Denver Broncos: Derek Wolfe

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Before a game had been played this season, Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said this year's defense needed to be closer, in deed, to the 2012 edition rather than last season's.

With two regular-season games remaining, that has come to pass. This year the Broncos are currently No. 4 in total defense (309.4 yards allowed per game), No. 16 in scoring defense (21.6 points per game allowed) and tied for sixth in sacks (38).

Last season they were 19th in total defense to go with 22nd in scoring defense and tied for 13th in sacks as compared to No. 2 in total defense, No. 4 in scoring defense and tied for the league lead in sacks in 2012. Sunday's win in San Diego was the seventh time this season the Broncos have held their opponent to 17 or fewer points, including the last three consecutive games.

Last year the Broncos held just three opponents to 17 or fewer points. In 2012 they held eight opponents to 17 or fewer points before the Baltimore Ravens piled on 38 points in Baltimore's double overtime win in the divisional round of the playoffs.

And after a long look at the video from Sundays win, here are some thoughts on the team's defense and special teams:
  • Last season Malik Jackson was perhaps the team's most efficient player when he played 521 snaps on defense (52.3 percent of the team's total) and still finished second on the team in sacks (six), led the team in tackles for loss (11) as well as hits on the quarterback (15) all while he led the Broncos' defensive linemen in tackles (42). Sunday Jackson was at his efficient best as in 32 snaps on defense Jackson was consistently disruptive. In the first quarter he pushed Chargers guard Chad Rinehart back into quarterback Philip Rivers nearly causing a fumble -- the play was ruled an incomplete pass after a replay review -- then threw Chargers running back Donald Brown for a 5-yard loss in the third quarter just before batting down a Rivers pass on the next play. There are personnel groupings when Jackson is often the only defensive linemen in a three-point stance in the formation. The Broncos have kept his production up despite Jackson playing roughly the same percentage of snaps thus far, given he's at 51.9 percent of the defense's snaps for the season and has been credited with 35 tackles with two regular-season games to play.
  • The Broncos are an aggressive lot on defense so it's no surprise a coach who knows them well -- Chargers head coach Mike McCoy -- would try to take advantage of it. The Chargers had some success floating a running back into the pass pattern after the Broncos has begun to rush Rivers in earnest. Donald Brown got free in the first quarter for a 16-yard catch-and-run looping behind the Broncos rushers as they went upfield and in the third quarter. Branden Oliver, after initially blocking linebacker Lerentee McCray, looped in behind the rushers again for a 17-yard gain. Later in the quarter, however, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton recognized another attempt and stayed with Brown in the middle of the field to force an incompletion by Rivers. Defensive end Derek Wolfe also saw it coming in the second half and stayed with Brown to force an incompletion.
  • The Broncos may have to re-think things at punt returner or consider a more liberal use of the fair catch. Both Wes Welker and Emmanuel Sanders, regulars in the Broncos' three-wide receiver look on offense, took big hits in the return game in Sunday's game. After Welker, who has had multiple concussions over the last two seasons, took a huge hit in traffic in the first quarter, Sanders lined up as the punt returner for the remainder of the day, where he too took a big hit on his 11-yard return in the second quarter. Given Sanders is currently sixth in the league in receiving yards (1,261 yards), he may not be the best alternative in a high-impact job either.
  • Brandon McManus has given the Broncos exactly what they wanted when they re-signed him off the practice squad just before the team's win over the Buffalo Bills. After surrendering far too much field position against the Kansas City Chiefs after McManus' release in the week leading up to that game, McManus forced four touchbacks in five kickoffs against the Bills at altitude. He then forced five touchbacks in seven kickoffs in San Diego and the Chargers started their drives following those kickoffs five times on the 20-yards line to go with the 24-yard line and the 18-yard line. And on those seven drives following kickoffs, having to go the long way, the Chargers scored one touchdown to go with a missed field goal, three punts and two interceptions.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The ending was fine for the Denver Broncos defense. The Broncos won and the Miami Dolphins rushed for just seven yards on their six rushing attempts in the second half.

It’s just what came before that will demand some attention from the Broncos, like the Dolphins’ 90 yards rushing in the first half to go with the Dolphins’ 5-for-5 performance in the red zone -- all touchdowns.

“We ended it good, but we still have a lot of things to work on," Broncos safety T.J. Ward said. “... We like how it ended, we’ll always take a win, but we have a lot of things to get done, we know that."

And after a long look at the game video, here are some thoughts on the Broncos’ defense and special teams:
  • The Dolphins made a concerted effort, particularly in the first half, to show the Broncos open formations with three wide receivers and a tight end spread sideline to sideline. They also made a concerted effort to run the ball early in the game, at least while the scoreboard allowed them to, against the Broncos' lighter defensive packages. The Dolphins pounded out 83 of their 90 first-half rushing yards against the Broncos' nickel (five defensive backs) and dime (six defensive backs) defenses. It allowed the Dolphins to put together three well-balanced touchdown drives in the first half. The Broncos adjusted and Denver’s offense got things cranked up enough the Dolphins were able to run the ball just six times in the second half. But with the Chiefs (No. 4 in rushing) and the Bengals (No. 7 in rushing) on the docket in the coming weeks, the issue is sure to come up again.
  • Within those runs against the Broncos' specialty packages, the Dolphins were effective using their tight ends to block on the edges of the formation, especially in the run game. Two of the best examples were when tight end Harold Hoskins sealed off Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe on Lamar Miller's 22-yard run in the first quarter and Dion Sims locked on linebacker Von Miller on Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill's touchdown run in the second quarter.
  • In one of the oddest sequences anyone will ever see, the Broncos forced three fumbles on one second-quarter Dolphins possession and didn’t recover any of them. But that’s the way it’s gone for the Broncos all season, as the team has forced nine fumbles, but recovered just one – the fewest in the league. Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib knocked the ball free from Dolphins wide receiver Brandon Gibson and the ball rolled out of bounds; two plays later Chris Harris Jr. knocked the ball free from Gibson and the ball rolled out of bounds; and five plays after that Brandon Marshall knocked the ball free from Rishard Matthews only to see Miller pounce on it for the Dolphins. “We are still waiting for the ball to bounce right," Broncos head coach John Fox said. “... You just keep stressing it, our guys are working at it hard, someday, hopefully soon, they pop into our hands."
  • Opposing special teams coaches believe, and the game video has confirmed this week to week, the Broncos returners swing the ball away from their bodies as they run too often, and most teams are coming into the piles looking to knock the ball free because of it. The returners are not always carrying the ball in the outside hand andaren’t maintaining the three points of contact to carry the ball high and tight against the body. The Dolphins knocked one out of Isaiah Burse's hands that gave them the ball on the Broncos’ 12-yard line with 3:20 left in third quarter just after the Broncos defense had forced a punt following a missed field goal by Brandon McManus. “There’s a certain point in time where you’re kind of hemmed in, you don’t want to be doing spin moves and whatnot," Fox said. “You just kind of take your losses and get down. But again he’s young and if he had to do over again I think he would have done it differently, but all in all I think he’s done a pretty good job."
  • Omar Bolden, who has worked at both safety and cornerback in his career with the Broncos, showed he's been paying attention. With Talib's left hamstring injury to go with Kayvon Webster's right shoulder injury, Bolden ended up playing 16 snaps at cornerback Sunday. Bolden finished with two tackles on defense to go with another on special teams. Toss in Bolden's kickoff returns of 40 and 33 yards and it was just the kind of little-of-this, little-of-that game the Broncos needed.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The numbers speak for themselves and they’re essentially shouting at everyone at the moment.

Shouting that Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller leads the NFL with eight sacks while defensive end DeMarcus Ware is among four players tied for second in the league with seven sacks. Miller’s eight sacks put him ahead of six of the league’s teams and those 15 sacks between the Broncos’ two marquee pass-rushers put the pair ahead of 14 teams.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
AP Photo/Jack DempseyDeMarcus Ware's ability to get to the quarterback has benefited the Broncos this season.
The Broncos’ 21 sacks also tie them for third in the league though they've played one fewer game than the other four teams with at least 21. But if sacks had assists, Miller and Ware know who would get them. Because while the glamour guys collect the highlights along the way, it takes a defensive village to raise a sack.

"And those guys in the middle, they make it go," Miller said. "It’s like I’ve said, they’re unselfish, they just get to work."

In the end, it’s simple math, really -- the smaller the pocket for the quarterback to move around in, the bigger the chance Miller or Ware will finish a play with a sack.

They are the UTR Club perhaps, an under the radar football thing they all understand. And Terrance Knighton, Sylvester Williams, Marvin Austin Jr., Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson have done the roll-up-the-sleeves work on the interior that, both Miller and Ware say, has allowed the Broncos’ edge rushers to have exactly the kind of impact the team had hoped.

Knighton, in particular, has caught the eye of personnel executives around the league as one of the most disruptive players in the Broncos' defense, even in the mass of humanity along the line of scrimmage.

"We wouldn’t be able to have success that we’re having right now without Malik and Derek Wolfe and Marvin and all those guys," Miller said. " … It’s like in basketball when you’ve got Kobe and Shaq. Those guys really make it go and I’m not trying to be funny about it, but those guys -- if it wasn’t for what Malik and Derek do -- we wouldn’t be able to do what we do on the outside. … They’re very unselfish."

This all was part of the offseason plan. In a defensive overhaul where plenty of attention in free agency and the draft went to the secondary, the Broncos’ decision-makers hoped recovery from injuries would give them back the defensive front they wanted.

Wolfe had spent the back half of the 2013 season on injured reserve after suffering seizure-like symptoms as the Broncos prepared to go on a road trip. Miller had suffered a torn ACL in a December game against the Houston Texans and Ware was a player the Dallas Cowboys were prepared to cut loose because, "They felt like they had a decision to make and maybe I wasn’t the player I was."

The Broncos gladly dove in with a three-year, $30 million contract for Ware with the idea that a fresh start would be what was needed after he finished with six sacks in 2013. It’s what defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio had been talking about for much of the offseason when he said that beyond the injuries that sent five defensive starters to injured reserve by the time the Broncos played in Super Bowl XLVIII, the fact the team wasn’t able to replace Elvis Dumervil’s impact last season impacted what the defense could do the most.

With Dumervil and Miller together in ’12, the two combined for 29.5 sacks as the Broncos tied for the league lead with 52 and the Broncos allowed just five rushing touchdowns.

"I think it all goes together," Knighton said. "When we get the good push in there, don’t give quarterbacks room to move up and throw, with DeMarcus and Von coming from the outside, that’s what we want. Hopefully I get a sack or two with all that, but if they get a sack, if we see them with the quarterback, we know we did our job, too. Sacks make everybody feel good."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Aqib Talib returned the first pass he intercepted for the New England Patriots 54 yards for a touchdown.

Talib had to wait to repeat that feat with the Broncos -- he had an interception return for a touchdown against the Kansas City Chiefs called back in Week 2 because of a penalty -- but his first official interception for the Broncos came with just 15 seconds remaining Sunday when he returned it 22 yards for a score.

"That's twice the first one went for a touchdown," Talib said. "In New England and now with Denver ... man, I want to add to the list."

So, with that in mind, after a long look at the game video, here are some thoughts on the Broncos' defense and special teams:

  • [+] EnlargeAqib Talib
    AP Photo/Bill KostrounAqib Talib returned his first interception with the Broncos for a touchdown.
    In John Elway's first four drafts as the team's top football decision-maker the Broncos' first selection has been a defensive player. Von Miller, Sylvester Williams and Bradley Roby were first-round picks while Derek Wolfe was taken in the second round in 2012 after the Broncos had traded out of the opening round. Couple that with all of the free-agency capital the Broncos expended on the defense this past March, including Talib, and the Broncos are just beginning to enjoy the fruits of those labors. What it all means will have to wait, but when the Broncos lost in overtime in Seattle they were 30th in the league in yards allowed per game (390.7) and 16th in points allowed per game (22.3). After they had concluded their business against the Jets' struggling offense -- the Jets are near, or at, the bottom of the league in most significant passing categories -- the Broncos are now 4th in the league in yards allowed per game (318.2) and seventh in the league in scoring defense (20.8 points allowed per game). Granted playing the Cardinals No. 2, and then No. 3, quarterbacks didn't hurt their rankings and neither did Geno Smith's struggles. But it is the trend the Broncos both wanted, and needed, with a plan that has been several years in the making. Or as Elway has said "so we don't put Peyton in a position to have to do everything with the offense. We want the defense to have its own identity about how it plays."
  • The Broncos' current regime, especially Elway, has always liked the multi-taskers at linebacker, the guys with enough physicality to play along the line of scrimmage if they had to as well as the agility to play in the open in the team's specialty packages. And they're willing to go a little smaller behind their defensive tackles to get those players on the field. Enter seventh-round pick Corey Nelson, whose four years in what he called "a pro-style defense" at Oklahoma, has enabled him to move into the lineup. Nelson first caught the Broncos' eye enough to be kept on the 53-man roster after the preseason as the eighth linebacker. Then Nelson made a big enough impression on special teams to be used on defense, albeit for just two snaps against the Seattle Seahawks. But has done enough in practice since that when Danny Trevathan left Sunday's game on the second defensive snap it was Nelson, not Nate Irving, who came into the game as the second linebacker in the nickel, alongside Brandon Marshall. Nelson was credited with a team-leading seven tackles in the game and showed the ability to get off blocks and good instincts to the ball. "I feel like that's what they brought me in for—for my talents and abilities, that's what they wanted me to do," Nelson said. "So I was able to do it. But I definitely feel like that's a strength that I have, and that they're using." Nelson flashed as a productive pass-rusher in some situations at Oklahoma, especially in his sophomore season, so that is something else the Broncos could add to his to-do list in the coming weeks.
  • The Broncos, in large part, have kept rookie receiver Cody Latimer out of the game day lineup because wide receiver Andre Caldwell returns kickoffs and wide receiver Isaiah Burse returns punts. So, despite showing enough chops in the preseason to be legitimate deep threat as well as a matchup problem in the scoring zone, Latimer continues to take what can be a bumpy ride on the learning curve in the audible-heavy Broncos' offense. But in the big picture it's worth noting the Bronco are currently just 30th in kickoff returns (21.6 yards per return) with just four returns in their five games and 27th in punt returns at 5.2 yards per return. The Broncos are also one of just six teams in the league with at least 10 fair catches. After a shaky training camp on all fronts in the return game, the Broncos have made what they believe are the best, and safest, choices for their game day 46 without using a starter like Emmanuel Sanders or Wes Welker in the return game because of the threat of injury. But at least part of the price tag for all of it is Latimer without a uniform on game day.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio knows all about bend-but-don’t-break defense.

It’s just he’s not all that interested in either.

“I’m not looking for any bend," Del Rio said this week. “But at the end of the day, we want to make plays. It just so happens that we’re giving ourselves a chance and then coming up with plays to stop people from scoring in key moments. So that’s the good part: The resiliency, the determination, those are the good things. And we want to clean it up and not let it get like that. But it’s a constant battle … So like I said, we’re hard at work. We’re aware of things that need to be better. We’re working hard to make sure they get better."

When the Broncos take the field Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, the plan was for the Broncos’ remade defense to have shown itself ready for a Super Bowl rematch, for the defense to have shown it can be what both Del Rio and the players have said they believe it could be, and that’s a top-five unit. And two weeks into the regular season, the new faces have had plenty of impact, and the group has made a fourth-down, game-clinching play in each of the first two victories, over the Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs.

But the Broncos also find themselves 28th in the league in yards allowed per game -- how the NFL ranks defenses statistically overall -- at 394.0 yards allowed per game and 14th in points allowed per game (20.5). The Broncos are tied for 10th in sacks (five), tied for ninth in interceptions (two) and have not yet recovered a fumble.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesDeMarcus Ware and the Denver Broncos' defense are looking to make a bigger impact.
“I wouldn’t say we’re searching for anything," Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware said. “I always say there is room for improvement. We have all the players here, and we’re playing good enough to win games. But you’ve got to have those shutout games, those games you want to have on defense -- those big turnover games, interceptions, getting more pressure on the quarterback, keeping the quarterback in the pocket and not having those big games."

Against the Seahawks, it means having all of the above. It’s about keeping quarterback Russell Wilson under duress, limiting his escape routes. It’s about keeping running back Marshawn Lynch from controlling the tempo with yard after yard after contact. It’s about, for the Broncos, being far better than they were in the 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVIII.

The defense received most of the attention in the offseason with the signings of Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward to go with first-round pick Bradley Roby this past May. But new faces, to go with the Broncos returning from stints on injured reserve -- linebacker Von Miller, safety Rahim Moore, cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and defensive end Derek Wolfe -- means the Broncos are still working to fit the pieces together.

That can be more difficult on defense, as teams rarely do in any practice what just might be the most important job on defense -- tackle at game speed. They can simulate, they can work on form and positioning, but they don’t get to see how they close the deal until the games get played. From the Seahawks' perspective, the group in front of them Sunday won't be close to the unit they faced in the Super Bowl, given at least seven projected starters on defense for the Broncos on Sunday did not play in the Super Bowl, and just two of the usual starters on defense -- defensive tackles Terrance Knighton and Sylvester Williams -- will be playing in the same spots as they did in the title game.

“We’re a real good unit," Del Rio said. “It’s early in the year. We’ve played well in spurts. We’ve played well in big moments. We’ve contributed to two wins. But we feel like there’s a lot of work yet to be done, and our guys all understand that. But we have a good group, and we’re working hard."

Said Moore: “We know what we have; we know what we can do. I’m not sure the last couple weeks we win both those games all the time in the past. We feel like we want to be on the field with the game on the line, we want that. We can play better, and we will. Every guy in here wants to show what we can do and keep getting the W's."

Louis Vasquez's ranking is too low

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – ESPN used 85 voters from the network’s many NFL platforms as well as Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus to rank the league’s top 100 players on offense and top 100 players on defense.

Players ranked No. 90 down to 81 are featured on Tuesday, and Denver Broncos guard Louis Vasquez checked in at No. 87.

Certainly that will put him on the short list of guards listed in what will be a sea of skill position players, but overall that’s too low.

Vasquez is how free agency is supposed to work. Team sees good player on open market in his prime and signs him for what is elite money for his position.

Vasquez signed a four-year deal for $23.5 million before the 2013 season. That was the longest, most lucrative deal the Broncos handed out in free agency that year, and he went on to be the first Broncos guard to be named first-team All-Pro since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. And he's still just 27.

Vasquez, an imposing figure, plays with power, but the striking thing about how he plays is how clean it all looks, even in the scrum that is the line of scrimmage. The Broncos believed, before Vasquez's arrival, too many of the "loopers'' -- inside stunts from the defensive linemen -- were getting to quarterback Peyton Manning, and Vasquez's game video consistently showed his ability to find the most dangerous rusher in traffic and take care of business.

Defensive players continually talk about how when Vasquez gets his hands on them “it’s tough to get away,’’ as Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe has put it. “The guy is huge.’’

Vazquez has been flagged just five times in 70 regular-season games, with four of those penalties having been assessed. Last season he was flagged three times -- two false starts and a holding penalty -- but was not flagged again after Week 7. Before he arrived in Denver, he had been flagged just twice in his tenure with the San Diego Chargers -- a false-start penalty on a field goal attempt on Oct. 24, 2010, against the Patriots, and a holding call in Week 6 of his rookie season that was declined.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- For many who currently have lockers inside the Denver Broncos' complex, things get down to the vocational nitty gritty this week.

For months they have shown up to work each day, part of a team. They've worked in the weight room, eaten in the cafeteria and rubbed shoulders with their far more famous teammates.

After this week, the Broncos will send almost half of them on their way.

The Broncos will practice against the Houston Texans this week, play the Texans Saturday night and then cut at least 37 players from their current roster in a span of seven days with a fourth preseason game sandwiched in there somewhere.

And while the Broncos didn't have all that many roster jobs in play when they opened training camp, there are still plenty of tough decisions, especially at a few spots, with some things to consider:

Salary cap: The Broncos were active in free agency this past offseason. But they are squarely up against the salary cap right now -- $133 million per team -- and that is going to impact some of their decisions.

Only the top 51 salary-cap figures count in the preseason, but that luxury ends when rosters go to 53 players the week before the opener. The Broncos top 51 cap salary-cap figures come in at $129.7 million at the moment and the team is carrying $6.43 million worth of “dead'' money as well -- cap figures for players no longer on the team, led by $2.1 million for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and $1.83 million for the retired Chris Kuper.

So, even with the accounting of salary cap rollover and subtracting other expenses that amount to about $3.3 million more available cap space, the Broncos are up against the limit when you consider they still have to leave room for players who end up on injured reserve and for a practice squad.

Right now the Broncos' top 53 salary cap figures come in at $130.761 million, so add in that dead money and it's clear they have work to get done whether that includes a new deal for Demaryius Thomas or an unexpected roster cut or two.

Defensive line: With their offseason work, to go with the recovery of those who were on injured reserve last season, the Broncos turned this from a red-flag position into one of the deepest on the roster.

As a result, the Broncos will likely let a player, or players, go here who will draw some interest from other teams. That hasn't always been the case with their roster in recent seasons, which may be, along with back-to-back 13-3 season, a measure of their progress from 2010's 4-12 finish.

The question really comes down to if the team keeps just eight players here, which is exactly what they did last season. Part of the rationale, from a personnel standpoint, in keeping eight is that linebacker Von Miller is in one of the defensive end spots for most of the team's pass-rush looks.

Start counting and it doesn't take long to find eight that would make a quality rotation. Combine some common sense with the way they've practiced and played the first two preseason games and DeMarcus Ware, Terrance Knighton, Sylvester Williams and Derek Wolfe are the starters in the base defense.

Malik Jackson, Quanterus Smith and Marvin Austin project as the next three. That could leave, if the number is eight, Mitch Unrein, Kevin Vickerson and others scrapping for a final spot. Vickerson did not play in Sunday's preseason game in Santa Clara, California, as he continues to work all the way back from his hip injury of 2013.

Returner: There are still questions to answer here. Wide receiver Jordan Norwood has shown enough on offense to make a case as the sixth wide receiver and he has shown the most consistency among the punt returners. Wes Welker is a fall-back option, but he had two concussions last season so that's not preferable.

At kickoff returner the Broncos are still inconsistent fielding the ball in practice and haven't had many chances to show much in their games -- no kickoff returns against the 49ers. Defensive back Omar Bolden looks like the safest bet at the moment.

Offensive line: The Broncos have kept nine players in each of the three previous seasons and there is no reason to expect they won't keep nine once again.

So, that means the final spots will come down to youth vs. veteran. The Broncos are looking at the young players here. Guard Ben Garland and rookie tackle Michael Schofield played more Sunday -- 54 snaps each -- than any other Broncos players. Guard Vinston Painter and tackle Paul Cornick, who both were on Broncos practice squad last season (Painter finished the season on active roster), were next in line with 39 snaps each.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Step by step, player by player, a defense that saw five starters finish the 2013 season on injured reserve, has closed in on its desired staffing.

Safety Rahim Moore has participated fully all through training camp as has defensive end Derek Wolfe. Defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson was limited in camp's early going, but has been back to full participation as well over the last two weeks

And now linebacker Von Miller and cornerback Chris Harris Jr. -- both had ACL surgery, Miller in January and Harris Jr. in February -- are back practicing in team drills. Miller has steadily worked his way into more and more team drills and over the past week and has appeared in those drills in fully padded practices.

Thursday, Harris Jr., went through team drills in what was a fully-padded workout as well.

"I've been saying I feel great," Harris Jr. said. "I don't even feel like I had an injury or anything. My knee feels stronger and I've felt like I could do everything for a while. I didn't want to rush it and do something I shouldn't, but I wanted to work as hard as I could to get back as fast as I could, too."

It means -- other than linebacker Danny Trevathan, who suffered a fracture to the top of his tibia in Tuesday's practice -- the Broncos have the personnel they expected, and wanted, to have when they put the depth chart together.

Both Miller and Harris are expected to participate at least some next week when the Broncos and Houston Texans hold joint practices at the Broncos complex. And Miller is on schedule to play at least some in the Aug. 23 preseason game against the Texans.

That game is the Broncos third preseason game, when the starters typically play into the third quarter. Asked after Thursday's practice if people were close to seeing the Miller who had 18.5 sacks in 2012, Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said:

"If you mean the suddenness and the ability to bend and those things we appreciate and love from him, then yes. I think he is working his way back and is doing a good job with the way we have increased his work load and the way he's been able to handle it. I said it earlier in camp that I have no question in my mind that Von Miller will be back to his old self for this camp."

For his part Miller says he believes he is ready for big season and has drawn raves for his approach thus far. Many with the team repeatedly say the proof will be in how he handles himself on and off the field after his suspension- and injury-marred season in '13.

Or as Miller has put it:

"I'm in a great spot -- spiritually, emotionally, physically. And I think that's where it all starts. I wake up every day, it's great. I've got great teammates around me, great coaches. We've got colorful people in the locker room. It's great coming to work every day. It was like that last year, but this year it's just different. I'm looking forward to seeing what we can do as a team this year.”

Both Miller and Harris Jr. have repeatedly said going through the rehab from their respective injuries together has likely kept them both on track and moving toward their return.

Miller suffered his injury in the Broncos' Week 16 victory over the Houston Texans while Harris Jr. suffered his injury in the team's divisional round win over the San Diego Chargers in January. Their return to full participation will also allow the Broncos to line up in the personnel groupings in practice over the last two weeks of the preseason that will most closely resemble what they will play when they open the season Sept. 7 against the Indianapolis Colts.

"I'm glad going through it I was around a guy like Von," Harris Jr. said. "We could push each other every day. I think it helped us both and I think we both look as strong as ever, quick as ever, it will great to be back in our defense."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In their first significant tackle-for-real effort of the 2014 preseason the Denver Broncos scooped out plenty of vanilla on defense, but it was clear they’re going to be able to rush the passer when they get down to business.

And beyond any reckless preseason sack prediction that are often are tossed out in the August sun, the Broncos have a variety in personnel and a defensive coordinator in Jack Del Rio who is apt to rotate, switch out and use as many players as he can.

“Our guys know, and I say this to them and to you, if you have a uniform on game day and you’ve shown us you have something to offer, you’re going to play,’’ Del Rio said.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
AP Photo/Joe MahoneyThe Broncos got to Russell Wilson twice in Thursday night's preseason opener.
And then Del Rio added, with his best ex-linebacker half smile; “What that means specifically will have to wait. We’ll wait and see. We’ll wait and see until it all shakes out and we’re game-planning for our opponents. But I think we like our possibilities.’’

So, while the Broncos sacked Seattle Seahawks quarterbacks three times Thursday night -- Russell Wilson twice in his 24 snaps, Tarvaris Jackson once -- and they will likely sack the quarterbacks to come here and there over the next three preseason games. But how it’s all going to look and if it really is better than what the Broncos had to offer last season, that will remain under wraps for the most part.

At least until the Colts and Andrew Luck shows up Sept. 7 for the regular-season opener.

“It is still training camp to where you can throw everything out there, you throw the kitchen sink out there,’’ defensive end DeMarcus Ware said. “And then at the end once you’re done with training camp we have the tool box ready for the season. Now that is what this game is about, that is what each preseason game is about ... to get better each week.”

However it turns out it will be a convergence of returning players, including those who missed out on the Super Bowl because they were on injured reserve, players such as linebacker Von Miller, cornerback Chris Harris Jr., defensive end Derek Wolfe and defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson to go with those they’ve added. And they added three players -- Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward -- who have all been named to the Pro Bowl in their careers, including seven for Ware.

Former Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey has always said the defenses that make life the most miserable for quarterbacks essentially have three elements. They have more than one player who can consistently create pressure off the edge, they have a secondary good enough to make the quarterback hold the ball that little bit extra so the front can get there, and they can send players from all over the formation.

Again, while preseason optimism is a rite of summer to be sure, the Broncos would appear to have all three of those elements, even if Miller isn’t yet full speed.

“You don’t really get that chemistry until it’s like third-and-7 at the beginning of the fourth quarter and you’re down like three points, or you’re up by three points and you need a sack or a big play,’’ Miller said. “You don’t really get that chemistry until you’re in those types of situations. You develop that in those types of scenarios. When we get to that point, I’m confident that we’ll be able to perform to the best of our abilities, and I’m looking forward to getting in those situations.’’

Other than the injuries that eroded the defense as it dropped from fourth-best in points allowed per game in 2012 to 22nd last season, the loss of Elvis Dumervil in the fax fiasco rippled through the defense. Though the Broncos hit on free-agency bingo when late signee Shaun Phillips ended up leading the team with 10 sacks, Dumervil’s presence off the edge was not replaced.

Toss in Miller’s suspension and that even he admits he wasn’t quite himself when he returned, heavier by design.

“We never sort of replaced Elvis … I think we’re closer now to what we want to do on defense,’’ Broncos coach John Fox said. “ … I always say we’ll get what we earn, but we like where we are.’’

Where they will go will depends plenty on Ware’s health -- he battled elbow and leg injuries last season as he missed the first three games of his career -- and Miller’s ability to bounce back to something close to his 2012 form when he finished with 18.5 sacks. The Broncos have the kind of options Del Rio likes in the team’s specialty rush packages, which at times feature a swirl of players moving all over the formation, often with just one or two in a three-point stance.

It also creates competition to get snaps. Del Rio will use as many players as are in uniform on most game days, but the battle for playing time figures to be spirited. A group that will include the high-profile guys like Miller and Ware as well as Quanterus Smith, who spent his rookie year on injured reserve, Malik Jackson and Ward having moved down from safety to linebacker in some of those looks.

“At the end of the day, everybody knows their job,’’ Vickerson said. “At the end of the day, everybody knows what their responsibilities are and where they’re supposed to be at on each call. With everybody doing their job and playing fast and physical and violent and doing the things on this side of the defense … that’s when you get done what you need to get done.’’

Broncos Camp Report: Day 9

August, 1, 2014
Aug 1
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Denver Broncos training camp:
  • Backup quarterback Brock Osweiler will get a rather tidy training camp exam Saturday morning. The Broncos will hold their annual practice/summer scrimmage at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. And after some of their usual drills to open the workout they will send the No. 1 offense against the No. 2 defense for 12 plays of live tackling. And that means Osweiler and the No. 2 offense will try its hand against the No. 1 defense. "Brock is really going to have to be smart and moving the ball well against the 1s," Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase said. The combination to keep an eye on, at least if the last few days of practice are any indication, is Osweiler and undrafted rookie Bennie Fowler. The two have connected on several big plays, including touchdown throws Thursday and Friday. Fowler has worked with the second-team offense lately and if he's on the field Osweiler will look his way.
  • The running back rotation in the scrimmage will bear watching, especially how things go with the second and third units. Montee Ball figures to get most, or all, of the carries with the starters with Ronnie Hillman working as his backup right now. C.J. Anderson is expected to run with the second team while Juwan Thompson, Kapri Bibbs and Brennan Clay will likely mix and match with the third-team offense. Thompson, however, has taken second-team snaps in camp in short-yardage work.
  • Following Friday's practice, Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio had high praise for cornerback Chris Harris Jr.'s work in coming back from ACL surgery in February. Harris was cleared to return to practice this week, less than six months following his surgery. "I've been around guys that have rehabbed and come back from injury, but I don't know if I've ever seen a guy more determined every day with great energy attacking it the way he did," Del Rio said. "He's really stayed engaged mentally in the meetings. He's worked extremely hard and been very diligent, and it's gone well -- no setbacks or anything."
  • Linebacker Jamar Chaney, who started 23 games for the Philadelphia Eagles earlier in his career and had a three-interception season in 2011, had a leaping pick on a Zac Dysert pass in Friday's red-zone drills. Chaney leaped high to tip the ball up and then caught the tipped ball. Chaney, who has worked with the third-team defense the majority of the time, faces a tight battle at linebacker for the last few spots. The team kept seven linebackers in the cut to 53 players in 2011 and 2012 to go with six at the position last season.
  • The Broncos' practice/scrimmage at 11 a.m. at Sports Authority Field at Mile High will be their only practice Saturday.
  • Odds and ends: Defensive end Derek Wolfe, who left Thursday's practice with stiffness in his lower back, was back on the field Friday ... Safety Quinton Carter, who is on track to make the roster after two missed seasons with knee troubles, finished his work in a team drill at one point in Friday's practice and jumped on a stationary bike to ride for a few minutes. He then returned to practice ... Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders reached high for a scoring grab in the back of the end zone in team drills, getting his feet down just before crossing the end line ... Hillman got a few carries with the starting offense in run-game work.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Defensive end DeMarcus Ware returned to practice Thursday after missing two days' worth of practice with a bruised lower right leg. Ware was limited some but participated in some drills.

Ware suffered his injury Sunday in the team’s practice at Sports Authority Field at Mile High and had not practiced since. He had done conditioning work and looked to be running without any problems during the team's stadium practice Wednesday.

Defensive end Derek Wolfe, who was pulled out of a practice earlier in camp with stiffness in his lower back, was taken out of Thursday’s practice as well.

"(He) should be fine, we’ll evaluate him day to day," Broncos coach John Fox said.

The Broncos also held defensive end Chase Vaughn (right knee), defensive end Greg Latta (right hip) and cornerback Lou Young (groin) out of Thursday’s workout.

Safety John Boyett (back), who had not practiced this week, returned to practice as well. Boyett had a big hit in red-zone drills when he knocked rookie running back Brennan Clay off his feet.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio is, publicly anyway, a rather understated guy when he talks about the players around him.

A “solid player’’ is a guy headed to the Pro Bowl. A “really, really solid player’’ is a guy who already has been to several Pro Bowls.

So when he says the Broncos’ defensive front “has some options we feel good about,’’ it really means if the Broncos have the good fortune of good health -- they certainly didn’t on defense in 2013 -- then Del Rio sees something a lot closer to the top five defense the Broncos sported in ’12 rather than last year’s middle-of-the-pack group.

[+] EnlargeDenver's Terrance Knighton
Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)Terrance Knighton had sacks in three consecutive games last season.
“I think so, we’ve got a lot of guys who can do a lot of things,’’ defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. “ … You always have to wait and see for sure when we all put the pads on and go at it. But I think there’s a lot of versatility in the group.’’

So much so, the position will feature some of the fiercest battles, not for starting jobs, but rather to simply carve out some playing time as Del Rio will routinely mix and match to fit a variety of down-and-distance situations.

It’s all part of a position-by-position look at where things stand with the team as training camp approaches.

Saturday: Defensive line.

How many coming to camp: 13.

How many will the Broncos keep: This position, and its place in the final roster count, has evolved at least some over the last three seasons. The Broncos kept 10 defensive lineman in 2011, the first season of the John Elway/John Fox regime as well as Dennis Allen’s only season as the team’s defensive coordinator.

Then in 2012, Del Rio’s first year with the team, they kept nine defensive linemen as they moved into the opening week of the regular season. Last season they kept eight on the roster.

They could get themselves to eight this time around as well, but to do that they would leave somebody behind who can contribute, if not for them, somebody else. Knighton and Sylvester Williams project as the starters at tackle, with Kevin Vickerson in the rotation. Mitch Unrein is a productive tackle who sees some spot duty on offense from time to time and played 148 special teams snaps last season.

The Broncos also see potential in Marvin Austin as well, a former second-round pick whose career has been derailed some by injuries. That’s five interior players right there.

DeMarcus Ware, Malik Jackson, Derek Wolfe and Quanterus Smith will divide the snaps at end. Linebacker Von Miller has often dropped down to end in the team’s nickel and dime packages, so that impacts this group as well.

Jackson, who is one of the most efficient players in the league in terms of production in snaps played, and Wolfe move inside to tackle in some of the specialty packages as well. All in all, it projects to some tough calls when the cut to 53 players comes.

Break it down: Ware says he feels better than he has in more than two season and as a member of the league's 100-sack club, he certainly fits the profile Elway talks about when he says "I like to sign future Hall of Famers with chips on their shoulders.'' The Broncos will be creative with Ware. He figures to show up all over the formation, sometimes on the same side as Miller, something Del Rio did when he paired Miller and Elvis Dumervil.

Because Wolfe and Vickerson spent so much of the 2013 season out of the lineup because of injuries, the Broncos got extended looks at Jackson and Williams last season. Williams has shown the athleticism the Broncos hoped for when they made him the first-round pick in ’13, and he appears poised for a significant jump in production this time around.

Jackson has simply forced the team to find a place for him in the lineup. He consistently gets to the quarterback when he’s on the field.

Knighton is in a contract year and if he plays wire to wire like he did over last season’s stretch run, after Vickerson went to injured reserve, he’ll be a popular player on the open market. The Broncos believe Miller will be full-speed -- he’s coming back from ACL surgery -- before the season is too old so he will be in the mix on passing downs in the defensive front. The Broncos thought Smith showed himself to be ready for some snaps as well.

Del Rio believes the potential of playing time is a powerful lure, and he has consistently used a variety of players in a variety of specialty roles to get people on the field and allow the Broncos to adjust to what an offense is doing.

"I think the guys know if they show us the can help, we'll get them on the field," Del Rio said. "That keeps everybody engaged.''

So, he’ll use plenty of folks in the front this time around, and the battle to get on the field should keep things lively for these guys all through the season.

Camp preview: Denver Broncos

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
» NFC Preview: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

NFL Nation’s Jeff Legwold examines the three biggest issues facing the Denver Broncos heading into training camp.

History: Say what you want about what the Broncos did in the offseason -- and there’s plenty of ground to cover because their haul in free agency was almost unprecedented for a team coming off a Super Bowl appearance -- the simple fact remains they are swimming upstream against a powerful current of history. No team since the undefeated Miami Dolphins of 1972 has gone on to win a Super Bowl in the season after a loss in the league’s title game. On paper, the Broncos’ depth chart looks poised to be in the championship conversation again, but for the second consecutive season they carry the significant burden of unfulfilled opportunity along for the ride. A double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens ended their 2012 season and left them empty-handed on the Super Bowl front. That loss followed them throughout the 2013 season, even as they rewrote the record book on offense. For some, the regular season was little more than one long opening act for another Super Bowl chance. This time around, a 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVII will mirror their every move. How the Broncos deal with that and how successfully they roll up their sleeves to get to work on the new season will have a lot to say about how things go.

Get rugged: The Broncos’ 2013 season was a study in contrasts. On one hand, they were the highest-scoring team in league history, the first to score 600 points in a season. On the other, they were a drama-filled operation that featured two front-office executives arrested for DUI offenses and Von Miller’s six-game suspension to open the season. Toss in a pile of injuries on defense and the blowout loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the final game, and the Broncos were left staring at the idea that they scored more points than any team that came before them but still didn’t win the title. So, although Peyton Manning and company figure to be fun to watch again, this team will earn its championship chops by what it does when Manning isn’t throwing the ball. By how it grinds it out in the running game from time to time to both protect the quarterback and close out games. And by how defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio implements players who were reeled in by the lure of owner Pat Bowlen’s checkbook and the Manning-led offense, such as DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib, with those returning from injury, such as Miller, Chris Harris Jr., Derek Wolfe and Kevin Vickerson. Scoring touchdowns shouldn't be an issue, but stopping others from scoring them can’t be one either.

Be right on Ball: There is no spot on the roster where the Broncos have put their faith in the most youthful of hands more than at running back. Ronnie Hillman is set to enter his third season, and he is the oldest player in the position group's meeting room. And if you’re looking for a player for whom the Broncos have cleared the way to shine most, it’s Montee Ball. Let’s be clear, though: Ball earned that optimism by how he played down the stretch last season. He was the most effective runner with the ball in his hands over the last six weeks of the season/postseason. He’s smart and has the requisite work ethic, and the Broncos have seen vast improvements in his work as both a receiver and blocker in the passing game. That gives him the gotta-have-it, every-down potential in their offense. The Broncos aren’t looking to run the ball significantly more than they did in ’13, but when they do, they want to move the chains more efficiently. And when it’s time to slam the door on somebody, they’d like Ball to be the guy to do it.
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, some 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.

[+] EnlargeMalik Jackson
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesMalik Jackson played a little more than half of the defensive snaps last season but still posted six sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
Today: Defensive end/defensive tackle Malik Jackson

When Jackson arrived with the Broncos he was a player who had functioned well both at end and tackle during his time at the University of Tennessee. He consistently showed the ability to affect games in the powerhouse Southeastern Conference where most weeks it was another potential NFL draft pick across from him. He was routinely quick off the ball, usually the first out of his stance at the snap in the Volunteers' front, as well as USC before his transfer.

But he has been more than that in defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s scheme. So much so, Jackson continues to force his way into the team’s thinking about how it does things and who gets to play.

And by any measure, statistical or game video, Jackson deserves even more snaps than he got this past season. Whether he actually gets them is a question, however, given both Derek Wolfe and Kevin Vickerson are on track to return to the lineup after spending part of the 2013 season on injured reserve.

The Broncos also added DeMarcus Ware in free agency so the snaps across the defensive front will be harder to come by at times. But Del Rio loves to work situations with a variety of personnel groupings as he believes the lure of some playing time keeps everyone engaged -- “we’ve proven to them if they show us they can offer something, they’ll play,’’ Del Rio said -- as well as keep more players fresher longer during the season.

That approach doesn’t affect Ware, a member of the league’s 100-sack club in his career, but Jackson is in that situational group. But no player on the Broncos’ depth chart made the most of those snaps like Jackson did last season.

He can play the defensive left end on early downs -- the power or strongside end -- with enough physicality to hold the edge and then move down on the inside on passing downs and play with athleticism. And in doing that, consider what he did with his playing time last season.

Jackson played 591 snaps in the regular season, or 52.3 percent of the team’s total. And yet he was second on the team in sacks (six), led the team’s defensive linemen in tackles (42, seventh on the team overall) and led the team in tackles for loss (11) as well as hits on the quarterback (15), often outdistancing players who spent far more time on the field than he did.

Some of those numbers were impacted by Von Miller’s six-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy and the fact Miller missed the regular-season finale after suffering a torn ACL as well. Wolfe’s struggles on the field following a preseason neck injury also figured in, even before Wolfe went on injured reserve after suffering seizure-like symptoms.

But the totals also speak to Jackson’s ability to affect offenses when he’s in the lineup from wherever he is in the formation. Wolfe played a similar inside-outside role in a productive rookie season in 2012 so Del Rio does have some balancing-act work to do with two players who have filled similar roles.

The Broncos spent 66 percent of their snaps in the nickel last season and figure to be somewhere north of the 60-percent mark this season, even with the power-first NFC West rotation on the schedule. So Jackson and Wolfe figure to spend more time in the rotation as rush tackles, as it were, with Ware and Miller in the outside spots.

But Jackson’s production can’t be ignored and should be rewarded until somebody else's is better.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- During this past week's minicamp workouts, you could see plenty of the Denver Broncos' top draft picks on display on offense.

Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and left tackle Ryan Clady are former first-round picks by the team. Guard Orlando Franklin, running back Montee Ball and rookie wide receiver Cody Latimer are former second-round picks. Rookie tackle Michael Schofield, who will need a remember-when training camp to earn the starting right tackle job but is slated to get a long look, was a third-round pick last month.

[+] EnlargeDanny Trevathan
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos have gotten critical production from late-round picks such as sixth-rounder Danny Trevathan.
Of the players who project in the top tier of the rotation on offense, tight end Julius Thomas -- a fourth-round selection in 2011 -- is the lowest draft pick among the players originally selected by the Broncos.

The defense, however, is a bit of a different matter, at least the top of the performance food chain.

"I think we've got some guys who prove it doesn't matter how you got here," said linebacker Danny Trevathan. "It matters what you do when you get here. I don't know if it's like that everywhere, but it's like that here."

So much so that an argument could easily be made that, as the Broncos closed out the regular season in 2013, the three players on defense not named Terrance Knighton who were playing the best were Trevathan, cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and defensive tackle/end Malik Jackson. Harris, who went to injured reserve with a partially torn ACL in January, was an undrafted rookie who made the roster in 2011. Jackson was a fifth-round pick in 2012, and Trevathan was a sixth-round pick in '12.

That's a lot of top-shelf production from players taken on the draft's third day and just the kind of performance a team has to have in the annual selection event if it's going to compete over the long haul and avoid the anchor of "dead" money on the salary cap from free agents no longer on the roster who essentially were signed to repair draft mistakes in previous years.

Among the projected starters on defense, the Broncos have committed some early picks on defense in the John Elway/John Fox era. Defensive tackle Sylvester Williams and linebacker Von Miller are former first-round picks, and this year's top Denver pick, cornerback Bradley Roby, is slated to play in the nickel. Defensive tackle Derek Wolfe is a former second-round pick.

Nate Irving, a former third-round pick, sits atop the depth chart at middle linebacker, but he will have to hold off this year's fifth-round pick, Lamin Barrow, to keep the job. Barrow is a third-day pick who already has the look of a guy who's going to push early and often for playing time.

It is what Elway, as the team's chief decision-maker, needs to happen if he's going to be able to stick to his mantra that the Broncos are trying "to win [from] now on." Because, although the first- and second-day picks get the biggest headlines, it takes the third-day guys added into the equation to get any team into the biggest games.