Denver Broncos: Duke Ihenacho

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- After months of offseason work, training camp and the initial cut to 53 players on the roster, the Denver Broncos make the transition this week.

They go from "on paper," to the scoreboard as Sunday night's regular-season opener against the Indianapolis Colts approaches.

"I think we're further along than maybe we have been in other years, but on paper doesn't mean anything," said Broncos head coach John Fox following Monday's practice. "How we come together, how we go about our work on and off the field -- there's still a lot of variations -- if we stay healthy. … Last year doesn't mean anything for anybody. It's what you do now."

But as the Broncos are poised to see if the theory is true, this has all been the undercurrent of the Broncos' spring and summer. That this version, this roster, is better than the one that finished 13-3 in the 2013 season and advanced to Super Bowl XLVIII before the horrible-no-good-very-bad-day meltdown in the title game ended the run.

Much of the offseason energy was spent on a defensive makeover that included free agent signings DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talilb to go with a first-round pick in the May draft used to select cornerback Bradley Roby. But even an offense that scored a single-season record 606 points -- that features a new primary runner in Montee Ball and a new starter at wide receiver in Emmanuel Sanders -- may have more to offer when attacking defenses.

But overall the team's chief football decision-maker, John Elway, said his biggest mission was to add some youth, more speed overall and find a way, if the inevitable spate of injuries arrives to have enough athleticism on hand that special teams units wouldn't suffer when the roster dominoes fall. The Broncos had five defensive starters on injured reserve when they arrived at the Super Bowl this past February.

"We've got more depth," Elway said. " … We've got more speed, especially in the backup positions and that can help us on special teams so I think speed-wise we're much better on special teams. We've got some young guys that came in and competed and overall our team's speed's better but again with the guys that we've signed this offseason, we've talked several times about it, it is a different mentality and confidence level on the defensive side."

The difference in where the Broncos are now and where they were in 2011 when Elway and Fox began their current tenures -- aside from the Peyton Manning signing -- is what happened when the Broncos released players this time around.

This time, several personnel executives from around the league said in recent days, the players the Broncos released got far more looks than they have in the previous three seasons. Safety Duke Ihenacho was claimed off waivers by the Washington Redskins. Head coach Jay Gruden said he expects Ihenacho to contribute on special teams immediately and that Ihenacho has a chance to play in the team's defense as well.

Defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, who started 11 games last season and was released when the Broncos kept just eight defensive linemen, has drawn interest from several teams, including the San Diego Chargers. With a more difficult schedule, at least in the early examination before any games are played, another Super Bowl trip remains to be seen.

"It's a situation that you want to be in having to make a lot of tough decisions like we had to make," Elway said. "This is by far the deepest team since I've been here and the toughest decisions we've had since I've been here … health is going to be a big part of it. We were one game short of where we wanted to be last year. I think we feel good about where we are right now, but we also know that you don't win it on paper. Now this group has to come together, work together and continue to grow. It's a good roster. We're excited where we are. Now we have to see it come together."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The Denver Broncos have made no secret they want to be more physical on defense in the coming season.

They want to do a better job slowing down opposing receivers, they want to disrupt the timing of opposing offenses and they want to get opposing pass-catchers out of their routes.

And yet they’ll have to do all that with the NFL’s officials looking, under the “points of emphasis’’ edict from the league, to tighten things up even more on defenses when it comes to illegal contact on receivers and defensive holding.

[+] EnlargeTony Carter
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsPenalties were a problem for Tony Carter and Denver's defensive backs last season.
“It’s hard on defense these days, man,’’ cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “They want scoring, they want touchdowns, you just have to see how they’re going to call things and go from there.’’

It is certainly a potential issue for the Broncos because when you combine defensive holding and illegal contact penalties the Broncos were tied for the league lead last season – with the Kansas City Chiefs – for those two fouls combined. Harris, who plays both on the outside and in the slot in the Broncos defense had four of the team’s 13 defensive holding penalties while Duke Ihenacho had three and Tony Carter had two.

In all it does mean a Broncos defense that is looking to be more rugged will have to find the line about how far it can go.

“My biggest thing is to really understand how they’re trying to emphasize and call it and make sure we’re teaching our guys, so we can play within the rules,’’ Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “I don’t waste a whole lot of energy worrying about whether I like it or don’t like it. To me, it’s about helping our guys understand what they have to do to play well and spending your energy on that and teach and instruct. Hopefully, they get an understanding of how we can play within the rules and make sure we’re prepared to do that.’’

As part of the effort to show players and coaches what the officials will be looking at on that front, officials will visit each team in the preseason. Several of the league’s officials will be at the Broncos complex next week to break it all down during video sessions as well as on-field during several practices.

But the Broncos didn’t sign the likes of cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward in the secondary because they’re interested in playing back on their heels. Denver is looking to make life far more difficult for opposing receivers, who were too often allowed to get free releases off the line of scrimmage and run free beyond the coverage.

Some of the issues were traced directly to injuries – five defensive starters were on injured reserve by season's end, including Harris Jr. and safety Rahim Moore in the secondary alone. But many personnel executives around the league simply believed the injuries showed the Broncos didn’t have championship level depth and lacked team speed at the defensive skill positions once the second- and third-teamers were forced into the lineup.

Overall the team was 27th in pass defense in the regular season, surrendered an alarming 61 pass plays of at least 20 yards – an enormous jump from 38 such plays surrendered in the 2012 season – and data from ESPN’s Stats & Information group shows the Broncos allowed 58 completions on passes that traveled at least 15 yards in the air before being caught, tied for fourth most in the league.

The Broncos believe a healthy Von Miller to go with free-agent signee DeMarcus Ware in the pass rush will help significantly, given the best pass defense is often played by those defenses that are the most proficient at preventing the quarterback from throwing the ball.

Del Rio, however, said he believes the Broncos' defensive coaches have a good idea on what the boundaries are going to look like in pass coverage in the coming season. Asked Saturday if he felt like he had a good understanding of what would constitute illegal contact or defensive holding, Del Rio said, “I do, based on what I heard when they came through [earlier in the offseason]. [The officials will] be in next week, and we’ll get a better feel for it as they work with us in practice. It’s always beneficial for us.’’

Del Rio added: “You know there are things that are going to be emphasized. Depending on how that goes—if the emphasis results in a five hour game, then they probably would de-emphasize it. Again, I don’t think I need to worry about that kind of thing. It typically takes care of itself. We just make sure, as coaches, that we instruct the best we can so guys are well-prepared.’’

But it’s an issue that’s going to come up, and come up quickly, with quarterbacks like Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Carson Palmer, Colin Kaepernick, Philip Rivers and Tom Brady all on the Broncos’ schedule in the season’s first eight games.
For the second consecutive season, the Denver Broncos watched all they had done in a 13-3 season get shoved aside and stuffed out of sight by a stunning end to their football year.

In 2012, it was the shocking double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens, and this time it was a mauling at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII.

After several looks at the video, as well as discussions with NFL pro personnel executives from both conferences, here is a report card for the 2013 team.

There is no grading on a curve. A's, as always, are far more difficult to earn than a Pro Bowl slot. Grades were awarded to the players on the Broncos' season-ending, 53-man roster and starters who suffered season-ending injuries after playing at least four games.

It is, however, not a Super Bowl grade. The title-game meltdown is in there, but the body of work goes from the season opener to what transpired at MetLife Stadium.

Today, it's the defense's turn and Wednesday will bring special teams and injured players.

The scale:

A - Consistently dominant. What some personnel executives give a "blue" rating, a nod to veteran personnel evaluator Mike Giddings, a former Broncos assistant coach.

B - Productive starter/key situational player who could fit smoothly into almost any lineup in the league.

C - Did the job asked of him with consistency.

D - Substandard. Salary and playing time didn't match output.

PNP - Practice but not much play.

Defensive linemen

Robert Ayers: C-

Started fast during Von Miller's suspension to open season with 4.5 sacks in Broncos' first five games, but returned to largely rotational work upon Miller's return with one sack over final 11 games. Will be an unrestricted free agent.

Sione Fua: PNP

Signed in late November, he played sparingly in two games and was a gameday inactive the last five games, including all three postseason games. Ended the year with a calf injury.

Malik Jackson: B+

No player on the roster made more of the chance to turn a little playing time into a lot. Played both end and tackle to finish with just more than 52 percent of the defense's snaps on the season. Has the look of a versatile, long-term fit.

Terrance Knighton: A-

Was dominant in the weeks that followed Kevin Vickerson's hip injury and into the postseason. Consistently won on the inside, often beating double teams to do it. Even the Seahawks' power-based offense had a tough time dealing with him.

Jeremy Mincey: C+

Signed Dec. 17 and immediately put into the rotation up front. Played in final two regular-season games and all three playoff games. For a $229,412 salary cap charge, the Broncos got some quality snaps and a postseason sack -- against the San Diego Chargers.

Shaun Phillips: B+

Because of Miller's suspension to start the season and a season-ending knee injury to end it, as well as Derek Wolfe's illness, Phillips' role became far bigger, out of necessity, than the Broncos' envisioned. Led team with 10 sacks to go with two more in the playoffs, but at 770 snaps on defense in the regular season, he could have likely had more if they could have dialed back his early-down workload.

Mitch Unrein: C

Was one of the better value/performance players on the Broncos' roster with a $555,000 cap hit this past season. Played just under a third of the defensive snaps in the regular season on the interior. He's a role player who will be a restricted free agent.

Sylvester Williams: B

Finished the season on the upswing, showing the potential at times that made him the Broncos' first-round pick last April. Disruptive at times and when he adjusted to the strength of the guards across from him, had impact. Projects as a starter in '14.


Nate Irving: C+

Continued to struggle in training camp/preseason squaring up on blockers and getting free when the Broncos tried to play him in the middle, but performed better on the strong side when he had the opportunities with Miller out of the lineup. Was also second on the team behind tight end Jacob Tamme in special-teams tackles. Finished with 24.4 percent of the snaps on defense.

Steven Johnson: C

Did what was asked, especially on special teams, with a blocked punt returned for a touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles. Got in for one snap on defense against the Kansas City Chiefs and stopped running back Jamaal Charles for no gain on a third-and-goal play from the Broncos' 1-yard line. Prepares well and is consistently ready when called upon.

Paris Lenon: C+

Signed in August and the veteran was the answer at middle linebacker in base defense for the final four games of regular season and three playoff games. Position will be one of the major offseason targets.

Brandon Marshall: PNP

Late addition to the active roster -- Dec. 24 -- from Broncos' practice squad. Spent first 16 weeks of regular season on the practice squad.

Danny Trevathan: A

Stepped to the forefront and showed the potential to be a foundation player for the future. An every-down guy who led the defense in tackles (124, 41 more than the next player) and was second in snaps played (948 or 84 percent).

Wesley Woodyard: C

Was a frustrating year for Woodyard, who had difficulty in the eyes of many personnel executives, regaining his edge after he suffered a stinger against the Dallas Cowboys in October. Lost his starting job, but is a quality leader and played well at times in a situational role down the stretch. A captain for six seasons, will be an unrestricted free agent.

Defensive backs

Mike Adams: C

Played more, including in some of the Broncos' specialty packages, after Rahim Moore went to injured reserve. The Broncos are going to be looking for coverage help at the position and he is slated to be an unrestricted free agent.

Champ Bailey: C+

Not the season, nor the grade the 12-time Pro Bowl selection is used to. Struggled at times in his return from a foot injury that kept him out of all but five games in regular season. Played well inside at the nickel, but opposing offenses believe they can attack him on the outside now. May be right time to move to safety, but there's a $10 million salary-cap figure the team will likely want to address before any positional move comes up.

Omar Bolden: C

Moved to safety and the learning curve showed at times. But an offseason should help.

David Bruton: C+

Special-teams captain some time on defense (147 plays in all), including in a seven-defensive back look the team likes to play on longer down-and-distance situations.

Tony Carter: C-

Even with injuries at the position, saw his playing time go from at least 60 snaps in three of the first four games of regular season to four or fewer snaps in nine regular-season games. Quarterbacks increasingly sought him out in coverage.

Marquice Cole: PNP

Signed just before the AFC Championship Game, playing three snaps on special teams in Super Bowl.

Michael Huff: C

Signed the former Raiders' first-round pick on Nov. 17. Played in four games, including two playoff outings, sometimes as a weak-side linebacker in some of the specialty looks, and was in uniform for Super Bowl but did not play in the game.

Duke Ihenacho: C

Showed plenty of potential toward the line of scrimmage with some physical play. But opposing offensive coaches believed if they got him in coverage, they could find some room to work.

Quentin Jammer: C-

Tried at safety in training camp before he was moved back to cornerback. A classy veteran who found himself targeted by opposing passers man-coverage situations.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie: B

At times an athletic, fluid cornerback who has the look of an upper-tier player at the position. At other times -- certainly less with the Broncos than in his time with the Eagles -- his concentration seems to waver, even against receivers where he holds the athletic advantage.

Kayvon Webster: C+

Rookie showed plenty of potential and more than a little toughness when he played against the Chargers with a fractured thumb. Has the speed, the ability in press coverage and the confidence to rebound from the rough spots. Should be ready for more in '14.

How the Broncos handle trash talking

January, 29, 2014
Jan 29
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It's a free country, sure. Free speech is certainly covered in the Constitution and all.

Del Rio
But if the line is crossed and a player wanders into the too-much-free-speech, too-many-bad-decisions zone -- the kind that draws a penalty or negates a quality play -- there is a principal's office of sorts for the Denver Broncos. Most often a player's position coach is the first one on the scene, scowl at the ready, and that is the time when the bench becomes a powerful teaching tool.

Because the player is headed for it and likely won't find his way off it until there is some sort of mea culpa.

For defensive players, in particular, the hot zone is the few feet of gameday real estate next to defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. As linebacker Danny Trevathan said, "Coach Del Rio will let you know. He's not always out there, right up on you, but when he does you know, you probably need to listen."

Trevathan got his nationally televised earful from the former linebacker in the regular-season opener. It came in the seconds that followed Trevathan dropping the ball too early as he celebrated an interception he would have returned for a touchdown had he simply hung on to the ball. Instead, the Baltimore Ravens got the ball on the 20-yard line after a touchback.

For the Broncos, there may be no better example of their enforcement policy than a second-quarter play in the team's Nov. 17 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in Denver. With the Chiefs facing a second-and-8 play from the Broncos' 12-yard line, Denver forced an incomplete pass. But after Alex Smith's pass had sailed past Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles, Broncos safety Duke Ihenacho, with an official standing roughly two feet away, got right in Charles' face.

The trash talk quickly drew a taunting penalty that gave the Chiefs a first-and-goal at the Broncos' 6-yard line. The Chiefs scored a touchdown three plays later.

The penalty got Ihenacho on the express lane to the sideline, where Del Rio screamed "get him out of there" just seconds after the flag was thrown. Ihenacho was immediately taken out of the lineup and found himself in Del Rio's sphere of influence for a while instead of in the defensive huddle.

"I don't like seeing it," is how Del Rio described it. "... That's just silly. It's not necessary. Unsportsmanlike is what was called and it's unnecessary. He's a young player; we want to help him learn from that and hopefully we never have it ever again."

Added Broncos head coach John Fox: "Football is an emotional game, played by passionate people. But we also want our guys to understand the situation and that, at the end of the day, the object is winning and we need to do the things necessary to win. Winning is what's fun in this league and if something keeps you from winning, then that's not fun."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Defensive end Derek Wolfe continues to be the only player on the Broncos’ 53-man roster to be held out of practice, and even with several players receiving treatment, the Broncos remain a healthy group overall as they work toward Sunday’s divisional-round playoff game against the San Diego Chargers.

Wolfe has practiced just twice since Nov. 29 when he suffered “seizure-like symptoms’’ on the team’s bus ride to the airport for a trip to Kansas City. He took part in the Broncos’ Christmas Day practice, missed the next day with the flu and then practiced on a limited basis Dec. 27.

He has not practiced since.

The Broncos issued their first injury report of the week Wednesday and the only slight surprise was cornerback Champ Bailey's appearance with a shoulder injury. Bailey was a full participant in Wednesday’s practice and expected to play Sunday against the Chargers, but he has been getting treatment this week for a left shoulder injury.

Safety Duke Ihenacho and center Steve Vallos, who suffered concussions in the final weeks of the regular season, were cleared to fully take part in Wednesday’s practice and both should be available for Sunday’s game.

Defensive end Shaun Phillips, who was sent home Monday because he had arrived to work feeling ill and with a fever, practiced fully on Wednesday as well.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos will spend the rest of their postseason bye week cleaning up loose ends with some football self-examination. But they will also have to work through what-if scenarios along the way.

Overall, the Broncos were 3-3 this season against teams in the AFC's playoff field, with losses to the Indianapolis Colts, the New England Patriots and the San Diego Chargers.

With that in mind, here's a look at how they match up with each of their three possible divisional round opponents. Next up: The Chiefs.

How it happens: Chiefs beat the Colts on Saturday and the Cincinnati Bengals defeat the Chargers on Sunday.

Match game: Certainly NFL life is always about the matchups, but winning individual matchups, those 1-on-1 battles, has been a big part of both of the Broncos' wins against the Chiefs this season.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
John Rieger/USA TODAY SportsA three-wide receiver set helped the Broncos' Montee Ball to his first 100-yard rushing game in the second meeting with the Chiefs.
Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has taken an aggressive approach against Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. But along the way the Broncos were able to create the matchups they wanted because of the way Sutton used his personnel in the secondary. Sutton chose to play it straight and did not flip his cornerbacks to keep the bigger Sean Smith on the Broncos' Demaryius Thomas.

That's fine, plenty of team choose not to flip their cornerbacks against the Broncos' high-end passing attack with the thought that Manning will just send the ball elsewhere even if they did move people around. But against the Chiefs it meant Manning and Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase could essentially create the matchup they wanted exactly when they wanted it by lining up Demaryius Thomas or Eric Decker plenty over rookie cornerback Marcus Cooper.

Sutton also chose to double Wes Welker plenty in the middle of the field to try to take that avenue away from Manning, especially in the Dec. 1 game. The difference in the divisional round matchup would be tight end Julius Thomas.

Julius Thomas did not play in the December win in Kansas City so the Chiefs were able to limit Welker's impact to three catches for 38 yards. So, Thomas' presence changes things, especially as the Broncos continue to expand his role -- he has raised his level of consistency in recent weeks. It's the reason why Thomas will be an intriguing player to watch in any of the potential divisional round matchups for the Broncos, but his impact potential just might be the greatest against the Chiefs.

Make some room: Against the Broncos, the Chiefs played plenty of specialty looks on defense, usually the dime (six defensive backs). And that usually puts safety Eric Berry down toward the line of scrimmage lined up essentially as the Chiefs' weak side inside linebacker.

And there is a spot the Broncos would need to attack in the run game, but to do that they have to find a way to get Chiefs nose tackle Donatri Poe out of the way. It's why the Broncos' ability to run from the weak side, behind center Manny Ramirez and Zane Beadles, would help matters -- especially when they are in the five-man front in a three-wide receiver look with the tight end in the slot.

A two-tight end look could help matters with one down next to the tackle and the other lined up in the slot. It would potentially pull a linebacker out of the middle of the field, or at least a safety like Berry. But if an offense doesn't move Poe, it doesn't really matter what potential gaps are behind them because the ballcarrier doesn't get that far anyway.

The Broncos were cartainly committed to the idea as they ran the ball 36 and 31 times, respectively, against the Chiefs this season with rookie Montee Ball finishing out his first career 100-yard game in December. The majority of those carries came out of the three-wide receiver set for the Broncos, which put them in a position to run the ball against the Chiefs' dime look much of the time.

The Chiefs have made that work throughout the season against a variety of offensive sets because of the play in the defensive front, but if the Broncos carve out some space up front, there will usually be just one linebacker waiting at the second level with a host of defensive backs.

Keep the lid on: The Broncos have struggled with penalties for much of the season, but it was a particular problem against the Chiefs, with 13 and 10 penalties in the two meetings this season.

The 13-penalty outing Nov. 17 was particularly glaring because it included several non-contact penalties, including a misplaced taunting penalty from safety Duke Ihenacho after an incomplete pass on a second-and-8 play from the Broncos' 12-yard line in the second quarter. Not only did Ihenacho taunt Charles with the official nearby, 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.

In that game 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. The games with the Chiefs were physical, hard-nosed affairs and the Broncos would have to play with a little more discipline in a third meeting than they showed in the first two.

[+] EnlargeJulius Thomas
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesBroncos tight end Julius Thomas, who did not play against the Chiefs in December, has raised his level of consistency in recent weeks.
Stay in your lane: When the Chiefs made some running room against the Broncos defense this season, it was largely because Denver didn't quite get their run fits and they left a lane behind. And while it didn't always result in an issue against many offenses, the Chiefs don't need much room to get Jamaal Charles free so it usually only takes one stumble to do it.

There was the attempted spin move by rookie defensive tackle Sylvester Williams that left the gap for a 35-yard carry by Charles in the November game, or quarterback Alex Smith escaping for 46 rushing yards in December when the Broncos got a little too deep in the rush and allowed Smith an escape route.

Charles is always Job 1 against the Chiefs, but overall the Broncos simply can't afford mistakes in gap coverage that allow Charles or Smith to keep drives alive.

Stay in your lane II: Over the course of the season's second half the Broncos have had some uncharacteristic special teams bobbles. Whether it be Trindon Holliday mishandling a kick or lapses in coverage, the Broncos have not been themselves for much of the last two months.

That was no more evident than against the Chiefs. Kansas City's Dexter McCluster is likely the best punt returner, along with the Patriots' Julian Edelman, the Broncos faced this season. And while the Broncos kept McCluster in check in each meeting, Chiefs running back Knile Davis is the guy who dropped a 108-yard kickoff return on the Broncos in December.

The Broncos' coverage players are simply losing containment as they approach the returners and missing too many tackles once they get there.
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- The Denver Broncos wanted to end their workday against the Oakland Raiders with a victory to earn homefield advantage in the AFC playoffs, but they also wanted to stay as healthy as possible doing it.

They were able to do that for the most part in the 34-14 victory against Oakland. Safety Duke Ihenacho did leave the game with a concussion and will be evaluated on Monday as part of the league’s concussion protocol. Ihenacho would have to be symptom free Monday to take part in a full practice by Friday under the guidelines of the protocol.

It was the only injury the Broncos formally reported from the game.

With a bye week to open the postseason the Broncos still believe they are on track to get wide receiver Wes Welker back for their first postseason game, Jan. 12, in the Divisional round against the lowest seed remaining in the AFC’s playoff field. Welker made the trip with the team for Sunday’s game and practiced on a limited basis this past week.

Welker, who suffered a concussion just before halftime of the Broncos’ Dec. 8 victory over the Tennessee Titans, had not practiced since until this past Wednesday and has been held out of the last two games. Welker also suffered a concussion in the Broncos Nov. 17 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.

Before he can play in a game Welker would have to be declared symptom free by both the Broncos’ medical staff as well as a designated independent physician who has been approved by both the NFL and NFL Players Association.

“I think we’re getting healthier,’’ said wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. “We want everybody we can in the offense and you always want a player like Wes out there.’’

Defensive end Derek Wolfe is expected to practice at least some this week. The Broncos didn’t place Wolfe on injured reserve earlier this month when they added Jeremy Mincey to the roster and the Broncos have continued to express some optimism he could get back in the lineup in the postseason.

Wolfe practiced twice last week, Wednesday and Friday as he missed Thursday with the flu. Wolfe did not travel with the team for Sunday’s game. Wednesday’s practice was Wolfe’s first since suffering “seizure-like symptoms’’ Nov. 29 on the team’s bus ride to the airport in the days leading up to a Dec. 1 game in Kansas City.

Also, the Broncos held cornerback Kayvon Webster out of Sunday’s game, but expect to have him ready to go for the playoff game. Webster, who had surgery Dec. 13 to repair a fractured right thumb, practiced on a limited basis this past week.

Broncos Rewind: Defense, special teams

December, 15, 2013
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In a span of five days, the Broncos went from the AFC's top seed with a dominant win over the Tennessee Titans to a loss to the San Diego Chargers this past Thursday night that knocked them out of the inside lane for the No. 1 seed and added a question mark or two along the way.

The Broncos didn't handle their short week, prime-time appearance very well, with a one-dimensional look on offense that featured miniscule work in the run game to go with another tough night for a beleaguered defense still looking for answers.

And after a long look at the video from Thursday night's loss, here are some thoughts on the team's defense and special teams:
  • Broncos rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster has taken plenty of heat for his work in the loss and some of it is deserved as part of the growing pains that come with the position for first-year players. His technique is spotty at times, particularly when he tries to press a receiver as he often surrenders too much room to the inside or outside, depending on his positioning. If he's going to line up tight, he can't give the receiver an escape route. But Webster was also a victim of Philip Rivers' accuracy. Rivers' 14-yard completion to Vincent Brown in the first quarter, the 12-yard completion to Eddie Royal in the second quarter, the 10-yard touchdown throw to Keenan Allen in the second quarter, and the 32-yard completion to Brown in the third all had plenty in common. First, Rivers hammered away at the rookie as veteran quarterbacks will do -- i.e. Manning, Peyton on Cooper, Marcus. Second, Webster's positioning has him in tight on many of the completions, the ball was simply in the best spot. On the touchdown to Allen – the non-hurdling touchdown for the Chargers rookie – Webster even, as defensive backs coaches say, has his hand “in the pocket'' in between Allen's hands. But Allen won the battle for the ball with quality hand strength. Yes, the rookie has some rough edges and yes any quarterbacks the Broncos see in the postseason will have more than enough ability to come after him again. But he's a prospect with potential who kept playing with a fractured thumb who didn't fare as badly as some Twitter rants would seem to indicate.
  • The bigger concern for the Broncos is what to do in their specialty looks on defense. They consistently rush the passer well out of their nickel and dime packages as well as a seven-defensive back look because of the variety of fronts they present and the variety of places in the formation the rushers can come from. But to make it work, they have to hold up in the secondary. And opposing quarterbacks have started to single out the safeties in coverage in those looks, especially if they can get the matchup they want on Duke Ihenacho. Rivers went after Ihenacho plenty, especially if the Chargers were able to get tight end Antonio Gates or tight end Ladarius Green singled up with room to work. Ihenacho took a pass interference penalty in the fourth quarter when he grabbed Green's jersey as Ihenacho trailed the play. Gates had a 14-yard catch in the first quarter to go with a 9-yarder in the third quarter to convert a third-and-6 with Ihenacho in tow. The Broncos have taken Ihenacho out of the base defense already, but when he joins the specialty looks, now the dime (six defensive backs) or the seven-defensive back looks, quarterbacks have located him quickly.
  • The Chargers made plenty of room to run against some of the Broncos' specialty looks as well. On back-to-back plays in the third quarter, the Chargers got bigger-on-smaller matchups to win the play. On a second-and-6 play, with the Broncos in their nickel (five defensive backs) that includes three linebackers as well, Chargers rookie tackle D.J. Fluker went to the second level and plowed over linebacker Danny Trevathan as Danny Woodhead had an 8-yard gain. On the following play, with the Broncos in the same personnel grouping, Denver lined up Shaun Phillips and Von Miller as stand-up linebackers to the defensive right and left respectively around three down defensive linemen. Cornerback Chris Harris was lined up behind Miller a bit because the Chargers did not have a slot receiver in the formation, but had two tight ends to Miller's and Harris' side. As the play flowed to the defensive right, Miller missed a tackle after he couldn't shed the block as he's was being shoved by Chargers tight end John Phillips, Harris was kicked out of the play and center Nick Hardwick was well down the field to pick up safety Omar Bolden. The result was a 23-yard run by Ryan Mathews.
  • The Broncos weren't able to consistently get the stops they needed when the Chargers had a short field. In the second quarter, when the Broncos' offense put up three consecutive three-and-outs, the Chargers got the ball on the San Diego 45-yard line and the Broncos' 43-yard line after the second and third of those three-and-outs. The Broncos forced a punt when San Diego got the ball on the 45, but didn't fare as well when San Diego took over on the Broncos' 43. The Chargers' drove seven plays for a touchdown.
  • The Broncos had some issues with the comeback-crushing penalty on linebacker Nate Irving on a punt in the fourth quarter. The Broncos, trailing 24-10, appeared to have forced a punt with the Chargers facing a fourth-and-4 with 8:28 to play in the third quarter. Chargers punter Mike Scifres was set to punt from his own end zone and the Broncos were set to get the kind of field position they had not had for much of the night. Instead, Irving was called for a neutral-zone infraction that gave the Chargers a first down. San Diego went on to hold the ball for almost seven more minutes before the Broncos forced another punt, seven minutes that would have come in handy in what turned out to be a seven-point loss. The Broncos believe long-snapper Mike Windt picked up the ball and set it back down before picking it up again to snap. Irving jumped at the first movement. The video confirmed Windt did pick the ball up -- he picked it up slightly and tapped the nose of the ball on the ground before he set it back down to pick it up again to snap. In the end Irving was likely drawn off by the first movement, which by the letter of the law isn't allowed, but the penalty is still inexcusable in that situation, even if the Broncos were set to rush Scifres hard to try to get the block.
  • The Broncos' special-teams units were among the league's most productive and disciplined in the early going this season. And Matt Prater's 64-yard field goal against the Titans was a league record. But like Irving's penalty, the group was undone late by fundamentals. Recovering an onside kick is difficult enough these days with recent rules changes to take away the re-dos as well as prevent over-loading one side of the formation. But in the final seconds Thursday, the Broncos didn't even give themselves a last-chance gasp because Prater's attempt didn't go the required 10 yards.

Rapid Reaction: Denver Broncos

December, 12, 2013

DENVER – A few thoughts on the Denver Broncos' 27-20 loss to the San Diego Chargers:

What it means: When quarterback Peyton Manning and many of his teammates said they didn’t like Thursday night games, they meant it. The Broncos looked woozy for much of this one, with poor decisions, ill-timed penalties and their most sluggish outing of the season, one that ended a 13-game regular-season home winning streak. And the loss certainly didn’t do them any favors in the race for home-field advantage in the AFC given that the New England Patriots hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Stock watch: The Broncos came into the game having surrendered at least 17 points in every game this season, and while public opinion about their defense couldn’t have been much lower than it's been of late, the group took yet another dip in this loss. The Broncos struggled mightily in both their base look and their specialty packages as Chargers coach (and former Broncos offensive coordinator) Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt consistently put them on their heels.

Bad timing: Already trailing 24-10 and needing as much time on the clock as possible to get back into it, the Broncos showed a remarkable lack of discipline. On a fourth-and-4 with 8 minutes, 28 seconds left in the third quarter, they handed the Chargers a gift-wrapped first down when Nate Irving was called for a neutral-zone infraction on a punt. The Broncos were later penalized for having 12 men on the field because the defense couldn’t work out its substitutions. As a result, the Broncos didn’t get the ball back again until there was 1:32 left in the third quarter. As it turned out, those were seven minutes they could have used.

Find the young guys: It’s pretty clear how offenses have decided to attack the Broncos' secondary. They’re going to find rookie Kayvon Webster in coverage outside, and when they can isolate safety Duke Ihenacho in the middle of the field in coverage, they’re going there. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers repeatedly worked over Webster, especially after the Broncos elected to match up Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on Keenan Allen. Rivers kept swinging away at the rookie, and then would go at Ihenacho when the Broncos were in six- or seven-defensive-back packages. It's one of the reasons the Broncos have moved Omar Bolden into Ihenacho's spot in the base defense.

What’s next: With the regular-season home schedule in the books, the Broncos get an extended break before they head to Houston to face the 2-11 Texans, who have already fired Gary Kubiak as coach. The Texans have the No. 2 pass defense in the league (183.6 yards allowed per game), but the Broncos are going to need to reset themselves and get back to business.
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." 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.

Woodyard, Ihenacho caught in shuffle

December, 9, 2013
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- They are already the highest-scoring team in the franchise’s history, are in the top spot in the race for home-field advantage in the AFC, but that doesn’t mean the Denver Broncos aren’t still searching for answers on a defense that hasn't yet found a groove to match the team's record-setting offense.

And in Sunday’s win against the Tennessee Titans, that meant dialing back one of the team captains in linebacker Wesley Woodyard. Woodyard and safety Duke Ihenacho were nudged down the depth chart a bit as Paris Lenon started at middle linebacker in Woodyard’s place and Omar Bolden played much of the day in what had previously been Ihenacho’s strong safety spot.

[+] EnlargeStevan Ridley
John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesBroncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard, 52, has seen his snaps decrease as the team gives more playing time to veteran Paris Lenon.
The issue is the Broncos continue to surrender too many points for anyone’s liking at their Dove Valley complex as the postseason approaches. They have surrendered at least 17 points in every game this season, and are 26th in the league in scoring defense (26.5 points allowed per game), 25th in total yards allowed per game and 29th in passing yards allowed per game.

“I thought we put some guys and plugged them in,’’ said Broncos coach John Fox on Monday. “ … Paris Lenon, again he’s a veteran guy and he’s played a lot of football, and we haven’t given him a lot of opportunities. Some of this is giving guys opportunities to see what they can do. We try to get better every day and every week as we move closer to the end of the season. I think it just helps us. Our agenda is to get better every day, that’s what we’re trying to do.’’

After he missed two games with a neck injury (a stinger) he suffered in the win in Dallas, Woodyard returned to play 71, 71, 78 and 87 plays in the next four games, respectively. Some with the team believed the injury was affecting Woodyard’s play to some degree, and already undersized at middle linebacker at 233 pounds, the Broncos have tried to regulate his snap counts. Woodyard had been moved from his more natural weakside linebacker spot into the middle earlier this season when neither Stewart Bradley nor Nate Irving were able to keep the job.

Woodyard played 49 of 72 defensive snaps against the Chiefs two weeks ago and played just 10 snaps on defense Sunday to go with 18 plays on special teams. The team put Lenon into the base 4-3 defense for the most part, and he was in the middle for 23 plays against the Titans, finishing with three tackles. Lenon is slightly bigger (240 pounds) than Woodyard and has far more experience at the middle linebacker spot in his previous 11 seasons in the league.

Some of it could have been in the matchup as well, as the Titans run far more two-back and two-tight-end looks -- often at the same time -- than many teams do. Even if the Broncos wanted to keep Lenon in the middle in the base defense, Woodyard will still play plenty when the Broncos are in their specialty packages with Woodyard and Danny Trevathan as the two linebackers.

“Wesley Woodyard is a great player for us and he’s done a tremendous job,’’ Fox said. “Wesley Woodyard’s fine. He’s going to play a lot of football for us moving forward … It’s that the other guys have earned opportunities, and the more guys that you can call on, the better it is for your football team.”

Following the Broncos’ 51-28 win, Fox said Woodyard had been “rested a bit’’ in the game. Asked Monday to clarify, Fox said: “He had a type of injury that can affect you … It’s not so much just about that, it’s part of it, but basically the situation is giving other guys opportunities that we feel like have earned them.”

Bolden arrived in the 2012 draft class as a cornerback for the Broncos, but they have played him at safety at times this season because they like his coverage skills, and his physical play around the line of scrimmage when asked to tackle in the run game. Bolden earned Sunday’s playing time with his work in practice, and opposing offenses had increasingly gone after Ihenacho in coverage in recent games.

Bolden played 41 snaps on defense Sunday -- 82 percent of the Broncos’ total and most of them plays when the Broncos were in their base defense -- while Ihenacho played 21 as the Broncos used plenty of six- and seven-defensive-back looks in the game.

Broncos give cold shoulder to Titans

December, 8, 2013
videoDENVER -- When the mercury can crawl only to 18 degrees at kickoff, everything is cold -- frozen hard like stone -- including the facts.

And on a frigid, largely windless day, the fact is some folks just may have to rethink the whole Peyton-Manning-in-the-cold thing, at least a little bit. The fact is the Denver Broncos lead the league in scoring with 515 points, Sunday's 51-28 victory against the Tennessee Titans was the Broncos’ third 50-point effort of the season and they have already set a single-season scoring record for the franchise with three games remaining.

The fact is the Broncos still have the inside track for a division title and the coveted No. 1 seed in the AFC. The fact is their defense still needs some attention. The fact is injuries that have eroded the defense have taken a bite out of the special teams units as well.

And the bottom-line fact to all of that -- 11-2 is still 11-2.

"It’s winning. I don’t care if you win by five or 50 to be honest with you," Broncos coach John Fox said. "This game is only fun if you win and it doesn’t matter if you’re playing it, coaching it, or probably being a fan of it."

So when it’s right-down-to-the-bone cold, as it had been all week in Denver, including Sunday, the fun of winning comes when you line up, mano a mano and ... throw it 59 times. Manning finished with a franchise record 39 completions on a record-tying 59 attempts for 397 yards and four touchdowns.

And after days’ worth of debate over his below-freezing worthiness and with little or no wind to impede him, Manning was not sacked, did not throw an interception and pushed his season touchdown total to 45 with three games to play. The league’s single-season record of 50, set by Tom Brady in 2007, is now within his expansive reach.

Asked following the game if he felt like he had sent a message against the Titans, Manning said: "I wasn’t trying to answer it because I didn’t give it any validation in the first place. We had a good plan and I thought we threw the ball well and guys caught the ball well."

"I’m sure he’s tired of hearing it," Broncos tight end Julius Thomas said of all of the cold-weather talk. "He’s been playing great all season, he’s been playing great his entire career and just to hear people nit-picking about something like the cold, for him to be able to come out there and put 50 on the board and put that whole cold thing to bed, I’m sure he’ll be happy to see that behind him tomorrow."

But more importantly for the Broncos, their offense was again the trump card. Because for all the Broncos have done this season, they don’t always come out of the blocks with their best and Sunday was the fourth time they have trailed by at least 11 points and eventually won. They trailed 14-0 in Dallas, but won 51-48; trailed the Redskins 21-7, but won 45-21 with a 31-point fourth quarter; trailed 21-7 to the Chiefs in Arrowhead last weekend, but won 35-28; and trailed the Titans 21-10 Sunday before finally getting the pedal to the floor.

"We know what we have the capability and potential to do," Julius Thomas said. "All year we’ve been proving if we get things going we can be explosive and put points up on that scoreboard."

So, depending on which side of the half-full glass discourse you come down on it means the Broncos fast-lane work on offense can iron out their wrinkles or the reasons for those slow starts, especially those last two, are cause for at least a raised eyebrow if not some outright concern. A week ago in Kansas City it was two interceptions by Manning, a defense that couldn’t turn the Chiefs away following the mistakes and a 108-yard kickoff return by Kansas City’s Knile Davis that powered the Chiefs early.

Sunday it was two long drives by the Titans -- a five-play, 73-yard affair to go with an eight-play, 89-yard effort -- to go with a 95-yard kickoff return that led to a one-play scoring drive that had the Titans in front. An injury-riddled defense was also turned over a bit by defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, who kept starters such as Wesley Woodyard and safety Duke Ihenacho on the sideline for much of the day.

Fox said following the game Woodyard was "rested a bit" because of a neck injury he suffered earlier this season, but both Woodyard and Ihenacho were used on special teams plenty as they watched Paris Lenon and Omar Bolden, respectively, play in their spots on defense. And while the final numbers won’t raise too many red flags overall -- 254 total yards for the Titans, 152 of those in the first half -- the starts are an issue as was the 24-point lead that got away against the Patriots.

"We took a look at some other guys a little bit [Sunday] to develop that throughout the rest of the season," Fox said. "We’re not satisfied at this point, there’s room for improvement and I’m not ashamed to say it."

The roster juggling on that side of the depth chart has leaked into the Broncos’ special teams units, which opened the season with two blocked punts and two touchdown returns by Trindon Holliday, who didn’t play Sunday because of a shoulder injury, in the season’s first month. Leon Washington’s 95-yard return in the first quarter put the Titans on the 3-yard line in the first quarter. The Broncos also had a 104-yard touchdown return by Andre Caldwell called back because of a penalty on rookie Kayvon Webster. It’s all part of the can-they-win-it-all tapestry wrapped around the Broncos these days.

"There's no exhaling," Broncos linebacker Von Miller said. "Just keep pushing and pushing each week."

"And we’re 11-2," defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. "We know there are things we need to do better, and we will. But we’re 11-2, and that’s just a fact."

Rapid Reaction: Denver Broncos

December, 8, 2013

DENVER -- A few thoughts on the Denver Broncos' 51-28 win over the Tennessee Titans:

What it means: With the win, the Broncos, in largely throw-first mode for much of the day despite a kickoff temperature of 18 degrees, kept their hold on the top spot in both AFC West as well as the race for home-field advantage in the AFC. The Broncos are 11-2, with the New England Patriots (10-3) and Kansas City Chiefs (10-3) right behind in the AFC. The Broncos have swept the Chiefs already this season.

Stock watch: It always seems to come down to a kicker at some point in the postseason for any Super Bowl hopeful, and the Broncos continue to feel good about the range and accuracy of Matt Prater, even in a season when the Broncos have scored so many touchdowns. His NFL-record 64-yard field goal on the last play of the first half was his 20th made field goal of at least 50 yards in his career with the Broncos.

Mix it up: With injuries starting to impact the depth chart on defense, the Broncos continue to search for answers on that side of the ball. They used a variety of personnel groupings that didn't include two of their starters much of the time. Linebacker Wesley Woodyard and safety Duke Ihenacho were replaced by Paris Lenon and Omar Bolden, respectively, much of the time in the base 4-3 defense. Woodyard and Ihenacho were not injured and played regularly on special teams. The Broncos also used Quentin Jammer at cornerback in the base defense in place of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

Both sides of the coin: The Broncos keep hoping linebacker Von Miller can consistently be the kind of impact player he was last season. Miller took a terrible roughing-the-passer penalty in the second quarter, a clear helmet-to-helmet hit on Titans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick that likely will cost Miller some money. But he also tipped a pass in the third quarter that resulted in an interception and forced a Chris Johnson fumble in the fourth quarter that safety Mike Adams recovered. He added a sack.

What's next: A battered and bruised team gets a short week late in the season. The Broncos host the San Diego Chargers on Thursday, a game Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker is unlikely to play in after leaving Sunday's game with a concussion.

Broncos' defense is found and then lost

November, 25, 2013
Rob GronkowskiStew Milne/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos allowed Rob Gronkowksi and the Patriots to erase a 24-point deficit in the second half.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In the end, the Denver Broncos had some of their own medicine shoved down their throats Sunday night.

Yes, a team that launched itself on an 11-game win streak in 2012 after erasing a 24-point lead in San Diego just over a year ago, got to see how the other half lives at Gillette Stadium. After a half of football in which the Broncos' defense was a swirling, playmaking, turnover-forcing machine, all involved were forced to come in from the cold in the early morning hours after letting one get away in overtime, 34-31 to the New England Patriots.

"We just didn’t get enough stops," cornerback Chris Harris said. "We didn’t get those stops we usually get. We are usually good about forcing teams to kick field goals, even if they get a short field or whatever, but we kept giving Tom Brady touchdowns."

It was the first time any team quarterbacked by Peyton Manning lost a lead of more than 22 points to lose a game. It was the biggest comeback in Patriots history. It was an improbable flip-flop after a short trip to the locker room for halftime.

Cornerback Tony Carter, who was the player lined up across from Baltimore's Jacoby Jones on the game-tying play last January, the play that will always raise the hackles of the Broncos faithful, was the player in the wrong place at the worst of times in the closing minutes of overtime Sunday night.

A New England punt with 3 minutes, 11 seconds remaining in the extra period, after the Broncos' defense got the kind of stop that had eluded them for much of the third and fourth quarters, bounced off Carter’s leg and was recovered by the Patriots on the Broncos’ 13-yard line. Three plays later, Stephen Gostkowski kicked the game-winning field goal.

Wes Welker, back to field the punt, had tried to wave everyone off just before the ball hit the ground, yelling “Peter, Peter’’ -- the Broncos' code word to stay away.

"I was just kind of blocking my guy, and at the last second I heard the call," Carter said. "I was trying to get out of the way and felt [the ball] hit my leg. It was just one of those deals, I was hoping it wasn’t the ball. That’s all, I was just hoping it wasn’t the ball."

And while it was Carter’s play that turned out to be the exclamation point on an OMG night for the Broncos, the heartbreak can be traced to some ill-timed turnovers by an offense that surrendered one too many short fields to Brady, but most of all to a defense that lost its mojo once the second quarter ended.

On the Patriots' first three possessions of the game, the Broncos’ Von Miller returned a fumble 60 yards for a touchdown; Miller sacked Brady, forcing a fumble that led to a second Broncos touchdown; and Duke Ihenacho forced a fumble that led to a Matt Prater field goal.

In 12 minutes of game time the Broncos had scored 17 points and the defense had three takeaways. For 12 minutes they were the defense that made the Broncos far more than just another pretty face that could only throw the ball and win games on sun-splashed days. They were the turnover-forcing, Miller-time defense that could rattle even a quarterback headed to Canton.

And then they were not. Then Brady found tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had one catch in the first half and six after halftime, including a touchdown. Then Brady had time to throw. After being sacked three times in the first half, the Broncos didn’t get him again for the remainder of the game.

With the Broncos working plenty of one-on-one coverages, Brady made a concerted effort to get the ball out more quickly after halftime. He targeted Gronkowski far more often, and the Patriots tried to create more traffic in their routes to shake free from the Broncos' defenders. So when Miller and the rest of the pass rush didn’t get there, the completions followed.

"[We] played a lot of tight coverage, did a couple things with pick routes, wheel routes, and they started to take advantage of some of that," Broncos interim coach Jack Del Rio said. "But nothing we didn’t see in the first half, nothing we didn’t handle better in the first half."

"We didn’t do enough," Harris said. "We feel like we let one slip away for sure."

So, for all the Broncos have done this season -- they are still the highest-scoring team in the league, with 123 points more than any other team -- they still have an enormous question mark as to whether they have the defense to win a postseason slugfest in an environment where water might freeze and things could get tight. About whether they could dig in and take down one of the game’s elite quarterbacks or a game-tested coaching staff on the opposing sideline.

Because they didn’t have it Sunday night. The past two times the Broncos have faced the Patriots right off Route 1, New England has churned out 444 and 440 yards of offense to go with 31 and 34 points. There is also the matter of the Ravens putting up 479 yards and 38 points in last January’s playoff game.

The Broncos showed they could run the ball, muscling up on offense when the situation called for it -- for 280 yards, with 224 by Knowshon Moreno -- even as Manning threw for just 150 yards, his lowest total since the 2009 regular-season finale.

"We’ll deal with this and learn what we can out of it," Del Rio said, "... learn the lessons that are there to be learned."

It was a tale of two halves for the Broncos on Sunday, but how the season's final chapters unfold, well, that just may be up to the defense. That same defense that simply has to find whatever it left behind on this frozen November night.

Broncos Rewind: Defense, special teams

November, 20, 2013
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).