Denver Broncos: Mitch Unrein

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Tucked within a long injury report as the Denver Broncos prepare for Sunday's regular-season finale against the Oakland Raiders was running back Ronnie Hillman taking part in his first full practice since he suffered a left foot injury Nov. 9 in the Broncos' first meeting of the season with the Raiders.

Hillman
It was also Hillman's first full practice since Nov. 7. Hillman has practiced at least some during the last two weeks, but has missed the six games since his injury.

And as defenses continue to pack the middle of the field to take away the Broncos' favorite routes in the passing game and crowd the line of scrimmage in the run game, Hillman's speed to the edge could be a welcome addition back into the offensive huddle.

"We've had a chance to watch him all week, participate and he's obviously further ahead than he was this time a week ago," said Broncos head coach John Fox following Wednesday's practice. "And the fact we're on grass, not on Astroturf, lot of variables, but I like what I see."

The Broncos have had a wave of illness go through the locker room in recent weeks with defensive end Derek Wolfe and quarterback Peyton Manning among those who have felt the effects.

Wednesday linebacker Lamin Barrow, defensive tackle Mitch Unrein and guard Manny Ramirez were all held out of practice because of illness. Linebacker Brandon Marshall (left foot) was also held out of practice.

Safety T.J. Ward (neck), who was injured in the fourth quarter of Monday's loss, took part in practice on a limited basis. Ward underwent X-rays at the stadium Monday night to go with some additional tests, including an MRI, on Tuesday after the team had returned to Denver.

Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (hip) and tackle Paul Cornick (toe on right foot) were also limited in practice.

The Broncos also listed 13 other players with injuries on the report who took part fully in Thursday's practice, including Manning (right thigh). Tight end Jacob Tamme, who has dealt with a rib injury in recent weeks, was listed with a foot injury and took part fully Wednesday.

Left tackle Ryan Clady (right thigh), wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (right ankle), tight end Julius Thomas (left ankle) and running back C.J. Anderson (left ankle) were also among the players who took part fully in Wednesday's practice.

Denver Broncos cut-down analysis

August, 30, 2014
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Most significant move: There were not many roster spots to be had when the Denver Broncos opened training camp, but right from the start it was clear their depth on the defensive line was far better than it was in 2013 and that a player who was previously a starter could certainly get caught in the squeeze. That player was Kevin Vickerson, who started 11 games last season for the Broncos and 41 games in his four seasons with the team. But the Broncos had at least some salary-cap concerns this time around and Vickerson’s $2.266 million cap figure to go with the play of Mitch Unrein, Marvin Austin and youngster Quanterus Smith cost Vickerson his spot. Unrein also played some at defensive end in the preseason, showing a little more versatility and the Broncos will save about $1.766 million against the cap with Vickerson’s release. The Broncos also had at least some long-term concerns about Vickerson’s hip, which he injured last Nov. 24 before going to injured reserve.

Undrafted not unwanted: Running back Juwan Thompson made it 11 years in a row the Broncos have had an undrafted rookie make the cut to 53 players. Thompson, part of a platoon system at Duke, consistently showed the well-rounded game the Broncos want from their backs throughout offseason workouts and training camp. At 225 pounds, he is the team’s biggest back, has lined up at both fullback and running back, shown good instincts in pass protection and catches the ball. He's just the kind of guy the Broncos want at the position, and he gives them quality special teams ability as well.

Stick to it: Ben Garland, after two years on the Broncos’ practice squad, a two-year active duty stint in the Air Force and a position switch from defensive tackle to the offensive line this past offseason, made the Broncos’ initial cut to 53. Garland is always the first volunteer for off-the-field community appearances and routinely has lined up on both sides of the ball for the scout team. He steadily worked his way up the depth chart to second-team guard by the end of the preseason. He played every offensive snap in the Broncos’ preseason finale against the Dallas Cowboys.

What’s next: Because of their Super Bowl appearance, the Broncos sit at No. 31 in the waiver claim order. It means, save for a cursory look at a returner or a kicker -- they worked out Andrew Furney on Satuday -- they will likely go with what they have.

Broncos moves: K Matt Prater placed on reserve/suspended. DE Kenny Anunike placed on injured reserve. LB Shaquil Barrett, RB Kapri Bibbs, S John Boyett, QB Zac Dysert, LB L.J. Fort, WR Bennie Fowler, DT Sione Fua, S Duke Ihenacho, TE Jameson Konz, G Ryan Miller, TE Cameron Morrah, CB Jerome Murphy, T Vinston Painter, WR Nathan Palmer, C Matt Paradis, TE Gerell Robinson, DE Brian Sanford, DB Jordan Sullen, DT Vickerson and CB Lou Young were waived or released, depending on their experience level.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The Denver Broncos wrapped up their preseason Thursday night with the same major revelation they opened it with – that there isn’t much room on the depth chart for surprises and the land of opportunity is actually just a sliver of ground with room for a new backup or two to go with some special-teams players.

The Broncos are likely deeper than the team that lost Super Bowl XLVIII by 35 points as well as, front to back, top to bottom, more athletic as well.

Whether or not that translates into another shot at the title remains to be seen, but here are some final takeaways from the Broncos' summer work:

  • [+] EnlargeBradley Roby
    Jack Dempsey/AP PhotoThe Broncos threw a lot at rookie cornerback Bradley Roby, and his mental toughness showed in training camp.
    It’s often difficult for rookie to carve out meaningful snaps on a team like the Broncos, but if the preseason is an indication the Broncos are going to get quality time from cornerback Bradley Roby (first round), wide receiver Cody Latimer (second round) and linebacker Lamin Barrow (fifth round) while Michael Schofield (third round) nudged his way into a backup tackle spot. Roby will get plenty of work in the team’s specialty packages and perhaps his best attribute beyond his obvious height/weight/speed numbers has been when the Broncos offense picked on him in practice, he kept his head, kept lining up and battling. The fruits of those labors will be in his playing time, because he showed the kind of mental toughness some had openly wondered he had before the draft. And Latimer will, and should, get some premium work in the offense. His routes still need some polish, but put him in a contested situation, as in the red zone, and he fights for the ball with tenacity. Barrow’s athleticism will get him on the field in some of the Broncos’ specialty work, especially until Danny Trevathan returns from a fracture at the top of his tibia.
  • No shock, but the Broncos are going to put up the points. The starting offense scored on six of 10 possessions in the preseason and against the Houston Texans, the group put up two touchdowns in the span of 62 seconds. It is unreasonable to believe they’ll reach the 600-point mark again – after all, the 2013 Broncos are the only team to reach that milestone in the league’s history – but early returns say they’ll have a few surprises, especially in the run game, that they haven’t shown in a game just yet. They showed some heavy formations – three- and four-tight-end looks – and in the preseason finale, even trotted out backup guard Ryan Miller, at 6-foot-7 and 320 pounds. In the passing game, new additions Emmanuel Sanders and Latimer give the Broncos the ability to create more difficult matchups in more places in the formation. They can run more players out of slot positions in the formations, out of a bunch look, and it will make it more difficult for defensive backs to disrupt their routes.
  • When the Broncos held plenty of folks out of Thursday night’s game, some of those “DNPs’’ are worth noting simply because it was an indication of their standing on this roster. Ronnie Hillman, who has clawed his way back into good graces after last season’s trek from starter to game-day inactive, did not play and is solidly in the No. 2 running back spot behind Montee Ball. Roby was also held out, as was cornerback Kayvon Webster, so your top four corners will be Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr., Roby and Webster, which is how the team has practiced in recent weeks since Harris returned to full participation. Also worth noting, in what has been the tightest position battle on the roster, the Broncos played defensive tackles Kevin Vickerson 39 snaps and Mitch Unrein 30 snaps in the fourth preseason game. Both players often worked with the starting defense last season.

W2W4: Denver Broncos

August, 28, 2014
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The Denver Broncos (2-1) meet the Dallas Cowboys (0-3) Thursday night (8 ET) in AT&T Stadium in the preseason finale for both teams.

1. Somebody, anybody: There is a bit of self-preservation at work, but if it's not already too late, somebody on the Broncos' roster has to show the coaching staff he can catch a punt with some reliability and perhaps provide some impact in the return game along the way. Otherwise, the chances of the Broncos combing the list of transactions in the coming days to bring in a returner go up significantly. And if they bring somebody in, that means a Broncos player will have the unkindest cut of all -- one where you think you made the 53-man roster only to be released a day later. But since Jordan Norwood's season-ending knee injury, nobody has shown they can consistently make the plays fielding punts.

2. Tough decisions: It will bear watching which veterans, who don't project to be in the team's starting lineup, get the DNPs (did not play) in this one. Often those are players the team is considering releasing and do not want to suffer an injury that would require a settlement or a stint on injured reserve. The Broncos still have some roster spots in play, especially on the defensive line where things will be the tightest. If the Broncos keep just eight in the defensive front, and that is still the most likely scenario, Kevin Vickerson and Mitch Unrein could be playing for the last spot in the position group. It is a testament to the difference in depth on this roster and last year's given that both players were regulars in the rotations last season.

3. His night: The Broncos will not play any of their regulars in this one, so backup quarterback Brock Osweiler will get perhaps his most extensive work of the preseason. Granted, he hasn't played behind the starting offensive line or with the team's starting receivers, but he's completed just 55.6 percent of his passes in three preseason games -- 36 plays against the Seattle Seahawks, 24 plays each against the San Francisco 49ers and the Houston Texans. He has flashed a power arm and shown progress in how he runs a challenging offense. But he still needs to be more settled in the pocket, feel pressure sooner and slide to make throws. He's still too quick to run if things break down even a little and learn a lesson Peyton Manning has always said was one of the most important as a young quarterback, "that a punt is not necessarily a bad play," so he doesn't force a ball into coverage when he doesn't have to.
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.

Miller
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.
The Denver Broncos didn't take the biggest step in protecting cornerback Chris Harris Jr. from any interested suitors, but they did place the second-highest tender available on the restricted free agent.

Harris Jr. will have a one-year deal worth $2.187 million in 2014. Other teams can still sign him to an offer sheet, but the Broncos have the right to match any offers. If Denver did not match any offers for Harris Jr., the Broncos would receive a second-round pick in return from the team that signed him.

Harris Jr. is recovering from ACL surgery -- the ligament was not completely torn, however -- and the Broncos are optimistic he will contribute in the 2014 season. A player who originally made the team as an undrafted rookie in 2011, Harris Jr. has progressed into the most versatile defensive back on the roster, having played both in the slot and on the outside.

His coaches consistently laud his competitiveness and ability match up with both speed receivers and the bigger, more physical receivers as well. And if his recovery stays on track the Broncos are expected to work toward a longer-term deal for Harris Jr. after next season when he will be eligible to be an unrestricted free agent.

If Harris Jr. was not coming off knee surgery and was unquestionably going to be ready for the entire 2014 season the Broncos would have likely had to consider using the highest tender on him -- a one-year deal worth $3.113 million that carries a first-round pick as compensation.

The Broncos also placed a one-year, $1.431 million tender on defensive tackle Mitch Unrein, who is a restricted free agent as well. That tender comes with “original-round'' compensation, but since Unrein signed as an undrafted rookie when he entered the NFL the Broncos would not receive any compensation if they did not match any offer sheets Unrein were to receive.

The Broncos have also filed the paperwork on a one-year, $730,000 deal for cornerback Tony Carter for the '14 season.

The Broncos did not place a tender on kickoff returner Trindon Holliday as an exclusive rights free agent, so Holliday will free to sign with other teams when free agency opens Tuesday. It also means the Broncos are formally on the hunt for kickoff and punt returners.

Holliday had a roller-coaster ride in just under two seasons with the Broncos. He had six touchdown returns in 29 games with the Broncos, playoffs included. He had two kickoff returns and two punt returns for scores in regular-season games. In the playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens to close out the 2012 season he had a punt return and kickoff return for touchdowns.

But he also struggled to handle the ball at times. He muffed seven kickoffs or punts combined this past season and had limited impact down the stretch.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos held kicker Matt Prater out of Friday’s practice, the second consecutive day Prater was not on the field with the team.

“He’s got a virus, sickness,’’ said Broncos head coach John Fox.

Prater
Asked if Prater was too sick to practice or if he was held out of the team’s activities to keep other players from getting sick, Fox said; “A combination of both, like most sick players. We sent him to the doc. They deal with it, give him medication. He’ll be fine."

Prater is still slated to travel with the team Sunday to the New York/New Jersey area.

Prater led the NFL in touchbacks on kickoffs during the regular season and was 25-of-26 on field goal attempts in the regular season, including 6-of-7 from 50 or more yards. Prater is 5-of-6 in the postseason, including a 4-of-4 performance in the AFC Championship Game this past Sunday.

Also, Friday defensive tackle Sione Fua (calf) was held out of practice -- he was limited in Thursday’s practice -- while defensive tackle Mitch Unrein (knee) and running back Knowshon Moreno (ribs) were limited.

Unrein was held out of practice Thursday. Both Moreno and Unrein are expected to be available to play in Super Bowl XLVIII.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos head coach John Fox said Friday he expects defensive end Derek Wolfe to return to practice Monday.

And that would mean when the Broncos return to the practice field Monday they will have every player on the 53-man roster in uniform participating as they prepare for the divisional round. While that doesn’t help them bring back some of their front-line starters already on injured reserve like defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson and linebacker Von Miller, it does mean the current Broncos are about as healthy as they can be heading into the postseason.

Wolfe
Wolfe was the only player who did not take part in the team’s two practices this week.

The Broncos are on a bye in the wild-card round and will open postseason play Jan. 12 against the AFC’s lowest remaining seed in Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos did not have to release an injury report this week and Fox declined to say how much specific players worked in team drills this week.

But when asked about Wolfe following Friday’s practice, Fox said: "He’ll be back Monday."

Wolfe has not played since suffering "seizure-like symptoms" Nov. 29 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 last Friday.

Wolfe stayed home when the Broncos went to Oakland for the regular-season finale and has not practiced this week. In Wolfe's absence, Malik Jackson's snap count has risen some, as has Mitch Unrein's as the Broncos have had to mix-and-match a little more in the defensive front to replace Wolfe, who plays extensively at both defensive end and defensive tackle in the Broncos' variety of defensive looks.

Last season, Wolfe's rookie year, Elvis Dumervil was the only defensive lineman to play more snaps than Wolfe's 903, so his absence has forced plenty of adjustments.

The Broncos have put Wolfe through some conditioning work in recent weeks and the Broncos have seen enough to have kept him on the active roster to this point. But as far as how much he will play when he returns to the lineup is still to be determined.

Broncos Rewind: Defense, special teams

December, 4, 2013
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos put a firm grip on the AFC West race this past Sunday with their second win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the span of three weeks.

It's difficult to throw a new wrinkle at a division opponent, especially with just 14 days in between games, but the Broncos showed the Chiefs a little different look on both sides of the ball.

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:
  • Linebacker Von Miller has four sacks in the six games he has played for the Broncos since he returned from his six-game suspension to open the season. At times, especially in the first half against the New England Patriots he has looked every bit the All Pro he was last season when he finished with 18.5 sacks. And at times he has not. Sunday, he had several quality pressures, including on a Danny Trevathan interception that was negated by a penalty on Chris Harris Jr. as well as late in the game when Chiefs left tackle Branden Albert hyper-extended his knee trying to slow Miller down. He also had a tackle for loss and was often “impactful'' as defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio puts it. But in the end, at least at this stage of his return, Miller is a different kind of player than he was. He's looked different in practice and looked different in games. Personnel executives around the league now use words like “good'' and “potential Pro Bowl level,'' to describe him when last season they used words like “elite'' and “special.'' Miller is making his tackles close to the line of scrimmage or for loss and he is, at times, pressing the pocket and forcing offenses to adjust. But the game video shows a player more intent on playing with power, using the added bulk he intentionally put on his frame during his suspension. No question he is often good at the power game. He rushes with leverage, moves tackles back into the quarterback and gets the corner with a two-hand swipe to get the tackles hands off him right after the snap. But while good is good, Miller was an elite speed rusher in 2012, as in a rare talent, top of the line. And no matter the letter grades or numerical designations put next to what he's done thus far, the simple truth is, and many personnel folks around the league agree, he hasn't been elite yet for an entire game. Miller himself has said he's a “work in progress'' and the Broncos need some more progress.
  • There were times, particularly in the early going Sunday, when the Chiefs found some room to run against the Broncos' nickel package (five defensive backs). Included during that early damage was a 13-yard run by Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith and a 26-yarder by Smith. The Broncos have a slightly bigger nickel look they use with Quentin Jammer at one of the three cornerback spots and they fared better as the game wore on. Jammer, rookie Kayvon Webster and Harris Jr. were in the three cornerback spots in the nickel in much of the second half. It is something others will take a look at down the stretch, however. The Broncos will need safeties Duke Ihenacho and Mike Adams to be physical when they are asked to moved to the point of attack.
  • Not every team has a running back like Jamaal Charles, who was the top priority for the Broncos' defense in both the run game and the passing game. But the Chiefs were able to swing Charles out of the backfield at times to Miller's side to get Miller out of the pass rush. Miller was forced to go with Charles, leaving the Broncos with a three-man rush going after Smith. Miller played it well, however, and it is part of his overall game that has progressed a great deal since his rookie season when the Broncos would often pull him off the field on passing downs.
  • Without defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson -- he's now on injured reserve with a hip injury suffered in the loss to New England -- and defensive end Derek Wolfe in the lineup Sunday, the Chiefs often found a little room to work in the middle of the field. On a first-and-10 play from the Broncos' 37-yard line late in the first quarter, the Broncos were in a base defense with a bigger as they expected a run. Jammer and Harris were the two cornerbacks while Mitch Unrein and Terrance Knighton were the two defensive tackles with all three Broncos' starting linebackers in the formation as well. The Chiefs still carved out a lane and Knile Davis, who also had a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the game, went up the middle for 20 yards. With Vickerson out for the remainder of the season, it is a play -- an old school lead play in these pass-happy times -- that figures to get repeated from time to time in the coming weeks to see if the Broncos can hold their ground.
  • Davis' 108-yard kickoff return was the longest surrendered by the Broncos in the franchise's history and also the first one returned for a touchdown in Jeff Rodgers' tenure as the Broncos special teams coordinator. If you polled the Broncos players about who the team's fastest players are, safety David Bruton and cornerback Tony Carter are two of the names that would quickly come up. And it was Bruton and Carter who the 227-pound Davis ran away from to close the deal on the play. Davis did run a 4.37 40-yard dash at last February's scouting combine so he has top-tier speed. Davis also suffered a fractured ankle three times -- the right twice and the left once -- in a four-year span as he moved from his prep career to the University of Arkansas, so some teams did have a medical red flag on him coming into the draft.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In the tidal wave of touchdowns, passing yards and headaches the league’s elite quarterbacks have thrown at defensive coordinators far and wide, run defense can often get lost in all of the confetti tossed at the NFL's high-end passing games.

But in the current state of affairs run defense could decide how things go for a battered Denver Broncos defense over the last four weeks of the regular season. Especially given their current injuries in the defensive line.

“They’ll deal with it,’’ said defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson. “Everybody knows we don’t want to let that get away from us and those guys will deal with what they need to.’’

[+] EnlargeJack Del Rio
AP Photo/ Eric BakkeInjuries will force defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio to try some new combinations.
And that is one of the biggest issues in the Broncos’ run defense at the moment. The fact that Vickerson has to say things like “those guys,’’ as he guides his 330-pound frame around the locker room using a set of crutches. Vickerson, who has been an early-down stalwart in the Broncos defense, has been placed on injured reserve after suffering a dislocated hip in the overtime loss in New England.

The Broncos are also missing defensive end Derek Wolfe. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has always said while the team lists Wolfe as a defensive end, they ask Wolfe to look, play and act like a defensive tackle “about 80 percent of the time.’’ Wolfe is currently out as doctors try to find the cause of what the team has called “seizure-like symptoms’’ he suffered on the bus ride to the airport this past Friday.

Former Broncos cornerback Tracy Porter suffered a seizure in training camp last season, suffered the symptoms later in the season and was later put on injured reserve. The Broncos have said the cases are not the same, but some of the tests Wolfe has been given are similar.

Wolke spent the weekend in a Denver hospital before being released Monday and was at the team’s south suburban complex later in the day.

“They’re still running tests,’’ said Broncos head coach John Fox. “ … I think they’re still trying to get a handle on what happened and compare it. I’m not saying it’s nearly the same, but some of the same things we went through with Tracy Porter a year ago … Right now we’re not thinking about his availability or any of that stuff we’re just concerned about his health and medical people are working through that as we speak.’’

And from a football perspective the Broncos are a vastly different defense without Vickerson and Wolfe, at least that’s what opposing offensive coaches believe. Without the two in the lineup Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs pounded out 159 yards rushing, 46 of that from quarterback Alex Smith who was in escape mode at times.

While none of the Broncos four remaining regular-season opponents currently has a winning record, they will know an issue when they see it if the Broncos can’t tighten things up a bit. The Raiders, who the Broncos play in three weeks, are fifth in the league in rushing while the Chargers, a Thursday night opponent Dec. 12, have already rushed for 131 yards against the Broncos last month when both Vickerson and Wolfe were in the lineup.

Vickerson has always described his game as “big boy’’ and has been a key piece of Del Rio’s run defense up front. Vickerson played at about 290 pounds for then defensive coordinator Dennis Allen in 2011, but has played closer to 330 for Del Rio. Paired with Terrance Knighton in the base defense, the Broncos hoped to clog the middle and keep the blockers off their fleet set of linebackers.

“And those guys are my protectors,’’ said linebacker Wesley Woodyard. “(Vickerson) is a guy you want in there, but our other guys have to step up now.’’

Wolfe, too, has always been a key piece to Del Rio’s plan up front, given there’s almost no spot across the defensive front where Del Rio won’t play him. Wolfe routinely lines up at left defensive end on early downs, but moves inside to defensive tackle in pass rush situations. His absence vacates a lot of snaps in the defense.

Overall, in the 11 games Wolfe has played for the Broncos this season, only Shaun Phillips has played more snaps among the defensive linemen. Phillips played 554 plays in those 11 games while Wolfe played 553.

“If it means more on my plate, I’m good with that,’’ Knighton said. “We think we have the personnel to do what we need to, but we know the job too. You can’t expect the offense to go out there and throw five touchdowns every time. We have to get stops and get off the field.’’

Most of the early down work will fall to Mitch Unrein and rookie Sylvester Williams -- the two combined for four tackles in Sunday’s win in Kansas City. Malik Jackson probably will get most of the snaps when the Broncos go to more of a speed look in the nickel or dime packages. Unrein has battled his way up from the practice squad to a spot in the rotation in his career with the Broncos, but at 306 pounds, he is smaller at the point of attack than Vickerson, as is Williams, at 316 pounds.

“We think we have the kind of defense that can be there when this team needs us,’’ Vickerson said. “Those young guys know what’s needed, they can’t play like young guys now, it’s time.’’

Broncos-Chiefs matchup of the day

November, 28, 2013
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – It isn't really much of a question or mystery, not with Sunday being the second time in three weeks the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs will face each other. Not even Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles sees reason to believe otherwise.

“[The] key is to stop me … if you stop me, you can stop the whole team,’’ Charles said.

Charles
Charles has gained 37.4 percent of the Chiefs' yards on offense in their first 11 games – 918 yards rushing and 425 yards receiving – and his 253 touches represent 34.8 percent the plays the Chiefs have run. But that’s just the way first-year Chiefs coach Andy Reid wanted it. When Reid looked over the Chiefs' personnel both before and after he accepted the job, it was clear to him that Charles was just the kind of running-and-receiving threat he wanted in the offense.

“I thought he was a heck of a football player that can do a lot of things,’’ Reid said. “I looked back at the 2010 season, I believe it was, and Charlie Weis was here and he kind of flexed him out and moved him around a little bit and threw him the ball. You saw him run the ball quite a bit the last couple years, and then from the backfield when Charlie was here he moved him around a bit more and still ran the ball with him. You can see his flexibility there.''

And Reid saw in Charles another in a line of multitasking running backs he's had in his version of the West Coast offense. Reid has played Charles all over the formation, including out wide as a receiver and in the slot, along with everything Charles is asked to do when lined up in the backfield.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have that,’’ Reid said. “When I got to Philadelphia it started with Duce Staley, then [Brian] Westbrook, and [LeSean] McCoy. I’ve been blessed with versatile running backs.’’

The Broncos kept Charles largely under wraps in the first meeting earlier this month, even flashing a 3-4 look on defense at times to do it. Charles finished with 78 yards rushing and minus-6 yards receiving. Those 72 total yards represent Charles’ lowest output of the season.

The Broncos will be without defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, who went on injured reserve Wednesday with a right hip injury. Vickerson was a key piece of the Broncos’ run defense, and the Chiefs figure to test the middle of the formation to see if the Broncos’ are up to the task with either Mitch Unrein or rookie Sylvester Williams playing in Vickerson’s spot.

Vickerson, along with defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, kept the blockers off the Broncos linebackers, who are free to then flow to the play.

"It might put a little more on my plate, but that’s OK," Knighton said. "We know Charles is the key, you can’t ever let him get going."

Broncos now need Williams to grow up fast

November, 26, 2013
11/26/13
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson is certainly comfortable in his football skin and has never had any difficulty working through his job description in the team’s defense.

“Just be kind of that run guy in there, be physical, take on people, get to the ball,’’ Vickerson said. “And if I get a chance to get to the quarterback, get there, you know?’’

Now, and in the weeks to come, somebody else is going to have to do that job since Vickerson suffered a dislocated right hip as the third quarter drew to a close in Sunday night’s overtime loss to the New England Patriots. Vickerson got tangled up in the pile on a 2-yard run by the Patriots’ Shane Vereen with 23 seconds remaining in the third quarter.

[+] EnlargeSylvester Williams
John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty ImagesThe Broncos need Sylvester Williams (92) to step up in the absence of Kevin Vickerson.
He limped off the field without much help from the team’s trainers, but an MRI Monday revealed the damage. Vickerson will miss at least six weeks and the Broncos now face a decision about whether to carry him with a roster spot or to put him on injured reserve with just five games remaining in the regular season. The Broncos are leaning toward putting Vickerson on injured reserve and adding a defensive tackle to the roster, but were working through the decision Tuesday.

If they moved Vickerson to injured reserve, that would end the veteran's season as they’ve already used their one available spot on injured reserve for a player they can designate to return in safety Rahim Moore. Moore had surgery on his lower left leg last week.

The Broncos rotate plenty in the defensive front, based on a variety of down-and-distance situations, but Vickerson has been an early-down stalwart in their base defense as well as a nickel package they use often on first or second downs.

Vickerson has played between 29 and 42 snaps on defense in every game this season and overall has been in for 48.4 percent of the defensive plays this season, usually alongside Terrance Knighton in most situations. After Vickerson left Sunday’s game, the Broncos looked to Mitch Unrein and rookie Sylvester Williams to fill the gaps. The Broncos know what they get from Unrein, who they have groomed from a practice squad spot with the team early in his career. But Williams will have to lift his game some.

"Everybody knows, if you're in there, you have to play at the level we need,'' Knighton said. "Where we are in the season, what we want to get accomplished, these are big games, big snaps. We all are going to have to get the job done.''

The Broncos had high hopes in training camp that Williams would be an immediate part of the rotation up front, especially in some pass-rush situations, but that hasn’t materialized. He has struggled at times to hold his ground and not surrender a gap against the bigger, stronger, often quicker guards he has faced at the NFL level.

The Broncos like his progress and he has shown improvement, especially in his hand placement when he engages the blocker, but has been a game-day inactive three times this season, twice in the past four games. But a Broncos run defense that will face Jamaal Charles and Chris Johnson in the next two games needs Williams to show that improvement now. The Broncos had used Williams more against New England on Sunday night than they had previously this season, even before Vickerson’s injury.

Williams finished with 36 snaps on defense behind Vickerson’s 38 and Knighton’s 52 among the defensive tackles. It was the first time this season Williams had played more than 19 plays on defense.

Broncos' Rookie Report: Defense

October, 2, 2013
10/02/13
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Nobody said the NFL life would be easy and the Broncos first-year class continues to wrestle with the expectations that come with being part of an NFL roster as well as the difficulty in getting those on-field chances with one of the league’s heavyweights.

The rookies are clearly finding they have to make an impact in a limited number of snaps to earn more and mistakes come with a pricetag. With that in mind, here’s the rookie report, a weekly check-in with how Denver's first-year class on defense is doing:

Defensive tackle Sylvester Williams: After playing just eight snaps in the Monday night win against the Raiders – he finished without a tackle – Williams found himself caught in the weekly gameday numbers game for the first time in his young career. With Champ Bailey already out for the fourth consecutive game as well as cornerback Tony Carter and safety Duke Ihenacho having been limited at least some in practice last week, and the fast-break Eagles on the docket, the Broncos elected to keep cornerback Quentin Jammer among the gameday 45. That gave the Broncos 10 defensive backs in uniform for the game and left Williams as the odd man out in the defensive front with Mitch Unrein in the rotation in the base look at defensive tackle and Malik Jackson playing on the interior in many of the specialty looks. Williams was among the gameday inactives while Unrein played 30 snaps and Jackson finished with 37. Coach John Fox made it a point Monday to say it wasn’t anything Williams did or didn’t do -- "no offense,'' he said -- but Williams is clearly down the depth chart enough to be among the gameday inactives. And if he isn’t in uniform against a more traditional looking offense in Dallas, it could be an issue because in the end Jammer played just one snap on defense against Philadelphia.

Cornerback Kayvon Webster: With Bailey out, Webster continued to get some work in the defense, playing in a smattering of nickel siuations. The Broncos played 63 snaps in the nickel against the Eagles, penalty snaps included, so there was plenty of work to go around. Webster played four snaps on defense to go with 23 snaps on special teams – only David Bruton and Steven Johnson played more on special teams (26 snaps each).

Practice squad: Defensive end John Youboty, who spent training camp with the Broncos, continues to play all along the defensive front for the scout team, lining up as an edge rusher at times and on the interior of the defensive line.

 

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