to change directions quickly and react on the ball. It has made the Broncos' secondary much better than what the Chargers have seen in the two meetings this year -- Bailey didn’t play in either game. The Broncos just have more options in how they deploy people in coverage and it gives them a top three at the position of Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris. That’s a quality trio that enables the Broncos to do a few more things to try to affect Rivers.

Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano has, for the most part, taken a page from the Bill Belichick manual for facing Manning -- coverage over pressure. How would you expect the Chargers to defend Manning and the Broncos’ offense? And how aggressive do you think they will be doing it?

Williams: I expect going in that Pagano will try a similar approach to what his defense executed so effectively in the last matchup: a mix of pressures and looks that force Manning to get the ball out quickly to underneath routes, and then rallying to the football. San Diego wants to limit big plays, keep the ball in front of them and tackle well. But one thing the Chargers have had success with is making in-game adjustments when things are not going well. The wild card here again is McCoy. Because he’s worked with Manning in the past, McCoy understands his strengths and weaknesses, and what he likes to go to in certain situations. And that will be used in Pagano’s game planning for Sunday.

San Diego surprised the Broncos a month ago by winning in Denver. What did the Broncos learn from that setback? And what are a couple key things Denver needs to accomplish in order to defeat the pesky Chargers and move on?

Legwold: That game came on a short week and you could see the table getting set for a Broncos' loss in the days leading up to the Dec. 12 win for the Chargers. Many of the Broncos players spent a great deal of time talking about how much they didn’t like playing on Thursday nights, how good the rest would be in the weekend that followed. And then they played like a team more concerned about just getting through a game than winning it. There have been no such issues this week. The Broncos will be focused on the task at hand this time. On the field, they have to keep the Chargers from converting third downs and putting drives together. San Diego repeatedly pounded away in the run game at the Broncos' lighter personnel groupings, particularly in the nickel, and the Broncos can’t allow that to happen again. The Chargers' defense was effective rushing Manning over the left side -- especially between left tackle Chris Clark and left guard Zane Beadles. This time, if the Broncos keep Manning cleaner on his blind side, they will move the ball.

Broncos-Chargers matchup of the day

November, 7, 2013
11/07/13
7:00
AM ET
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Running back Danny Woodhead already has more receptions in eight games with the San Diego Chargers (49) than had in any of his previous four seasons in the NFL. So if the Denver Broncos are going to slow Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers on Sunday, they are going to have to find a way to take away one of his favorite targets -- Woodhead.

Woodhead
In the revamp of the Chargers’ offense under coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, Rivers has shortened his pass drops from what was usually seven steps to more five- and three-step drops. Rivers is getting the ball out far more quickly than he once did, and instead of consistently driving the ball down the field, he’s looking for more catch-and-run plays from his receivers.

The result has been a far more efficient Rivers -- a 72.2 percent completion rate after eight games, more than six points higher than his best season, in 2010 -- with fewer mistakes, and a big-play-worthy 8.4 yards per pass attempt. All of that mean Rivers will routinely test the Broncos' linebackers in coverage, and Woodhead will be a big part of that.

The Broncos have had difficulty with tight ends like Dallas' Jason Witten this season -- they have surrendered 51 receptions to opposing tight ends in eight games -- but Woodhead represents the most difficult receiving threat out of the backfield they will have faced this season. Injuries have pushed Woodhead to the forefront of the Chargers’ passing attack. Danario Alexander went on injured reserve in training camp, and the Chargers placed Malcolm Floyd on injured reserve last month because of a neck injury he suffered in Week 2.

Because of all that, Woodhead has been targeted 57 times by Rivers, including 12 times last weekend against the Redskins -- and that’s the second-highest total on the team behind only tight end Antonio Gates’ 66. And it means Denver linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan are going to find themselves in coverage plenty, and how they handle that job will have a lot to say about how things go.

And given Von Miller has had some difficulties in pass coverage, McCoy will likely try to structure some looks to force Miller to have to cover Woodhead out of the backfield. The Broncos have taken Miller off the field at times over the last two games, including in both the base defense as well as some of their specialty looks, when they think the matchup calls for it.

Unlike some running backs, Woodhead can track the ball over his shoulder down the field and doesn’t have to run only routes where he faces the quarterback. It means the Chargers will try to get him the ball almost anywhere on the field, and Woodhead can make a play.

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