Denver Broncos: Trindon Holliday

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – When Omar Bolden darted, dipped and sprinted his way up the right sideline for a 76-yard kickoff return against the Oakland Raiders in the Denver Broncos' regular-season finale – the Broncos longest kickoff return of the season – Bolden’s teammates, his coaches, the people in the seats in Sports Authority Field at Mile High were predictably caught up in the moment.

Bolden, however, was not quite as thrilled after being pushed out of bounds by Raiders defenders, including kicker Sebastian Janikowski.

“When you are fast guy you pride yourself on being able to pull off and pull away from guys,’’ Bolden said. “ … And I’m pissed, I’m pissed we didn’t score six … That should have been six for me, kind of selfish in a way … Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited we made a big play, I’m just disappointed that it wasn’t as big as I would have liked.’’

Bolden
The Broncos will certainly live with Bolden’s attempts to make it better in the coming postseason, especially since the third-year defensive back has given the Broncos what they hadn’t had much of in the season’s first half – some impact in the return game.

In the six games since the Broncos’ Nov. 16 loss in St. Louis Bolden has been the team’s primary kickoff returner. And in those six games he has had the two best days for the Broncos with 100 yards worth of kickoff returns against the Miami Dolphins (33.3 yards per return) and 102 yards worth of kickoff returns against the Cincinnati Bengals (51.0 yards per return).

In those six games Bolden also has the Broncos’ two longest kickoff returns in back-to-back games – a 77-yarder against the Bengals to go with the 76-yarder against the Raiders. And while Bolden didn’t return enough kickoff to qualify officially among the league leaders, his 33 yards per return for the regular season was the highest average per return of any player with at least 10 returns.

“It’s something I love doing,’’ Bolden said. “Since I’ve been a kid … Growing up it was the only special teams I did was return.’’

“The return thing we were kind of juggling where we found the right combination,’’ Broncos head coach John Fox saiid. “He’s slipped into that role very well … Sometimes it’s not the real flashy things, but he’s had a really good year.’’

Bolden has also worked at both cornerback and safety in the team’s defense in a variety of roles, the kind of versatility the Broncos may not have envisioned when they made Bolden a fourth-round pick in the 2012 draft. Bolden had missed his final season at Arizona State, in 2011, with a torn left ACL he had suffered in spring football.

The Broncos were intrigued when Bolden showed he had regained his speed in pre-draft workouts and that he had still been named a team captain with the Sun Devils despite his injury. And since, Bolden has continued to carve out roles on defense to go with the growing return role on special teams.

“The film we saw, when he was healthy, was really good,’’ Fox said. “You didn’t know how he was going to respond and it does take time. Coming off a knee and getting ready for an NFL season, it took him a minute … it takes some guys a minute.’’

Bolden had given the Broncos a glimpse with a 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdowns in a preseason game as a rookie. But the Broncos signed Trindon Holliday during the ’12 season – he had two touchdown returns in the regular season and two more in playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens -- and Holliday was with the team last season as well.

“My rookie year, after Week 5, they signed Trindon Holliday, and they wanted him to take over that role, which is understandable,’’ That’s not really my call, just sit back and do my job … It just took some time.’’

“Sometimes guys just fall into different roles,’’ Fox said. “He’s a guy, I can remember being in a meeting midseason separating the DB room, safeties and corners, and I hear Omar ‘which room am I in this time?’ He’s just a good football player, we’ve kind of slid more into the safety side of things and he’s done a good job of that. He’s always been a good fourth-down player. … I tell guys all the time everybody starts as a nobody. … There were people who didn’t know Omar was on the team … good to see what he’s doing now.’’
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- With an established roster of a team looking for its fourth consecutive AFC West title, there are few spots where things are wide open for a starting job with the Denver Broncos.

Maybe middle linebacker, but Nate Irving has spent all of the offseason work there. Maybe right tackle. Maybe, if the Broncos decide Chris Clark, who has been with the starters through much of the offseason work and early on in training camp, isn't up for the job.

But kick returner and punt returner? Now, those are other matters entirely.

[+] EnlargeWes Welker
Tim Rasmussen/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesThe Broncos used Wes Welker -- who suffered two concussions last season -- on punt returns deep in their own territory.
"We're looking for options," Broncos head coach John Fox said. "We don't do a whole lot of that in the offseason so we'll get into that pretty heavy out here. I think we've got some viable prospects."

The Broncos made the decision early on in the offseason that they would let Trindon Holliday -- six total return touchdowns in less than two seasons with the team -- move on in free agency. Though he lined up as a receiver in practice, Holliday was a specialist who played just four plays on offense last season.

In the end Holliday wasn't consistent enough in his decision-making and was too unreliable catching the ball for the Broncos' liking.

That decision still leaves things wide open as the Broncos work through training camp's early going. They have proven returners on the roster who also happen to be regulars in the lineup as well, such as wide receiver Emmaniel Sanders and wide receiver Wes Welker.

Sanders will be a starter on offense, as will Welker in the team's three-wide receiver look. And while Fox isn't opposed to using a starter at times as a returner, he would like to avoid it if he can.

"There's no doubt when a guy's playing full-time at a position, whether he's a DB or a receiver, whatever position he might play ... that's a lot of wear and tear," Fox said. "It's not that you would never use it ... you might determine you use a guy in some situations, but I think it's hard to play on offense or defense full-time and return full-time, I think it takes its toll."

Last season Fox often used Welker, who suffered two concussions in 2013, as a punt returner when the Broncos were set to field the ball deep in their own territory and feared Holliday may make a mistake.

Since the Broncos don't do that much in the return game during OTAs and minicamp, that means it's getting daily attention in training camp. A smattering of candidates have worked as kickoff returners in the first two days.

Rookie wide receiver Cody Latimer has taken snaps -- though he fumbled a kickoff he tried to catch over his head Friday -- as have safety Omar Bolden, undrafted rookie Isaiah Burse and wide receiver Andre Caldwell.

Caldwell returned six kickoffs last season while Bolden returned two. They are the most likely kickoff returners at this point. The Broncos signed Burse as an undrafted rookie from Fresno State because of his ability to return kickoffs and punts, but most scouts believed in the pre-draft evaluations that he was far more proficient as a punt returner.

Latimer did not return punts or kickoffs in any of his games at Indiana, but with top-tier speed to go with his size (6-foot-2, 215 pounds), the Broncos wanted to take a look at what he had to offer in the job. Latimer did suffer a foot fracture in his pre-draft workouts and is still coming back from that.

"We're going to get plenty of work on it every day we're on the practice field," Fox said. "We don't have the job filled, but we have the candidates, we'll let them compete and see what happens."

"I'll do whatever they want me to do," Latimer said. "If that means be a returner, I'll do it."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos' recent offseason practices have confirmed that rookies will have to fight hard for playing time -- especially given the way the team dove into free agency with a fervor rarely seen from a defending conference champion.

It is a good time to see where things stand at some of the hot spots for the team's rookies as the Broncos will report for training camp in a month. We'll start today with the defense and special teams.

[+] EnlargeLamin Barrow
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesLamin Barrow showed he has speed to be able to drop back into pass coverage.
Linebacker: When the Broncos made Lamin Barrow a fifth-round pick in last month's draft, they believed he could at least push for playing time at the team's middle linebacker spot.

Barrow, who had a 4.59 clocking in the 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, had shown quality athleticism in his career at LSU and a look at his game video with the Tigers showed a player who was better at shedding blockers to get to the ball carrier than perhaps he was given credit for in some pre-draft evaluations. As a result he projects in the middle of the Broncos defense.

In the team's recent workouts Barrow had some of the missteps you would expect from a guy who just had an NFL playbook tossed in his lap. But he also showed lateral quickness and some precision in his drops into pass coverage.

Few things will keep a guy out of coverage duty more than a lack of precision in the drops in zone looks. The guys who can get where they are supposed to be and then play the ball with some anticipation get the snaps at linebacker in the specialty downs.

At minimum he has already shown enough to get a long look in the Broncos' nickel package as one of the two linebackers. And if he shows in those scrappy 9-on-7 drills in training camp he can keep the blockers off him in the run game -- and the Broncos' mammoth defensive tackles help all of the linebackers there -- he could be an every-down option.

He is slightly lighter -- the Broncos list him at 229 pounds -- than he was when he arrived at the scouting combine at 237 pounds, but he looks to be a quick fit somewhere in the defense.

Seventh-round pick Corey Nelson will have to show some special teams proficiency to earn a roster spot, but after missing much of his senior season at Oklahoma with a torn pectoral muscle, he looks healthy and quickly showed some ability in coverage. Undrafted rookie Shaquil Barrett has played some at strong-side linebacker in recent workouts and there is room to battle for a backup role there.

Defensive back: This is a crowded spot overall, especially with the Broncos having dropped so much free agency coin on cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward, but rookie cornerback Bradley Roby will play plenty early and plenty often for this team.

Roby, the Broncos' first-round pick, carried some questions about his maturity, both on and off the field, into the draft. Those questions were enough of a concern that a player many defensive coaches in the league said was the best cover cornerback in the draft fell to the 31st pick.

But the Broncos see a physical, athletic cornerback who can disrupt receivers at the line of scrimmage and yet still has the speed to run with them downfield. He got fooled once in a while against the Broncos offense in recent workouts, but that's to be expected given the group across from him every day was also the highest-scoring offense in league history last season.

Roby showed the willingness to bounce back and battle the next play -- something 12-time Pro Bowl selection Champ Bailey has always said is one of the most important traits for a rookie cornerback -- so the Broncos will live with any mistakes out of the gate because the potential there was easy to see.

Returner: The job, either on punts or kickoffs, was open when offseason work began and remains open as camp approaches. Sure, Emmanuel Sanders and Wes Welker could do some return work and have proven that over the course of their careers.

Sanders, in particular is a sure-handed, quick-twitch player who could handle both kickoff and punt returns for the Broncos, but the team would prefer to have options in the return game that don't include offensive starters. That's especially true for Welker, who does carry some concerns about putting him into harm's way on more snaps because of his recent concussion history -- he suffered two last season.

That gives Isaiah Burse, an undrafted rookie at wide receiver, some room to work for a roster spot. Burse returned kickoffs for three seasons at Fresno State and had two punt returns for touchdowns against Cal-Poly last season.

During the non-contact work in organized team activities and minicamp, he showed decisiveness once he had the ball in his hands. He didn't waste steps and found the proper creases.

He was consistent catching the ball as well, no small item for a staff that essentially decided Trindon Holliday's vast touchdown potential no longer out-weighed poor decision-making and ball security at times. That leaves how things go when the pads are on and in the preseason games as the significant hurdle that awaits him.

But the Broncos want a reliable option at the position fielding the ball to go with enough athleticism to turn a well-blocked play into something big. And the first player that shows them he's up for the job will get it.

Broncos still needy in spots

March, 18, 2014
3/18/14
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For the moment, the Denver Broncos have put away owner Pat Bowlen's checkbook, albeit with fewer checks in it than when free agency began.

The team has one or two offensive linemen on its radar that it would consider reeling in. But with just under $6 million in salary-cap space with which to work, the price would have to be right.

So with the heavy lifting behind them in free agency, the Broncos will simply wait to see if there are any veteran players they want to sign to low-impact deals. Two years ago, they added Keith Brooking and Jim Leonhard; last season they signed Quentin Jammer and Paris Lenon.

The Broncos still have some needs on their depth chart to address, either with late-spring deals or in the draft. The biggest of those needs:

Defensive back

Safety T.J. Ward was a starter the moment he signed his new contract, as was cornerback Aqib Talib. And the Broncos are certainly encouraged by Chris Harris Jr.'s recovery from ACL surgery.

[+] EnlargeAqib Talib
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsAqib Talib has had difficulty staying healthy in his career, so the Broncos would be wise to bolster their depth at cornerback.
Harris has told plenty of folks he believes he could have played in the AFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl with a partially torn ACL. But the Broncos put him on injured reserve, not wanting to risk a full tear or damage to the other ligaments and cartilage in his knee.

Talib has never played 16 games in a season. Until he does, the prudent expectation is the Broncos need more depth here. And with defenses playing the nickel and dime so much, the Broncos will need some additional help at cornerback moving forward.

Kayvon Webster will get, and deserves, a bigger role and the Broncos will put as much on his plate as he shows he can handle. Webster has the kind of skills in man-to-man the Broncos want with plenty of speed. But if the draft falls right, the Broncos could still look to use a premium pick on a cornerback.

Middle linebacker

Once a glamour position on defense, middle linebacker is a situational job these days. The Broncos had four games this past season when the middle linebacker was in the formation 12 or fewer plays.

The Broncos have players they can use at the position already on the roster -- Nate Irving, or possibly Steven Johnson -- but those would be stop-gap moves and the Broncos have tried Webster there before only to make him Von Miller's backup. The Broncos will look for someone at the position who fits their scheme later in the free-agency season.

"People are a lot more worried about middle linebacker than we are right now … we'll get something done,'' executive vice president of football operations/GM John Elway said this week.

Weakside linebacker Danny Trevathan plays in base, nickel and dime schemes, which means the Broncos can look for a two-down player at middle linebacker if they have to.

The list of true middle linebackers is shrinking in the college game and defenses are getting smaller to defend spread attacks, but the Broncos will take a long look at some options at inside linebacker in the draft.

Returner

The Broncos did not make an offer to Trindon Holliday, who agreed to a deal with the New York Giants Monday. The Broncos loved Holliday's touchdowns -- six in less than two seasons, playoffs included -- but they struggled to reconcile those with his spotty work handling the ball and a difficult stretch last season when he had limited impact and made plenty of questionable decisions.

Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders has been a returner, but he also had a foot surgery early in his career and the Broncos see him as a key piece of their three-wide-receiver set on offense as well as a potential No. 2 receiver. Elway has already used the work "risk'' when talking about the possibility of Sanders handling both kickoff and punt returns.

The Broncos have players who could fill in, but they lack impact players at the position.

Defensive end

The Broncos did the work to get DeMarcus Ware in the lineup and believe the 31-year-old's durability -- he's missed just three games -- has been a hallmark of a 117-sack career to this point. They have high hopes for what will essentially be Quanterus Smith's rookie season as a pass-rusher in '14 after he spent last season on injured reserve. They believe Derek Wolfe will return to form as a strongside end.

But the Broncos need some additional depth here and have to cover themselves if Ware's injury-marred 2013 season turns into something similar in '14 or if Smith isn't ready.

Wide receiver

Yes, they signed Sanders and re-signed Andre Caldwell just before free agency opened. But with Wes Welker's concussion history -- he had two last season -- the Broncos would be remiss if they didn't look at the draft's deep class of wideouts.

The Broncos could find a player who could contribute this season, add more speed to the roster and have a player ready to move into the lineup with Welker's contract set to expire after the 2014 season.

They carried four wide receivers on the roster last season, but would be wise to carry five this time around and add some youth on the outside. Whether that means they carry three tight ends instead of four or 10 defensive backs instead of 11, adding a spot at wide receiver would be a worthy investment.
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.
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 an 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 and discussions with NFL pro personnel executives from both conferences, here is a report card for the 2013 team.

There is no grading 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 most of the 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 in MetLife Stadium.

Today it’s the special teams’ units as well as the starters who finished out the season on injured reserve.

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.

Specialists

Aaron Brewer: B

In his second season as the long-snapper, he was consistent in both placement and velocity of snaps. He’s never a concern.

Britton Colquitt: B

With a record-setting offense scoring touchdowns most of the time, he punted a career-low 65 times this past season. Still considered around the league as one of the better players at the position, but finished with a career-low 44.5 gross yards per punt and did suffer the first blocked punt of his career in regular-season finale in Oakland after an assignment was missed up front.

Prater
Matt Prater: A-

Led the league in touchbacks on kickoffs, as you would expect from somebody with his leg strength playing half of his games at altitude, missed just one kick all season and set NFL record with 64-yard field goal on frigid day against the Titans.

Trindon Holliday: C-

After a quality start with two touchdown returns in the season’s first four games, his season dissolved into some questionable choices with the ball as well as some issues hanging on to it. He bobbled seven kickoffs or punts over the last 10 games of regular season.

Injured starters

Clady
Ryan Clady: A

He played in just two games, but the Broncos’ issues in pass protection, which cropped up against the more physical fronts they faced, including the Seattle Seahawks’, would have been far easier to deal with had he been in the lineup. His return is significant in what the Broncos should be able to do on offense in ‘14.

Chris Harris: A-

Versatile, hard-nosed, savvy player who simply competes harder than most others on every snap and is unafraid to take on any matchup. Coming off ACL surgery, he’s going to need some time to resume his duties on the team’s defense.

Miller
Von Miller: B-

He simply has to be an A player for this team on the field, in the locker room, and in how he prepares. He showed flashes of his athleticism when he returned from his six-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, but many personnel executives believe he simply tried to play too heavy in his return and became more of a bull rusher than a consistently effective edge player. And he’s coming off ACL surgery and some with the team are looking, with a raised eyebrow, at his post-Super Bowl jaunt to try to get into the Seahawks’ victory party.

Rahim Moore: C+

A 10-game starter before a lower leg injury put him on injured reserve. The Broncos had designated him for return in case he would have been available for the playoffs, but he never returned to practice. He was headed for his best overall season at the time of his injury.

Vick
Vickerson
Kevin Vickerson: B-

Suffered season-ending hip injury in 11th game (at New England). When paired with Terrance Knighton in the middle, the two were an effective early-down combination at defensive tackle. Vickerson was also starting to be more disruptive in pass-rush situations at the time of his injury. He was also, however, the team’s most penalized player at the time of injury -- 10 penalties in 11 games, including two for unnecessary roughness and two for unsportsmanlike conduct. Sylvester Williams is going to play more, not less, moving forward, but if Vickerson returns healthy in ’14, the Broncos will have just the kind of interior depth they want.

Derek Wolfe: C

His season ended after he suffered seizure-like symptoms on the team’s bus ride to the airport in late November just before the Dec. 1 game in Kansas City. Before the incident, however, Wolfe often appeared frustrated on the field and did not have more than two tackles in any game. He lost some weight during his absence and the Broncos, after initially bringing him back to practice on Christmas, kept him off the field the rest of the way.
An examination of four hot issues from the Denver Broncos' 43-8 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII.

End of the line: The Broncos were obviously successful during the regular season in their three-wideout look as they rewrote the offensive side of the league’s record book, but the Seahawks offered an entirely different challenge across the line of scrimmage. The Broncos played in a three-wide-receiver look for all but two snaps in the game. And while the Broncos protected quarterback Peyton Manning well throughout the season when they played in that open look, they did not handle that business against the Seahawks. The Seattle defensive front repeatedly folded in the edges of the Broncos' formation, especially when Cliff Avril forced Manning into the interception that Malcolm Smith returned for a touchdown, and pushed the middle as well. The results were seen in Manning's numbers as he was under duress for much of the game and played like it.

[+] EnlargeEric Decker
AP Photo/Julio CortezEric Decker and the Broncos receivers found little room to operate within the Seahawks' suffocating secondary.
No freedom: The Seahawks' physical secondary won the close-quarters battles with the Broncos' receivers and won it by a large margin. Seattle's defensive backs were physical along the line of scrimmage and limited the Broncos' yards after the catch, which had been a staple of Denver's catch-and-run offense all season. Demaryius Thomas may have finished with a Super Bowl record 13 receptions, but he also finished with a season-low 9.1 yards per catch. The Seahawks also kept the ball out of Eric Decker's hands as he never quite worked himself free. Decker finished with one catch for 6 yards. Tight end Julius Thomas finished with just 6.8 yards per catch. In the first quarter when the game got away the Broncos had no yards gained after the catch.

Low pressure: This has been a recurring issue over the Broncos' last three playoff exits. To close out the 2011 season the Broncos did not sack Tom Brady as he finished with 363 yards passing and six touchdown passes. To close out the 2012 season the Broncos sacked Joe Flacco just once as he finished with 331 yards passing and three touchdowns. And Sunday night the Broncos did not sack Russell Wilson as he finished with 206 yards -- just seven incompletions -- and two touchdowns. The Broncos also had one interception in those three playoff games combined. Von Miller, Kevin Vickerson, Chris Harris Jr. and Derek Wolfe being on injured reserve certainly didn't help the Broncos' cause Sunday night, but by the time the game was deep into the third quarter the Broncos had hit Wilson just once on a dropback. The Broncos will have to give a long look toward addressing a defensive issue that has been a big part of their last three playoff losses.

Not special: After a spectacular start to the season -- two blocked punts, two touchdown returns by Trindon Holliday as well as a touchdown on one of the blocked punts over the first four games -- the Broncos' special-teams play slowly dissolved as the season wore on. Holliday didn't consistently handle the ball well and the Broncos didn't consistently play with discipline in coverage. It all showed up against the Seahawks as Holliday, who was inconsistent in his decision-making in the kicking game, almost lost a fumble. (He was ruled down before the ball came out.) The Broncos surrendered a kickoff return for a touchdown to open the second half and didn't give themselves a chance to recover a poorly executed onside kick in the fourth quarter.

Super Bowl XLVIII matchups to watch

February, 1, 2014
2/01/14
7:00
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NEW YORK -- Denver Broncos coach John Fox is fond of saying the NFL is a "bigger, faster, stronger" league, where the matchups decide the issue.

A league where those who hide, or exploit, their weaknesses the best usually will find a way to win.

In that light, here are a few matchups, beyond the Broncos' no-duh need to keep quarterback Peyton Manning upright with room to throw, to watch in Sunday's Super Bowl XLVIII:

WRs vs. DBs:

It is the marquee positional matchup. The Seattle Seahawks' defensive backs are the foundation of the league's No. 1 defense and play with a physical edge that often overwhelms receivers. The Broncos' receivers are the league's highest-scoring group with four players with at least 10 receiving touchdowns. Demaryius Thomas leads the way with 92 catches, 1,430 yards and 14 touchdowns.

And, given that flags routinely stay in the officials' pockets in the title game -- see last year's Super Bowl if you have any doubt -- the Broncos' wideouts have to find a way to keep the Seahawks' physical defensive backs from altering their routes or disrupting the timing of the Denver offense.

If Denver's receivers don't get their expected releases off the line of scrimmage, that often forces Manning to hold the ball a bit longer and the dominoes start to fall because the Seahawks' defensive front, especially the players on the edge, will have the time to get to Manning that rushers don't usually have.

A look at the video shows the Seahawks prefer to play man-to-man on the underneath routes and play zone coverages down the field for the most part, often with three deep defenders. That type of alignment makes the inside receivers -- for the Broncos, that's players such as tight end Julius Thomas and wide receiver Wes Welker -- important pieces of the puzzle.

Those are the pressure points for those coverage looks, so Manning will be looking there for the seam routes. Julius Thomas and Welker will have to perform well in those high-traffic, high-contact areas.

And, when it comes to the matchup people want to see -- Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman against Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas -- the Broncos figure to move Thomas all over the field, but Sherman usually remains in the left cornerback spot.

So, unless the Seahawks are willing to break from their usual plan, Demaryius Thomas will line up across from Sherman only when Thomas is on the offensive right, on the outside. Look for the Broncos to bunch the receivers, as well, to back the Seahawks' defensive backs away from the line of scrimmage a bit. Defenses routinely attack the point of the bunch, or the receiver who is closest to the line of scrimmage, so the Broncos could tuck Thomas behind a bit to give him slightly more room to work.

Broncos DT Terrance Knighton vs. Seattle C Max Unger:

Knighton, who will shade over toward the guard at times, has been the key in the Broncos' improved run defense down the stretch. And, although the Broncos simply can't afford to miss a tackle against Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, Knighton has to consistently win at the point of attack for the Broncos' plan to work.

For all of their defensive troubles this season, the Broncos have played better against the offenses that chose to attack them with heavier formations. It allowed the Broncos to play bigger, something they've done with more consistency and production than they have in some of their other personnel groupings.

The Broncos surrendered a league-low 2.84 yards on rushing attempts over the opposing center this season, surrendered a league-low 1.88 yards per attempt over the right guard and 2.74 yards per carry over the left guard. The Seahawks gained 4.8 yards per carry on runs behind Unger.

The Broncos do expect the Seahawks to go to a three-wide look more often with Percy Harvin in the lineup, so, as a result, Denver will be forced to defend the run a little more out of its nickel (five defensive backs) and dime (six defensive backs) packages.

Broncos special teams vs. Seahawks special teams:

There is a school of thought in the league that, in the end, the league-leading Denver offense and the league-leading Seattle defense will cancel each other out in some fashion.

Those same folks also will say they believe the Seahawks' special teams are more consistent than the Broncos' special teams, especially down the stretch of the regular season and especially with Seattle set to have Harvin returning kickoffs. Harvin, who has played just 38 snaps on offense this season because of a hip injury as well as a concussion, returned one kickoff this year -- for 58 yards.

For the Broncos, Trindon Holliday has to be more consistent handling the ball, as few things turn a playoff game -- especially a title game -- as drastically as a special-teams bobble. Overall, the Seahawks have not surrendered a yard on punt returns in two postseason games and opponents averaged just 3.9 yards per punt return in the regular season.

Jack Del Rio vs. Darrell Bevell:

These two coach the "other" units, the ones folks aren't really zeroed in on, and the one who has come up with the best plan and gets his guys to carry it out the most efficiently certainly could decide this game.

Del Rio's Denver defense certainly has had moments of struggle this season, but it has been better down the stretch. The Broncos figure to show more of a 3-4 look against the Seahawks' power formations. Overall, Denver has to keep Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson tucked in the pocket; the Broncos can't let him break their containment and can't get washed out of the play in the Seahawks' zone-run attack.

Harvin's appearance in the Seahawks' offense is a wrinkle the Broncos will have to adjust to quickly in the game. And Del Rio will need an answer when the Broncos go to some of the specialty packages on defense if Wilson decides to pick on cornerback Tony Carter.

And then there were two -- two teams that know most of what there is to know about each other, two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks who add to their legacies with every pass, all with a Super Bowl trip on the line.

The Denver Broncos and New England Patriots, who have faced each other in each of the past three seasons and in the divisional round of the 2011 season, took it to overtime Nov. 24. The Broncos let a 24-0 halftime lead get away, and the Patriots won 34-31 after a punt bounced off Broncos cornerback Tony Carter's leg in overtime on a frigid night in Foxborough, Mass.

ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discuss Sunday's AFC Championship Game in Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

Legwold: Peyton Manning and Bill Belichick yet again. Do you think, in all your time around Belichick, that he tries to bring something new to the table every time he faces Manning? Or does he assume Manning has done the homework and put his efforts into getting people in the right position?

Reiss: I'd say there's always a new wrinkle or two, Jeff. Belichick has said in the past that Manning is too smart to just do the same thing over and over again -- both within a game and from matchup to matchup. Part of that discussion is also the state of the Patriots' personnel entering the matchup. A player like rookie linebacker Jamie Collins, for example, might give Belichick the flexibility to introduce something unique based on his breakthrough since the Nov. 24 meeting between the teams.

The weather forecast looks promising for Manning. No icy cold forecast. How do you think he approaches this game compared to the Nov. 24 contest? Do you think he will be less reluctant to hand the ball off?

Legwold: It will be a postcard day Sunday with the temperature expected to be 58 degrees with 0 percent chance of rain and light winds. So any decisions the two teams make on offense will have to do with what's in front of them on defense only. Manning will be inclined to hand the ball off if he sees the Patriots in some of those lighter personnel groupings deployed to handle Denver's three-wide-receiver look. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase has a run option built into most things Manning can change into at the line of scrimmage. The Broncos certainly like how Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball are trending in the run game. They have split carries down the stretch, and both run with tackle-shedding power.

Gase, with coaching DNA that includes his time with Mike Martz, is an aggressive sort. With the next-generation numbers the Broncos' offense has put up this season, it's easy to forget they still averaged 28.8 carries per game and topped 30 carries per matchup nine times this season. If they get a look from the New England defense that calls for a run, the Broncos will be inclined to pound away.

Where is Tom Brady's game and the offense right now after some rough moments early in the season? Has Brady benefited from a run-heavy approach down the stretch and into the postseason?

Reiss: The biggest benefit for Brady with the run-heavy approach has been how it opens play-action opportunities. Danny Amendola's 53-yard catch in the divisional round is one of the best examples. Also, part of the reason the Patriots have gone so run-heavy is that it's the area where they have their most assets. They are limited when it comes to pass-catchers who create consistent separation at tight end and receiver. As for Brady's game, there have been no signs of decline in arm strength, accuracy or decision-making. The main reasons for the struggles early in the year, from my view, were more about the changes around him. That's not to say Brady didn't make his mistakes, but it's sort of interesting to look back on some of the media-based discussion around Weeks 6 to 8 about how maybe Father Time had caught up to him.

Now that we're a full season in, how would you sum up the Wes Welker signing? Just as the Broncos hoped for? Better? Worse?

Legwold: Welker finished the regular season with 73 catches for 778 yards and 10 touchdowns. His presence in the slot, along with Julius Thomas at tight end, is part of the reason the offense had a historic season. With the Broncos lining up in a three-wide-receiver set the majority of the season -- and every snap of the divisional round win over the San Diego Chargers -- they force defenses into some difficult choices. Thomas is often in the slot on one side of the formation, and Welker is in the slot on the other side. When Thomas missed two games earlier this season with a knee injury, both the Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs (Dec. 1) elected to double-team Welker. He missed three games after suffering his second concussion in a four-week span Dec. 8 against the Tennessee Titans but played last week against the Chargers without issue.

Welker did have some spells this season when he had a cluster of dropped passes -- three against the Patriots on a frigid night to go with drops against Washington and San Diego in the regular season. Overall, though, he was exactly what the Broncos hoped he would be in their offense. He meshed with Manning quickly and was a big part of the plan right from his nine-catch performance against the Baltimore Ravens in the season opener.

The Patriots did not face Thomas in the Nov. 24 meeting. Do you think they will try to match up Collins on Thomas this time around?

Reiss: That seems like the natural matchup, especially after seeing Collins splitting out wide on Colts tight end Coby Fleener on Saturday night and playing very well. Collins is unique in that, at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, he is fast enough to be competitive down the field in coverage (e.g., fourth-quarter interception versus the Colts) but powerful enough to play in the box and deliver a blow in the running game and as a pass-rusher. The Patriots' top draft pick in 2013, selected 52nd overall out of Southern Mississippi, he is an intriguing player whom Patriots fans really got their first extended look at Saturday as he played every snap against the Colts. He had been groomed behind the scenes up to that point, playing just 25 percent of the defensive snaps on the season in more of a reserve role.

Thomas may not have played in the first game between the teams, but Von Miller did. How does Miller's season-ending knee injury affect the Broncos' defense?

Legwold: Of all the players who were signed in the weeks after the initial leaguewide binge in free agency, the Broncos' signing of Shaun Phillips was easily one of the best. Denver signed Phillips to a one-year, $1 million deal during the draft weekend in April, well over a month after free agency had opened, a deal that didn't have a signing bonus but did have some incentives based on sack totals.

Phillips was initially how the Broncos planned to deal with the loss of Elvis Dumervil in free agency. When Miller was suspended for the first six games of the season, Phillips had 5.5 sacks in those games to lead the way. He finished the regular season with 10 sacks to lead the team. In Sunday's win, with Miller on injured reserve, Phillips had two sacks against the Chargers. He is the single-most important player in the Broncos' pass rush in Miller's absence. Denver may have to take more risks without Miller on the field, and that's always a tough choice against someone like Brady, who can easily find the holes in coverage. But if Phillips can consistently create pressure -- with both sacks on three-man rushes against San Diego -- it allows the Broncos to move things around a little more and cover more of the bases.

Did Belichick make a conscious effort to get big backs like LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley in the lineup when he knew he would get smaller defensive personnel against the team's passing attack?

Reiss: That's fair to say, as the Patriots pride themselves on creating those matchups during the game, with coordinator Josh McDaniels finding his groove in recent weeks. They refer to themselves as a "game plan" offense because they tailor their plan weekly based on what they perceive to be the weakness of the opposition. They'll shuttle in different personnel groupings early -- multiple receivers, two backs, two tight ends, etc. -- to get information on how the opponent is matching up and then focus on the one they like best. This week, what's fascinating to me is that I think they probably see vulnerability in the Broncos' secondary, but I wonder how they feel about their own personnel in being able to exploit it. So that could keep them grounded.

The Patriots have been running the ball very well. How is the Broncos' run defense?

Legwold: In a year when the Broncos have been forced, by injuries and Miller's suspension, to mix and match on defense, their run defense has likely been more consistent in comparison to some of the other issues they've had. When defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson went to injured reserve Nov. 27 with a hip injury, they did wobble a bit, surrendering 159 yards rushing to the Chiefs and 177 yards rushing to the Chargers in two of the three games that immediately followed.

They have regained their balance a bit since, moving Paris Lenon into the middle linebacker spot in the base defense, and rookie defensive tackle Sylvester Williams has played better each week. Overall, the biggest issue for the Broncos will be how they defend the run if the Patriots get them in nickel or dime personnel on defense and then run the ball at the smaller looks. The Broncos' safeties will have to tackle and tackle well to make it work.

Belichick has always tried to make "other" people beat him and take away an offense's front-line players. How do you think he would rank the Broncos' threats in the passing game, and where do you think the one-on-one matchups will be?

Reiss: One insightful point that ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi made in his weekly chat was the idea of defending the Broncos from the inside-out. Manning is still an accurate marksman, one of the greatest of all time, but I'm guessing that even he would agree that some of the downfield and outside-the-numbers throws he used to make don't come as easily to him. So it makes sense that the Patriots would focus more resources on the inside part of the field, where it would seem we would most likely see Welker and Thomas. With this in mind, I could envision the Patriots matching up cornerback Aqib Talib with Demaryius Thomas on the outside and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard with Eric Decker and taking their chances that those one-on-one matchups will be competitive. Trusting those cornerbacks in those one-on-one matchups would allow the defense to focus extra attention/personnel to the inside part of the field.

Any X factors or special-teams contributors we should keep on the radar?

Legwold: The Broncos have usually been lockdown tight on special teams -- opening the season with two touchdown returns and two blocked punts, one of those returned for a score, in the first four weeks of the season. Those normally reliable units, however, have wobbled plenty down the stretch. The Chiefs' Knile Davis had a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the Titans' Leon Washington had a 95-yard kickoff return, and the Texans' Keshawn Martin had a 51-yard punt return. Toss in the first blocked punt of Britton Colquitt's career in Oakland to go with Trindon Holliday's occasional adventures catching the ball, and it's been an unpredictable stretch. But Holliday is always a threat to uncork a return because of his breathtaking speed. The Broncos used wide receiver Decker as the primary punt returner against the Chargers last week, and he had a 47-yarder. So the Broncos have the potential to pop one at any time, especially in Denver, where Holliday returned both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in last January's playoff loss to the Ravens.

 

If the Broncos play... the Colts

January, 1, 2014
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos will spend the rest of their postseason bye week cleaning up some loose ends with some football self-examination. But they will also have to work through some 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.

So, with that in mind, here’s a look at how they match up with each of their three possible divisional round opponents. First up: the Colts.

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

Be ready for the rough stuff: After six weeks of defenses largely playing in off coverages against the kind of size the Broncos put in the pass pattern, both at wide receiver and tight end, the Colts were the first team of the season to really challenge the Broncos pass catchers.

And it worked in a 39-33 Indianapolis win on Oct. 20. The Colts defensive backs were aggressive and repeatedly challenged the Broncos receivers at the line of scrimmage and it certainly affected the timing of the Broncos’ high-end offense. The Broncos receivers were visibly frustrated throughout the game.

Others then followed suit with at least some success in the weeks that followed, including the Jacksonville Jaguars, Chargers and Patriots. The Broncos will have Wes Welker back in the lineup in the postseason, so that will help at least some. But overall the Broncos receivers have to quit looking for flags and understand things get rougher in the postseason and penalties are hard to come by in any situation where the ball is contested.

They will have to keep the Colts defensive backs’ hands off of them and attack the ball in the air. The Broncos offense can't be the high-end sports car that only runs great when conditions are perfect.

Old acquaintances: Welker would likely have to win a matchup with Colts defensive back Darius Butler. Butler lines up as a safety at times in the Indianapolis defense as well as at cornerback at others. The Colts repeatedly matched Butler on Welker earlier this season -- the two were teammates in New England in 2009 and 2010, so they know each other well.

Welker is one of the league's best at setting up a route later in the game by what he did earlier in the day. He's always thinking a few moves ahead. Butler, after countless practice battles, knows what Welker likes to do in particular situations. And Butler had things in hand in the first half of the game this season, but Welker shook loose for six catches for 93 yards in the second half.

Roll up the sleeves: There is no question the Broncos have dropped a fast-paced, pass-first attack on the league that has carved out a significant slice of the league's record book. But the Broncos have to be willing to pound the ball at times against defenses like the Colts' 3-4 look. The Colts essentially dared the Broncos to run with two deep safeties much of the time in the earlier meeting yet the Broncos couldn’t consistently make room against seven-man fronts for the most part.

The Broncos, throughout a postseason when defenses are going to be all-in against the Broncos’ passing attack, will have to be patient at times and put the ball and their offensive fortunes in the hands of the running backs. Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball have to be up to the challenge when it arrives and the Broncos linemen have to come out of the pass sets from time to time and be ready to move people off the ball when it's required.

Hold their ground: The Broncos played out of their three-wide receiver set on offense all but eight snaps in the first meeting and to make the work consistently, the Broncos are essentially making the decision to block five on whatever the defense brings. Sure, they'll add a running back or a tight end from time to time, but for the most part the bet is their five offensive linemen can hold up and Manning can get rid of the ball before the trouble arrives.

Many defensive coordinators have long felt pressure from the outside, or extra rushers from the outside, was not the way to go against Manning. He easily sees those extra rushers coming on the outside because those players have to usually tip their hand at some point as the Broncos move the receivers around before the snap.

But the Colts repeatedly caved in the edges of the Broncos pass protection, particularly Robert Mathis, and did it quickly enough to put Manning in harm's way. The Colts had three of their four sacks against the three-wide. Mathis had a strip-sack of Manning, knocking the ball free, and it was a Mathis hit later in the game that aggravated Manning's ankle injury to the point where the quarterback missed some practice time in the weeks that followed.

The Broncos could go with two tight ends from time to time to push the Colts outside rushers away from Manning a bit more because the Broncos' formation is slightly wider. The Broncos have also showed a three-wide receiver, two tight end set against 3-4 defenses this season -- no running back. And while that essentially declares it to be a pass, it does force defenses into some difficult alignment choices to account for everybody.

Set the edge: Offensively the Colts repeatedly pounded away at the edges of the Broncos’ run defense and were able to consistently fold the Broncos edge players into the middle of the field.

Players like Robert Ayers, Shaun Phillips and Jeremy Mincey, as well as as Derek Wolfe if he makes back into the lineup, simply have to hold their ground and funnel things back to where the help is in the middle of the field. The Colts had several of their big runs when they pushed in the edge, including a 30-yarder by wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey.

Cover the big guys: The Colts will also challenge the Broncos linebackers and safeties in pass coverage. In the first meeting Andrew Luck had nine completions to the backs and tight ends for 100 yards. The Colts were so focused on that matchup that when Luck and fullback Stanley Havili hooked up for a 20-yard catch-and-run play, that was half of Havili’s receiving yards for the season to that point.

Tighten the grip: The Colts were also aggressive in coming after Trindon Holliday in the return game. They made a concerted effort to keep Holliday running laterally and taking a swipe at the ball when they got to him. Their first or second tackler on the scene were aggressively swiping at the ball and Havili eventually ripped it away at one point. Since that game Holliday has had some ball security issues, including six muffed kickoffs or punts -- the Broncos have lost possession on one of those. The postseason is where mistakes on special teams always seem to crater somebody’s best-laid plans along the way. Holliday must be more reliable with the ball than he’s been of late.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos checked an awful lot of things off the to-do list in Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Oakland Raiders.

They set some records, including the league’s single-season scoring mark at 606 points, put their 13th 30-point game of the year in the 34-14 victory and rested some starters along the way as they had largely earned the AFC’s top seed with a 31-0 halftime lead.

And after a long look at the video from Sunday’s win, here are some thoughts on the team’s defense and special teams:

• Jack Del Rio has made a habit of playing plenty of personnel groupings in his time as the Broncos' defensive coordinator. He says it helps players maximize whatever they can bring to the defense as well as keeps them engaged with the lure of at least some playing time always in front of them. But he has also consistently found roles for players the Broncos signed after they had been cast aside by others. Even on short notice.

The latest is former first-round pick Michael Huff. Huff has struggled at times in his career to live up to his lofty draft status -- seventh overall in 2006 by the Raiders -- and was released earlier this season by the Baltimore Ravens, who weren’t exactly loaded on the defensive depth chart at that time. The Broncos signed Huff on Nov. 19 and played him for two special teams snaps on Dec. 1.

Over the last two games, Del Rio has found a place for him in the defense. Huff has played in the nickel (five defensive backs), dime (six defensive backs) and when the Broncos go to their seven defensive-back look. Del Rio has played Huff deep at safety and played him as a weak-side linebacker. He’s also played Huff along the line of scrimmage in rush situations -- Huff ran down Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor on one of those snaps Sunday. Huff played 15 snaps in the Broncos’ win over Houston and then followed that with 25 snaps on Sunday against the Raiders. The Broncos were moving some people out of the game in the second half with a 31-0 halftime lead, but it does show Del Rio has found a niche for the veteran safety. And with Duke Ihenacho expected to be under the guidelines of the league’s concussion protocol for “a while’,’ as John Fox put it, Huff figures to be in the rotation plenty in the postseason as well.

• Raiders coach Dennis Allen was on John Fox’s staff with the Broncos when the Broncos launched the read-option on the NFL world as a predominant offensive set in 2011 with Tim Tebow at quarterback. So, you would think Allen would have known. But since the Broncos have consistently defended others’ attempts to run the offense, especially when it comes to limiting the rushing yards out of the quarterback position. Fox has routinely played something that looks far closer to a 3-4 look on defense with three down linemen and five-man fronts to hold the edges. The Broncos did so again Sunday and with the benefit of a big lead as well to mute the Raiders’ attempts to run the ball. Pryor finished with 49 yards rushing in the game and the Raiders ran for 64 yards overall. In the Sept. 24 meeting Pryor rushed for 36 of the Raiders’ 49 yards. Against the Redskins, the Broncos held Robert Griffin III to seven yards rushing on his five carries.

• Necessity has dictated the Broncos' desire for defensive end Robert Ayers to have a big part in the team's postseason plans after Von Miller. Ayers led all Broncos players with 44 snaps in Sunday’s win and it was the first time all season Ayers has led the defense in playing time. During Miller’s six-game suspension to open the season, the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent, played 70 snaps in the opener, 59 in Week 2 against the Giants and 42 against the Eagles in Week 4. The Broncos need Ayers to regain his early momentum when he had 4.5 sacks in the first five games. He had one after Miller returned to the lineup with Miller and Shaun Phillips getting the majority of the work in the rush positions. Beyond the lure of chasing a Super Bowl trip, the open market awaits Ayers at season’s end, a big postseason push would certainly help his cause.

• In what was a rare turn of events for what has been a difficult season at times, the Broncos defense did not play a snap on its own side of the 50-yard line in the first half of Sunday’s win. The Raiders never advanced the ball past their own 48-yard line in their six first-half possessions. The Raiders didn’t have a drive longer than 28 yards until the fourth quarter. They scored of two of their three possessions in the fourth quarter against some Broncos reserves.

• The Broncos special teams continue to find themselves a little wobbly on the doorstep to the postseason. Since the Week 7 loss in Indianapolis Trindon Holliday has muffed the ball on six returns, losing one of those. Over that span the Broncos have also surrendered a 108-yard kickoff return for a score to the Chiefs, from running back Knile Davis, a 95-yard kickoff return to the Titans' Leon Washington and a 51-yard punt return to the Texans' Keshawn Martin. And now add the first blocked punt of Britton Colquitt's career to the list, on his 317th punt. Raiders' running back Jamize Olawale came untouched through the heart of the Broncos' formation for the first-quarter block. The Broncos defense held and the Raiders missed the field goal attempt that followed, but it was a quality design by the Raiders with an overload off the ball and it will be a surprise if an upcoming playoff opponent doesn’t try something similar.

It also continues a troubling trend for the Broncos, who have been consistently solid on those units in recent seasons. While they can't add signifciant help to the roster and injuries have taken their toll on the depth chart, they still have to find the assignment discipline they showed so often early on this season.

Broncos Rewind: Defense, special teams

December, 24, 2013
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The Denver Broncos know what needs to be done to get everything they want heading into the postseason. They need to play the regular season to the end, they need to win in Oakland on Sunday and they certainly would like to stay as healthy as possible doing it.

If they accomplish all that, they will have home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs and certainly will be one of the Super Bowl favorites.

And after a long look at the video from this past Sunday’s 37-13 win over Houston, here are some thoughts on the team’s defense and special teams:
    [+] EnlargeChamp Bailey
    Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsDenver's Champ Bailey had a strong showing this past Sunday as a slot cornerback.
  • In the search for something more on defense, as well as deal with their share of injuries on that side of the depth chart, Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has tried plenty of people in plenty of jobs over the past 15 games, including three players in Paris Lenon, Michael Huff and Jeremy Mincey, who were signed off the street and are now in the rotation in a variety of situations. And Sunday Del Rio took a 12-time Pro Bowl selection at cornerback, who has played the vast majority of his snaps on the outside, and put Champ Bailey in the slot. The results were good for everybody, including Bailey, who has spent much of the season trying to come back from a foot injury he suffered in the preseason. The Broncos have put Bailey on a pitch count of sorts, and the win over the Texans was just the fourth time he had been in the lineup this season. Bailey has played out of the slot plenty in his career, but usually when asked to shadow a receiver no matter where the wideout lines up. This time he played inside with Chris Harris Jr. and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the two outside spots. “Champ hasn’t played in the slot a lot, at least since I’ve been here,’’ Harris Jr. said. “But he’s Champ Bailey.’’ In all Bailey played 35 snaps against the Texans and showed the fast-twitch reaction, anticipation and strength needed to play inside. And save for a cut on the bridge of his nose, he said he came though the game well. He also showed a little more top-end speed than he did in his last game -- Dec. 1 at Kansas City, a game he left at halftime -- when was asked to track Andre Johnson on a deep ball late in the game. “I like the role I was playing,’’ Bailey said. “I didn’t play every snap, which is probably smart at this point.’’ Against a bevy of three-wide receiver looks the Broncos would see in the postseason, it also gives the team some matchup options moving forward.
  • The Texans were consistently able to get Johnson into some favorable matchups against a Broncos defense adding players from well off the ball to the pass rush and dropping some others off the line into coverage. Lenon found himself tracking Johnson at one point in the second quarter and later in the game Johnson had linebacker Danny Trevathan in tow as well. Overall Johnson was able to find some room to work when the Texans elected to throw against the Broncos' base defense. Johnson had a 33-yard catch in the first quarter against the base look, an 18-yarder against the base look in the second quarter and dropped what would have been a touchdown pass against the Broncos’ base defense in the third quarter. The Broncos played much of the game without Von Miller in the base defense and had already adjusted the lineup once again when they started Duke Ihenacho at safety in the base. The Broncos had used Omar Bolden in that safety spot in the previous two games.
  • If the Broncos are going to find a way to pressure quarterbacks in Miller’s absence there are times when a three-man grouping of Shaun Phillips, Malik Jackson and Robert Ayers will have to make it happen. The Broncos used it plenty in some of their specialty packages Sunday, dropping eight players into coverage. The three consistently found ways to affect Texans quarterback Matt Schaub. The Broncos also rushed three on more snaps against the Texans than they have against any other opponent this season, using a three-man rush on 10 defensive snaps. The Texans did score their lone touchdown against a three-man rush, but the Broncos also had one of their biggest hits of the game when linebacker Nate Irving blasted Texans running back Dennis Johnson for a 2-yard loss in the second quarter when Schaub was trying to get the ball out. For the season the Broncos rushed three on three snaps against the Cowboys and got an interception on one, rushed three on one snap against Jacksonville and got a sack and rushed three on three snaps against the Titans and got a sack on one of them.
  • The Broncos' first responders on special teams haven't always making the available plays of late. Texans wide receiver Keshawn Martin had a 51-yard punt return in Sunday’s game after escaping the first Broncos player to arrive, cornerback Tony Carter, and then ran by Irving, who over-pursued slightly. It was the third time in the past four games the Broncos have allowed a return of at least 51 yards, to go with the 108-yard kickoff return for a score by the Chiefs’ Knile Davis and a 95-yard kickoff return by the Titans’ Leon Washington.
  • Trindon Holliday muffed his sixth kick since the loss in Indianapolis (Oct. 20). And while Holliday has put in plenty of work catching the ball going back as far as offseason workouts, a look at each of those plays, including Sunday’s, does show a bit of a trend. Often when Holliday misplays a ball, it’s when he is drifting backward as he receives the ball. It can be a kick he didn’t expect to travel as far as it did or one he doesn’t locate quickly enough off the punter’s foot. But he is far more effective, and consistent, when he doesn't put himself in a position to have to open his hips and move backward to take the ball. But the Broncos could use his explosiveness in the return game and appear to again be of a mind to take away some of his return opportunities. Eric Decker was back on a punt return for a fair catch in the fourth quarter on the next Texans’ punt after Holliday had recovered his own bobble on the previous one.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Not quite a half-full, half-empty argument, but there are enough ripples in the pond for the Broncos over the past eight games to at least evaluate some things as they point to the final two games of the regular season and into whatever becomes of the playoffs.

A thank you note might be in order as the Miami Dolphins did the Broncos a favor Sunday with a 24-20 win against the New England Patriots that again puts the Broncos ahead of the pack in the race for home-field advantage in the AFC despite the Broncos' loss Thursday night to the San Diego Chargers. Friday, Broncos head coach John Fox, with the players set for a weekend off, attempted to at least stem some of the angst about Thursday night’s defeat with; “I think we lost our third game, not our 13th. We don’t think the sky is falling."

And it’s not, not at 11-3, with two wins already in hand against the Chiefs. The Broncos still have the AFC’s best record and the second-best record in the league behind the Seahawks’ 12-2. But there is still a bit of a cleanup to be had on Aisle Broncos if they are going to play in the Trophy Game.

Notably:

[+] EnlargeChamp Bailey
Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos will need the veteran experience of cornerback Champ Bailey as they try to get their defensive woes worked out heading into the playoffs.
Same players, still need better defense: The Broncos are 5-3 in their past eight games. In those eight games they have surrendered at least 27 points five times, including all three losses.

Their offense, with quarterback Peyton Manning fueling the performance, is poised to break a pile of single-season records. But in the end, a look-pretty-and-lose season would leave an empty feeling, something many of the league’s highest scoring offenses (including the current single-season record holder, the 2007 Patriots), have had to live with.

And the ’07 Patriots had performed far better on defense -- they finished No. 4 in scoring defense in the regular season at 17.1 points allowed per game -- than these Broncos have. The Broncos are surrendering 26.6 points per game, 25th in league. It would also be time to recall the Broncos have surrendered 83 points, 694 passing yards, nine touchdown passes and had just one sack in their past two playoff losses combined -- the double overtime loss to the Ravens last January and the 45-10 implosion against New England to close out the 2011 season that effectively ended Tim Tebow's tenure in Denver.

Significant help isn’t on the way beyond Champ Bailey's potential return to the defense, so whatever the Broncos do, they have to do it with the people on hand.

“It’s something that we’re working on," Fox said. “It’s something that we have to get better at. I don’t think it’s acceptable for anybody, including those guys in that room. I think they understand that, and we have to get better to get where we want to go."

Wave bye to flags: The Broncos have spent a lot of time discussing the character and talent in their locker room, and deservedly so.

But there are times when the Broncos lack the kind of down-to-down discipline that is essential in postseason football, and part of the rather enormous difference between cruising through an October blowout and winning a tight game in January.

You don’t have to look beyond a third-quarter drive Thursday night when the Broncos, in need of as many possessions as possible in a game they trailed 24-10 at the time, had a neutral-zone infraction on a punt that gave the Chargers first down. Denver had a 12-men on the field penalty later in the drive that turned what would have been a second-and-14 into a first-and-5.

After 14 games, before Thursday night’s affair and this weekend’s games, the Broncos were one of just five teams with at least 110 total penalties, including those that were declined.

Seattle, Oakland, St. Louis and Tampa Bay were the others. The Broncos have also had four games this season with at least 10 total penalties, including those that were declined, and after 13 games no team had more defensive holding penalties (13) than the Broncos.

Welker
Adjust for Welker injury: The Broncos might need a tactical adjustment with Wes Welker's concussion, his second over a four-game span.

It kept him out of Thursday’s game, and Fox said Friday that Welker had not yet been cleared medically to return to activity. It makes Welker’s availability uncertain, and even with Andre Caldwell's performance Thursday night, the Broncos lack a consistent presence in the slot when they go three-wide without Welker in the lineup.

That’s an issue, especially with an 0-for-6 performance on third down in the first half Thursday night, and the Chargers' ability to keep the ball away from Julius Thomas, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker in the second half -- just three catches combined after halftime. For the season, including penalty snaps, the Broncos have worked out of the three wide on 77.5 percent of their offensive snaps.

Against the Titans, the Broncos worked out of the three-wide set on 57.6 percent of the snaps, and still scored 51 points as they used a two-tight-end set that included Jacob Tamme and Julius Thomas, the best receiving combination at the position, much of the time when they weren't in three-wide. They worked out a two-tight-end set on 68.5 percent of the snaps Thursday night, including penalty plays, and finished with a season-low 20 points.

Tamme played just nine snaps in the game as the Broncos went with a more physical look in the two-tight-end set with Virgil Green and Thomas together against the Chargers’ 3-4 look. When the Broncos couldn’t run the ball effectively, that bigger set lost its benefit. And if they’re without Welker, it likely leaves them trying to decide between a little more protection for Manning in the formation or a little more pop with Tamme and Julius Thomas in with Decker and Demaryius Thomas.

Holliday
Get special again: By the time the season was a month old, Trindon Holliday had two touchdown returns. Then Holliday had a 40-yard return in Week 5, and David Bruton had a 35-yard run on a fake punt in Week 6. Toss in Matt Prater's NFL record 64-yard field goal against the Titans, and there has been plenty to like.

At their best, the Broncos' special teams units have been lock-it-down solid over the past two seasons. But as injuries, particularly on defense, have jumbled the depth chart there, the special teams units have looked unsettled as well.

Holliday has not looked confident fielding the ball of late, especially Thursday, when he returned after missing a game with a shoulder injury. He’s muffed five catches in the past eight games, losing two of them. The Chiefs’ Knile Davis had a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the Titans' Leon Washington had a 95-yard kickoff return that set up a touchdown, and a punt hit Tony Carter in the leg in the loss against New England in Foxborough, Mass.

Any one of those plays are just the kind that turn playoff games.
Mike Adams, Keenan Allen, Kayvon WebsterAP Photo/Joe MahoneyKeenan Allen landed in the end zone twice, and the Chargers proved too elusive for Denver all night.

DENVER -- It's one thing to say you don’t like Thursday night games. It's another thing to play like you don’t like Thursday night games.

And the Denver Broncos, just four days after their 11th win of the season put them on the inside track for home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs, looked wobbly, tired and more than a little gassed in a 27-20 loss to the San Diego Chargers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

They looked, well, beatable. On their home field, no less. In a game they will -- should they have to make a January trip to Foxborough, Mass. -- not remember all that fondly.

"I’d say we didn’t have our best stuff. … They obviously did a better job getting ready on a short week than we did," Denver coach John Fox said.

But the Broncos aren't alone in the predicament they put themselves in Thursday night. The NFL record book is peppered with high-flying, throw-it-around offenses that have faced the same problem when it comes to getting into the trophy games: What happens when things don’t go exactly right?

When the timing isn’t there, when somebody else has a good plan, when the field isn’t in good shape, when it’s windy or somebody gets hurt. Even the best of the best touchdown producers through the years have needed a Plan B to pull them through at some point.

And, on a night when Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano (a Boulder, Colo., native) was able to finally slow the train that has been the Broncos’ offense, Denver did not have an alternative. The Broncos were a three-dimensional example of a one-dimensional attack, managing just 18 yards on 11 carries.

They had three-and-outs on three consecutive possessions in the second quarter. Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Eric Decker had three receptions combined in the second half, and Peyton Manning’s longest completion was for 22 yards. The Broncos had a season-low time of possession of 21:11, and a team that had averaged 27.9 first downs per game came up with only 19 against the Chargers.

"We didn’t have the ball much," Manning said, "and when we had it, though, we didn’t do enough with it. … We got beat by a team that played better than us."

The Broncos teased a little with 10 points on their first two possessions, including a touchdown on their first drive after Chargers coach Mike McCoy elected to give Manning the ball to open the night after San Diego won the coin toss. But, after those two scores, there was a 29-minute span of game time in which the Broncos gained all of 13 yards on 13 plays.

"From that standpoint, we had those three three-and-outs in a row, and that ended up, it was damaging enough to cost us the lead," Manning said. "And [we] were never able to recover from that."

For those who have wondered what the Broncos would look like if they didn’t have a pile of touchdowns along for the ride, the picture was not pretty. A defense that has largely been considered a ball-and-chain to the operation did not rise up, did not make a play when it was needed, did not pull the team through when it had an opportunity to do just that.

The Chargers were the 14th consecutive team to score at least 17 points against Denver this season. They rushed for 177 yards and converted six of 12 third downs. These numbers were just the latest addition to a somewhat alarming pile of issues for a Broncos defense still searching for answers in mid-December.

"They made a lot of plays on third down, and that’s the tale of this game, not getting off the field on third down," linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. "Thursday night or not, it shouldn’t matter. Any time you step out on that field, you have to put out your full effort, and [Thursday night] we fell short of that."

"We’ve got to get a lot better, we know that," defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said.

The Broncos didn't get much out of the third phase, either. Returner Trindon Holliday made a couple of questionable decisions fielding the ball early in the game, and Nate Irving committed a comeback-crushing neutral-zone infraction in the third quarter that turned a much-needed stop into a San Diego first down. The Chargers kept the ball and ground seven more minutes off the clock, seven minutes the Broncos could have used before all was said and done.

"That penalty was a killer right there. … We didn’t stop the run; we didn’t stop the pass," cornerback Chris Harris said. "We have to get that right. We have the players in here to do it, but we have to get that done."

The Broncos are still 11-3, still in position to win their division and still in position, with a little help from somebody against the Patriots along the way, to gain home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. Only the Texans and Raiders remain on the Broncos' schedule.

But, on a night when the offense reached out a hand because it needed some help, there was none to be found. And a team that has operated with so much confidence behind a historic offense came away with an uncomfortable feeling.

"We weren’t the best team on the field tonight," Woodyard said. "And it showed."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- After he suffered two concussions over the last four games, Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker was formally ruled out of Thursday night's game against the San Diego Chargers.

The move was not a surpise and Welker was not considered in line to play at any point this week by the Broncos. Welker is subject to the league's concussion protocol and did not take part in either of the team's practices Tuesday or Wednesday. He will continue to be evaluated and must be symptom free, as cleared both by the team's medical staff as well as an independent doctor, before he can return to the practice field.

Tight end Jacob Tamme figures to get most of Welker's snaps in the offense against the Chargers.

Defensive end Derek Wolfe, who has not practiced since suffering seizure-like symptoms on the team's Nov. 29 bus ride to the airport for the trip to Kansas City, was also formally ruled out for the game.

Cornerback Champ Bailey, who was a full participant in Tuesday's practice, was limited Wednesday and formally listed as questionable as he continues to deal with a left foot injury that has kept him out of the lineup for all but three games this season.

Bailey played about a half in the Broncos' win at Kansas City, but after both Bailey and Broncos secondary coach Cory Undlin talked about it on the sideline Bailey was removed from the game. Bailey later said he didn't feel “confident'' as he played in that game.

The Broncos have taken a more measure approach since.

"Being real honest, we may have rushed him a little bit, don't know if he was completely ready,'' said Broncos coach John Fox, following. "He's missed a lot of time this year, we just want to make sure. Down the stretch we're going to need him. We just want to make sure he's completely ready when we put him out there.''

All of the others on a long list of players on the Broncos injury report are expected to be available to play against the Chargers. That total included wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (left shoulder), running back Knowshon Moreno (shoulder), wide receiver Eric Decker (ribs), tight end Julius Thomas (right knee) and kick returner Trindon Holliday (shoulder), who were all full participants at Wednesday's practice and are all expected to play against the Chargers.

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