NFL Nation: Nate Webster

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

The fact that Denver has cut five defensive starters in the past couple of days may appear more drastic than it really is.

 
  Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
  Less than a year after acquiring Dewayne Robertson from the Jets, the Broncos discarded the former first-round draft pick.

Yes, replacing at least five starters is no easy task. But the truth is the new Denver regime can't wait to do it. The team needs a huge facelift on defense.

It began this week when the team waved goodbye to starters Dre' Bly (cornerback), Dewayne Robertson (defensive tackle), Jamie Winborn (linebacker), Marquand Manuel (safety) and John Engelberger (defensive end). Only Bly and Robertson could have conceivably been part of the makeover, but both were high-priced and neither made much of an impact last season.

So they're out.

There is more change to come. Outside linebacker Boss Bailey, who is injured, could be a candidate to be cut. Starters Ebenezer Ekuban (defensive end), Nate Webster (linebacker) and Marlon McCree (safety) are free agents and are not expected to return.

But again, many of these players were starters in 2008 because the team had no other choice.

Under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan -- the former San Francisco head coach and longtime assistant -- the Broncos are moving toward becoming a 3-4 defense. Few of the above-mentioned players fit in the new scheme.

The Broncos have two cornerstones on defense: cornerback Champ Bailey and linebacker D.J. Williams. Other than that, it's an open audition.

Pass-rush specialist Elvis Dumervil should have a place on the defense and could be moved to linebacker from defensive end. Young defensive linemen Marcus Thomas and Jarvis Moss (the team's first-round pick in 2007) will likely get a chance to play in the new scheme.

Thomas has been fairly productive the past two years and has a chance to be a good player. Moss has been a major disappointment, but he has natural pass-rush skills so there's hope he could flourish in the new system.

Young linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Spencer Larsen may get a chance to fit in the 3-4 attack. Woodyard, an undrafted free agent signed last season, is a natural playmaker and was a tackling machine last year. Larsen, a sixth-round pick last season, is a hard-nosed, versatile player. Still, there will be new competition for both.

Other than Bailey, the Broncos will likely be looking for help in the secondary.

Expect Denver to try to get at least two defensive linemen, at least one linebacker and three new defensive backs through free agency, trades and the draft. While big names such as defensive end Julius Peppers and defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth will be tempting, the Broncos may opt to target several more reasonably priced free agents than one big-ticket item because of their numerous needs on defense.

Whatever happens, the change is going to be drastic. The release of five starters this week only begins the sea change on Denver's defense.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

With five games to go, the AFC West appears to be a two-team race between Denver and San Diego. The only reason why the 4-7 Chargers are still in the race is because Denver refuses to run away with it. The Broncos would be 7-4 and making January plans had it not been blown out at home against Oakland.

The Broncos are 6-5 and don't have the look of a team ready to go for the kill. Thus, the Chargers are still in the race. Theoretically, Oakland, at 3-8, could get back in the mix if a few things fall the Raiders' way in the next few weeks.

Here are five things both Denver and San Diego need to do to win the West, which is in danger of forever being remembered as the first division ever to have a winner with a losing record in a non-strike season.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

Spencer Larsen knew the secret all of last week.

 
 AP Photo/John Bazemore
 Spencer Larsen, shown here attempting to tackle Atlanta's Michael Turner, had seven tackles against the Falcons last Sunday.

He didn't think it was a big deal. And even more amazing, he wasn't that nervous about it, whether he was making history or not. However, in retrospect, the sixth-round pick of the Denver Broncos is blown away in the aftermath of his accomplishment Sunday in Denver's 24-20 win.

Larsen became the first player in the NFL in five years to start on both offense and defense. Baltimore's Orlando Brown stated on both the offensive and defensive lines in 2003. The Arizona product started at both fullback and at middle linebacker. Larsen, who has been a special teams ace as a rookie, also played on kickoff coverage.

Yes, No. 46 was busy Sunday. He was on the field for 60-plus plays.

Still, the enormity of his feat didn't hit Larsen until this week.

"I really didn't think it was going to be a big deal," Larsen said Wednesday as first place Denver prepares for visiting Oakland on Sunday.

"I wasn't nervous. I was just preparing for the game and making sure I knew everything I had to do. It really wasn't that big of a deal until after the game. It has gotten a lot of attention and it's been fun. But to me, I was just a rookie trying to help my team."

Yet, Larsen's double duty made national news. After all, this isn't high school. Two-way play just doesn't happen much in the NFL. Larsen has conducted several national interviews and has received phone calls from many people he hadn't talked to in years.

"It's been crazy, everyone is really in to it," Larsen said. "It's been fun."

Larsen didn't play much at fullback but he did have seven tackles at middle linebacker in the win over Atlanta. He was told by Denver coaches of his extra workload early last week. No one in the organization publicly told anyone until it was disclosed shortly before kickoff in Atlanta.

Larsen, who starred at linebacker at Arizona, hasn't practiced at linebacker since training camp. He got a crash course last week because of an injury to starter Nate Webster. Expect Larsen to continue playing while Webster recovers in the next couple of weeks.

Larsen has been playing fullback most of the season even though he hadn't played there since high school. With fullback Peyton Hillis now playing tailback, Larsen is playing more in the backfield.

So will he start both ways again on Sunday against the Raiders? The new celebrity is being coy, which is the rule of the land in Mike Shanahan's tight-lipped world.

"I don't know," Larsen said. "It all depends on matchups and schemes and injuries ... I don't know if we'll see it again."

If Larsen does play both ways, he'll be more prepared for the uproar this time.

"Definitely," he said. "I know I wasn't last week."

Denver rookie playing both ways

November, 16, 2008
11/16/08
1:52
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

Denver rookie Spencer Larsen is making history today.

Larsen
He started the game in Atlanta on both offense and defense, which is nearly an unheard of accomplishment in today's NFL. The sixth-round pick from Arizona started at both fullback and middle linebacker. He's also playing on kickoff coverage units

Larsen is playing because of injuries. With Denver fullback Peyton Hillis playing tailback because of several injuries at the position, Larsen slid over to the fullback position. With middle linebacker Nate Webster out, Larsen is now playing there. The Broncos have bounced Larsen from fullback and middle linebacker since before training camp but Sunday's development is extremely noteworthy.

He is the first Denver player ever to start both ways in the game and the first NFL player since Baltimore's Orlando Brown started both ways five years ago.

Broncos, Browns halftime notes

November, 6, 2008
11/06/08
9:47
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Browns are leading the Denver Broncos, 20-10, at intermission of Thursday night's contest.

Here are some first half impressions:

 
 Matthew Emmons/US Presswire
 Brady Quinn has been solid in his first NFL start.
  • The Brady Quinn era in Cleveland is off to a good start. Quinn is showing good signs in his first NFL start with several good throws to tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. and receiver Donte' Stallworth. Quinn also had a couple of wild throws early, but he settled down in the second quarter. Through one half, Quinn is 11-for-15 with 102 yards and two touchdowns.
  • Denver's defense is as porous as advertised. The Browns are having their way at the line of scrimmage and the Broncos are getting no pass rush when needed. It's also put a lot of pressure on Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler to throw often and he's been shaky in the first half.
  • It looks like it's going to be a big night for Winslow. Denver's linebackers and safeties are having a tough time containing the Pro Bowl tight end. Winslow already has six catches for 50 yards and two touchdowns.
  • As far as injuries from the Broncos' sideline, starting linebacker Nate Webster suffered a sprained left knee in the first quarter and his return is listed as doubtful. Starting tailback Ryan Torain has a left knee sprain and his return is questionable. Backup tailback Selvin Young injured his groin and also is questionable.

This is the AFC West's best?

November, 2, 2008
11/02/08
11:26
PM ET

Posted by ESPN .com's Bill Williamson

DENVER -- What's the difference between the AFC West and the United States presidential race?

There will be a winner this week in the chase to be president.

 
 Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
 Denver quarterback Jay Cutler played his worst game of the season Sunday, tossing three interceptions.

Further cementing its stranglehold on the title of worst division in the NFL, the AFC West went a combined 0-3 Sunday. It was the second straight week the division went winless. The four AFC West teams are now 10-22 at the halfway point of the season. No, don't expect an AFC wild card to come out of this division.

With half a season to go, there is a legitimate chance the AFC West will produce the first playoff team with a losing record in the playoffs in a non-strike shortened season. Two 4-5 teams made the playoffs in 1982.

Only a strike could save this division. As silly as it sounds, the Denver Broncos, losers of four of their past five games, are leading the division. Denver is 4-4; San Diego, which had a bye this week, is 3-5; Oakland is 2-6 and Kansas City is 1-7.

After a 26-17 loss to visiting Miami on Sunday, in which the Broncos continued their sloppy ways on offense and untimely lapses on defense, Denver players tried to find a way to be positive.

"The division hasn't been good, we can look at that," Denver linebacker Nate Webster said. "But, come on, we need to start winning some games."

The Broncos, who play on a short week Thursday night at Cleveland, had an opportunity to separate themselves from San Diego while the Chargers were on a bye. With wins over Miami and Cleveland, Denver could have been 6-3 while San Diego was still 3-5. Now, Denver must try to avoid being 4-5 as the Chargers prepare to play host to Kansas City next Sunday.

"We have to shore things up," Denver running back Michael Pittman said. "We have to do it quick."

There is plenty of work to do. Quarterback Jay Cutler is coming off his worst game of the season, the vaunted Denver running attack is coming off its second-worst effort in the history of the franchise and the battered defense probably will now have to play without another stalwart, linebacker D.J. Williams, who suffered a knee injury.

"This was a bad game," Cutler said.

Other key developments from Sunday:

Turnovers continue to kill Denver: The Broncos continued to be careless with the ball. Cutler was the culprit Sunday. He threw three interceptions, two in the first quarter -- including one that was returned 32 yards by Miami cornerback Will Allen for a touchdown to give the Dolphins a 13-0 lead.

The Broncos have committed 15 turnovers in their four losses. Eleven of the turnovers have come in the first half of games. In the past five weeks, Denver has been outscored 56-0 on series after turnovers.

Simply put, the Broncos' defense is not stout enough to withstand the pressure of Denver's offensive mistakes.

The turnovers are also ruining a strong offense. In Denver's first three games, which were essentially mistake-free, Denver scored 114 points. In the five games since, Denver has scored a total of 76 points and no more than 19 points in a game.

"Turnovers, it's that simple," Cutler said when asked his thoughts on his unit's biggest issue.

Nowhere to run: In 14 seasons under Mike Shanahan, Denver has been the premier rushing offense in the NFL. It wasn't Sunday. Denver had 14 yards rushing. It was the second-fewest yards in team history. It was a Miami record for fewest rushing yards allowed. Denver ran the ball only 12 times. Shanahan categorized the effort as "embarrassing."

This is battered unit. Pittman left the game because of recurring neck stingers. After the game, Pittman suggested he may need time to rest the injury.

This may open the door for promising rookie Ryan Torain, who was eased into action Sunday. It was his NFL debut. The fifth-round pick from Arizona State broke his elbow in training camp in early August.

Torain was a non-factor against Miami. He had three carries for 1 yard. However, with Pittman hurting and Selvin Young out for the past three games with a groin injury, Denver may have to turn to Torain in an attempt to regain the Denver rushing spark.

Marshall no fan of defensive scheme: Fresh off his lowest catch output since becoming a starter late in his rookie season in 2006, Denver star receiver Brandon Marshall, who had two catches for 27 yards, was more focused on the game plan of Denver defensive coordinator Bob Slowik.

Marshall didn't like the fact that Denver cornerback Karl Paymah, who replaced the injured Champ Bailey, was playing so far off of Miami receiver Greg Camarillo. He had 11 catches for 111 yards.

"When I look at it, it's common sense, if I was a receiver going against our defense and they're stacking the box and we're playing a one-high defense and eight in the box, and the DBs are 10 yards off of me, I'm going to catch 10 to 12 balls a game," Marshall ranted. "I don't even know that receiver's name who caught all those balls.

"Tighten up the coverage and just play ball, it's real simple. It's real simple. They don't need to be 10 yards off. Tighten it up. You say they don't do that against us, the reason why is a receiver will kill them."

When a star bashes the coaching scheme, it is a sure sign of the wheels falling off a team.

Webster didn't buy into Marshall's complaint. He pointed to Denver's defense nullifying Miami's Wildcat formation. Miami ditched the Wildcat after having very little success using it Sunday. Miami had 75 yards rushing and Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington completed 23 of 40 passes for 281 yards.

Webster also pointed to Miami's final series as the only poor defensive possession Denver had. The Dolphins went on a 15-play, 80-yard drive that took 8:02 to give them a nine-point lead with 3:08 to go.

"That was it," Webster said. "I don't think our defensive scheme rea
lly hurt us today."

Walking more wounded: When Bailey was lost for at least a month with a torn groin, Williams became Denver's best defensive player. The 2004 first-round pick was having a Pro Bowl season with 77 tackles at weakside linebacker.

Now Denver -- which also lost starting strongside linebacker Boss Bailey for the season two weeks ago -- probably will have to play without Williams for a while.

Shanahan said Williams has a sprained MCL in his knee and he had no idea how long Williams would be out. Williams, who didn't talk to reporters Sunday, departed the stadium on crutches. If Williams is out for an extended period, it could be devastating to Denver's defense.

He is a playmaker, and without the Baileys and Williams, the defense will be stretched extremely thin.

Yes, it was a disastrous Sunday for Denver. But here's the bright spot for the Broncos: They are still the best in the West.

Yes, the AFC West is that bad.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

 
 Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
 Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard delivers a pass during the Jaguars' 24-17 win over Denver Sunday.

DENVER -- Jay Cutler may lead the Denver Broncos to a second era of Super Bowl glory, but today in the rain in Invesco Field at Mile High, the third-year quarterback was very much the second-best signal-caller at work.

In a game of huge significance for Jacksonville, the Jaguars answered in virtually every way, getting the sort of efficient and effective quarterbacking that makes them go.

Down only a touchdown, Denver got the ball with 6:50 left. But a defense that had given up a late fourth-quarter scoring drive in every game this season finally did the job, presenting David Garrard and the offense with a three-and-out.

"We were able to get back on the field and run the clock out," Garrard said. "That is back to Jaguar football. This game today really looked exactly like Jaguar football and it felt good to get back to it."

Jaguar football is built around running backs and defense and creates an atmosphere where Garrard can be minimized as a game manager. He downplays his role, suggesting his job is merely to get the ball to his playmakers.

But a locker room full of teammates talks of him as their tone-setter. His poise can be contagious. He threw to eight different targets, connecting on 74 percent of his attempts en route to a 107 passer rating.

He threw one touchdown and no interceptions while coughing up a fumble when he was mauled through no fault of his own. (See details below.) He rolled comfortably in either direction, by design or out of necessity, buying time to search the field and helping tire out Denver's defense.

It was cleaner and crisper work than Cutler's.

He was 7-for-7 on his opening touchdown drive but only 47 percent from there while losing a fumble, throwing an interception (that was basically a punt) and struggling to work with an injury-depleted receiving corps that was over-reliant on Brandon Marshall. The performance -- and the supporting cast -- didn't live up to the hype that is building around Cutler, who's clearly better than the two quarterbacks drafted ahead of him in 2006 but may have been overly optimistic in an interview published recently in The Sporting News.

He said he didn't see why the Broncos couldn't score 30-plus points a week and didn't think there was an AFC team with a better chance at the Super Bowl than his.

"Of course Dave outplayed him," running back Fred Taylor said. "That's all to the receivers, the line giving him time. Dave's a good quarterback and Jay Cutler is a good quarterback. We created a little more pressure for Jay, he wasn't able to get settled in after he started out great, bang-bang-bang. He's a good quarterback, he's young, he has a lot of upside."

"Dave was better today, we won."

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