NFL Nation: Montee Ball
A task the guy who will hand him the ball in the coming season -- quarterback Peyton Manning -- says Ball is ready to handle. Manning said Wednesday morning, before he made an appearance as the keynote speaker at a fundraising breakfast for the Boy Scouts in Denver, he believes Ball has prepared himself for the job.
Ball, who finished his rookie season with 559 yards rushing and 20 receptions, will be asked to fill the significant role Moreno played in the offense last season. Moreno led the team with 1,038 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns, to go with 60 receptions.
Moreno, who signed a one-year deal in Miami, was also the most consistent player in pass protection the Broncos had and that was ultimately why Moreno moved into the starting role last season. The Broncos had used Ronnie Hillman (a third-round pick in 2012) as the No. 1 back through their offseason work last spring and summer, and had begun to take a look at Ball (a second-round pick last April) during training camp for that role as well.
But then Ball missed a blitz pickup in the Broncos’ preseason loss in Seattle, and Bobby Wagner blasted Manning in what was one of the biggest hits Manning has taken in his tenure in Denver. Moreno’s snap count kept increasing following that game and neither Ball nor Hillman could unseat Moreno once the regular season began.
Ball also lost three fumbles in the first 11 games, but showed steady improvement. He didn’t fumble the rest of the way, and the Broncos had slotted him in as the potential starter since season’s end.
"I thought Montee had a great year, I thought he learned a lot in his first year," Manning said. "In my past, I’ve seen a lot of development in guys from their first year to their second year … I look forward to getting even closer with him as far as being on the same page."
The Broncos have made 23 picks in those three drafts and found seven full-time starters. Denver hopes to be add to that total this season if things go as planned in May.
But let’s go inside each of those three drafts to see how things have gone and where they are headed.
First pick: Sylvester Williams, 28th overall. When the Broncos selected him last April they saw an every-down option, a potentially disruptive interior pass rusher and a player also strong enough to play with power in run defense as well.
Given Williams’ personal history -- a stint working on an assembly line in a factory before deciding to walk on to play football in junior college -- the Broncos also saw a player with plenty of room to grow on the developmental curve to go with the work ethic that put him in the a position to be a first-round pick.
With Derek Wolfe and Kevin Vickerson both having ended up on injured reserve last season, Williams went from being inactive on game day three times in the season’s first nine games to starting the team’s last four games of the regular season and three playoff games.
But running back Montee Ball (second round) will be the second starter as soon as the Broncos open their offseason workouts. Ball, with 312 snaps this past season, actually played more overall than Williams (296 snaps) and finished as the team’s second-leading rusher with 559 yards.
Williams and Ball will continue to lead this draft class. With the Broncos expected to add some wrinkles -- and attention -- to the run game, Ball will have the potential for a breakout season.
Best value pick: At the moment it’s Ball. As the 58th player selected in the 2013 draft, Ball was the classic example of production over measurables in the pre-draft process.
He didn’t run as well as many of the other running backs on the board, but he plays faster, and showed good instincts with the ball. A lot of players talk about what needs to be done. Ball actually put in the time and effort to do those things. Ball improved in pass protection, boding well for the future. Despite few opportunities as a receiver in the run-first Wisconsin offense, he will function just fine catching the ball in the league.
Now’s the time: The Broncos expect and need Williams to take a significant jump this season. There are few positions -- other than quarterback -- where it is more difficult to move quickly into the lineup and have an impact as an NFL rookie.
NFL offensive guards are far stronger, move better and play smarter so the transition for the defensive tackle can be tough because there isn’t much room to work in the middle of the field. So once a defensive tackle is shut out of the play it is difficult for him to win the advantage back.
Williams flashed the ability to consistently win position off the snap down the stretch. If he takes the usual step between a rookie and second season, he should be one of the starters on the interior.
Gone: WR Tavarres King. The Broncos believed King, who had played in a school-record 56 games at Georgia, had the physical skills to go with some on-field maturity to get into their rotation as a rookie.
And King flashed those skills in camp, but he also showed a little too much ego and attitude for the Broncos’ liking at times, so they put him on the practice squad. But after a one-week move to the active roster last October, the Broncos tried to get him through waivers and back on the practice squad to bring Von Miller back from his six-game suspension.
King was signed by the Carolina Panthers, but did not play in any games last season. That hole in the draft class means the Broncos will be inclined to take a receiver out of this draft's exceptionally deep class.
More to come? Though the Broncos will give a long look to the cornerbacks in this year’s draft, cornerback Kayvon Webster (third round) will have the opportunity to earn plenty of playing time in the nickel and dime packages moving into the season.
With Champ Bailey's departure and Chris Harris Jr. still coming back from ACL surgery, Webster will have to be in the mix.
Also, defensive end Quanterus Smith (fifth round) did not play as a rookie after the Broncos placed him on injured reserve as training camp drew to a close. Smith, who had a three-sack game against an Alabama offensive line loaded with NFL draft picks in his senior season at Western Kentucky, had torn his ACL in his last collegiate season.
The Broncos tried him in the rotation in camp, but decided to move him to the IR in an attempt to bring him back at full speed this year. With Miller still working through his return from December ACL surgery, the Broncos could use Smith to come out of the gate strong.
Smith, at 255 pounds, is slightly undersized to play the power left end spot, but could have some opportunities to play there as Miller works his way back.
The model this past season was linebacker Danny Trevathan. A sixth-round pick in the 2012 draft, Trevathan was the defense's most consistently impactful player last season, a 129-tackle guy that some personnel executives believe could have a chance to make a Pro Bowl someday if he takes the next step.
And even after the rather substantial checks the Broncos wrote in free agency, even with the draft just around the corner, three names in particular kept coming up this week at the NFL meetings when the Broncos' roster builders talked about what's to come.
Montee Ball. Kayvon Webster. Sylvester Williams.
A running back, a cornerback and a defensive tackle. All Broncos draft picks last April, and all guys if the Broncos offseason plan is to work to its fullest, who have to make the jump from potential to production.
"That's the plan, that's the hope," said Broncos head coach John Fox. " ... They're young players and it's time to take the leap of faith."
"We have some young guys who will have the opportunity to play a lot of football for us," said executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway.
"It's a young man's game and every year you take leaps of faith with young players," Fox said. " ... He grew up as a player as far as being dependable, being accountable assignment-wise, all the things young players struggle with or have the opportunity to. We'll see what this year brings."
Fox added, "He's a tremendous young player. He improved a lot -- we needed him to a year ago. I thought he turned into a pro. He understands how to prepare. Sometimes that may take a while. It didn't take him as long. We're looking for him to make good leaps."
Overall, his body of work as a rookie was solid. He played with confidence, bounced back from mistakes and was willing to press receivers up close while many cornerbacks his age are uncomfortable with that task. Former Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection, said those traits make Wesbter a starter in waiting if the kid can hold up his end of the bargain.
"He was really playing well for a young player until he broke his thumb," Fox said. "He showed good development, he earned all those reps and I've seen great growth. We kind of missed him a little bit toward the end when the thumb went bad."
He played 36 snaps on defense against the Patriots in the wake of Vickerson's injury and played as a starter down the stretch and into the postseason, topping 40 snaps in two of the final three games of the regular season.
"He grew tremendously, he earned that," Fox said. " ... I thought he had a very good rookie year ... and his track record has shown he's going to be a good player."
So, there it is, three examples why the draft will continue to be the most important roster-building exercise the Broncos do each and every year no matter how much confetti folks toss at their free-agency performance. In the end, they simply would not have been in position to spend what they did in free agency without the salary cap room created by the younger draft picks that populated most of the roster.
And their ability to move from one season to the next, with success in mind rather than trying to figure out how to escape salary cap woes, with or without Peyton Manning at quarterback down the road, will depend on them being right more than they are wrong on their draft picks.
On players like Ball, Webster and Williams.
Their 606 points were a new NFL single-season record, as were quarterback Peyton Manning's 55 touchdowns and 5,477 passing yards. They worked fast, stayed aggressive and piled up the points, wins, and some did-you-see-that highlights week after week.
And why not? The league has constructed an environment to get the points it wants, and it’s easier to throw now, given the wording and enforcement of the rules, than it has ever been. Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, who is a co-chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, which reviews any potential rules changes before they go before the owners for a vote each year, said Wednesday that the 47.682 total points per game and 697 combined yards per game last season were league records.
“No question, we have to be better in the run game," said Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway. “... To keep our personality, our approach on offense, but to do better when we do run the ball."
By necessity, design, and just the simple fact it was working so historically well, the Broncos became a one-trick pony for the most part on offense. Oh, it was an awesome trick all right, the best ever, a never-before seen combination of speed, precision and grand design.
However, the trophy didn’t come with it. There will be the same number of Lombardi trophies in the Broncos’ newly renovated complex this September as there was last year in the now demolished lobby.
And after 606 points, 55 passing touchdowns, and six 40-point games, it’s simply bad football business to really expect the passing game to do any more of the heavy lifting to finish the unfinished business. So, with the ball in their hands, that leaves special teams -- and the Broncos need to be exponentially better on both their coverage and return units there -- and the running game.
Start with running back Montee Ball. In a support role last season, his 4.7 yards per carry led the three backs -- Knowshon Moreno, Ball, and Ronnie Hillman -- who had at least 50 carries last season, and his 45-yard run was the team’s longest rushing play of the season.
He’s the starter and also the reason the Broncos haven’t made much of a move to bring Moreno back. But with guard Zane Beadles' departure in free agency, the Broncos do have some decisions up front. Protecting Manning in the middle of the formation is always Job 1.
The Broncos are looking to be bigger, more powerful on the offensive front. And looking at the video from last season’s work, looking at some of the video from the available free agents in the offensive line, and in discussions with several personnel people around the league, their best move right now is still to bump Orlando Franklin down inside to left guard and play Chris Clark at right tackle.
There are plenty of scouts who have always believed Franklin came into the league with the potential to be a better guard than tackle after he had started games at both positions at the University of Miami.
And the feeling among those personnel folks is Manny Ramirez played better at center last season than he did at guard the season before, so a move back to guard wouldn’t seem to make the Broncos better overall. But there are some plug-and-play centers in this draft, including USC’s Marcus Martin and Colorado State’s Weston Richburg (a four-year starter who once had to snap with his left hand in a game because he had broken his right one), that will be worth a long look in the second round.
The Broncos were able to get by with the throw first, second and sometimes third, approach in the regular season if 13 wins and a big slice of scoring history could ever be called just getting by. However, in the playoffs their inability to move the line of scrimmage in the run game was a factor, particularly to the weak side when you’re largely running behind offensive linemen and no tight end.
The Broncos averaged just 1.6 yards per carry in runs over the left tackle in the three postseason games, just 2.43 yards per carry inside over the left guard. The figures were far better to the right -- 5.2 yards per carry over the right tackle in the postseason, and 4.4 over the right guard.
For a team that opens up the formation in three-wide receiver sets as much as the Broncos do (more than 70 percent of the time, and more than 90 percent down the stretch) with the tight end also in the slot or out wide, they have to be far more efficient on weak-side runs. Because they all look like weak-side runs with just the center, guard and tackle moving defenders and everybody else in the pattern.
No, they don’t have to box up a historical fast-break no-huddle attack, but in those times they need to do something besides throw, they have to be far better at it, far more committed to it. This includes Manning, because if you can't win a Super Bowl after the first-ever 606-point season, it might a good idea to consider another way.
Plenty of folks around the league say they expect the Broncos to buzz in early for some specific targets and then back off to finish out with shorter-term deals weeks later after the initial waves of signings have passed. It was a profile they used last season when they moved quickly to sign Louis Vasquez, Wes Welker, Terrance Knighton and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and then waited to add players like Shaun Phillips, Stewart Bradley, Quentin Jammer and Steve Vallos.
Today: Running back
Why it's an issue: It's took Knowshon Moreno five seasons, two knee surgeries, a pile of ups and downs to go with a teetering roster spot when the Broncos opened 2013 training camp, but in the '13 season Moreno was everything the team hoped he would be all along.
He led the team in rushing, with 1,038 yards, scored 13 touchdowns overall, caught 60 passes and was the go-to guy at the position when it came to pass protection. Moreno was also the poster-child for perseverance and hard work in the team's running backs room.
He's also not expected back. Moreno is an unrestricted free agent and there is at least some feeling inside the Broncos' complex, they got every ounce of what Moreno had to give this past season. And that Montee Ball, selected in the second round of the 2013 draft, is ready to move to the front of the line.
Ball closed out last season with 120 carries for 559 yards while steadily improving his work as a receiver and as a pass protector when working out of the backfield in the team's three-wide receiver set. The Broncos want him to be the guy, and Ball has done the work to show them he wants to be the guy, too.
However, the Broncos need some depth, especially if they can't kickstart Ronnie Hillman. Hillman went from being handed the starting job last offseason to what the team considered pouting his way down the stretch when he was often a game-day inactive.
Hillman is the potential big-play guy at the position and still has a pile of un-tapped potential, but he has to show something in the offseason work as the Broncos' patience will wear thin if they don't see an uptick in both performance and preparation.
The Broncos had undrafted rookie C.J. Anderson on the roster last season, as well. And Anderson is a bigger back, but is seen as a rotation/situational player at the moment.
The best out there: Teams are not really looking -- ever -- to break the bank on older running backs in free agency, so there is at least a scenario where Moreno returns to the Broncos on a short-term -- one- or two-year deal -- if he doesn't find anything in the open market to his liking.
Overall, however, the Texans' Ben Tate, the Colts' Donald Brown, the Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew, the Raiders' Darren McFadden, the Raiders' Rashad Jennings, the Patriots' LeGarrette Blount, the Giants' Andre Brown, the Steelers Jonathan Dwyer, the Vikings' Toby Gerhart, the Steelers' Felix Jones and the Buccaneers' Brian Leonard lead what is a class full of question marks and plenty of injury history.
The 25-year-old Tate is the youngest of that group with the least wear and tear, but he also wants No. 1 back money and has already dubbed himself "elite" as the market was set to open. Jones-Drew is a former No. 1 coming off two injury-marred seasons, while Jones had just 48 carries for the Steelers last season and did not show the big-play speed he had when the Cowboys made him a first-round selection.
The rest of the backs in the groups, especially Blount, have flashed at times, but the Broncos aren't looking for a potential No. 1, but rather a back who can support their homegrown No. 1. The draft also factors in with the coming rookie class with some depth in the middle rounds for those willing to live with some growing pains that come with a younger player.
Bottom line: Free agency has not been kind to this high-impact position. As a result, the Broncos, with Ball set to be the lead guy, will take a look for a player who can take some carries from time to time and function in the team's offense, but they have bigger needs with bigger dollars to spend elsewhere on the depth chart.
But in the wake of a season in which he finally turned potential into production for the Denver Broncos -- when he rebounded from injuries, grew up and became the most reliable option in the Broncos' run game -- Moreno will soon be one of the most proven running backs on the open market.
Because that's where the Broncos' chief football decision-maker, John Elway, said all of the team's unrestricted free agents were headed with "I think they have to hit the market, the market sets those [contracts]."
And when all was said and done in the team's record-setting performance on offense, Moreno -- a player whose maturity, preparation and attention span were questioned at times in his first five seasons in Denver -- was suddenly the standard bearer.
Moreno's a guy who, as running backs coach Eric Studesville put it, "if one of our other guys wants to see how to do it, how to come to work and work, no matter where you are on the depth chart, Knowshon is the guy to look at ... I always say, I'd like to think I played a small role in that, but Knowshon did that. Knowshon made himself into what he is."
Moreno rushed for 1,038 yards (his first 1,000-yard season) and scored 10 rushing touchdowns, one of five Broncos players with at least 10 touchdowns last season. He also caught 60 passes and three more touchdowns. Toss in the fact he was the best option as a pass protector in the backfield as well, and the Broncos have plenty of work to spread around in a run game that is expected to be a priority in the coming months.
"When you talk about Knowshon, he had a tremendous year for us," Elway said. "You look at the year -- he was reliable, he caught the ball, ran the football for us and was also tremendous in pass protection. Knowshon was a big part of what we did this year."
But Moreno had a torn ACL repaired in 2011 to go with a stem-cell procedure on his knee last offseason after he was injured in the playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens. He also missed much of two training camps early in his career with injuries and the Broncos have begun the plan to move on over the past two years having selected Ronnie Hillman in the third round of the 2012 draft and Ball in the second round of the 2013 draft.
Moreno will turn 27 in July, so in the world of running backs he's still considered by personnel executives to have some miles left on the career odometer. The knee injuries will be a concern for some evaluators, especially if Moreno's representatives are looking for a longer-term deal.
The Broncos could give Moreno a look later in free agency on their terms, but he is expected to draw a better offer elsewhere.
The Broncos will look for Ball to go from productive No. 2 option -- 559 yards rushing at 4.7 yards per carry this past season -- to starter in the coming weeks. Ball, who lost three fumbles by Nov. 24 last season, settled in nicely the rest of the way, playing well down the stretch and into the postseason. Ball also caught 20 passes last season and his role in the passing game will be the part of his skill set that will need the most attention in the offseason. With Manning at quarterback, the No. 1 back in the Broncos' offense is always going to be a threat for 50 receptions.
Hillman is facing a critical offseason. The Broncos handed him the starting job last May and into training camp.
Not only did Hillman not keep the job, he didn't respond well with the competition as the season wore on and was a non-factor for much of the year and especially in the postseason.
There is a crop of bigger running backs in this draft -- there were 17 running backs at this year's scouting combine who weighed in at 218 pounds or more compared to 10 at the 2013 combine and 14 in 2012 -- and the Broncos will give several of those runners a long look in the draft.
But in the end they certainly like what Moreno became this past season. Now they want Ball to be all that, and perhaps even a little more.
Then Hillman had some trouble hanging on to the ball -- including a late fumble in Indianapolis that effectively stifled a comebacker attempt -- as well as the job. The Broncos' third-round pick in the 2012 draft moved down the depth chart and, from the team's perspective, didn't exactly respond to the demotion as they had hoped, or maybe even expected.
That run included four games when he was an inactive, a game he played in without a carry and a game in which he was in uniform but did not get on the field.
Thursday at the NFL's scouting combine, Broncos head coach John Fox expressed at least some optimism Hillman could rebound in the manner Knowshon Moreno did from both injuries and a demotion. Moreno had his first 1,000-yard rushing season in 2013.
"He's had no issues running the ball, he put it on the ground a couple times, like they all do, early in the season and really was in the mix," Fox said. "And we had some other guys -- C.J. Anderson, Montee Ball and Knowshon -- and the way it kind of works out sometimes, there's only so many can get a uniform on game day. He's in that mix, I think he's a tremendous talent, he does give us great explosion as a runner, particularly to the perimeter."
With Moreno an unrestricted free agent who will likely see bigger offers elsewhere, Hillman will get an opportunity through the offseason program to show how he will rebound from his bumpy ride in 2013. Ball is expected to be elevated into the No. 1 role if Moreno moves on and would push for more carries than the 120 he got this past season even if Moreno re-signed with the team.
That leaves Hillman, Anderson and any other future editions to the depth chart to carve up the carries that remain. Hillman and Anderson are the only other backs, other than Ball, currently under contract for next season.
"I know (Hillman) will work really hard this offseason and try to develop and get ready for next year," Fox said.
Final Power Ranking: 2
Preseason Power Ranking: 3
Biggest surprise: It took 19 games, a pile of league records and a few slices of history along the way, but by far the biggest shock for an organization that believed it had the moxie to win a title was its Super Bowl meltdown. Broncos head coach John Fox had said his team was “calloused" by all it had to overcome this season, including linebacker Von Miller's six-game suspension, five defensive starters eventually landing on injured reserve and Fox's open-heart surgery. But on the biggest stage with the biggest prize on the line, the Broncos had a night when they didn't respond to any of the adversity they faced.
Biggest disappointment: Other than losing in the title game -- “I'm not sure you ever get over that," said quarterback Peyton Manning -- it would have to be the way Miller's season dissolved. After his 18.5-sack season in 2012, the Broncos expected even more this time around. Instead, he was out for the first six games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. He came back heavier after the suspension and often looked less explosive according to many personnel executives in the league. He then suffered a season-ending torn right ACL in December. He won't be ready for training camp and may not be full speed by the start of the regular season.
Biggest need: In their past three playoff losses, the Broncos have had a combined one sack against Tom Brady, Joe Flacco and Russell Wilson. Miller has played in two of those games, albeit with a cast on his surgically repaired thumb to close out the 2011 season against the New England Patriots. They have used their opening pick in each of John Elway's three drafts as the team's top football executive on a pass-rusher -- Miller, Derek Wolfe and Sylvester Williams. It still needs some attention, as does the team's secondary; the Broncos will need to address cornerback and safety as well.
Team MVP: Manning, with 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yards passing for an offense that set an NFL record with 606 points, was the league MVP and was the Broncos' as well. Manning's drive, preparation and no-nonsense approach pushed the team past every bump it faced during the regular season, and he powered the franchise into its seventh Super Bowl. But cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and linebacker Danny Trevathan deserve special mention for being the defense's most versatile and productive players outside the glare of the team's offensive fireworks in the regular season. Trevathan and Harris were consistently the guys asked to do more in Jack Del Rio's defense.
It was as good as it had to be. Russell Wilson's passer rating was 123.1, eight different players caught his passes and he wasn't sacked or intercepted. Seattle raced out to a huge first-half lead, so Wilson didn't need to put up gaudy stats to win. But he was 4-of-5 for 64 yards on third-down plays in the first quarter, when the game was still in doubt, and he was still flinging it around in the fourth quarter as the Seahawks padded their lead.
Marshawn Lynch struggled to find room against Terrance Knighton and a Broncos defensive front focused on stopping the run. But Seattle's yards-per-carry average got a boost from Percy Harvin's 15-yard and 30-yard runs on jet sweep plays, and Lynch was able to muscle into the end zone on second down from the 1-yard line after a pass interference penalty in the end zone set up the game's first touchdown.
Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning won his fifth MVP award for a season in which he threw a record 55 touchdown passes. But he was a mess all night against Seattle's pass rush, throwing two interceptions. Led by Cliff Avril, Seattle's line moved Manning off his spot all night and batted down some key passes while the big, physical defensive backs made life miserable for Broncos receivers before and after the catch. The "Legion of Boom" lived up to its name, outmuscling the top-scoring offense in NFL history.
Total domination. And yeah, the Broncos had to get away from the run because they were down 15-0 before they had a chance to run their offense. But Seattle's front bottled up Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball, holding Denver to 27 yards rushing on 14 carries, forcing a fumble (that Denver recovered) and stripping the Broncos of any chance to maintain any level of balance on offense.
Harvin barely played all season. Finally healthy, he was a difference-maker in the biggest game of his career. Seattle's 22-0 halftime lead looked tough to overcome, but the 29-0 lead they had 12 seconds into the half after Harvin's 87-yard kickoff return for a touchdown looked impossible. Seattle's kick coverage team held electric Denver return man Trindon Holliday in check.
Give Pete Carroll the grade for the full year, as every move he made seemed to pay off. He had enough faith in his defense to let Manning start the game with the ball after he won the coin toss and to kick a first-quarter field goal instead of going for it on fourth-and-short inside the Denver 10. He also stayed aggressive even as his team was rolling early, calling timeout on a Denver fourth-and-2 from the Seattle 19 with 1:06 left in the first half. Seattle didn't even try to move the ball in the final minute after stopping the Broncos and taking possession, but it showed a coach in control of the game. You also have to hand Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn the victory over Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase in the matchup of hot head-coaching candidates.
"I've got to make sure we're all ready to go with the (satellite) dish, I don't want to miss a play," said one Jake Plummer.
Plummer, who was the Denver Broncos' honorary captain before last Sunday's divisional round win against the San Diego Chargers, just happens to be the last Broncos quarterback before Peyton Manning this past Sunday, to win a divisional round game and get to the AFC Championship Game. That 2005 Broncos team had stumbled into a home game for the conference championship when the Pittsburgh Steelers had upset Manning and the Indianapolis Colts the week before. Those Broncos certainly didn't make the most of it, the Steelers led 24-3 at halftime and went on to win, 34-17, on their way to a Super Bowl XL win.
Cornerback Champ Bailey is the only current Broncos player who played in that game.
For his part, Plummer has seen the Broncos plenty this season and having prepared to face New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick -- the Broncos defeated Belichick's Patriots in the divisional round following the 2005 season -- Plummer sees a few important items on the Broncos' to-do list.
Get running back Knowshon Moreno going. Moreno had a career-best 224 yards rushing in the Broncos' Nov. 24 loss to the Patriots on a career-high 37 carries. The Broncos rushed for 280 yards overall, working almost exclusively out of a three-wide receiver set.
"I think at times Knowshon can quite possibly be the MVP of that offense in the kind of situations you get in the playoffs," Plummer said. "Peyton's going to throw it in the red zone, he's going to get his touchdowns, but Knowshon is huge for them to keep things going.
"Knowshon is so good in the passing game, as a blocker in there and as a receiver, but if they get Knowshon going, then they have play-action, it keeps the rush off Peyton and when Peyton has the option of play-action, defenses, man, they don't know what to do with that offense then. Because they can come at you in the same action up front, run or pass, and Peyton sees those guys on defense coming up, he's going over the top."
Be ready to adjust. While every coach before every game talks about taking away something the opponent wants to do, Plummer said Belichick is simply one of the best at doing it.
"He's just always focusing in on stopping what you do well and then see if you have anything else in your back pocket, he almost never lets you beat him with what you do best," Plummer said. "With his own guys, he takes players and finds their strengths, rather than just trying to jam everybody into a system ... he has a way of getting those guys where they need to be and knowing how to shut down what you do well and seeing if you've got anything else in your repertoire. There will come a time in the game when the Broncos have to have other people make those plays.
"If the Broncos open it up a little bit, like they like to do, I could see Belichick attacking Julius (Thomas) and Montee (Ball) in the passing game. That could give them a little bit of trouble. I could just see Belichick, in search of a matchup, shift some things around to force Julius and Montee in to a tough choice in pass protection, where they're 1-on-1 with a defensive end or a linebacker. Julius, man, that guy is a superstar waiting to happen, but right now he has some things blocking that need some work and if they get the chance Belichick will try to create an issue there so the Broncos will have to have an answer."
Manage the moment. Plummer's former teammate, Broncos Ring of Famer Rod Smith said Thursday he didn't think some of the Broncos handled that end of things in the loss to the Steelers eight Januarys ago.
"We didn't have to go to Indy, Pittsburgh had to come to us and everybody was excited about that," Smith said. "And I'm like 'no, you gotta go play.' It's not about being excited about playing at home, it has nothing to do with it. You've got a football game ... and honestly I kind of saw a lot of our younger guys got lost in the fact we had a home game instead of getting lost in the fact of getting in that playbook, getting focused in, being disciplined on the things we need to do as a team and we didn't play well and we lost."
But both Plummer and Smith see players, such as Manning and Bailey, as key in the effort to keep their teammates dialed in. Smith said last January's loss should still sting the Broncos players who lived it and Plummer said it's often the team that handles that early-game emotional swirl the best is the one that plays closest to the form that got it this deep into January in the first place.
"You're asking me like I'm a pro, I went once to the AFC Championship," Plummer said with a laugh. "But the whole thing changes. ...The pressure is huge, but you have to try to approach it like any other game, it is just a football game, it's the same thing you played in Week 1. There's just so much more riding on it. You're one game away from the game everybody starts the season wanting to get to. The pressure mounts. There's no way to not feel it, but the guys who stay calm and do what they do best that's the key. With Peyton back there I kind of feel like, whatever storm New England brings, they'll come out on top and move on to New York."
As a player, Elway spent over two decades in locker rooms, either at Stanford or with the Broncos, and he didn't like the one he saw a floor below when he moved into his office three seasons ago.
"I think, No. 1, we had to clean up the locker room," Elway said. "We had to get the locker room right … and get the right mentality in that locker room because that is really life bread of what the organization is all about. How that locker room fits is the most important thing. If that doesn't fit -- what we're all doing really is not that important because you can't make it work."
And that is the story, in particular, of the Broncos' record-setting offense. Start with Peyton Manning, not just a signing in free agency, but the signing of the free-agency era. By anyone.
He has been every bit the raise-all-boats guy, a future Hall of Famer who changed everything the minute he walked through the door at the Broncos' suburban complex.
Add in Wes Welker and right guard Louis Vasquez, who signed as free agents last March. They have been everything the Broncos had hoped they would be. Vasquez (6-foot-5, 335 pounds) signaled a transition in personnel philosophy up front; he's 60 pounds heavier than some of the Broncos' linemen were a decade ago. He helped lock down the middle of the Broncos' offensive line.
But the rest of the Broncos' 606-point touchdown factory is largely a homegrown affair. And that's likely the only way it could happen.
"I enjoyed coaching this group," said Broncos head coach John Fox. "They come to work, they're accountable and they care about each other … and you can get some things done like that."
A team couldn't buy five players in free agency who were good enough to finish with at least 10 touchdowns each. A team couldn't buy five players to have at least 60 receptions, no matter who the quarterback is. And the Broncos didn't.
Demaryius Thomas (2010), Eric Decker (2010), Julius Thomas (2011) and Knowshon Moreno (2009) are all Broncos draft picks. Ryan Clady, the Broncos' Pro Bowl left tackle on injured reserve, was Mike Shanahan's last first-rounder in 2008. Orlando Franklin (2011) and Zane Beadles (2010) are Broncos' draft picks as is Montee Ball (2013).
Center Manny Ramirez was signed to a futures contract in 2011 -- the NFL's version of an NBA 10-day deal -- and signed an extension this season after becoming a starter. And Chris Clark, who has filled in for Clady, was claimed off waivers by the Broncos in 2010.
"People say it's about win now, it's about now on," Elway said. " … Then you get a guy like Peyton Manning. Now it's about trying to find all the pieces together and obviously I said now on, but we're not just trying to find young guys. We're going to find guys that fit, young and old guys, that fit together."
Whatever becomes of this season, whether the Broncos move on to the Super Bowl or not, they will face some decisions in the coming weeks about some of those home-grown players. Decker, Beadles and Moreno are all pending free agents this year with Demaryius Thomas set to be up after the 2014 season. But those are all topics for other days.
In the end the Broncos didn't get what they wanted on the field until they shored up the team off of it.
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.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos are the face of a passing league.
They launched 675 passes this season, but it probably seemed like more to the defenses caught in the vapor trail. Quarterback Peyton Manning finished out the regular season with 5,477 passing yards and 55 touchdowns. If you're thinking about an NFL offense, there is a good chance you're thinking about Manning and the Broncos' fast-break, no-huddle attack first, or you don't get too far down the list before you do.
But in the postseason? The postseason brings the potential of defenses good enough to take away a team's preferred option. It also brings with it weather, with the kind of wind that grounds flights, let alone quarterbacks.
"We always want to have that option," Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno said of the team's ground game. "If they start calling our numbers, no question Montee [Ball] and I want to be ready to be those guys."
The highest-scoring offense in league history has already played its wild card in these playoffs. The Broncos ran the ball 34 times for 133 yards in their divisional round win over the San Diego Chargers. There is a feeling around the team that even with Manning and a passing attack that features a staggering five different players with at least 60 catches, the Broncos will need to go by land from time to time.
"It was critical; we stressed all week being productive on first and second down," Manning said. "We did not do that last time we played San Diego and got into some third downs and didn't convert those. We were good on third down because we were good on first and second down. That was the point of emphasis all week, and we carried that from the practice field to the playing field. It was good to see that pay off. A mix of some runs and some short passes to keep moving the chains. So it was a good job by the guys up front. I thought Montee and Knowshon both ran really hard.”
The Broncos were certainly not alone this past weekend. The four winning teams in the divisional round ran the ball a combined 149 times. In fact, the average rushing line in the four games was 37.25 carries for 166.75 yards. The Patriots ran for 234 yards, the Seahawks ran for 174 yards, the 49ers ran for 126, all to go with the Broncos' 133 yards.
That's a whole lot of dirt under a whole lot of fingernails for a league that has supposedly left grind-it-out football behind. But there is plenty of logic to go with the necessity. With passing attacks like the Broncos and Patriots have, defenses often answer with smaller personnel groupings in both the defensive line and in the secondary.
Against defenses built for speed, New England coach Bill Belichick has even taken the approach a step further. They not only run against those lighter groupings, they can repeatedly pound away with the mammoth LeGarrette Blount, at 250 pounds, or the 220-pound Stevan Ridley.
The Patriots ran the ball on 62.5 percent of the their offensive snaps in Saturday night's victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
And the last time the Broncos and Patriots faced each other this season -- Nov. 24 on a frigid, blustery night in Foxborough, Mass. -- the Broncos ran for 280 yards, with all but one of their 48 carries coming out of a three-wide receiver formation. They had 38 of those runs with Manning lined up in shotgun.
"When we're efficient in our running game, that is when you're looking for that balance." Gase said. "When we're able to move the ball efficiently in the running game and the passing game, that's when you get that. It's never really going to be 50-50. You try to get that. A lot of times it's probably more 60-40 for us ... And that is on me to make sure we make the adjustments we need to make and then stick with the run."
Because of the constant threat of the passing game all across the league, defenses are built more for situational football, for moving people in and out of the lineup, to defend wide-open formations and uberquarterbacks. Some defenses just aren't built to dig in, down after down, and defend, helmet on a helmet, the point of attack in run defense.
It's not so true in the NFC, where the two remaining teams in the postseason both finished in the league's top 10 in run defense -- San Francisco was fourth and Seattle was tied for seventh. In the AFC, however, only two teams in the playoff field (the Broncos and Cincinnati) finished among the league's top 10 in run defense (Cincinnati No. 5, Denver No. 7).
"We always feel like, as a defense, we need to be ready for when offenses line up and come right at us," Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. "I think in this time of year, teams are always going to look to run the ball. I think it's always been that way."
"I think balance is important, keeping the ability to do both [on offense]," Broncos head coach John Fox said. "It keeps defenses guessing a little better. It' s not easy to do, something you stress, something that I believe is important, especially in playoff season."
DENVER -- A few thoughts on the Denver Broncos 24-17 win over the San Diego Chargers:
What it means: A 365-day wait, with all of the questions and the collective angst from their faithful in tow, is over. The Broncos faced a pile of pressure from within and from the outside Sunday to repair what went wrong in the double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens last Jan. 12. Sunday's win gave the Broncos their first postseason victory since a wild-card win over the Pittsburgh Steelers following the 2011 season. It gave the team their first AFC Championship Game appearance since the 2005 season and a rather hearty serving of relief after a third-and-17 conversion just before the two-minute warning. They will play better next week with the pressure off.
Stock watch: There was a point this season when rookie running back Montee Ball had lost three fumbles -- he lost his third of the season Nov. 24 against the Patriots -- and the Broncos were considering dialing back his workload. But Ball promised then he could fix the problem and has kept his word. He hasn’t fumbled since and the Broncos gave him premium carries Sunday. He showed the balance and the vision in traffic the Broncos saw when they drafted him. Ball had 52 yards on 10 carries by the time the third quarter drew to a close. Folks will see more of Ball moving forward as the Broncos would like to split the carries between him and Knowshon Moreno as evenly as possible.
Eye on Harris Jr.: Before Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. left Sunday’s game with knee and ankle injuries, the Broncos defense was easily having its best outing of the season. The Broncos had frustrated Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and controlled the run game. However, after Harris left early in the second half, things turned slightly, including a touchdown throw from Rivers to Keenan Allen with 12:59 left in the game with Quentin Jammer in coverage. Jammer was in for Harris Jr. The injury will be significant if Harris Jr. is unable to play next week. He has been their most consistent defensive back and he plays in every situation.
Wind-swept trouble: Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase always said wind has a far bigger impact on the Broncos' offense than cold, rain or anything else. And on a blustery day -- with wind gusts in the 40-mile-an-hour range -- it had an impact at times on the Broncos' high-flying ways. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning was efficient and the Denver offense moved the ball at will on multiple drives. But facing into the wind the Broncos also struggled at times and looked out of sorts. Toss in a few drops, an ill-timed penalty or two and a missed field goal, and the road got decidedly more bumpy for the Broncos in the second half. If they are going to be the last team standing, the Broncos will have to have a definitive answer against a healthy, physical opponent, when they can’t work their passing game at warp speed.
What’s next: Manning versus Brady yet again. The New England Patriots will come to Denver for Sunday’s AFC Championship Game. To make it to a Super Bowl, Manning will have to solve coach Bill Belichick's defensive riddle, and the Broncos will have to slow the Patriots' powerful run game.
Broncos wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert calls them “the 5-10 club.’’ It’s exclusive to be sure, and beyond having a future Hall of Famer at quarterback, it makes the Broncos' offense tough to decode. It has also created a battle on the Broncos’ practice field just to get involved in some way, and that has helped everyone.
“The hardest thing to do here is get on the field,’’ Tolbert said of the Broncos’ game-day choices.
Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas had 14, running back Knowshon Moreno had 13 (10 of those rushing), tight end Julius Thomas had 12, wide receiver Eric Decker had 11 and wide receiver Wes Welker had 10, despite missing the last three games of the season. All with quarterback Peyton Manning dealing for a league-record 55 touchdown passes in Adam Gase’s high-speed attack that set a league record with 606 points.
And just to frame things properly, there were 23 players leaguewide this season who finished with at least 10 touchdowns. The Broncos had 21.7 percent of the total and were the only team on the list with more than two players.
“It can be anybody at any time,’’ Thomas said. “It can be anywhere on the field to any of our guys. … That’s why everybody’s always ready, so when the ball comes your way you can make a play, or if the ball doesn’t come your way you can help somebody else make a play.''
Case in point is Andre Caldwell, who had five catches in the Broncos’ first 13 games. Then, in the first of three games Welker missed because of a concussion down the stretch, Manning had six completions to Caldwell, including two touchdowns.
“With Peyton Manning at quarterback, anybody can score at any given time,’’ Tolbert said. “Our guys know that. … All of a sudden Welker goes down, the next game 'Bubba' comes in and he has two touchdowns.’’
Defending Manning has always been about choices for opposing coaches. When Manning led the Indianapolis Colts, they had to deal with likes of Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Edgerrin James and Joseph Addai through the years. And in 2004 the Colts featured an offense with three 1,000-yard receivers in Harrison, Wayne and Brandon Stokley to go with a 1,548-yard rusher in James.
Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey was on the field for Denver when that Colts team defeated the Broncos, 49-24, in an AFC wild-card game as Manning finished 27-of-33 for 458 yards and four touchdowns. Wayne, often in man coverage on then-rookie Roc Alexander, finished with 221 yards receiving and Clark finished with 112 yards.
"That team could come at you a lot of different ways,’’ Bailey said. “This one, and time will tell, can spread it out even a little more, especially down in the red zone where offenses are always looking for those matchups to win. Defense is about tendencies sometimes, percentages and what teams have done in the past in similar situations, and this offense is tough that way. And Peyton has 10 more years’ experience in the league, 10 more years of doing what he does, and that’s a lot of time.’’
Also, many defensive coaches say they can find a way to offer at least some double coverage on three players in the pass pattern, but that things get dicey with the fourth. And if the offense’s running back can contribute as a receiver as the fifth, then there are almost always choices for a quarterback savvy enough who has enough time to find them.
That has taken some potential predictability out of the equation as defenses prepare. The Broncos had five different players with at least 60 receptions. Gase has also used the running game more than most might think.
The Broncos finished the regular season with 461 rushing attempts -– 11th in the league -- and the team’s 16 rushing touchdowns were tied for seventh in the league. Of the remaining teams in the playoffs, the Broncos, the New England Patriots (second, with 19) and the San Francisco 49ers (fourth, 18) finished among the league’s top seven in rushing scores.
“I think our guys just feel like anything can happen at any time with the guy we have at quarterback … so they prepare like it, every rep is a championship rep in practice, and those opportunities come,’’ Tolbert said. “I don’t think we have the kind of players who worry about the numbers. They just prepare and go play.’’
The Broncos also enter the playoffs at full strength. The last time the Broncos faced the Chargers – a 27-20 San Diego win on Dec. 12 – Welker did not play and Caldwell had his two-touchdown game. The Chargers were effective at getting to Manning at times with a variety of coverage looks that included safety Eric Weddle lining up all over the formation.
And while the Chargers did surrender the scores to Caldwell, they held Julius Thomas, Thomas and Decker to just three receptions combined in the second half, forcing Manning to throw to running backs Moreno and Montee Ball. The Broncos did not have a pass play longer than 22 yards in the game.
Welker’s presence will likely change how the Chargers go about allocating their defensive resources.
“We all know he’s a dynamic player and he’s a guy that has been a big part of our offense this year. To have him back, San Diego is going to have to key on him,’’ Decker said. “They’re going to have to make sure they have a plan for him. It just opens everybody else up and it gives us more options, more opportunities.’’
“I think everybody -- Wes and everybody that has come back from injury -- is going to be a big factor in this game,’’Demaryius Thomas said. “They didn’t account for Wes last game because he didn’t play, but they will this game. It’s good for us because you don’t know what they’re going to throw at us, but it’s another weapon on the field to help us out.’’