NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - INSIDE SLANT
The first practice in the biggest week to date of the Denver Broncos' season began with quarterback Peyton Manning nowhere in sight.
But Manning's absence was no surprise after interim coach Jack Del Rio said that Manning and other veteran players could be given days off to aid in their recuperation from injuries and the accumulated wear and tear of the season to date. In previous weeks, Manning, running back Knowshon Moreno and wide receiver Wes Welker were all granted respites, but played in the subsequent game.
Manning took part in the walk-through session before practice, which helped him stay up to speed in his mental preparation, then spent the two-hour practice receiving further treatment on his sore ankles. Nevertheless, it is a virtual certainty that he will play against the Chiefs on Sunday night.
"I'll go through some of the different looks and then was able to use the rest of the time to try to get ahead with treatment, just try to get a day ahead," said Manning. "I was able to be in all the meetings, and got a good start on (the Chiefs), mentally, which is important."
Manning has often spoken of the high volume of repetitions required to achieve proper timing with his receivers. But his pass-catchers feel that the work needed for this has already been done, and they can afford to be without him in practice.
"Early on in training camp and preseason games is when you find kind of your rhythm and you put all of your base packages in where you get that timing down," said wide receiver Eric Decker. "Now it's about watching film, it's about executing things right. I think a lot of things take care of themselves. You still want to get some throws in and get some work in throughout the week but a lot of that is taken care of physically -- and mentally is the big part of it."
"We've been with him long enough -- he knows what's going on, we know what's going on with him. The timing is always going to be there," said Demaryius Thomas. "I feel like it's going to be all right; we're going to be all right."
But what might not be all right is Manning -- at least as long as he struggles with the ankle woes that could leave him a sitting target for opposing pass rushers. Exacerbating the situation are the issues at the offensive tackle spots: left tackle Ryan Clady is out for the season with a Lisfranc injury, and right tackle Orlando Franklin has been battling a sprained ankle of his own that he suffered in the third quarter against Jacksonville on Oct. 13.
Prior to Franklin's injury, Manning fumbled once every 117 touches (pass plays plus runs, not including kneeldowns). Since then, he's fumbled more than three times as often: once every 38.25 touches. With Manning averaging 43 touches per game, that means the Broncos have to prepare for one fumble a week. Manning's interception rate has also increased since Franklin was injured, from one every 115.5 pass plays to one every 37.75.
Thus, the Chiefs have incentive to attack -- and try to hit Manning in a sore spot. But Del Rio isn't any more concerned about low hits on Manning than he would be any other week.
"We're playing football. People are going to get hit," he said. "We do as good a job as anybody out there in terms of protecting our guy. It's important to us. We'll continue to do that."
And protecting Manning is one reason why he did not practice Wednesday, which led to an inevitable question: could the Broncos opt to sideline him for every practice, and just plug him in on Sundays?
"I probably feel like I could do it, but it kind of goes against what I believe in," Manning said. "I believe in practice, I believe there is a reason for it. So it's certainly my preference to be out there, but at the same time I'm trying to do what's best for the team and in order for me to get healthy."
SERIES HISTORY: 106th regular-season meeting. Chiefs lead series, 56-49. The teams have split the season series four of the last five years and eight of the last 10. The most notable meeting between the two teams was on Jan. 4, 1998, when the Broncos upset the top-seeded Chiefs 14-10 in the divisional playoffs en route to their first world championship.
NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - NOTES, QUOTES
-- John Fox has not yet been cleared to travel back to Colorado from his Charlotte, N.C. home, but was in good spirits and sounded hale and healthy in a conference call with Denver-area media Tuesday. It was his first on-the-record conversation since he underwent surgery to replace an aortic valve eight days earlier.
Fox said that the condition was genetic. He was born with a bicuspid aortic valve that was discovered 16 years ago, when a physical detected a heart murmur.
"It was something that should have probably been discovered sooner, from all the athletics I played," said Fox. "It's something I was born with. Some guys that are way more popular than me -- Robin Williams, Arnold Schwarzenegger -- they had similar type valves. And they don't last your whole life. So because (of that] there is not as much surface passing through every single pump in your heart.
"It was progressively getting worse a year ago. They (the doctors) thought it would last another year. Obviously I didn't make it quite to that point."
Although Fox cannot yet travel, he has been in touch with coaches and some players. Interim coach Jack Del Rio said that Fox called the league office to submit a hit on Peyton Manning for league review, which Fox confirmed. And Fox can watch the Broncos play, although he admitted he had to walk away when matters grew too tense.
Fox is expected to return in the next several weeks, but didn't want to pinpoint an exact target.
"I don't really like putting timelines on it," he said. "I can just tell you that I'm working very hard to get better and I feel like my doctors are pleased that I've improved every day. So things are going great. I like where I'm at right now and we'll see where that leaves us."
-- For the first time in 24 days, cornerback Champ Bailey did something beyond working out with a team trainer. He practiced for the first time since re-aggravating the sprained foot that he suffered in the preseason.
Bailey has missed all but two games since the injury.
"He looks good out there. I'm excited for him. He'll be back soon -- when the time is right and he's feeling (100) percent," said safety Rahim Moore.
Whether that is Sunday against the Chiefs remains in question. With the Chiefs a run-heavy team, the Broncos might opt to rest Bailey one more week and get him ready for the Week 12 game against the more pass-intensive Patriots -- especially with lingering concern over Bailey suffering another setback.
"We'll see how the week goes and anticipate getting him back at some point, full-go and for the games," Broncos coach Jack Del Rio said.
BY THE NUMBERS: 9 -- Touchdowns scored by Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Julius Thomas and Knowshon Moreno. They are in a four-way tie for the AFC touchdown lead.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "That pain medication can make for some funny conversations if you allow it. " -- Broncos head coach John Fox, on his chats with players and coaches while he recovers from open-heart surgery.
NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
-- LB/DE Von Miller has two sacks in the last three weeks, and has helped the Broncos' pass rush improve markedly. Without him, they averaged one sack every 15.8 pass plays; since his return, they've notched one sack every 12.8 pass plays, well above the league average of one sack every 14.5 pass plays.
-- WR Demaryius Thomas earned AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors after scoring three touchdowns against the Chargers. A Bronco has won this award in three of 10 weeks so far this year. The scores vaulted him into a tie for the team lead and conference lead in touchdowns.
-- QB Brock Osweiler got another day to work with the first team when Peyton Manning was held out of practice Wednesday. Osweiler has received extensive first-team work in four practices over the last four weeks.
-- CB Kayvon Webster has been working as the No. 3 cornerback in recent weeks and could be there again if Champ Bailey does not return this week. Webster lines up at left cornerback when the Broncos go into their nickel alignment, which pushes starter Chris Harris inside to line up against an opponent's slot wide receiver.
-- WR Wes Welker has played fewer snaps than fellow receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, but when he plays, he's the most frequent intended receiver. He has been targeted once every 6.59 snaps he's played.
-- QB Peyton Manning did not practice Wednesday. It's the fourth time in the last four weeks that he has sat out practice because of the ankle injuries that have dogged him since Week 6. After he hobbled back to the huddle late in Sunday's win at San Diego, Manning had an MRI examination Monday that did not reveal any further damage to his ankles. Broncos coach Jack Del Rio has already declared that Manning will play against the Chiefs.
-- LB Nate Irving did not practice Wednesday, but was on the field working out with a team trainer. A shoulder MRI examination Monday revealed no structural damage. He is considered day-to-day.
-- RT Orlando Franklin practiced Wednesday. The ankle that he sprained in Week 6 remains problematic; he's allowed sacks in consecutive games since sitting out the Week 7 loss at Indianapolis.
-- TE Julius Thomas returned from an ankle injury that he suffered against Washington on Oct. 27 and responded with the biggest play of his career: a 74-yard touchdown catch-and-run on the Broncos' first series. The score put Denver in front for good and provided most of his production; he finished the game with 96 yards on three receptions.
-- S Duke Ihenacho practiced Wednesday, three days after missing the Chargers game because of an ankle injury suffered against Washington in Week 8.
-- CB Champ Bailey practiced on a limited basis Wednesday. It was his first on-field work since he aggravated a sprained foot on Oct. 20 at Indianapolis. He has played in just two regular-season games this season after incurring the injury in a preseason loss at Seattle Aug. 17.
GAME PLAN: No defense has allowed fewer points and amassed more sacks than Kansas City's. No offense has scored more points, thrown for more yards than Denver's, and no offense in the AFC has allowed fewer sacks.
Thus, protecting Manning is priority No. 1 for the Broncos, and getting to him is the same for the Chiefs, who have racked up their prodigious totals against teams that average 18.8 among the 32 NFL teams, with none in the top quarter of the league rankings.
Denver might have to veer away from its three-wide receiver set and use an extra tight end to try and contain the Chiefs' speed off the edges. The Broncos have steadily worked two-tight end packages into their scheme throughout the season, but might use more of it Sunday than ever before.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Broncos LB Danny Trevathan vs. Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles -- No player has accounted for a higher percentage of his team's yardage from scrimmage than Charles, who has been particularly damaging to the Broncos, averaging 131 rushing yards per game and 6.3 yards per carry in his last four games against Denver. Trevathan, the Broncos' leading tackler, has become steadier throughout the season, trimming his missed tackles and mental mistakes, but will have to stay disciplined and not get caught out of position on the Chiefs' attempts at misdirection.
--Broncos OTs Chris Clark and Orlando Franklin vs. Chiefs LBs Tamba Hali and Justin Houston -- Kansas City's outside linebackers are responsible for more than half (20) of the team's 36 sacks this year, and present the greatest 1-2 challenge to Clark and Franklin, who have combined to surrender six sacks in the Broncos' last three games. Some of the Chiefs' pass-rushing success is due to the low quality of the quarterbacks they have faced most of the season; they haven't dealt with a quarterback as quick and decisive in the pocket as Peyton Manning. But Manning's relative immobility is only heightened with his recent ankle problems, and Clark and Franklin might need help from others to keep Hali and Houston from wreaking havoc.