NFL Nation: Peyton Manning

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Emmanuel Sanders has been such a good find for the Denver Broncos that even when things don't quite work out, there is a silver lining in tow.

On Sunday, quarterback Peyton Manning tried and tried and tried to hit Sanders for the game-changer up the right sideline on the drive that bridged the third and fourth quarters. They never connected, but the Broncos eventually carved out a touchdown on the drive. Demaryius Thomas is the Broncos' Alpha receiver, but it's clear from that sequence that Sanders has been every bit the 1-A the Broncos had hoped he could be.

"I'm so glad we scored on that one drive I overthrew him three times in a row," Manning said. "He's a hard guy to overthrow so I take a little bit of pride in that. That means my arm must be hanging in there because it's late in the season. ... He's a great route runner. ... He has that deep threat, which is going to allow some of the shorter stuff and the crossing routes to be open."

[+] EnlargeDenver Broncos
Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsReceiver Emmanuel Sanders (10) is the Broncos' 1A option to Demaryius Thomas (88).
Sanders already, with five regular-season games remaining, has single-season career-bests in catches (76), yards receiving (1,079) and touchdowns (seven). His dives, deep down the field with a cornerback often trying to close the gap, have become a signature, as have his jaunts into the high-traffic areas in the middle of the field. And as teams continue to rotate coverage to Demaryius Thomas and put cornerbacks on tight end Julius Thomas, Sanders has become the choice that consistently makes them pay.

Broncos head coach John Fox often says "they can't double everybody," and that often leaves Sanders running past single coverage to reel in another Manning pass. His 105 targets are only behind Demaryius Thomas' 124.

Not bad for a guy who had interest from several teams in free agency because many believed he could do more than he had done in the Pittsburgh Steelers offense during his first four seasons in the league. Still, Eric Decker, Golden Tate, DeSean Jackson, Julian Edelman and Andre Roberts all signed larger contracts than the three-year, $15 million deal Sanders signed with the Broncos.

Sanders was the Broncos' top target because of his ability to line up and contribute in the formation, outside or in the slot. The Chiefs, the Broncos' opponent this week, were public in their belief they had a verbal agreement from Sanders to sign. Sanders has consistently maintained the Broncos were his top choice because of Manning's presence in the huddle and the playbook the Broncos use.

Asked if his best career season may have opened some eyes around the league, Sanders deferred.

"I don't look at it like that," Sanders said. "I just enjoy this game, I try to be passionate about it. I wanted to come here, in this offense, everybody knows what this offense can do, what they did before I was here and what it can do on a weekly basis. The best thing is any day can be your day because Peyton can put the ball so many places."

And while Demaryius Thomas' presence means Sanders will have a difficult time leading his own team in any of the major receiving categories. But only Thomas, the Steelers' Antonio Brown and the Colts' T.Y. Hilton have had more receiving yards than Sanders this season and only Thomas and Hilton have more catches.

"(Sanders) makes it hard on defenses," Demaryius Thomas said. "They can't really get right up on him because he's so quick, but if they give him room he can run by them. … He fits in this offense like he's been here more than just this season."

Manning will always credit time and effort as the keys to success and Sanders has certainly put that in. Sanders regularly worked with Manning after practices in offseason workouts and in training camp. And on the rare occasion Sanders felt the on-field sting of a heat-of-the-moment dressing down from Manning, Sanders just kept grinding.

"You don't need any more proof for what Peyton can do for wide receivers," Sanders said. "If you're in the right spot, where he expects you to be, he will find you. Sometimes just put your hands up and the ball is there. As a wide a receiver that's a dream situation, you can't ask for more than that so you don't leave anything undone."

QB snapshot: Peyton Manning

November, 25, 2014
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A quick observation about quarterback Peyton Manning and how he played in the Denver Broncos' 39-36 win in Week 12:

Manning
In the win over the Dolphins, Manning had his 13th game in his past 27 starts with at least four touchdown passes, a staggering number that this time was a direct result of the team’s ability to dial back Miami’s pass rush, as well as the Broncos' ability to run the ball out of their favored formation.

Manning was 28-of-35 passing -- 10-of-11 in the fourth quarter -- for 257 yards and the four touchdowns. But the win was another example of how much more efficient he is out of the team’s three-wide-receiver set when the Broncos have a commitment to run the ball and some success doing it.

When the Broncos are in three-wide they usually have Manning in the shotgun or pistol -- Manning not under center, but in front of the running back -- so that’s how the running plays come.

In the nine games the team has used the three-wide set the most this season (in their first two games of the year they were in two-tight-end more than three-wide during Wes Welker’s suspension), their three losses have come when they ran the ball just six (St. Louis), 11 (New England) and 12 (Seattle) times out of the shotgun or pistol -- three of their four lowest totals of the season.

For the most part, Manning’s highest efficiency and the Broncos' highest point totals have come when they’ve run the ball 21 times with Manning in the shotgun or pistol against Arizona (41 points), 19 times against Oakland (41 points) and 18 times Sunday against the Dolphins (39 points).
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DENVER – Don't say you weren't warned.

Last Monday, coach John Fox said the Broncos had to run the ball more. Last Wednesday, quarterback Peyton Manning said they had to run more efficiently and might be an “old-school run team" against the Miami Dolphins.

Last Thursday, C.J. Anderson said he’d be ready to carry the ball as many times as the Broncos wanted to hand it to him, and the Broncos' offensive linemen, who had worn the biggest target for the what’s-wrong-with-the-Broncos arrows, promised they were ready.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Anderson
AP Photo/Jack DempseyC.J. Anderson rushed for 167 yards as the Broncos leaned on the running game against Miami.
Sunday the Broncos turned all of those words into deeds as they sported offensive equilibrium -- 35 rushing attempts, 35 pass attempts -- in pounding out 201 rushing yards in a 39-36 victory over the Dolphins in Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

“It was important for us just to come out here and hold up for our teammates," Broncos guard Orlando Franklin said. “… We knew we had to come out here and do our job. That’s all it is, do your job and your team is going to be good."

Anderson had 27 carries for 167 yards, the most carries and rushing yards for a Broncos running back since Knowshon Moreno had 37 for 224 in an overtime loss last Nov. 24 at New England. Sunday, Anderson ran with vision, with power and perhaps most importantly, with decisiveness.

He also put the action back in play-action after a bit of a sluggish start for Manning, who was at his ruthless best with 28-of-35 passing for 257 yards and four touchdowns. The Dolphins were unable to consistently keep the pressure on Manning and the Broncos were able to muscle their way back into a game they trailed 14-3 early in the second quarter and 21-10 just before halftime.

“I think it’s better to be mad," wide receiver Demaryius Thomas said. “All of us, we talk about playing with a pissed-off attitude and it came out; we did that. I think if we can keep doing that, we’ll have a better chance each week."

“That was certainly part of the game plan," Manning said. “ … We kind of felt the plan was working; we just needed to get the ball more and stay on the field."

In the piles of touchdowns the Broncos have put up since Manning signed in 2012, one overriding criticism has been not only if they could consistently win a slug-it-out game on offense when December turns to January and January turns toward the Super Bowl, but that they weren’t always that committed to trying to slug it out.

An offense with a quarterback who has now thrown 126 touchdown passes in his 43 regular-season starts with the team -- and 13 games with at least four touchdowns in his past 27 regular-season starts -- is going to throw the ball. But the Broncos know that 10 rushes will not cut it, which is what they did in the loss to the Rams. The Broncos' offense needs balance to win a championship.

“When you’re able to have that balance, it helps everybody’s efforts … we got in a chuck-and-duck game a week ago," Fox said. “We needed to reel that back in."

Reel it in they did, but nobody should expect the Broncos to be 50-50 run-pass all the time. Because the postal-service games are coming, in the wind, rain, sleet, snow and perhaps all of the above in New England.

For one day, the Broncos' offensive line offered an alternative for the Broncos to get done what they want to get done, and all involved want, need and expect that they’ll need to do it again.

“Tonight was their night," said wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, about the offensive line. “They wanted to show we can run block, we can pass block, we can get the job done. We go as far as they take us. We understand that and they understand that."
DENVER -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Denver Broncos' 39-36 win over the Miami Dolphins in Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
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  • Already hurting on defense with linebacker Nate Irving on injured reserve and Danny Trevathan out with a fractured leg, the Broncos had two starters and backup leave the game. Linebacker Brandon Marshall, the team's leading tackler, left in the fourth quarter with a concussion. Marshall is under the guidelines of the league's concussion protocol. Cornerback Aqib Talib left with a hamstring injury in the first half but returned for a handful of snaps before halftime. Talib did not play in the second half. He jogged into the locker room following the game but was receiving treatment later and will be evaluated further Monday. Cornerback Kayvon Webster was wearing a sling on his right shoulder following the game and will be evaluated, as well.
  • The Broncos rushed for a season-best 201 yards -- 139 had been the season-high before Sunday -- behind an offensive line that had spent the week answering its growing list of critics. So the group felt some satisfaction following the game. "But it's short-lived, we know that," guard Orlando Franklin said. "All you have to do is look at who we're playing, starting next week with the Chiefs, and they might have the best [defensive] front in the league."
  • On Broncos running back C.J. Anderson's 20-yard run to convert a fourth-and-2 on the last play of the third quarter, Anderson said quarterback Peyton Manning had audibled to a run, and that led to the Broncos scoring three plays later to close to within 28-25 with 14:09 left. But following the game, Manning said because the Broncos got to the line of scrimmage so quickly before the snap, the coach-to-quarterback communication system was still operating, and offensive coordinator Adam Gase had changed the play. "I might not have told C.J. that," Manning said.
  • Anderson's 167 yards were the best effort by a Broncos back since Knowshon Moreno had 224 yards Nov. 24, 2013, against the New England Patriots and the most by an undrafted player in team history. But Anderson had the chance to tack on a few more on his last carry Sunday when he broke free for 26 yards with plenty of real estate in front of him. But as the Dolphins defenders approached, Anderson fell down in bounds at the Miami 16-yard line to keep the clock moving. Manning took a knee on the next two plays to end the game. "In my head, I'm going, 'Go, go, go,' but in the back of my head I hear Coach E, my running backs coach, Coach [Eric] Studesville, saying, 'Fall down, get the win,' which is more important," Anderson said. "So I just fell down and we took a knee."

Rapid Reaction: Denver Broncos

November, 23, 2014
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DENVER -- A few thoughts from the Denver Broncos' 39-36 win against the Miami Dolphins at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

What it means: The Broncos, 2-3 on the road, felt a dent put into their home dominance for most of the day. The Dolphins were well prepared, particularly on offense, where they consistently found room to work against the Broncos' specialty packages -- the nickel and dime looks. Miami had success early in the run game, building a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter. The Broncos didn't have their first lead of the day until they scored the go-ahead touchdown with 5 minutes, 1 second left to play.

Stock watch: The Broncos' special teams have been anything but special for much of the season. And while the offensive line, the defense and even quarterback Peyton Manning have felt the sting of criticism at certain points this season, the Broncos need their third phase to step forward in the coming weeks or the threat of losing a game bigger than Sunday's is very real. Brandon McManus missed a 33-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter when he bounced it off the left upright -- his third miss in the past five games -- and punt returner Isaiah Burse, who swings the ball as he runs, promptly fumbled at the Broncos' 12-yard line after the defense initially held after the missed field goal.

Pound the rock: Something that will certainly get attention in the coming week from a team that can run out of open formations the way the Kansas City Chiefs can: The Dolphins made a concerted effort to line up in a three-wide receiver look and run the ball against a Broncos formation that included five and six defensive backs. The Dolphins rushed for 70 yards against the Broncos' nickel package in the first half to go with 13 yards against the dime. Both of the Dolphins' rushing touchdowns in the first half came from inside the Broncos' 5-yard line and were against the dime package.

Game ball: The Broncos were very much promise keepers when it came to their intention to run the ball more in this one. After running the ball just 10 times in the loss to the St. Louis Rams last Sunday, one of those a kneel-down by Manning just before halftime, the Broncos promised all week they would make a far bigger effort to run the ball and C.J. Anderson answered the challenge. Anderson had 27 carries for 167 yards -- and it was just the kind of effort the Broncos are going to need as the temperatures drop and it gets more difficult to throw.

What's next: The Broncos have a chance to put the clamps on the AFC West race with a prime-time showdown with the Chiefs (7-4) in Arrowhead Stadium. The Broncos already hold a Week 2 win against the Chiefs, so a season sweep would put Denver on the inside lane for its fourth consecutive AFC West title.

Rapid Reaction: Miami Dolphins

November, 23, 2014
Nov 23
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DENVER -- A few thoughts on the Miami Dolphins' 39-36 loss Sunday against the Denver Broncos.

What it means: The Dolphins suffered their second loss in three games to fall to 6-5. They blew an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter. The Broncos (8-3) scored 22 straight points in the final period until the Dolphins scored a late touchdown. The 39 points allowed also was the highest amount this season by Miami's defense. The Dolphins are falling behind in a deep wild-card race in the AFC. It most likely will take 10 victories to make the playoffs and the Dolphins need to go 4-1 the rest of the way to hit that mark.

Stock watch: Miami's offense has been notorious for its slow starts. But the group's stock is rising after coming out hot and producing three touchdown drives for its highest-scoring first half of the season. The Dolphins registered 212 yards of total offense in the first two quarters. They also had a season-high 90 rushing yards in the first half, and the early production was needed against Denver’s explosive offense. As far as stock down, Miami's defense didn't play well. The front seven allowed 201 rushing yards and Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas lit up the secondary with 10 receptions for 87 yards and three touchdowns.

Key injuries: Miami suffered two important injuries. Starting left tackle Ja'Wuan James suffered a shoulder stinger in the first half and didn't return. Starting cornerback Jamar Taylor also suffered a shoulder injury in the second half and didn't finish the game.

Game ball: Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill went head-to-head against Broncos star Peyton Manning and never flinched. Tannehill threw for 228 yards, three touchdowns and one interception in a losing effort. Tannehill also led the team to five touchdowns in five red zone trips. The Dolphins entered the game ranked No. 30 in red zone efficiency.

What's next: With their brutal November schedule now behind them, the Dolphins will begin the final month of the season with a must-win game against the New York Jets (2-8) on "Monday Night Football." This will be the Dolphins' second and final prime-time game of the season. They beat the Buffalo Bills 22-9 on Thursday night in Week 11.

Dolphins vs. Broncos preview

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
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video When: 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver TV: CBS

Earlier this month, the Denver Broncos (7-3) were poised to enter a stretch of three consecutive road games with their sights set squarely on the AFC’s No. 1 seed. After that road trip ended with a 1-2 record, including a surprising loss in St. Louis this past Sunday, the Broncos are now in a scrap just to win their division.

The Miami Dolphins (6-4) come to Denver having won four of their last five games. They have surrendered 56 points in those five games combined. ESPN Dolphins reporter James Walker and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday’s game.

Legwold: James, Ryan Tannehill was a player the Broncos took a long look at leading up to the 2012 draft as they looked for a quarterback prospect to pair on the roster with Peyton Manning. What’s been the key for his improvement this year and how he’s handled things?

Walker: Tannehill is on pace for a career year. I’ve watched all 42 career starts, and this is the most decisive I’ve seen him with the football. His play speed is better and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has done a good job of accentuating what Tannehill does well and avoiding where he struggles. He’s posted four games with a triple-digit passer rating, including the most recent win over the Buffalo Bills. However, the Dolphins’ offense is getting away with a lot of short and intermediate passes, and I’m surprised defenses haven’t worked harder to take that away. The biggest issues with Tannehill are inconsistency and lack of a deep ball. These are areas that have haunted Tannehill for three seasons, and it doesn’t appear it will change anytime soon. Yet teams haven’t challenged Tannehill to consistently throw deep. I’m curious to see how Denver plays Tannehill.

The Broncos have lost two of three and both losses have come by a wide margin. What is the mood of the team heading into Sunday’s game?

Legwold: The mood from the Broncos players and coaches is, essentially, they got what they deserved in losses to the New England Patriots on Nov. 2 and to the St. Louis Rams this past Sunday. They've owned up to it and unveiled the usual vows to repair the mistakes. But perhaps most troubling, for a team that has designs on a Super Bowl trip, is they didn’t have a response after some early trouble in either of those losses. They simply didn’t show the kind of bounce-back capability on the road that any team is going to need if they want to go deep into the postseason. The Patriots had a 24-point second quarter filled with Broncos mistakes and the Rams went up 10-0 in the first quarter. In both cases, the Broncos were wobbly and stayed wobbly. They know they didn’t execute on offense. They let pressure get to Manning, and defensively the Broncos had moments, but never really slammed the door to get the team back in the game. And now with the Kansas City Chiefs at 7-3 as well –- the Broncos have a Week 2 win in hand, but go to Kansas City Nov. 30 –- the Broncos know every week matters as they pursue their fourth consecutive division title.

Keeping with one of the Broncos’ trouble spots of late, defenses have tried to rattle Manning in the middle of the formation. How aggressively do you think the Dolphins will rush Manning, and what’s that mean for Cameron Wake?

Walker: The Dolphins are definitely bringing the pressure. They’ve done that against every quarterback they’ve faced, whether it’s an elite talent such as Aaron Rodgers or a developmental rookie such as Blake Bortles. Manning’s constant audibles and adjustments at the line of scrimmage could provide reason for Miami’s defense not to dial up as many blitzes. But the team knows the best way to win is to get hits, sacks and pressures on Manning. Several players I spoke to were impressed with the way the Rams defended the Broncos’ offense last week. St. Louis provided a nice blueprint, especially with its defensive line. This will be a big game for Wake, Olivier Vernon, Jared Odrick and others on the defensive line to win those one-on-one matchups.

Miami’s pass protection has been an issue lately. What are your thoughts on the Dolphins’ offensive line pass protecting against the Broncos’ front seven?

Legwold: The Broncos are at their best in the pass rush when they move into a six-defensive back look -- a dime package that really plays more like the average five defensive back (nickel) package when safety T.J. Ward moves down and plays at a linebacker spot. They have speed all over the formation, with Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware moving around some. As a result, Miller is tied for fourth in the league with 10 sacks and Ware is tied for eighth with nine sacks. They use plenty of pre-snap movement, moving players toward and away from the line of scrimmage, to give the quarterback some indecisiveness, and it’s been a productive personnel grouping. However, some teams have found ways to convert some long third downs; the Chiefs converted seven third downs on third-and-8 or more, while the 49ers and Chargers each converted three times at third-and-6 or more and the Rams converted two third-and-10 situations this past Sunday. Tannehill can extend plays and that will be an issue for the Broncos to consider. But at home they play fast on defense as Ware and Miller have repeatedly caved in the edges of the pocket.

Overall, the Dolphins have had plenty of drama over the last year –- the Broncos had Richie Incognito in for a workout last week -– how has coach Joe Philbin done in the swirl?

Walker: This was a major storyline in the offseason and throughout training camp. But at this point in late November, more than a year since Jonathan Martin left the team and Incognito’s subsequent suspension, the Dolphins have moved on from the fiasco. Miami made the right call to remove both players from its locker room in the offseason. The team didn’t re-sign Incognito and traded Martin to the San Francisco 49ers. That set the tone for a better locker room culture to develop. This year’s team is together, and I think winning six of 10 games has helped. In some ways, earning a playoff spot would validate the thought that they learned from the situation and became better for it.

Denver suffered a lot of injuries last week against the Rams. What’s the latest update on tight end Julius Thomas, receiver Emmanuel Sanders and tailback Montee Ball?

Legwold: That’s been the dark cloud hanging over this team this past week. Sanders, who has been one of the best free-agent signings in the league, is the team’s second-leading receiver with 67 catches to go with 954 yards. He’s now under the guidelines of the league’s concussion protocol, so the Broncos have to simply wait until he is cleared to return. Ball re-injured his right groin as he played just four snaps against the Rams, an injury that kept him out of the previous five games. He is expected to miss, at minimum, two to three weeks. And Thomas suffered a sprained ankle in the first quarter against the Rams. While Thomas’ injury wasn't nearly as serious as the team initially feared at the stadium Sunday, he has had ankle troubles before in his career and will be watched closely. His impact in the offense is no small matter. Thomas played just 13 snaps against the Rams and he still leads the league in touchdown receptions with 12, or at least two more than any other player.

The Broncos don’t have a fullback on the roster, so they can’t simply go to a two-back look to cover for some injuries. Tight end Virgil Green and running back Ronnie Hillman were out last week and Hillman is expected to miss additional time. That means young players such as C.J. Anderson and rookie Juwan Thompson have to be ready to be the guys at running back and rookie wide receiver Cody Latimer should get some snaps in the offense as well.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Will they? Or won’t they?

When it comes to running the ball out of what has been the league’s most prolific passing offense over the past three seasons -- 122 touchdown passes for Peyton Manning in the past 42 regular-season games -- the Denver Broncos have often been, at least some of the time, about semantics.

Instead of raw data, yards per carry, rushing attempts per game, words like "efficiency" and "positive gains" have been sprinkled in and around the descriptions of what is hoped for when Manning hands the ball to a running back. But that was before the 22-9 loss in St. Louis when the Broncos ran the ball just 10 times and one of those "attempts" was a kneel-down by Manning just before halftime.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/Bill KostrounDenver coach John Fox says the sight of Peyton Manning handing the ball to a running back needs to happen more often in coming weeks.
The fact it happened not only in a loss, but in a game the Broncos trailed by just nine points when the fourth quarter began, caused Broncos head coach John Fox to re-assess this week and say; "There’s no doubt to be the kind of team we want to be, we have to run the ball more. There’s a mindset, mentality, whether you’re on defense trying to stop the run and whether you’re on offense running the football ... Right now it’s something we have to do more, we have to execute better."

And that is the rub, because not only is running the ball more a commitment in play-calling, it is Manning who has the last word on any play before the snap. Manning, because of who he is, can check into, and out of, any play he wishes.

Sunday, in a game the Broncos trailed by six at halftime, and by nine at the end of the third quarter, the Broncos’ last 28 plays from scrimmage were called pass plays. C.J. Anderson had the last rushing attempt in the game for the Broncos, a 3-yard gain with just over seven minutes remaining in the third quarter.

"In my opinion we lost that game because I didn’t play well enough in the passing game," Manning said. "Did we throw it a lot? Yes, we did. There were plays to be made and I didn’t make them."

On what the proper balance between run and pass is in an offense built to be the best at throwing it around in unprecedented pass-happy times, Manning said it isn’t about percentages, but rather purpose.

"No matter how many times you run it or throw it, you have to produce when you do it," Manning said. "So, that’s what I’m disappointed about -- I didn’t execute the plays that were called, the way they were supposed to (be)."

But Manning also tossed out; "We might be an old-school running game this week, be alert for that."

Defenses have dropped plenty of players into coverage, with lighter personnel groupings on the field to chase around the Broncos receivers. That combination would seem to allow the Broncos to pound away if they chose.

But the Broncos have also had difficulty consistently winning the line of scrimmage. The Broncos, who are one of just seven teams in the league with fewer than 245 carries entering this week’s games, have had 37 runs go for no gain or negative yardage.

That is 15 percent of their rushing attempts that haven’t made it past the line of scrimmage.

The Dolphins are eighth in the league against the run -- 94.5 rushing yards allowed per game -- and seventh-best in the league, allowing just 3.83 yards per rushing attempt. Miami is also tied for third in sacks, and has seen the past three Broncos’ opponents affect Manning’s ability to deliver the ball when he wants. Opponents have been folding in the edges of the Broncos’ pass protection and pushing the middle to keep Manning from striding into his throws.

"I just know when they hand it to us as running backs, call our number, we want to make a play that helps us," said Anderson. "Any time they ask us to go, we need to go. I’m just concentrating on being ready to do my job as many times as they need me to do it."
DAVIE, Fla. -- For the first time this season, Peyton Manning looks human on the football field. He has struggled in two of his past three games, including the Denver Broncos' 22-7 defeat Sunday to the St. Louis Rams.

Manning looks hurried in the pocket behind a struggling offensive line. He's making bad throws and bad decisions, which is evident in his six interceptions the past three games. Manning also doesn't look like the same dominant quarterback with several of his supporting cast dealing with injuries.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelThe Dolphins' defense is working on disguising its blitzes and coverages to keep Broncos QB Peyton Manning on the move in Week 12.
But you wouldn't know it by listening to players and coaches with the Miami Dolphins (6-4) this week. They expect the best version of Manning -- the elite Manning -- Sunday when they travel to play the Broncos (7-3) in a big game with playoff implications.

"Peyton Manning is Peyton Manning," said Dolphins cornerback Cortland Finnegan, who has played against Manning several times in his career. "He's going to move the football. The biggest thing for us is points. He could have 500 yards passing. As long as we limit the points, that's big for us."

The Dolphins' defense, which is ranked No. 2 in yards per game, is playing as good as any team in recent weeks. The Dolphins are also ranked No. 2 in pass defense and haven't allowed a touchdown in two of their past three games. It's a major reason they are 5-2 in the past seven games.

Still, it sounds as if Miami is expecting a shootout Sunday. The Broncos are the fifth-highest-scoring team in the NFL, averaging 29.3 points per game. Manning already has 30 touchdown passes in 10 games. The Dolphins do not envision the type of low-scoring games they've had against the Buffalo Bills, Detroit Lions or Jacksonville Jaguars in recent weeks.

"That's obvious to us that we're playing one of the best quarterbacks, if not the best quarterback, to ever play the game," Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace said Tuesday. "So we have to put up some points. We don't even [have to] talk about it. ... We know we have to put up more points. We know our defense will need a little more help."

Manning isn't the first elite quarterback Miami faced this season. The team beat Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in Week 1 and lost a nail-biter to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in Week 6. So playing a quarterback of Manning's caliber will not be foreign.

The key, according to the Dolphins, will be disguising their blitzes and coverages. Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle has done a good job in his third year of knowing when to drop back seven or eight players and when to blitz to pressure the quarterback.

Rest assured, Manning is studying all of Miami's defensive looks this week.

"I don't know how many things Peyton hasn't seen in the years he's been playing. He is remarkable," Coyle said. "Talking with people who have been around him, he's got almost a photogenic memory. When he sees something, he locks it in and can retrieve it a year later or two years later."

The Rams and Patriots have provided a fine blueprint of how to rattle Manning this season. Both teams made sure to get plenty of pressure on the future Hall of Fame quarterback, even if it didn't result in sacks. One of Miami's biggest strengths is the defensive line, which has a distinct advantage over Denver's offensive line.

Miami's defense has played very well all season but flown mostly under the radar. Getting the best of Manning in his house would certainly raise its profile.

"This is what you play the game for, these type of games," Dolphins safety Reshad Jones said. "I think it will be a great atmosphere, a great time of the season. We're playing against one of the top offenses there is. It's our time to go out, make our plays and make a statement."

The Film Don't Lie: Broncos

November, 18, 2014
Nov 18
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A weekly look at what the Denver Broncos must fix:

As is always the case, “defending" Peyton Manning is a relative thing. Manning finished Sunday’s loss to the St. Louis Rams with 389 yards passing, his third-highest output of the season, but the Rams still felt good about their plan. They sacked Manning twice and knocked down 12 passes -- 22 percent of Manning’s attempts.

The Broncos worked out of a three-wide receiver look much of the time, as they often do and as the Rams expected. “Well, we knew for the most part, they were going to be in just the one personnel grouping," is how Rams coach Jeff Fisher put it. The Rams positioned themselves on defense to force the Broncos receivers to the outside as often as possible.

Others will try to follow suit in the coming weeks. The Broncos work plenty of option routes -- “two-way gos" as Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas often calls them -- in which, depending on the coverage, they see the receivers pick a break to the inside or outside.

The Rams tried as often as they could to give the Broncos receivers a coverage look that would make them cut to the outside. Those are throws defensive coaches believe Manning, in his post-surgical career with Broncos, doesn’t make with the accuracy he shows on throws in the middle of the field.

Combine that with the Rams' ability to create pressure in the middle of the formation and keep Manning from fully stepping up to drive the ball to the outside, and the Rams got the Broncos off track.

The Rams' strategy doesn’t work when defensive backs don’t play with discipline and doesn’t work if Manning has room to fully stride into the throw. The Rams played with discipline and didn't give Manning room, and the result was the Broncos' lowest point total since Manning signed with the team.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos sifted through the what-happened list from Sunday's 22-7 loss to the St. Louis Rams, there were plenty of numbers they didn't like, starting with the ones on the scoreboard.

But one of the other red-flag numerals was the team's rushing attempts against the Rams, as in just 10 for the entire game, one of those a kneel-down from quarterback Peyton Manning just before halftime. The Broncos finished with just 28 yards rushing and as a result held on to the ball for just 24 minutes, 10 seconds in the game.

It was the third game this season when the Broncos have finished with fewer than 50 yards rushing and the Broncos are 0-3 in those games, with road losses at Seattle, New England and Sunday's in St. Louis.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Anderson
Michael B. Thomas/Getty ImagesC.J. Anderson had nine of the Broncos 10 rushing attempts on Sunday.
"There's no doubt to be the kind of team we want to be, we have to run the ball more," said Broncos head coach John Fox. "There's a mindset, mentality, whether you're on defense trying to stop the run and whether you're on offense running the football … Right now it's something we have to do more, we have to execute better."

The 10 carries tied for the Broncos' lowest total since the start of the 1981 season -- two years before the team traded for uber quarterback prospect John Elway. The Broncos had 11 rushing attempts against the San Diego Chargers last season -- the previous low since quarterback Peyton Manning signed with the team -- and the Broncos had 10 carries against the Chargers in the 2008 season finale, Mike Shanahan's last game as the team's head coach.

The Broncos are also one of seven teams in the league with fewer than 245 rushing attempts for the season and Denver is the only one of those seven teams with a winning record -- the other six teams have a combined 13-47 record, a list that includes the 0-10 Oakland Raiders as well as the Tennessee Titans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, both 2-8.

"Yeah, that's Coach Fox," said running back C.J. Anderson. "He's emphasized the run and our coaches of course are going to go upstairs and do the best thing they can do to make the run game go and part of it is on me, too. When I get the ball in my hands, I have to make sure I see the right things and see the right holes and see the right cuts and just continue to hit the spots I know I can hit and continue to make the runs I know I can run and get this run game going."

The Broncos, because of their ability in the passing game and the number of times they line up in three-wide receiver sets, often face smaller personnel groupings from opposing defenses. That scenario would seem to favor some run plays.

But the Broncos have sported injuries at running back all season -- Montee Ball (groin) and Ronnie Hillman (foot) are both sidelined at the moment -- to go with plenty of inconsistency in the offensive line. The Broncos have already made four changes in the offensive line.

The Broncos offense is at its best when Manning can use play-action in the passing game and he can't make an effective use of play-action if the Broncos don't run the ball enough, with enough efficiency, to give defenses any reason to honor the fake when Manning tries.

Manning threw the ball 54 times and the Broncos called pass plays on the last 27 plays from scrimmage in Sunday's loss. "When you throw 54, 50-something times, that's probably not the ideal scenario that you want to take place coming into the game," Manning said.

In the end, the Broncos expect, and need more, from the offense when Manning isn't throwing the ball.

"I'm the type of player that whatever's called you have to go out there and execute," Anderson said. "Whether it's 90 passes and one run, you have to go out there and execute. At the end of the day we have to play our best where were capable to play at and we'll get the results we want."
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ST. LOUIS -- There is a fine line between winning and losing.

That line, in the Denver Broncos' case, seems to be finding the right combination across their offensive front. The Broncos could not do it Sunday and, as a result, left the Edward Jones Dome with a rather unsightly 22-7 loss tagging along.

There were plenty of reasons for the unexpected thrashing. A defense that allowed its first 100-yard rushing game to an opposing running back, an offense that posted its lowest point total since the 2011 regular-season finale, and a lack of confidence in a kicker that was not allowed to attempt 55- and 54-yard field goals indoors were a few.

But over the past five games -- two of those losses -- the Broncos have made four changes on the offensive line, they have worked out Richie Incognito, a player known more for what he has done off the field than on it, and allowed far too many pass-rushers to get far too close to quarterback Peyton Manning.

"I thought the guys up front fought like crazy against a good rush," Manning said. "I’ve got to find a way to complete more of them and score more than seven points. Our defense held them to field goals and fought and gave us plenty of possessions and to only score seven points is very disappointing. … When you throw 54, 50-something times, that’s probably not the ideal scenario that you want to take place coming into the game. I think that plays into their strengths a little bit, but those are passes I’ve got to complete."

But the clock has been ticking on this for a while.

The San Francisco 49ers, without three of their Pro Bowl defenders (Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman), sacked Manning twice. The New England Patriots created pressure without adding too many additional rushers for most plays and had one of the three sacks of Manning this year from three-man rushes.

The Raiders got close enough on Manning’s front porch to deflect four passes and force two interceptions in the first half alone a week ago. And Sunday, the Rams consistently won the line of scrimmage with some well-timed coverage tweaks, a blitz here and there to go with a defensive front four that includes three former first-round draft picks in Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers and Aaron Donald.

"Those guys are talented," said John Elway, the Broncos' executive vice president of football operations/general manager. "Three of the four guys in the front are first-rounders, plus we let them tee off all day."

And the Broncos are discovering it is difficult to scheme your way out of inconsistent play up front. Defenses are attacking the middle of the formation to disrupt Manning’s ability to stride -- one that is slightly longer post-neck surgery and his throwing motion has become more lower-body driven -- into his throws.

On the edges, especially rushing from the defensive right into Manning’s face, teams have made a more pronounced effort to get their hands up to try to knock down the quick throws Manning makes to receivers crossing toward the middle of the field. And rushers aren't just getting to Manning, they're coming in clean.

In all it meant the Rams sacked Manning twice, hit him four times and knocked down 12 passes, a double-take worthy 22 percent of Manning’s attempts Sunday. The Broncos also ran the ball just nine times in the game and didn’t run the ball on any of their last 27 plays from scrimmage. The Broncos now have lost both games this season when Manning has attempted at least 50 passes.

As far as any additional changes or help being on the way on the offensive front, Elway said: "We’ll see how it goes, we’ll evaluate where we are."

"I give them a lot of credit, I thought they played really well at all three levels; their front, their linebackers, secondary," Manning said. "I thought we didn’t execute very well and just think I didn’t play very well, so you can usually kind of wrap it up into that."

Or wrap it into this: The Broncos are still a Super Bowl contender, but with a nagging question that needs an answer.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher knows Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning better than any opposing coach in the league. As the coach of the Tennessee Titans, he faced Manning's Indianapolis Colts 19 times, including the postseason.

Fisher
Manning
In those games, the Titans were 6-13. Along the way, Fisher said he tried just about every tactic one could think of to slow down Manning and his offensive directives.

"It’s like playing a computer," Fisher said. "That’s what he is. He runs that offense. He’s going to put them in the best possible position. He’s nearly impossible to fool and is hard to get down. If you rush more than four, the ball's coming out and he’s not going to take the hit. That’s just how he is. He puts that offense in the best possible position every snap. If the run’s not there, then he’s going to pick it up and he’s going to change and he’s going to put the ball down the field. He’s prepared. He’s prepared week after week, year after year. Again, like I said, I think he’s playing his best football right now.”

That's a scary thought for any defense or coach, but especially one who has seen him so many times over the years when Manning was on his way to league MVP awards.

On Thursday evening, Fisher offered an anecdote about a solution they tried in Tennessee in an attempt to keep Manning from so easily picking up on what they were doing from down to down, series to series and quarter to quarter.

“There were years when our whole defense wore wristbands and we changed every quarter because we couldn’t talk, because he recognizes your terminology and your calls and things like that,” Fisher said.

According to Fisher, each wristband had a number on it that represented a different defensive call. The call would come in just as a number. At the end of a quarter, the defense would change the wristband and the individual number would mean something different.

That begs the obvious question: Did it work?

“No," Fisher said, laughing. "It may have for a quarter. I don’t know.”

The reality is, there isn't one simple solution to slowing Manning. The best might be to keep him off the field completely.

"Every time that Peyton’s on the bench, that certainly is important, their offense is on the bench," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. "Certainly have played him a lot of times. The times we’ve played well against him, going back to the days with the [New York] Jets … division playoff games, stuff like that, you win the time-of-possession battle. You stay on the field. I think the more opportunities we can do that by being successful running the football, throwing completions will help us do that.”
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Finding respect for Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning in the St. Louis Rams' locker room is as simple as mentioning his name.

"He’s a Hall of Fame guy," linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar said. "They might change the five-year wait for him. He’s that guy."

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesPeyton Manning will be facing a Rams defense that is last in the NFL in completion percentage allowed.
In other words, he's the guy that can quickly erase all of the goodwill the Rams' defense has built up with its performances over the past few weeks. Yes, the Rams' defense has finally started to emerge as the type of group many thought it could be before the season. In the past two weeks, it has allowed just 299 yards per game, only 54 rushing yards per game and has posted 11 sacks. The Rams have stopped the run and rushed the passer exactly how they envisioned at the outset of the season.

But few players in the history of the league are as good or as quick at laying waste to the best laid plans of surging defenses as Manning. Listing his accomplishments would take all day but all that really needs to be known is that Rams coach Jeff Fisher, who has coached against Manning 19 times in his career, says the 37-year old quarterback is playing the best football of his life with the best supporting cast he's ever had.

"Peyton is playing his best football right now," Fisher said. "I’ve faced him many, many times. He’s playing his best football. The things he’s doing with the football and the cast that they have surrounded him with is outstanding. It tests your defense and requires patience."

Fisher points to two keys to slowing the Broncos: running the ball and getting the opposing punter on the field. Neither is easy against the Broncos since they also happen to boast the league's best run defense. For the purpose of this discussion, though, let's focus on the part about how to get the punter on the field.

In an ideal world, the Rams can make like Seattle did in the Super Bowl and lean on their front four to create the pressure that will make Manning's day hectic. That sounds good in theory. It isn't, however, very realistic because the Seahawks not only had a talented front four but the type of secondary that could take away Manning's first and second reads to go with the defensive line pushing the pocket quickly.

The Rams have the front four that would be capable of generating the pressure but the secondary doesn't match up nearly as well. In fact, Manning is second fastest in the league at getting the ball out quickly, releasing his average pass just 2.29 seconds after taking the snap. That wouldn't be such a daunting figure if the Rams were better in coverage but they are last in the league in completion percentage allowed at 69.6 percent.

That means Manning's ability to quickly identify coverages and pressures pre-snap can nullify the Rams' aggressive blitzing approach (they're first in the league in blitz percentage) by getting the ball out with little time wasted.

[+] EnlargeAaron Donald, DeMarco Murray
Michael B. Thomas/Getty ImagesAaron Donald's ability to put pressure up the middle could be key for the Rams this Sunday.
Before the snap, when Manning is often derided for all of his antics and dummy calls, the key for the Rams is holding their water and not tipping off blitzes and coverages. That can be difficult because Manning has a knack for changing his cadence and timing of the snap from down to down. The bigger picture pre-snap for the defense is offering a variety of different looks but, more important, having multiple things they can do from that look.

"You try to show him certain things and try to give consistent looks and do certain things out of the same look," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "So he can’t just look and see this and know it’s this coverage or this blitz is a certain look. If you have a safety down every time and you’re in Cover 3 then, OK, it’s obvious. But sometimes if the safety is down and you are playing [Cover] 2 it can mess with him. You try to change it up."

Once the ball is snapped, the job then becomes to take away Manning's first read to at least buy a little bit of time for the pass rush to get home. Manning is fast enough at moving through his progressions that he can get to a second or third read before the pass rush can get home. That means the best route to get Manning off his spot is a straight line up the middle. Attacking the "A" gaps is something Seattle excelled at against the Broncos and would seem to be one of few favorable matchups the Rams will have this Sunday.

Rookie defensive tackle Aaron Donald is extremely disruptive on the inside and the Broncos have been playing musical chairs with the interior of their offensive line.

"You want to get him off his spot," Laurinaitis said. "I don’t care how athletic [pass-rusher Robert Quinn] is, two-point, whatever, around a big old tackle is hard. You have to be able to pressure the middle, you have to get him when he looks at his first read get him to reset and kind of take it back down and look the other way to help with that. Goodness he’s been doing this well for a really long time. Like our linebacker coach said, he’s going to Canton on roller skates downhill. So a lot of respect for him and what an awesome challenge."

A challenge the likes of which the Rams haven't seen in 2014.

Aaron Rodgers matching his MVP pace

November, 13, 2014
Nov 13
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- If you thought Aaron Rodgers' production from his MVP season of 2011 was a once-in-a-career happening, think again.

He's on a similar pace (see accompanying chart).

Rodgers played only 15 games in 2011, sitting out the meaningless Week 17 affair to rest for the playoffs, so it's possible he could end up with even better numbers this season than his 45 touchdowns (with just six interceptions) of that year.

[+] EnlargeRodgers
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsAaron Rodgers hasn't thrown an interception at Lambeau Field since Week 12 of the 2012 season -- or 286 pass attempts.
And after Sunday's six-touchdown game against the Chicago Bears, Rodgers has thrown himself back into the MVP race.

According to the online oddsmaker Bovada.lv, Peyton Manning remains the favorite to win the MVP with 2-1 odds. Rodgers and Andrew Luck are next at 3-1. Five weeks ago, Rodgers was sixth in the MVP race at 10-1.

Just two weeks ago, all 32 ESPN NFL Nation reporters cast their votes for the midseason MVP, and not one of them selected Rodgers.

Imagine how different the polling might be today.

"I think he's playing as good as any quarterback in the league right now and probably the best quarterback in the league right now," said Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly, whose team is preparing to play the Green Bay Packers on Sunday. "He's on top of his game."

Kelly has the unenviable task of facing Rodgers at Lambeau, where the Packers have averaged 41.5 points per game. No one in the NFL has come close to scoring that many points at home. The New England Patriots rank second but have averaged 5.5 points fewer in their home games.

The Packers have outscored opponents by 101 points at home this season, the highest differential in the league.

In going 4-0 at home, Rodgers hasn't even had to finish the last three games. He has completed nearly 69 percent of his passes at home this season, and his average yards per passing attempt of 9.9 in those games indicates how explosive the Packers' offense has been at Lambeau this season.

Rodgers has 15 touchdowns and no interceptions at home this season. In fact, he hasn't thrown an interception at home since Week 13 of the 2012 season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, his 10-game streak without an interception at home is the longest in NFL history by two games. He's thrown 286 passes at Lambeau since he was last picked off.

The Packers are 14-1 in Rodgers' last 15 starts, and the only loss was last season against the Bears when he broke his collarbone in the first quarter.

Statistics aside, Packers coach Mike McCarthy believes Rodgers is better today than he's ever been. Rodgers has more freedom in the no-huddle offense because McCarthy trusts Rodgers' brain, which the coach said is a quarterback's best weapon.

"You can't play quarterback without the ability to process, anticipate, recognize," McCarthy said. "Then, you have the mental toughness part of it. Clearly, I think the strength of any successful quarterback is his mental and emotional gifts, and Aaron is definitely at the highest level."

Said Kelly: "It doesn't seem like you can fool him. He's always kind of a play ahead, a step ahead of defenses and defensive coordinators. He always seems to find the open receiver, no matter how it unveils itself pre-snap. He's extremely accurate, as good a thrower as there is in this league. He can keep things alive because he's such a good athlete. It's an exciting challenge for us to go against the best."

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