NFL Nation: Peyton Manning

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – When the Denver Broncos were busy going about the business of revamping the league’s record book last season, quarterback Peyton Manning was ruthlessly efficient working the ball all over the field to an array of pass catchers.

It was the classic take-what-the-defense-gives-you approach, with the Broncos taking all they could and a little more as four different players had at least 10 touchdown receptions on the way to Manning's 55 scoring passes on the season. This time around, through their first three games, the Broncos’ offense has been dominant at times, sluggish at times and a little of both at times, even a little of both during the same possession. And something is still a little off.

[+] EnlargeDemaryius Thomas
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesDemaryius Thomas is off to a slow start compared to a season ago.

Offensive coordinator Adam Gase has said it, Manning has said it, that there have been good things, but at times the rhythm of what is an offense rooted in right-spot, work-fast timing has not been what they want.

Manning has worked the ball all over the field, to a variety of receivers, but there are some noticeable differences between how things have been spread around this year as compared to last season’s first three games.

Emmanuel Sanders, already on track for a career year, has been slightly busier in the first three games this year than Eric Decker was over the first three last year -- 33 targets for Sanders to go with 25 catches compared to 28 targets and 19 catches for Decker. Tight end Julius Thomas is on a similar pace as in '13. Last year he had 20 targets, 14 receptions and four touchdowns in the first three games. This year he has 17 targets, 14 receptions and five touchdowns.

The big differences this time around are with Demaryius Thomas’ output and Wes Welker’s as well. Welker, of course, was suspended for the first two games of the season and reinstated two games earlier than originally expected when a new drug policy was approved, so his work thus far consists of nine targets and six receptions against the Seahawks.

Last season, after three games, Welker had been targeted 27 times and had 19 catches and four touchdowns.

And then there’s Demaryius Thomas and at the moment, other than a run game with far too many negative plays, it is Thomas’ work in the offense that is among the biggest differences between what the Broncos have done in the early going this season as compared to last year’s assault on the record book.

While the 2013 season is not a fair gauge for the seasons that come after it given that the Broncos scored more points than any team in league history, Manning has still tried to get the ball to Demaryius Thomas this year at almost the same pace as last year.

Manning has targeted Demaryius Thomas 27 times in the first three games this year as compared to 28 times i ’13. But last year Dnemaryius Thomas turned those 28 targers into 20 catches and two touchdowns. This time around Thomas, with four drops, has 13 catches and one touchdown.

His 10.8 yards per catch is far lower than last year’s 15.5 yards per catch over the first three.

The gap this year between targets and catches -- a difference of 14 -- is an indication of Thomas’ drops, that perhaps he has had a sore left foot as well as Manning’s desire through it all to still get the ball to the team’s No. 1 receiver and shake things loose. And there's no reason to think those targets will go down since the belief is Thomas will find his groove soon.

It all means there’s room to grow for the Broncos in their passing game, that being 11th in scoring is fine, but not what they were looking for and they can, as offensive coordinator Adam Gase often says, “clean things up ... get things the way we want them.’’
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Some of it is a little take-care-of-the-neighborhood talk and some of it is to add some impact to what the Denver Broncos do as they go about their football business, but head coach John Fox has been adamant in his beliefs.

That the AFC West was “the toughest division in the league last year and I think it’s the toughest this year."

And earlier this month, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning chimed in a bit with, “I think it’s the toughest division in football."

With the Oakland Raiders seemingly on course to add another season-long chapter to their growing Book of Struggle, it is difficult to give the AFC West the top-to-bottom grade it would need to pass a best-division-in-football exam. But after four weekends of the NFL season the San Diego Chargers have done their part.

For the Broncos, that’s certainly worth some attention. The Chargers’ only loss in this still-young season was 18-17 to the Arizona Cardinals in the season opener. The Chargers, with the help of a little home-field swelter, own a win over the Seattle Seahawks and have dispatched the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars in their last two games.

Quarterback Philip Rivers, who has spent large portions of his career beating the Broncos, has played all kinds of good thus far -- 70 percent completion rate, just more than eight yards per attempt, nine touchdowns and one interception.

The Broncos formally concluded their bye week early Monday morning when the players arrived to start what is now a run of 13 consecutive football weeks to close out the regular season. To get the next weekend off they’d actually like to have, they’re going to have to take care of plenty of business over those next 13 weeks.

The Broncos already own a grind-it-out win over the Kansas City Chiefs, who could add to the AFC West’s resume with a win over the New England Patriots Monday night but still have no explanation for the opening-week loss to the Tennessee Titans at Arrowhead.

So, if the Broncos aren’t just tossing early-season compliments around and the AFC West does turn out to be the kind of division it was last season when three of its teams made the postseason, then they’ll have earned any playoff trip the hard way.

Among their next five games, the Broncos have the Cardinals (3-0), the 49ers (2-2), the Chargers (3-1) and the Patriots (2-1 heading into Monday night’s game). The Chargers game in that grouping is on a Thursday night, in Denver, which is exactly the scenario from 2013 when the Broncos openly complained about a short week throughout a short week and then lost to the Chargers on a Thursday night in Denver.

The Broncos have said they’re better than last season, said they’ve seen plenty of good things already in a 2-1 start and said they want another shot at the title when all is said and done. But to prove any of that true, they will have to be the best team in their division.

And as they returned to work Monday, it should be clear they will have some work to do there.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The first impression has been the lasting one thus far for the Denver Broncos.

Their opening first down run of the season went for no gain. The second time they ran the ball on first down, it went for no gain. The fourth time? No gain.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonMontee Ball knows the Broncos need to get more yards on first down.
 And things haven't really picked up since. Now, no one is advocating a return to the league’s 70s show, the old run, run, pass possession. Not with the rules-makers having rolled out the red carpet to throw, not with Peyton Manning at quarterback and impact all over the formation at wide receiver.

But Manning is a man of precision behind center, and he often speaks of the best offenses being “on schedule,’’ and on schedule means “you get first down after first down, string them together, or give yourself a second-and-short, to put yourself in a position to call most anything.’’

And the Broncos, after three games, are not on schedule. Yes, they have scored 31, 24 and 20 points in three games against three teams that won at least 11 games last season, one of which just happens to be the defending Super Bowl champ. But it doesn’t feel right at the moment, and a big part of the reason is the imbalance the Broncos have on first-down plays.

Too often first-and-10 is becoming second-and-long and as the Broncos try to add a little more punch in their run game, they have become lopsided on offense. And usually, the bad news starts with a handoff.

“We have to be better, for sure,’’ said Broncos running back Montee Ball. “There are a lot of things there, but I know I have to be better because we need to be able to run the ball when we need to.’’

At its best, on the “schedule’’ Manning likes to keep, the Broncos offense is a first-down factory. A 75-yard touchdown drive in the Week 2 win over the Kansas City Chiefs had a sequence of four consecutive plays on first down. On the seven-play drive, the Broncos were in a first-and-10 on five of the plays and first-and-goal on the touchdown play.

“When you’re stringing them together, there’s a rhythm,’’ Manning said. “You’re going, moving the ball.’’

And while Manning’s passing numbers are other-worldly on first down -- 27-of-41 for 349 yards and five touchdown passes -- the Broncos are decidedly lopsided. Take out Manning’s kneel-down plays and the Broncos are rushing for just 2.8 yards per carry on first down.

Overall, they’ve had five first-down run plays go for no gain and seven have gone for negative yardage. In short, Ball and the Broncos offensive front have not been able to consistently make room to run the ball against defenses with more size in the formation in those down and distances.

In the days leading up to the loss to the Seattle Seahawks, offensive coordinator Adam Gase referenced the “negative plays’’ in the run game.

“I think the tackles for losses were a little much for me, and we put ourselves in bad positions with some of those penalties and it’s hard -- you try to stick with it as far as when you’re getting those second-and-20s but you want to try to help the quarterback get back to a third-and-10 or third-and-5 area,’’ Gase said.

In the end, an efficient run game is also the best way to slow down opposing pass rushers, keep them away from Manning and keep play-action passing -- what Manning has called “a big part of the offense.’’ But the Broncos’ blocking schemes up front have left gaps in the run game, especially inside around the guards and center, and Ball hasn’t always been as quick to the hole as he needs to be.

The game video shows, over and over again, defensive linemen attacking the gaps on the interior when the Broncos guards move down the line of scrimmage in the run game.

“We have things to work on, things to get better at,’’ said Broncos head coach John Fox. “We’ve played three games, we all can be better at a lot of things, and we’ll work at it.’’

The Film Don't Lie: Broncos

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
11:00
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A weekly look at what the Denver Broncos must fix:

With a bye week, the Broncos get a couple of extra practices to try to regain, or even find, the balance they want on offense. Because waiting on the other side of the bye week are the Arizona Cardinals and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who once interviewed for the Broncos' coaching job in 2009.

Bowles is an aggressive sort who will, if he doesn’t feel he has to concern himself with the run game, blitz wild against an opposing quarterback, even one who has carved up blitzes as often as Peyton Manning has in his career.

When he does turn his guys loose, Bowles will blitz from all over the formation, often adding defensive backs to the mix. Which is why the Broncos’ performance on first down in their overtime loss to the Seattle Seahawks needs plenty of attention.

First off, the Broncos were fairly one-dimensional -- they had just nine first-down runs in the game and just one in the second half, which came with just 2:29 left in regulation. Trailing or not, that makes them predictable.

Secondly, when they did run on first down, they struggled mightily to get anything done, especially when the score was such to afford them the chance. And the Broncos struggled almost equally out of their two-tight-end look and three-wide-receiver set. Overall, of those nine first-down runs, three went for minus-1 yard, two went for 1 yard, one for 3 yards, one for 5 yards and the longest was a 9-yard run by Montee Ball on the Broncos’ first play from scrimmage in the game.

Ball, however, fumbled on that play.

And if the Broncos can’t -- or don’t -- run on first down, it only puts Manning in harm's way.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- A day after a gritty overtime loss to the Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos coach John Fox said good isn't good enough and close isn't close enough.

That, when all was said and done, the 26-20 overtime loss in CenturyLink Field wasn't redemption, revenge, or even all that acceptable, as the Broncos entered their bye week.

"Do you mean is there a moral victory? The answer to that would be no," Fox said Monday. "But like all games, you have things you do well and things you don't do well. We call it the good, the bad and the ugly. We ended up on the short end of the stick. It was our first loss of the season. We're disappointed about that but we'll look at it."

[+] EnlargeJohn Fox
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports"Do you mean is there a moral victory? The answer to that would be no," Joh Fox said of the overtime loss in the Super Bowl rematch with the Seahawks.
Monday, the Broncos players went through the game video from Sunday's loss and while the team made a significantly better showing than it did in the 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVIII, a little time to sleep on it didn't make anyone in the Broncos complex feel any better about how things went.

"That's important every week, regardless of who you play, it's a physical, combative game every week," Fox said. "I think to go on the road in an environment that's proved to be tough to win at over the course of three years, yeah I think that's always important. It's going to be important the next time we go on the road. Did we have a chance to win the game? Yeah, but we didn't finish it and we need to figure that out. We're going to be doing everything we can to do that, regardless of who it's against."

"We played better, we did some good things, but it wasn't what we wanted," Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. "We didn't play to be close, be better than the last time. We always want to win. We'll go through things and get it right."

The Broncos will do some on field work this week -- Fox said Monday the team would likely practice in some fashion Tuesday and Wednesday -- before giving the players four days off for the bye weekend. Some of that time will be used to try find some solutions in the run game -- the Broncos are averaging just 3.2 yards per rushing attempt -- and to get things a little more dialed in on offense as a whole.

Quarterback Peyton Manning's eight touchdown passes put him second in the league, to Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, but Manning has thrown just one of them to any of the team's wide receivers (Demaryius Thomas). Tight ends Julius Thomas and Jacob Tamme have five and two touchdown catches respectively.

And while there is some take-what-the-defense-gives-them at work there, it is also a sign things are not running quite as smoothly as the Broncos had hoped.

"I know everybody in there, coaches included, need to improve," Fox said. " ... I don't know that it's really people doing a lot of things differently (against the Broncos). I think it's fair to say that we might be more balanced now. That's really kind of how I'd say it. I think it's important in football to have that balance and not be one-dimensional. That's what I'd say up to this point. I don't think our offense has been lacking. We're just trying to win games. Right now, we're 2-1."

Rapid Reaction: Denver Broncos

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
8:15
PM ET

SEATTLE -- A few thoughts from the Denver Broncos' 26-20 overtime loss to the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field.

What it means: Once again, the Broncos got a good enough day from the defense to defeat the rugged, opportunistic Seahawks, but the Broncos' stars simply never came out on offense. Quarterback Peyton Manning had just 141 yards passing by the end of the third quarter, Demaryius Thomas didn't have his first catch until just before the end of the third quarter, and while the Broncos scrapped their way to overtime, those lost possessions on offense earlier in the game were a little too much to overcome.

Stock watch: The Broncos needed some kind of balance from the offense, something to get the Seahawks' safeties to have to honor the line of scrimmage. But running back Montee Ball fumbled on his first carry of the game, and it never really got much better. Ball had 19 yards rushing on 10 carries in the first half and gave way to Ronnie Hillman on some drives in the second half. The Seahawks' defense controlled the line of scrimmage for much of the day, especially in the middle of the formation, as the Broncos' run game didn't pull its weight.

Deserved better: When they waded into the offseason with the intent to fix their defense, the Broncos wanted a nastier, more versatile unit that could both get to the passer and still hold opposing run games in check. The Broncos had it all going on that side of the ball Sunday, especially in the second half. When the Broncos tackled Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch in the end zone for a safety with just over 13 minutes left in the fourth quarter, then added a Chris Harris Jr. interception on the Seahawks' next possession, the Broncos still had a chance to win the game. By the time overtime arrived, the unit was too gassed to get the stop.

Game ball: Get out the paint and make a pile of them, but the Broncos' defense played the kind of game that can win a team a championship if it gets any kind of help. They had a couple of bobbles -- the Seahawks briefly found a little something with Lynch being used as a receiver -- but overall the group played quality situational football, kept Seahawks' wide receiver Percy Harvin in check and kept the Seahawks from using Lynch to set the tempo.

What's next: The Broncos get an early Week 4 bye and have to find a way to keep the mojo they showed on defense Sunday and rediscover their groove on offense. After fast starts in the first half of each of their two wins, the Broncos faltered on offense in the second half of those games, and the group really never found its rhythm against the Seahawks.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Perhaps it took a little longer than the Denver Broncos had hoped, but the team is poised to get wide receiver Wes Welker back on the roster this week, possibly as soon as Wednesday.

ESPN’s Ed Werder reported Tuesday that the NFL had begun to inform players who would be reinstated once representatives of the NFL and NFL Players Association had signed a term sheet on the new drug policy.

[+] EnlargeWelker
AP Photo/Jack DempseyThe Broncos could have Wes Welker back from his league suspension as early as Wednesday.
The Broncos have kept a roster spot open for Welker for over a week. The team, with the negotiations on a new drug policy seemingly nearing a conclusion, cut wide receiver Nathan Palmer on Sept. 9 and remained at 52 players since.

Welker, who suffered a concussion in the Broncos’ Aug. 23 preseason game against the Houston Texans, has been cleared medically, so he would take part in practice as soon as he is formally moved from reserve/suspended to the active roster.

Following Broncos practice last Friday, coach John Fox said the team was ready to welcome Welker back whenever an agreement was in place. But earlier this week, Fox wasn't prepared to publicly say when he thought that would be.

"I know we get Wes back for sure after four games," Fox said Monday. "Anything other than that, that’s somebody else’s decisions.”

Welker was originally suspended four games for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs and already has served the first two games of the suspension, missing the Broncos’ wins over the Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs. However, Broncos officials and players have believed that a new policy would change the criteria of Welker's suspension and allow for the reinstatement of Welker and several others players around the league.

Welker had been limited in practice at the time of his league-mandated punishment because of the concussion he suffered against the Texans. The concussion was Welker's third in a 10-month span.

Welker has taken part in just one practice -- he was limited in the team’s Labor Day workout -- since the injury.

Welker's chance at reinstatement came because, under the new policy, Welker's positive test for amphetamines would now fall under the league's policy for substance abuse because it occurred during the offseason. Under the guidelines of the substance abuse policy, a player enters the treatment program with the first positive test, a program that includes meeting with counselors. The player is also subject to increased testing each month.

It takes multiple positive tests under the substance abuse policy before the suspension phase is reached. Welker's positive test had fallen under the PED policy, which put players into the suspension phase with the first positive test.

Under his original suspension, Welker would not have been eligible to return to the team until Monday, Oct. 6, and then would have played for the first time in the Oct. 12 game against the New York Jets.

In Welker's absence, the Broncos have run far more plays out of a two-tight end set than they did down the stretch last season or in the playoffs. Of quarterback Peyton Manning's league-leading six touchdown passes, five have gone to tight ends: four to Julius Thomas and one to Jacob Tamme.
DENVER -- Two halves don’t add up to the whole story right now for the Denver Broncos. At least not the story their offense wants to tell.

In two games, both wins, the Broncos' high-powered offense has had the ball for nine possessions in the first halves of their two games combined, excluding one kneel-down play for quarterback Peyton Manning to close out the opening half against the Indianapolis Colts.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/Jack DempseyPeyton Manning and the Broncos are 2-0 despite their second-half woes on offense.
On those nine possessions the Broncos have scored six touchdowns, a field goal and had two punts. The Broncos also have scored on their opening drive in each game.

"It feels good to go down and score on the opening drive," Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. "It gives everyone confidence that we can seriously do it over and over and over again."

But in back-to-back games the Broncos have left the offensive mojo in the locker room. In eight second-half possessions that haven’t included Manning taking a knee to end both games, the Broncos have scored just one touchdown and one field goal to go with six punts with offensive coordinator Adam Gase working out of the same playbook.

Broncos head coach John Fox, sitting at 2-0 after Sunday's 24-17 win over Kansas City, bristled at least some following the game with questions about discipline and offensive flow.

"We’re not going to beat everybody 58-to-nothing," Fox said.

For his part, Manning took a bit of a big-picture look following Sunday’s win.

"We’re playing a lot of good football teams," Manning said. "We played two really good teams, two playoff teams off the bat. Feel fortunate to win those games; have another tough game next week as well. So it’s still kind of the goals that you set on the offensive philosophies that you have, if you can achieve those goals those usually can lead to positive results. So we’re hitting some of those goals and some things we can do a little better job of."

Yes, Manning did finish his day with the NFL lead in touchdown passes, with six in two games. He has been particularly willing to find the best matchup in the scoring zone with four of those scoring passes having gone to tight ends Julius Thomas (three) and Jacob Tamme (one).

But the second-half numbers are troubling given the Broncos have been forced to hang on in each game, having to make a fourth-down play on defense in the game’s closing moments to preserve the win in each of the first two weeks.

Against the Colts, the Broncos didn’t make the most of their chances -- three three-and-outs in the second half -- while the Broncos simply didn’t get many chances against the Chiefs.

"If the other team has it, we can’t score," running back Montee Ball said.

The Broncos had just two possessions, other than Manning’s kneel down to end the game, in the second half against Kansas City. They turned one into a field goal, but were penalized for almost as many yards (17) as they netted on the drive (27).

The Chiefs opened up the first 10 minutes of the third quarter with a 19-play drive (23 plays with penalties included). They did not score after all that work when Cairo Santos missed a 37-yard field goal, but they got the next best thing by keeping Manning & Co. on the sideline for most of the third quarter.

"That’s ball-possession defense, all 10 minutes with no points," Fox said with tongue in cheek. "In all seriousness, that team struggled last week on third down. I’d say it’s fair to say, like any very competitive people, they worked very hard at it. Hat's off to them."

But the Broncos exited their 2-0 start knowing the team next on the docket is the one that derailed their offense in the Super Bowl just over seven months ago -- the Seattle Seahawks -- and that status quo won't be enough.

"We’ve got some work to do," Ball said. "We’re getting better every week. … It’s part of the game. The tide is going to turn, momentum is going to swing. Once we get momentum, we want to keep the momentum."

Rapid Reaction: Denver Broncos

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
7:33
PM ET
DENVER -- A few thoughts from the Denver Broncos' 24-17 victory Sunday over the Kansas City Chiefs at Sports Authority Field at Mile High:

What it means: The Broncos certainly won't put a frame around this one after a somewhat choppy performance with ill-timed penalties, inconsistency on defense and an off-and-on day on offense when the numbers looked better than the actual output. But the Broncos were able to win without their best fastball in an early AFC West matchup.

Stock watch: He's a do-it-all guy who fits many roles in the team's offense and special teams: Tight end Jacob Tamme continues to show his worth over and over again. On a day when special teams captain David Bruton Jr. was out with a shoulder injury, Tamme filled in the leadership void in those units. When the Broncos inserted Tamme on offense as the second tight end in their two-tight end, it sparked a unit that hadn't quite found its rhythm with back-to-back touchdown drives late in the first half.

Way too much bend: The Broncos held on for a win in the season opener with a defensive stop in the closing minutes against the Indianapolis Colts. At times Sunday they showed plenty of teeth on defense, but at others they allowed the Chiefs to convert in situations when the defense holds most every advantage. On a mammoth 10-minute third quarter drive alone the Broncos allowed the Chiefs to convert a third-and-18, a third-and-11, a third-and-13 and a third-and-8. Two of those were Chiefs completions and two were Broncos penalties.

Game ball: If a team is going to win without its best stuff, at some point one of the marquee players has to step up and pull everybody else through. Sunday, it was the Broncos' biggest name on the marquee who did so. Quarterback Peyton Manning finished with yet another three-touchdown day -- the 86th of his career.

What's next: The Broncos say they're tougher, more physical, that they have moved past a 35-point Super Bowl loss to put themselves in position to play in the title game again. They get a chance to prove it at 4:35 p.m. ET Sunday when they travel to Seattle to face a Seahawks team that will be smarting from a loss in San Diego, in a game in which anything but the Broncos' best will send them home with an ugly loss.

W2W4: Broncos Week 2

September, 13, 2014
Sep 13
7:30
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Cornerback Chris Harris is just seven months removed from ACL surgery, so the team's Week 1 victory over the Indianapolis Colts had a work-in-progress feel for him.

"I know in the first game I wasn’t quite where I want to be with my stamina and things like that, but my knee feels great, when I was in there I felt like I showed I can play the game how I want to play it," said Harris. "But I wasn't all the way where I want to be, but I'll get there. We got the win, that’s all we’re concerned about. We’ll fix what we need to fix after wins, that’s what we want."

That is true for the Broncos as a whole. They weren’t quite where they want to be in the victory over Colts, but they won.

And as they head to a Week 2 game against the Kansas City Chiefs (0-1) Sunday, here are some things to keep an eye on:

  • [+] EnlargeDemaryius Thomas
    Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesExpect to see Demaryius Thomas get more opportunities against the Chiefs than he got in Week 1.
    Demaryius Thomas had just four receptions for 48 yards in the season opener, but those numbers figure to go up this week, especially if Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton sticks to what he did last season against Thomas. Sutton didn’t match a cornerback on Thomas, so when the Broncos moved Thomas around in the formation, they could usually get the matchup they wanted, often getting Thomas on Marcus Cooper in last season’s two meetings. As a result Thomas had two 100-yard games against the Chiefs and averaged 28.5 yards per catch in those two games. Cooper, who missed last week’s game with an injury, is expected back in the lineup Sunday.
  • Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles had just 11 touches in the opener, including just seven carries. The Broncos should, and do, expect Charles to get many more opportunities Sunday. There was a time, during his tenure in Philadelphia, when Chiefs head coach Andy Reid took some heat for leaving the run game behind in his play calling. Things got away from the Chiefs offense a bit in the loss to the Titans Sunday -- the Titans led 10-3 at half, 20-3 just before the end of the third quarter -- but the Chiefs ran the ball just 17 times in the game. The Chiefs had just two running plays in the third quarter. "We know Jamaal Charles is one of the best," Harris said. "We know they want to get him the ball."
  • The Chiefs have just one offensive lineman -- center Rodney Hudson -- who is starting in the same position for the team that he played last season. And the group looked out of sorts at times in the opening-week loss to the Titans. As a result the Broncos figure to get a steady diet of quick-hit plays as the Chiefs try to adjust. Reid has an extensive screen game in the offense and the Chiefs run many of those screens, to either side of the field, to a variety of players, when they all look the same at the start of the play. The Broncos' linebackers will have to be disciplined in their pursuit.
  • Sutton will offer plenty of unorthodox looks in the pass rush, often dropping safety Eric Berry into the mix with a delayed rush in the middle of the formation. The Colts had some success sending a rusher from off the ball late into the middle of the formation. The Broncos were slow to adjust at times and there were times Colts defenders got a free run at quarterback Peyton Manning.
  • The Broncos figure to test the Chiefs defense on the inside, particularly in the run game. Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson and defensive tackle Mike DeVito will miss the remainder of the season with Achilles tendon injuries and that is a significant amount of production out of the team’s defense, particularly on early downs when Johnson was the keystone of the team’s run fits and DeVito was in the rotation. The Broncos figure to pound away a bit to see how the Chiefs respond, both out of their two-tight-end or three-wide-receiver looks.

Broncos vs. Chiefs preview

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
8:00
AM ET

The Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs don't have to wait long to open up AFC West play as they jump into a Week 2 matchup. The Broncos had one glorious half before they had to hang on in their season-opening 31-24 victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

The Chiefs struggled in a 26-10 loss to the Tennessee Titans at Arrowhead Stadium and will be without two regulars in defensive tackle Mike DeVito and linebacker Derrick Johnson, who both suffered season-ending Achilles injuries in the loss.

ESPN.com Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday's game.

Legwold: Adam, every training camp for every team ends with such high hopes and plenty of optimism. What is the Chiefs' mindset after such a tough opening week?

Teicher: There's not a lot for the Chiefs to be optimistic about right now. Since their 9-0 start last season they've gone 2-7, including their collapse in the playoffs against Indianapolis. Their offensive line is in tatters, quarterback Alex Smith is throwing interceptions in uncharacteristically high numbers, running back Jamaal Charles didn’t get the ball much against Tennessee, some of their best young players aren't contributing much, they lost two of their best defensive players for the season with injuries last week and their defense got pushed around by Jake Locker and the Titans. Then there's the upcoming schedule, which has the Chiefs playing road games against the Broncos, Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers and San Diego Chargers and a home game against the New England Patriots in the next five weeks. Otherwise, all is good with the Chiefs.

What about the Broncos in this regard? The losing team in the Super Bowl often has a season-long hangover afterward, but the Broncos don't seem to be affected.

Legwold: When the Broncos signed Peyton Manning, executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said he wanted not only Manning's play on the field, but also a player "who raises all boats." Manning and the other Broncos veterans attacked the offseason and a fairly young team overall has taken its cues from those hard-driving older players. When they brought in veteran players such as DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward, those guys saw this as a chance at a Super Bowl, so they have been no nonsense as they've gone about their business. That has kept things on the tracks. The suspensions handed down to wide receiver Wes Welker and kicker Matt Prater ended what had been a quiet summer for the team. But, overall, it's a locked-in group that needs to avoid injuries to key players to be in the title mix again.

In terms of offseason work, the Chiefs locked up Smith with a contract extension. What was the organization's plan and is there even more pressure on Smith now to lift them into the postseason?

Teicher: The plan with Smith all along, from the time they acquired him in the trade with the 49ers, was to lock him up for the long term. At no time did they consider him a stopgap or the bridge to the next quarterback. Those plans could have changed had they not been satisfied with Smith's play last season. But Smith last season was the guy the Chiefs thought they were getting. This new contract certainly increases the pressure on Smith to deliver. The Chiefs have committed to him in a big way, and he will be consuming a significant portion of the team's salary cap. Smith is by no means solely responsible for last Sunday's loss, but he didn't play well. He threw three interceptions, and two were bad decisions on his part, the kind of choices he doesn't usually make. The Chiefs are paying him a lot of money to make better decisions.

You mentioned Denver's offseason signings of defensive players in Ware, Talib and Ward. How has their presence changed the complexion of the Broncos' defense?

Legwold: Elway spends a lot of time talking about "the mindset" and "the mentality to win a world championship," and when he was waving the team's checkbook around in free agency, he went looking for players with the mindset to remake the defense. There are just six players on the roster who started on defense in Super Bowl XLVIII. The Broncos players voted Ware a captain and his straightforward, no-nonsense approach has made him an almost instant team leader. He also had 1.5 sacks in the opener, and while some in the league had labeled Ware a declining player in his 10th season, the Broncos think they can manage his snaps to get the most out of him. Ward and Talib bring an edge the Broncos wanted, and both were all over the field this past Sunday night. Toss in the first-round pick, cornerback Bradley Roby, and the Broncos will play with more aggressiveness and a bigger variety in personnel groupings than they did in last season's two games against the Chiefs.

Defensively, how will the Chiefs adjust to the injuries to DeVito and Johnson? Will it alter their approach dramatically, especially given what Johnson means to the group?

Teicher: I don't think the Chiefs will change their approach dramatically, but there's no question they will feel the loss of both players. Johnson will be replaced by James-Michael Johnson. The Chiefs went out in free agency and signed veteran Joe Mays, a former Broncos player, to fill one of their inside linebacker spots, an indication they didn't think Johnson was ready to be a full-time player. He got a long look in passing situations during the preseason, and the Chiefs are more comfortable with him playing in coverage than against the run. That said, he's no Derrick Johnson, who is superb against the run and versatile against the pass. DeVito was one of the Chiefs' better run defenders and was improving as a pass-rusher. His main replacement will be Jaye Howard, who had a promising preseason. Former Oakland Raider Vance Walker, and even the newly signed Kevin Vickerson, could get some playing time as well.

The Chiefs tried to sign wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in free agency before he joined the Broncos. He looked like a good fit for the Broncos in the opener against Indianapolis. What are their expectations for him? And give us a little scouting report on Vickerson, a former Bronco.

Legwold: In terms of players on offense who were available in free agency, Sanders was the team's top target. The Broncos' offensive coaches, particularly offensive coordinator Adam Gase, like Sanders' versatility in that he can line up in the outside spots and in the slot to go with the fact he has quality short-area quickness to beat press coverage off the snap and top-end speed to run away from defenders in the open. Manning has worked extensively with him -- the two stayed after practice, often with rookie receiver Cody Latimer -- every day of offseason workouts, as well as in training camp. The work helped, and Sanders projects to a big season in this offense. Vickerson was likely the 54th player on this roster when the Broncos cut to 53. The Broncos liked his work on run downs and the physicality and ability take on double-teams. They did have some long-term concern about his hip -- Vickerson was kept on a limited schedule throughout much of training camp -- but they needed a little cap space and kept only eight defensive linemen, so Vickerson got caught in the squeeze.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – In the end, the goal is likely somewhere between better and much better.

The Denver Broncos aren’t on a quest to take what was the league’s highest scoring offense in history and remake it into something it’s not. In these pass-happy times, the Broncos can chuck it around with the best of them.

Even after the Broncos scored 31 points in a season-opening victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, the team has spent a lot of the past week discussing missed opportunities, dropped passes – they had five – and lost touchdowns – they said there were a few. And the Broncos also still want to run the ball better.

They don’t want to be a running team, but a passing team that runs it better when they want to.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Elsa/Getty ImagesMontee Ball rushed for 67 yards on 23 carries in the Broncos' season-opening victory over the Colts.
“The run game is a focus for us," said tight end Julius Thomas. “We have to run the ball efficiently, but if you’re running the ball well on third-and-short, it’s going to extend drives, so we’ll take that. But we’ll keep working."

After the Broncos cleared away the debris from a 35-point Super Bowl loss, they went into the offseason with adjustments to their run-game scheme/personnel on their minds. Knowshon Moreno was allowed to leave in free agency, Montee Ball was named the starter at running back, they moved one of their most physical linemen, Orlando Franklin, from right tackle to left guard and they tweaked some things they were doing on handoffs.

In Sunday’s opening act of the new season, Manning threw for three touchdowns, all in the first half. At times, the Broncos' passing attack looked every bit as dominant as last season, with Thomas having taken the next step as a player and Emmanuel Sanders fitting in quite nicely.

But as the Broncos now consistently talk about “efficiency" in the run game, they weren’t always able to reach their desired output. On first down, they had eight of their 18 carries gain one or fewer yards – four for no gain, one of 1 yard and one for minus-1 yard, all by Ball.

As a result of those runs and the down-and-distance situations they created, the Broncos then had just five second-down carries in the game and just three third-down carries. They did convert all three of those third-down carries for first downs, but all but eight of their rushing attempts in the game came on first down, and from a defensive standpoint, there is some predictability there.

“You have to focus on the plays that didn’t go so well," Ball said. “We’re going to carry the good plays to the next game. But from an individual standpoint, you want to focus on the bad plays where if you made a mistake, you can correct it and become better for the next team. For me, there are some holes out there that I missed. I’m looking forward to correcting them and getting better."

Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase said Ball is “being a little hard on himself. He did a pretty job hitting them … A lot of times he’s doing what the scheme allows him to do."

It all presents an odd sort of riddle. The Broncos want to run better, but they score plenty already. The Broncos have scored at least 31 points in 24 of Manning’s 33 regular-season starts with the team.

They’ve also been committed enough to the running game to have run the ball at least 25 times in 23 of those games, including Sunday.

So they don’t necessarily want more, as in more carries; they still want, and need, better carries. They want it because they’re thinking big-picture, that they’re going to need it to get another shot at the title, to slam the door against a physical opponent, to win on a bad-weather day without surrendering who they believe they are.

“I think our history speaks for itself as far as we’re not one to pull off [the accelerator]," Gase said. “Are we working on some things, trying to run the ball a little bit? Yeah. We were still trying to throw it [Sunday]. We figured if we finished a few of those plays a little differently -- we had a third-and-3, had a drop. The guy falls down -- we catch that, that might be a 30-yard gain. So some things that didn’t go our way in that second half, but in no means will we ever pull off the gas. We’re going to try to score as many points until the clock is at zero."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In what has been the Summer of Construction, it can be easy to miss everything that has been added to the Denver Broncos complex in recent weeks and months.

Thomas
 But there are three newly-minted signs in the players’ parking lot that will make it easy to see how things have gone in the game that was just played each week. It was quarterback Peyton Manning who pointed out the primo front-row parking real estate this week, one spot each for the team’s offensive, defensive and special teams player of the week, and the fact tight end Julius Thomas had parked his car in one of them.

“You get a parking spot by the way, player of the week, don’t know if y’all noticed that,’’ Manning said. “ … Right there the first three spots … if you get Broncos player of the week.’’

And with three touchdown receptions in the Broncos’ regular-season opener, Thomas certainly earned not only the team’s player-of-the-week honor, but he was the league’s AFC Player of the Week. But what Thomas may also be is another shining example of why draft classes can’t, and shouldn’t, always be judged quickly and why a player’s makeup will often be as important as the scouting trinity of height, weight and speed.

Because after two NFL seasons, Thomas, a guy who is now one of the league's most difficult matchups for any defensive coordinator, had all of one catch, a five-yarder against Cincinnati on Sept. 18, 2011 when he suffered an ankle injury. And for the remainder of that season and the season that followed Thomas was a fourth-round draft with potential the Broncos simply hoped to eventually see healthy.

Then they saw last year’s 65-catch, 12-touchdown season. Then they saw Sunday night’s opener when Thomas had three touchdowns in the season's first 30 minutes.

“I think he’ll be a better player this year than he was last year,’’ Manning said.

And beyond Thomas’ obvious physical attributes for his job -- the ex-Portland State basketball player is fluid in is movements, has soft hands and top-tier body control to go with rare speed for a player his size -- it was his approach during his one-catch period that always caught the eye on the Broncos’ decision-makers.

And that includes Manning after he signed in 2012. Because of the collective bargaining agreement, Manning wanted to gather some of the offensive players before the Broncos’ official offseason workouts began. Thomas was one of the team's few first- or second-year players to find his way to, and faithfully attend those workouts.

“But Julius was one of the guys, he and [Eric] Decker, that I was throwing with,’’ Manning said. “And I remember … 6-4 tight end, those guys just don’t come around very often, that can really run, just seems like next, you know, he had a previous injury that kind of flared up again … [I] definitely had a great early appreciation of his talent and his ability.’’

Thomas never lost confidence in himself. “I always believed, had the confidence, if I kept working through it, good things would happen. My approach has always been to be as good as I can be over my career, not just one year here, one year there, so always looking down the road to make sure I’m doing things that keep me successful in the long haul.’’

Thomas is in the last year of his original rookie deal, and the Broncos have had discussions about a new one for him, as well as wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. And the price goes up a bit every time Julius Thomas befuddles another linebacker or safety for another touchdown.

But it will be easy for executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway to see how it’s all going. He can simply count the touchdown on gameday and then, after Elways pull into his spot the next morning, he can see where Julius Thomas is parked as well.

DENVER -- After the Denver Broncos swept up the pieces of a 35-point Super Bowl loss, after they picked at the football scabs and said all of the uncomfortable things behind closed doors that needed to be said, John Elway took the team's checkbook into free agency in search of players.

At the top of the list he said he wanted "the right mentality" on defense, he wanted a defense to "develop its own personality, something to grab onto like we have on offense."

One game in for the Broncos, and it was money well spent. Because while it was quarterback Peyton Manning who took the knee in the victory formation to close out a 31-24 victory over the Indianapolis Colts with another three touchdown passes on his resume, it was the Broncos' defensive work in the third quarter that kept this game in the win column.

"That's it right there, if we don't get those, we would have lost," Broncos safety Rahim Moore said. "That was a great job. … Communication was fantastic. Anything bad happened, we fixed it. That's what it's all about. But those goal-line stands were crucial."

After exploding from the gate for a 24-0 lead by the time the two-minute warning arrived in the first half, the Broncos suddenly saw the Colts pick away. Andrew Luck drove the Colts 80 yards in eight plays just before halftime to make it 24-7.

And then Luck took the Colts to the Broncos' 8-yard line in just four plays in Indianapolis' first possession of the second half. With a first-and-goal from the 8, the Colts pushed the ball to the 1, where, on fourth-and-goal, Colts coach Chuck Pagano tried to seize momentum with both hands.

Luck tried to sneak into the middle of the Broncos' defensive line but was stuffed by linebacker Brandon Marshall.

"Andrew Luck, you knew he was going to try to sneak the ball," Moore said. "But those guys in the middle, they're like vending machines, you can't move them. … Just clog the holes up front and everybody else comes swarming."

On their next possession, the Colts moved to the Broncos' 4-yard line in eight plays. Then Marshall tackled Reggie Wayne for a 2-yard loss, Chris Harris Jr. knocked a pass away for tight end Coby Fleener and DeMarcus Ware sacked Luck. The Colts came away with a 25-yard field goal from Adam Vinatieri.

In all, the Colts ran eight plays inside the Broncos' 10-yard line on those two possessions and came away with just a field goal.

And with Marshall playing for the injured Danny Trevathan (fracture at top of tibia in training camp) and with Harris and linebacker Von Miller on a pitch count of sorts as they come back from ACL surgeries, the Broncos simply showed the depth on defense they didn't have last season.

New arrivals Ware, safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib had the desired impact with 1.5 sacks, four passes defensed and nine tackles combined. One of Talib's tipped passes turned into one of the Broncos' two interceptions.

And Denver felt good enough about rookie Bradley Roby, the team's first-round pick this past May, to lock him up on Wayne throughout the night. Roby would finish with seven solo tackles and three passes defensed, including the game-clincher in the final minutes. And it had been Roby and safety Quinton Carter, who had not played in almost two full seasons before Sunday because of knee injuries, who stopped Colts wide receiver Hakeem Nicks at the 1-yard line on the play before Luck was stuffed.

"The defense just came up with some big stops when we needed them," Manning said. "I thought it was a good, overall team win. The offense did some good things and then we were in a little bit of a rut [before] our defense picked it up for us."

New faces that, for one opening night, gave the Broncos just the kind of return on investment they had hoped for.

"We're a force to be reckoned with," Marshall said. "That's what all defenses want. We have a long way to go, we'll keep getting better. We'll be a great defense, definitely."
DENVER -- A few takeaways from the Denver Broncos' locker room after the team hung on Sunday night for a 31-24 victory over the Indianapolis Colts:
  • Safety David Bruton's was the most significant injury for the Broncos. The special teams captain suffered a left shoulder injury covering a second-quarter kickoff. Bruton suffered the injury on what was a touchback. He received treatment following the game and will undergo an MRI on Monday. Just before he left the locker room, Bruton said he still held out hope he wouldn't miss much time. Linebacker Nate Irving left the game in the third quarter with a lower right leg injury, but he did re-enter the game in the fourth quarter. Irving will be examined again Monday.
    Carter
  • Broncos safety Quinton Carter waited almost two seasons, after multiple knee surgeries, including a microfracture procedure, to play in another regular-season game. Carter finished with five tackles on defense to go with two more on special teams and forced a fumble. "It was very emotional, truly blessed to be back out there," he said, "... but you know you look hard at it, a little disappointed too, left a couple plays out there, dropped a pick for sure. But definitely some gratification to be back out there. There were plenty of days I wasn't sure if I would ever play again."
  • With cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and linebacker Von Miller having had ACL surgeries in February and January, respectively, the Broncos played it safe at times in the players' first full game since their injuries. Miller played just nine snaps in the preseason; Harris not at all. The Broncos used rookie Bradley Roby and Tony Carter to spell Harris at times while Lerentee McCray got plenty of work in Miller's strongside linebacker spot. "I'll be all right," Harris said. "I just need to get my wind back." For his part, Miller said, "I was more thinking about breathing. The knee wasn't an issue, it was more conditioning. I haven't played a full game in I don't know how long."
  • Broncos tight end Julius Thomas had his first three-touchdown game Sunday night, but there may have been more out there for him. "On Wednesday you're always saying 'Man, look at this game plan, there's five touchdowns'," Thomas said. The Colts tried to cover Thomas with a linebacker early in the game and then tried safety LaRon Landry as well. When all was said and done, Thomas had seven receptions for 104 yards and three touchdowns, with five of those catches for 90 yards and all three touchdowns in the first half. Colts coach Chuck Pagano called him "a monster."
  • And this from quarterback Peyton Manning on becoming just the second quarterback to defeat all 32 teams in the league as a starter -- Brett Favre is the other; "I think it means you have to be old. You have to be 38 years old probably, at least, to beat all 32 teams. I don't think I will have that one up on my mantel or anything like that -- put it that way."

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