NFL Nation: Nate Irving

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos continue to grind through their preseason work, and as they get set to roll through their third week with Monday morning's practice, here’s are some things to consider:
  • Nate Irving has shown the coaches he intends to be the team’s middle linebacker, and it would take some unexpected events at this point for Irving not to be the guy in the middle of the base defense. Now, that is certainly a specialty package of sorts given that the Broncos line up in the nickel more than twice as often as they do in base, but Irving has done everything the team wants him to do. And more importantly, he has improved his game since the last time they tried him in the middle before eventually moving him out of the job. So far he has been consistent in his run fits, quick to the ball and reliable in finishing tackles.
  • The Broncos are a deep team, one that’s finished 13-3 in back-to-back seasons and retained a fairly youthful roster. With that said, there aren’t all that many roster spots in play. Still, two players who arrived a bit under the mainstream radar are making pushes to star. Rookie running back Juwan Thompson, if he maintains his current momentum, is a viable option to get snaps in the offense with the proficiency he’s shown in pass protection and the athleticism running the ball. Toss in his special-teams abilities and he should make it. The tougher question will be fifth-year wide receiver Jordan Norwood. Norwood, who has started four games in his previous four NFL seasons combined, has shown he fits the offense and could contribute as a receiver -- there are several rosters in the league he could make -- so if he can win the punt returner job, the Broncos will have to make room.
  • Rookie tackle Michael Schofield didn’t get a snap on offense in the preseason opener -- he did play six snaps on special teams -- but in looking at practice it’s clear the kid still deserves a chance at the right tackle spot. Sure, he’s going to make a mistake or two, but he looks to have the goods and will bear watching in next Sunday’s preseason game in San Francisco.
  • One of the best things the Broncos did in the preseason opener was to give backup quarterback Brock Osweiler a chance to rebound from an interception. He’s in his third season of one of the more odd apprenticeships the league has to offer. He knows the playbook, but he still needs to play. And if that means he gets more snaps than the usual No. 2 in a preseason, so be it. But the fact the Broncos let him play through three quarters last Thursday night is time well invested. Osweiler rebounded from his mistake to later make a touchdown throw -- a 34-yard rocket to Norwood down the hash -- that showed why he clearly has starter potential. Plenty of surviving as a quarterback in the league is bouncing back from a mistake to play with confidence. The Broncos need to know Osweiler can do that, and the only way to find out is to give him preseason snaps.
  • It will be a surprise if the Broncos don’t consistently create pressure on opposing passers. Their specialty packages -- nickel and dime -- will be intriguing once they unveil what they will do in the regular season. But having Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Quanterus Smith and Malik Jackson all in some kind of a front-seven mix gives defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio plenty of options.
DENVER -- The Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks had a marathon affair Thursday night in Sports Authority Field at Mile High that included a 45-minute lighting delay, a player ejection and two teams that combined for 20 penalties through three quarters.

All in all, the Broncos' 21-16 win was a rather ugly affair overall involving last February's Super Bowl teams, but also one in which the Broncos showed the kind of impact some of their new additions can have.

Here are some other thoughts on the Broncos' first preseason game of the year:


  • The Broncos have made their run game a priority throughout their offseason work as well as early on in training camp. No, they don't want to become some run-first outfit, but they do want to be able run the ball with efficiency when the game situation presents itself. To that end they have worked heavy packages in camp and broke one out on their first possession when they used three tight ends in addition to backup tackle Paul Cornick as a fourth tight end on consecutive snaps. There are rough edges to smooth as Ronnie Hillman went 2 yards and minus-1 yard on the two plays.
  • It is often logically hazardous to take a few preseason snaps and use them as a template to project anything to come in the regular season. Preseason football is routinely littered with August heroes. But DeMarcus Ware offered a glimpse of what he has left in his football tank. He blew up the Seahawks' first play from scrimmage -- a run in which Nate Irving tackled Robert Turbin for no gain -- and sacked Russell Wilson two plays later. No surprise for those who have seen Ware go about his business at Broncos camp, but put Von Miller back in the defense and the Broncos are going to be able to create plenty of pressure.
  • The Broncos had the officials in for a smattering of training camp practices. They saw the video on the "points of emphasis" on illegal contact and defensive holding. Consider them very much a work in progress there. Among the starters alone cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward were each flagged for defensive holding while Irving and fellow linebacker Danny Trevathan were flagged for illegal contact and pass interference, respectively. Ward also was flagged for a 15-yard facemask penalty.
  • Running back Juwan Thompson, an undrafted rookie from Duke, did what undrafted rookies need to do: He got noticed. Thompson had 59 yards rushing on his six carries, including a 20-yarder on a third-quarter touchdown drive. Thompson was a rotation back at Duke, but the Broncos liked what they saw from him in David Cutcliffe's offense -- the Blue Devils coach was Peyton Manning's offensive coordinator at Tennessee and remains a close confidant -- and the rookie hasn't disappointed throughout the offseason. He has a good feel in pass protection, runs with purpose and catches the ball smoothly. At 225 pounds he's also the biggest back on the roster and a former special teams captain at Duke. He's also the No. 4 back right now for a team that routinely keeps four.
  • After tinkering with the heavy formation, the Broncos' starting offense went back to its reliable three-wide set. Thirteen of the 14 plays in the unit's touchdown drive came in three-wide, the scoring play -- a 1-yard run by Hillman -- was in two tight end.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- During this past week's minicamp workouts, you could see plenty of the Denver Broncos' top draft picks on display on offense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is what Elway, as the team's chief decision-maker, needs to happen if he's going to be able to stick to his mantra that the Broncos are trying "to win [from] now on." Because, although the first- and second-day picks get the biggest headlines, it takes the third-day guys added into the equation to get any team into the biggest games.
The Denver Broncos were picking late in this year’s NFL draft – 31st in each round – and after all was said and done, with a trade here and a trade there, they turned their original seven picks into six selections.

They filled some needs with some athleticism, stuck to their board, but upon further review ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. tought their efforts were slightly above averageInsider.

While their first four picks each project to earn at least some playing time as rookies in the coming season, the immediate starters, because of the construction of the Broncos' current depth chart, could come from the middle rounds.

Tackle Michael Schofield, a witty young man who answered repeated questions about his inability to keep weight on his 6-foot-6 frame with “I make 300 [pounds] look good,’’ will get every opportunity to earn the starting job on the right side of the line.

It will be an interesting training camp since the Broncos have often leaned toward veterans in the offensive front with the current coaching staff. Orlando Franklin started at right tackle as a rookie in 2011, but has now been moved for a test drive at left guard in offseason workouts. But in the three previous drafts of the John Elway/John Fox regime the Broncos selected three offensive linemen, one in each of those draft classes. Of the three only Franklin played as a rookie and one – center Philip Blake – was cut last season.

But Schofield has the size and skill set to break through. He was a right tackle at Michigan but was athletic enough that he was told by the Wolverines’ coaching staff he would have been moved to left tackle had Taylor Lewan – a first-round pick in this year’s draft – not returned for his senior season in 2013.

And the other potential starter, at least if he can progress quickly, is fifth-round pick Lamin Barrow. Barrow, who can play the weakside spot as well as middle linebacker in the Broncos’ scheme, will at least get a look there during offseason work.

The Broncos like what Nate Irving has done already in this offseason, but the Broncos continue to want more speed and athleticism in the formation and Irving is seen as a two-down player. Lamin is seen as a potential three-down player in the Broncos' scheme, but he has a lot of ground to make up to make that happen.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When John Elway says he wants to be "ready for anything" by the time the draft opens Thursday night, he means everything.

Sitting near the bottom of the first round of this week's draft, the Denver Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager said Monday he's prepared to do what needs to be done to secure the players they want. Elway said the team is certainly willing to stay put at the 31st pick. They would also move up if they see an opportunity to snag a player they deem worthy of the capital it would take to make the move, or would move down as Elway did in 2012 when he traded out of the first round.

"We're looking at the options of moving up, but we're also looking at the possibility of moving back," Elway said. "Leading up to the draft there's going to be plenty of talk out there, and until you really get to draft day you never really know what's going to happen."

The Broncos have a routine allotment of picks at the moment -- one in each of the seven rounds. They enter this week's three-day affair coming off back-to-back 13-3 seasons, including a Super Bowl trip, and -- as Elway said -- no roster holes that need immediate attention.

"We don't feel we have huge holes so we're going to try to pick football players we believe can make our football team and also help us," Elway said.

With Wesley Woodyard having signed with the Titans in free agency, the biggest hole on the depth chart may be at middle linebacker. The Broncos took some swings at linebackers during free agency, but did not sign any of them. Elway, as he has said throughout the offseason, reaffirmed Monday his belief that the job could be filled in-house with Nate Irving handling the duties on first and second downs and safety T.J. Ward as an option in some of the team's third-down packages.

"I don't know that is necessarily a need, we feel pretty good about Nate, especially on first and second down," Elway said. " ... We're more concerned ... on third down. T.J. Ward is an option there, he does a tremendous job in the box."

If the Broncos do get any interest for a trade Thursday night, it will most likely come from a team that wants back into the first round to take a quarterback it desires.

There is also the matter of the "fifth-year" option available to teams for first-round picks in the current collective bargaining agreement. Grabbing a quarterback in the first round that a team believed could be a potential long-term starter would give the team the ability to have a fifth year on the contract instead of four on rookie deals for players selected in the second round or later.

"I think it adds to it, there's no question, especially with the quarterbacks," Elway said. "It makes the end of the first round more inviting."

Elway, a staunch believer in the "best-player-available" philosophy during the draft, said if an offensive tackle or guard was the most highly-graded player at No. 31, the team would not hesitate to take the player. If all of the cornerbacks the team likes are gone by the 31st pick, the strength of the board will likely be an edge rusher or an offensive lineman.

Also, Monday the Broncos added some help in the defensive line when they signed defensive tackle Marvin Austin. Austin, a second-round pick by the New York Giants in the 2011 draft, has been de-railed some by injuries thus far in his career.

He missed his rookie season with a torn pectoral muscle and he was waived last year by the Dallas Cowboys after injuring his back in practice. He later had surgery, but after working him out last week, Elway said Austin will join the team healthy.

"He was a guy who really had a first-round grade three years ago ... he had some injuries," Elway said. "We worked him out last week and he's healed from his back surgery."
Two guys started games at middle linebacker for the Denver Broncos this past season. They were Wesley Woodyard and Paris Lenon.

This just in: Neither is on the Broncos’ roster at the moment, so welcome to what is the still one of the biggest unanswered questions in the Broncos’ plan for 2014. But the Broncos have treated middle linebacker more as an August issue over the past two years than one to take care of in March.

Or as executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway put it recently; “We’re not as worried about middle linebacker as some other people are."

[+] EnlargeRyan Matthews, Wesley Woodyard
Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver PostWith Wesley Woodyard, left, in Tennessee, Denver is searching for a starting middle linebacker.
The Broncos exited their initial free-agent spending spree with two holes in the starting lineup unaddressed (at least officially) -- left guard and middle linebacker.

The guard spot, vacated when the Broncos let Zane Beadles leave as a free agent, will likely be filled in-house. The most likely scenarios, and two that will get a look in offseason workouts and training camp, is right tackle Orlando Franklin bumping down inside to left guard and Chris Clark moving to right tackle. Or, the Broncos can play Manny Ramirez and former Washington Redskins starter Will Montgomery -- Montgomery agreed to terms with the team Tuesday -- in some combination at guard and center with the option of leaving Franklin at right tackle.

Both Ramirez and Montgomery have started games at guard and center in their careers.

But at middle linebacker the Broncos are more willing to see what develops in what is now a situational position in their defense. In the past two years they didn’t sign one of their starters at the position until August, and both were 30-something players who were not already in somebody’s training camp.

In August of 2012 they signed Keith Brooking off the street, and he went on to play in all 16 games, starting 14 at middle linebacker. Last August they signed Lenon off the street. He started six games in the regular season and all three playoff games.

It’s a roll of the dice to wait that long and then sign a player good enough to be a potential starter, especially when the Broncos have made a concerted effort to increase their team speed on that side of the ball during this offseason. So, the inside linebackers in the draft will get a long look.

The Broncos could play a rookie in the middle if they find the right one, because weakside linebacker Danny Trevathan is the every-down guy at the position and would be comfortable calling the defensive signals as well.

That would ease the transition in the middle for a younger player, if the Broncos would commit themselves to playing a younger player there. But they haven’t shown the willingness yet. They worked out veterans D'Qwell Jackson and Lofa Tatupu last month just before Jackson signed in Indianapolis.

Tatupu hasn’t played in three seasons.

But they expect to have options later. Time is still on their side, and middle linebacker is no longer a glamour position for many teams. With the bevy of three- and four-wide receiver sets offenses use, the nickel -- five-defensive backs -- is almost the base defensive formation in the NFL.

The Broncos were in the nickel more than any other formation last season, often on early downs when a run play was still among the offenses’ choices. The Broncos had four games this past season when they were in the base 4-3 defense 12 or fewer snaps, and they had just three games last season when they spent more snaps in the base defense than they did in their five- or six-defensive back formations.

The Broncos will continue to look at the veteran players who are available, but getting a young player ready is looking increasingly like the route they will go. Nate Irving has played some in the middle, but he has been far more comfortable, and far more reliable taking on blocks, as Von Miller's backup at strongside linebacker.

In the middle, Irving has shown a tendency to be too quick to work to one side of the blocker instead of facing up and shedding to then move toward the play. That has resulted in an ill-timed running lane at times for opposing backs.

Former Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy has routinely said the way to get young players to produce in an NFL lineup is taking the first step and not being afraid to play them. For the Broncos, if they want to keep improving their team speed and fill a spot in the starting lineup, using a draft pick and not being afraid to play him in the middle might be the best way to go.
INDIANAPOLIS -- With the NFL's scouting combine officially underway and free agency to follow March 11, Thursday marks the seventh installment of a position-a-day look at where the Denver Broncos stand at each spot on the depth chart, the salary-cap commitments and where their needs are greatest.

Today: Linebackers

Friday: Defensive backs

Miller
Woodyard
Things happen in football life. Plans, from time to time, get shoved off the drawing board and shatter into pieces.

And what the Broncos plan was at linebacker, a position that was going to be among -- if not the -- deepest and most talented on the roster, pretty much imploded when Von Miller was suspended for six games to open the season for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

When Miller returned, he never reached his 2012 level of impact and was then lost for the season when he tore his ACL against the Texans in December. Wesley Woodyard also suffered a neck injury and eventually lost his starting spot along the way when he returned to the lineup.

So, two of the three expected starters weren't for roughly half the season.

Also, with Miller in just the beginning stages of his knee rehab and Woodyard an unrestricted free agent, the Broncos have a lot of uncertainty in the middle of the defense, uncertainty that will need attention.

The Alpha: It should be Miller, but it's not. If things don't change, it will be intriguing to see what kind of momentum the Broncos have toward a long-term deal given Miller's maturity issues that now come with a major knee injury. Miller becomes an unrestricted free agent following the 2014 season. Woodyard has been a team captain for six seasons, but if he moves on it leaves a large leadership hole behind. But Danny Trevathan's next step as a player will come in this regard. He was the team's best at the position this past season and is on track to be a foundation player in the defense.

He's young, entering just his third season, but he is an every-down player who can play in a variety of situations.

Salary cap: Miller, on the basis of being the No. 2 pick of the 2011 draft, leads the way among the linebackers under contract for 2014. His cap figure for '14 is $6.682 million, the sixth highest on the team at the moment. He's also the only linebacker right now with a cap figure of over $1 million. Nate Irving is at $818,750 for the coming season, Trevathan at $596,018, Steven Johnson at $574,000 and Lerentee McCray, who was set to make the roster as an undrafted free agent in training camp last summer before suffering a season-ending injury, is at $425,666.

Pending free agents: Woodyard, who has been with the Broncos since making Mike Shanahan's last Broncos team as an undrafted free agent in 2008, is slated to hit the open market in the coming weeks. The player who replaced him in the starting base defense, Paris Lenon, is also an unrestricted free agent.

Stewart Bradley, who was given a look as the starting middle linebacker in the preseason, is also an unrestricted free agent. Reserve linebacker Brandon Marshall, who the Broncos promoted to the active roster late in the season, is a restricted free agent.

Who could stay: The spot where the "help wanted" sign is out at the moment is at middle linebacker. The Broncos' attempts to play Irving there haven't gone all that well over the last two seasons and he has performed far better on the strong side when in the lineup, so he figures to get penciled in there as Miller tries to return. Trevathan is the unquestioned weak-side guy right now and plays in all of the specialty packages as well.

So there won't be much turnover at the other spots with those players already under contract. The movement will come in the middle because that is where the deals are up.

Who could go: Given the Broncos already moved Woodyard out of the starting middle linebacker spot this past season, it's unlikely they would consider him an option there this time around. And Lenon was signed to a one-year deal in August as a depth player who ended up being moved into the starting lineup when Woodyard injured his neck. The Broncos didn't see him as a potential starter when he signed and won't see him as one in free agency.

Woodyard is a high-character player who knows the team's scheme and always played with passion no matter where they lined him up, but this time around he may be able to secure a better offer elsewhere -- his last deal with the Broncos was a two-year, $5 million contract he signed in 2012. The Broncos would certainly consider to have him back, but at their price.

What they like/want: They like speed overall at the position and versatility as well. That's because, like many defenses in this pass-first era, the Broncos "base" defense isn't their base defense at all.

They had just two games in the regular-season -- wins over Washington and Tennessee -- in which they were in their base defense for more snaps than they were in their specialty looks (five, six or seven defensive backs). And they had four games in the regular season in which they were in their base defense for 12 or fewer snaps in a game, three games in which they were in the base 4-3 for 9 or fewer snaps in the game.

That means right now the premium is on movement and the ability to drop into coverage. Which makes a player like Trevathan, who can do that and play with a physical edge on the line of scrimmage as well, all the more valuable.

Need index (1 is lowest priority, 5 the highest): 4

Miller is coming back from an ACL surgery and most guys not named Adrian Peterson need more than a season to return to the level of play they could reach before the injury. And with Woodyard and Lenon both free agents, the Broncos need a middle linebacker.

It means the Broncos will need pass rush help at the position as well as a potential starter in the base defense.

Denver Broncos season wrap-up

February, 5, 2014
Feb 5
2:00
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video Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

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.

 

There was a time, when John Elway wore a helmet at work instead of a tie, when the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks were division rivals.

From 1977 to 2001, the two teams did their football business together in the AFC West and now these former division rivals, who have gone their separate ways since -- through good times and bad -- now arrive to Super Bowl XLVIII as the matchup many wanted to see.

The Broncos' league-leading scoring offense -- which produced an NFL record 606 points with Peyton Manning at quarterback -- against Seattle's league-leading defense (14.4 points per game), a physical, brash group that led the league in scoring defense, total defense, pass defense and interceptions.

It is the first time the league's No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense have met in the Super Bowl since 1990, when the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants authored a classic, a 20-19 Giants win decided when Scott Norwood's kick drifted wide right.

ESPN.com Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday's game:

Legwold: Terry, in your mind, what are some of the major decisions John Schneider and Pete Carroll have made to put the Seahawks in this position?

Blount: Jeff, first and foremost, the one decision that almost everyone will point to is selecting Russell Wilson with a third-round draft choice two years ago when so many experts felt Wilson was too short to be an effective starter in today's NFL. That led to another big decision when Carroll named Wilson the starter after the team had signed Matt Flynn to a big-money deal -- a brave move, to say the least. But pointing to one move doesn't begin to tell the story of a team that Schneider and Carroll completely revamped over the past four seasons. Only four players remain from the team they inherited in 2010. Schneider and Carroll's strengths are their trust in each other and their ability to make stars, or at least quality starters, out of players that other teams overlooked such as cornerback Richard Sherman (a fifth-round pick), slot receiver Doug Baldwin (undrafted) and guard J.R. Sweezy (a seventh-round pick). They also made one of the best trades in team history, acquiring Marshawn Lynch from Buffalo in 2010. It's an example of how Schneider and Carroll are willing to take chances on players who might have had off-the-field issues.

Let me ask you a similar question, Jeff. Elway gets huge props for convincing Manning that Denver was the place for him to end his career, but obviously, it took more than one move to get the Broncos to the Super Bowl. Aside from Manning, what has made Elway's tenure so successful?

Legwold: Elway's mission, for owner Pat Bowlen, when he took the job, wasn't just to make the team competitive as quickly as possible after the 4-12 finish in 2010, but to fix the cracks in the foundation. This meant addressing the personnel and salary-cap issues that needed to be dealt with if the team was going to succeed over the long term. Elway always says people talk to him about a "win-now philosophy," but he wants the team to win from now on.

Elway and the Broncos' front office cleaned up the cap a bit, and though Elway is a former quarterback, he thinks big picture. They've drafted plenty of defensive players -- 11 of 23 picks under Elway -- and they've made finding the guy they want more important than simply making big-ticket splashes in free agency, other than Manning of course. Signing players to one-year deals with little or no signing bonuses, such as Shaun Phillips (10 sacks), Paris Lenon and Quentin Jammer (two starters and a situational player in the defense), have made it go. Starting center Manny Ramirez was released by the Lions at one point. John Fox, hand-picked by Elway, and his staff also have gotten more from players who were holdovers such as Knowshon Moreno and Demaryius Thomas. Toss in some big-time draft hits -- Von Miller and Julius Thomas -- and you have back-to-back 13-3 finishes.

For their part, the Seahawks have played quality defense all season long. Terry, how do you think they will attack Manning?

Blount: They will line up and say, 'This is who were are and what we do. Beat us if you can.' I honestly don't think they'll change a thing. Whether it's a rookie calling the signals or one of the all-time greats such as Manning, the Seahawks don't believe anyone can outperform their defense. They are as talented a group as I've seen. Two things set them apart: incredible overall speed, especially at the linebacker spots, and a physical approach that borders on all-out violence and intimidation. Calling for crossing patterns over the middle against this bunch is asking for punishment. The one thing defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said they will do is change the wording and signals on their calls. And what they must do in this game is get a push up the middle on the defensive front and force Manning to move in the pocket. Defensive tackles Brandon Mebane, Tony McDaniel and Clinton McDonald have to outmuscle Denver interior linemen in this game.

Seattle's Legion of Boom secondary is an extraordinarily talented group that includes three players who were voted into the Pro Bowl. They play a lot of press coverage and almost dare a quarterback to try to beat them.

Jeff, does man-to-man coverage help or hurt Manning and his receivers?

Legwold: Man coverage almost never hurts Manning, unless those defensive backs consistently knock the Broncos' receivers off their routes, or Mother Nature brings a windy night. And not just a breeze, but something on the order of the 40-mph gusts the team faced on a frigid night at New England this season. But even then Manning was sharp and aggressive on a late drive to tie the game at 31-31. Where some defenses have had some success this season -- Indianapolis, New England and to a certain extent Jacksonville -- was when they essentially tossed aside the idea of adding pressure to try to get Manning, because he gets the ball out too quickly, and play as physically as possible against the Broncos' receivers to disrupt their routes and disrupt the offense's timing. That said, Manning still threw for 386 yards and three touchdowns against the Colts to go with 295 yards and two touchdowns against the Jaguars. And while the Patriots held him to a season-low 150 yards on Nov. 24, Manning still looked sharp late, throwing the ball in a game in which the Broncos rushed for 280 yards because New England often left six-man fronts after dropping so many players into coverage. In the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots, who used much the same philosophy as in November, Manning threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns. The mix for some kind of defensive success is usually to get the Broncos receivers out of sorts and find a way to pressure Manning in the middle of the field so he can't step into the throws.

Staying at quarterback, Terry, how do you think Wilson, certainly well-known for his poise and maturity, will handle his first Super Bowl behind center?

Blount: I realize it's a lot to ask of any second-year quarterback to enter this setting and not have it effect his performance, but Wilson is an extraordinary young man. I've said all season that he has the unusual quality of being at his best when things appear to be at their worst. He thrives on the big stage. I've never seen him rattled, and when he does make a mistake (such as fumbling on the first play in the NFC Championship Game), he acts like it never happened. And I've never seen any athlete who prepares with the time and detail that Wilson prepares. You can't fool him. People often compare him to Fran Tarkenton because of his scrambling ability, which is true. But in some ways, I see him more of a Bart Starr-type quarterback, a man who had the ultimate respect of his teammates, understood the skills of the men around him and made them better. Wilson said his goal every game is to be the calm in the storm and stay in the moment. Well, there's no moment like this one. It's cliché to say, but I think he truly believes he was born for this moment.

Jeff, there has been a lot of talk about how extreme weather conditions could benefit the Seahawks and hinder Manning's ability to throw the football the way he normally would. Do you think that's overblown?

Legwold: There may be no more overblown idea circulating around than Manning's ability to play in the cold. The cold-weather stats are always tossed around, but there are at least two of those games in some of the totals people are using when Manning played only one series because the Colts had their playoff position wrapped up. One of those was in Denver to close out the 2004 regular season (32 degrees at kickoff; Manning threw two passes in the game). The wind has been a far-bigger deal for Manning. Post-surgery, he has had to make some adjustments to his game because of some grip issues in his right hand. He wears a glove on his throwing hand in a variety of temperatures now. This season, he wore it in New England (22 degrees, wind chill of 6 degrees), against Tennessee (18 degrees), as well as in Houston (kickoff temperature was 58 degrees) and at Oakland in the regular-season finale, when the kickoff temperature was 70. And with the glove on his throwing hand in 10 games this season, including both of the Broncos' playoff wins, Manning has thrown 33 touchdown passes to go with five interceptions. He's had four 400-yard games and six games when he attempted at least 40 passes. People have scrutinized every wobble of every pass this season, but somehow he threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns. And wobbles or not, Manning has not been sacked and the Broncos have punted only once in this postseason.

In the Seahawks' defense, Terry, how big of an impact did signing Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in free agency have on that group?

Blount: It's this simple: The Seahawks would not be playing in the Super Bowl without them. Seattle's big weakness last year was the lack of a consistent pass rush and a lack of depth on the defensive line. Not anymore. Along with those two, Seattle also signed veteran defensive tackle Tony McDaniel, a mountain of a guy who has been a disruptive force inside. Bennett may be the most underrated defensive linemen in the NFL. He has been everything the Seahawks hoped for as a hybrid down linemen who can play end or tackle effectively. He is a relentless, high-motor guy who never takes a play off. Avril is a gifted speed-rusher whose claim to fame is his uncanny ability to knock the ball out of a quarterback's hands and force a fumble, something he has done five times this season and 13 times over the past three years.

Jeff, everyone talks about the matchup between the Seahawks' No. 1 defense against the Broncos' No. 1 offense, but how do you think Denver's defense matches up against Seattle's offense and its power-running game with Lynch?

Legwold: Since Champ Bailey's full return from a left foot injury he originally suffered against the Seahawks in the preseason -- Bailey played in just five games in the regular season and was shut down for several weeks after a failed return in early December -- the team has played far better. It's surrendered 17 or fewer points in each of the past four games, including both playoff wins. And while Denver's numbers, as well as its play at times for that matter, haven't always been pretty, the Broncos do play better out of their base defense.

They will be in their base defense against the Seahawks if Seattle chooses to pound Lynch out of a two-tight-end or two-back set. They inserted a veteran, Lenon, into the middle linebacker spot down the stretch in the base to add some bulk. With Lenon, Nate Irving and Danny Trevathan at linebacker, they have speed to the ball if their defensive end can consistently set the edge. Against some of the power teams they have faced this season, including those with some read-option things in the offense such as Washington and Oakland, the Broncos showed a little more of a 3-4 look on early downs. It will be intriguing if the Seahawks -- seeing the Broncos have done far better in the heavier looks -- try to run against the nickel and dime packages and how the Broncos respond.

Terry, if the Seahawks win, what players beyond Wilson will have had the biggest roles to make it happen?

Blount: Probably the defensive linemen we mentioned earlier: Bennent, Avril and the defensive tackles getting pressure on Manning. If they do, the Legion of Boom will shine and come up with an interception or two that could change the outcome. No matter how well this rugged defense performs, it won't matter unless Wilson can throw effectively. Having receiver Percy Harvin on the field could help, but it really comes down to the same story all season. If Lynch has a punishing day running the ball, someone will be open for a big play in the passing game.

Jeff, if you had to pick one thing that Denver must do to win this game what would it be?

Legwold: Overall, they have to manage the moment. Teams don't win the Super Bowl as they go through all the build-up, but plenty have lost it when they got distracted by the bright lights and attention only to forget why they were in the Super Bowl city in the first place. As Phillips put it: "If guys want to party in New York, New York will still be there next week." But on the field, they have to keep Manning clean, give him some space to work in the pocket and with that their receivers have to play with an edge, fight for both their real estate and the ball.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller had surgery Thursday to repair his torn right ACL, the team has confirmed. The procedure, performed by a surgeon in Dr. James Andrews' group, was completed and the Broncos' training staff had been notified by late Thursday afternoon.

Miller
Miller's recovery time is expected to take between six to nine months. Miller, sporting a brace on the knee for support in recent days, has been receiving treatment at the Broncos' facility since he suffered the injury last month.

Miller tore the ACL in his right knee midway through the first quarter of the 37-13 victory over the Houston Texans in Week 16. Miller underwent an MRI the following day and the exam confirmed what some team officials had feared after the game.

His recovery is expected to keep him out of the team's offseason program and likely at least some of training camp. Miller played in only nine games this season. He was suspended the first six games for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

Miller left the Dec. 22 game after his leg buckled as he was fighting to get off a block on a 3-yard completion from Matt Schaub to Keshawn Martin.

Miller finished the season with 33 tackles and was fourth on the team in sacks with five. The third-year linebacker has 35 career sacks, fifth-most in the NFL since his rookie season of 2011, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Nate Irving has played in Miller's strongside linebacker spot in the Broncos' base defense while the Broncos have used Robert Ayers more in Miller's absence in pass-rush situations.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It has often been said after a comma in conversation, a piece of the yeah-but response about the Denver Broncos' defense.

The Broncos, despite some rather alarming numbers like 25.7 points allowed per game, have stood by that their defense is coming around. That it had some high-quality moments and it just needed smaller gaps between those moments, needed more consistency to get things right as week after week went by with only marginal change.

That when Champ Bailey recovered from a foot injury he suffered in training camp, that when Von Miller rounded into form, then things would look up and those two-alarm numbers would begin to go down.

Even immediately following the Broncos' 37-13 victory over the Houston Texans Sunday, a game where they surrendered a season-low 13 points on a season-low 240 yards, the Broncos were holding firm to that belief even though Miller had left the game midway through the first quarter with a knee injury.

"With the people we have in here, the people we have in our meeting rooms, we know we have it in us," safety Mike Adams said after the win. "It's all about making strides -- I keep saying that because I think it’s true. Things didn’t always go the way we wanted in some games, but we have to keep making strides, keep being a little better each week and we can get there."

Now, however, time's up. The buzzer has gone off and the Broncos need to buckle up and get to it because Monday morning brought another hill to climb with an MRI that confirmed a torn ACL in Miller's right knee. He won’t be rounding into form because his season is over and his place in the defense is on hold until he goes through surgery and rehab over the next six to nine months.

"It's a blow," Broncos coach John Fox said Monday. "Much like losing a guy like [left tackle] Ryan Clady earlier in the season ... but our guys will deal with it ... we'll sort it out, figure out what we need to do ... We’ll take a couple of minutes to move on and sort that out as we go."

It ties a rather unsightly bow on what has been a difficult football year for Miller. He was suspended for six games to open the season because he violated the league's substance-abuse policy, he had some off-the-field issues that included multiple traffic violations, as well as being arrested at a local gun shop when a background check revealed a missed court appearance. His play on the field since his return? It had been everything the Broncos had been waiting for at times and fairly nondescript at others.

But the Broncos, with Miller's three sacks in a four-game span before the trip to Houston, believed the corner was about to be turned. Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio kept hope alive, often saying Miller's "best football is ahead of him."

Now a defense with Bailey still working his way back, having played in just his fourth game of the season Sunday, with defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson on injured reserve with a hip injury and safety Rahim Moore still on injured reserve designated to return with a lower leg injury, will be without Miller as well.

"We've had some adversity on defense, no doubt, and now we can’t just expect to lean on Von to make the greatest play at the best time," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "It’s going to take everybody doing their jobs the best they can. Not doing too much, but doing their jobs the best way they know how."

What does it mean? It means Shaun Phillips, who leads the Broncos in sacks with 10, has to find the sweet spot again. Phillips has one sack in his past five games and will get most of the snaps from the rush end spot with Miller out of the lineup.

It means Robert Ayers, who had 4.5 sacks in the Broncos' first five games and has had just one sack -- Sunday against the Texans -- in the past nine games, has to be the guy the Broncos have hoped he would be since he was the 18th pick of the 2009 draft.

There was the belief Ayers had found a groove of sorts in the early going when Miller was out because of the suspension. But since a shoulder injury made him a game-day inactive Oct. 13 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Ayers did not have a sack in limited playing time until Sunday, when Miller was out of the lineup again.

Ayers played 47 snaps Sunday against the Texans, his highest total since he played 59 snaps against the Giants in Week 2. The Broncos need Ayers to rise with the tide of the postseason.

The Broncos need Malik Jackson, already in the midst of his best work as a pro, to find a little more. They need Derek Wolfe to come back for the postseason to contribute in some way. They need Nate Irving, who replaced Miller in Sunday's win, to be the kind of starter the Broncos thought he would be when they picked him in the 2011 draft.

In short, with the trophy games on the near horizon, they need everybody, from Bailey to Ayers to Wolfe to Phillips to Terrance Knighton to Wesley Woodyard to Danny Trevathan to anyone and everyone who has a seat in the defensive meeting room to find a little more.

Or, with the way this season has gone for the defense, exactly what they would have had to do even if Miller didn't hurt his knee.
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."

Rapid Reaction: Denver Broncos

December, 12, 2013
12/12/13
11:28
PM ET

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next: With the regular-season home schedule in the books, the Broncos get an extended break before they head to Houston to face the 2-11 Texans, who have already fired Gary Kubiak as coach. The Texans have the No. 2 pass defense in the league (183.6 yards allowed per game), but the Broncos are going to need to reset themselves and get back to business.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The Denver Broncos liked what they saw of quarterback Peyton Manning over the past two days of practice, so much so they, as expected, formally listed Manning as probable for Sunday night’s matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Manning
But interim head coach Jack Del Rio said following Friday’s practice he would go one better than that.

“They don’t have a definite category on there, or I would check it off," Del Rio said. " ... He’s ready to go, and as a team we’re ready to go."

Manning had missed Wednesday’s practice because of a right ankle injury, but has said through the week he planned to start Sunday. He practiced without any issues both Thursday and Friday.

The news wasn’t quite as good for cornerback Champ Bailey, who has played in just two games this season because of a left foot injury he suffered in the preseason. Bailey did practice through the week on a limited basis, including in Friday’s workout, but was listed as doubtful for the game.

“And he is listed as doubtful, I believe, and it is doubtful that he’ll play," Del Rio said.

Linebacker Nate Irving (right shoulder) participated on Friday on a limited basis and was listed as questionable. Irving would likely have to improve over the next two days to play in Sunday’s game.

Tight end Joel Dreessen (knee), who was held out of Wednesday’s practice, practiced both Thursday and Friday and is expected to play. Safety Duke Ihenacho (ankle) and wide receiver Wes Welker (ankle), who had been limited some this week, were full participants Friday and will play.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The Denver Broncos were back to full strength for Thursday's practice.

Manning
Quarterback Peyton Manning (right ankle), linebacker Nate Irving (right shoulder) and tight end Joel Dreessen (knee) all returned to the field after being held out of Wednesday’s workout. All three were formally listed as limited.

Manning and Dreessen are expected to play in Sunday’s game against Kansas City, while Irving is still a question mark. For his part Manning did plenty of work with the starters and showed no signs of mobility issues as he moved through drills.

“He looked pretty good,’’ Broncos interim coach Jack Del Rio said with a laugh. “He’s doing the things he needs to do.’’

Cornerback Champ Bailey (left foot) and safety Duke Ihenacho (ankle) also were listed as limited during the workout. Wide receiver Wes Welker, who had been limited in Wednesday’s practice because of an ankle injury, was a full participant Thursday and is expected to take his full allotment of work Sunday night.

Linebacker Danny Trevathan was excused from practice. He is expected back for Friday's practice and will play Sunday.

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