NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - INSIDE SLANT
As the Peyton Manning-led offense has threatened one league record after another, the fortunes of the Broncos' defense have plummeted. A unit that ranked No. 2 in the league last year has fallen to 25th overall, and ranks above only three teams in passing yardage allowed per game.
So based on those numbers, it came as no surprise that the Broncos shook up their defense against the Titans. But the reduction in workload for middle linebacker Wesley Woodyard and safety Duke Ihenacho was nevertheless a bit shocking.
Woodyard played only 10 defensive snaps Sunday, with veteran Paris Lenon seeing the bulk of the action as the every-down middle linebacker. Ihenacho played 21 snaps, with most of the work at strong safety going to Omar Bolden, a second-year player who was converted from cornerback at the end of the preseason.
For a defense that has absorbed the losses of three starters in recent weeks -- safety Rahim Moore, defensive end/tackle Derek Wolfe and defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson -- the move put the defense even further into flux, and didn't appear to help all that much, as the Titans rang up 28 points and averaged 5.3 yards per play.
Woodyard had moved to middle linebacker this year after enjoying a breakout season on the weak side in 2012. But he suffered a nerve injury in his neck in October, causing him to miss two games, which could have left the Broncos cautious.
"He had a type of injury that can affect you and the more hits you take on it the less it is," said Broncos coach John Fox.
But Woodyard's health was not the only concern that led Lenon into the starting lineup.
"It's not so much just about that, it's part of it but basically the situation is giving other guys opportunities that we feel like have earned them," Fox said.
Ihenacho had risen to the first team after a strong preseason, but had not displayed the hitting and playmaking that had brought him to the coaches' attention. That led to Bolden, a converted cornerback who was shifted to safety before the final preseason game.
"Omar played pretty well, for his first game," said cornerback Chris Harris. "Man, we need playmakers back there at safety, We're pretty solid at corner. But that's what we need, man, some playmakers at safety."
It's possible that both Woodyard and Ihenacho could see plenty of work Thursday, as the Chargers' personnel groupings and tendencies will likely leave the Broncos in their nickel alignment for most of the game.
But these changes could continue until the Broncos find the right mix that stops their defensive bleeding.
"At the end of the day, we know this is a performance-based job," said defensive lineman Malik Jackson. "We get critiqued every week and sometimes coaches want to see different people in different spots.
"You really can't get upset about it. You've just got to get better and keep working. It's a long season. So I don't think too many guys get salty about it or too upset. They know what they have to do to earn it back."
And the others who remain know their job is the same.
"Regardless of who's in there, it really doesn't matter," said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. "Me, I'm just focused on the guy in front of me, getting to the quarterback and stopping the run. But I have faith in everybody behind us, regardless of whether it's Paris or Wesley, Omar (Bolden) or Duke. Regardless of who's in there, we expect them to make it happen."
SERIES HISTORY: 108th regular-season meeting. Broncos lead series, 58-48-1. Denver has won the last five games in the series. The most notable meeting between the two teams was on Dec. 17, 1979, when the Chargers defeated the Broncos 17-7 in the regular-season finale to clinch their first division title in 14 years and consign the Broncos to the wild-card round, which saw them lose at Houston 13-7 six days later.
NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - NOTES, QUOTES
--Wide receiver Wes Welker was not on the field for the Broncos' Tuesday practice, and after suffering a second concussion in four games, appears unlikely to play against the Chargers.
Welker has to pass the league-mandated concussion protocol before he can return to practice, let alone game work, and his recent concussion woes will likely leave the Broncos cautious before returning him to action.
"Our big concern is just his health and it's in the hands of the medical people," said Broncos coach John Fox. "If he's available, we'll use him. If not, he'll be out."
If Welker does not play, tight end Jacob Tamme would be the primary slot receiver. Tamme filled that role in the second half against the Titans, and also played extensively while tight end Julius Thomas was out with a sprained knee in Weeks 12 and 13.
Tamme also replaced then-slot receiver Brandon Stokley during a game against Tampa Bay last year and finished with 89 yards on nine receptions, the second-highest total of his career.
"Tamme hasn't had as much playing (time) but he's had a great attitude," said quarterback Peyton Manning. "And when his number has been called, he's come in there and been outstanding and has a chance to play more down the home stretch here and a real credit to him."
--No matter what happens in the postseason, the Broncos can carve out a place for themselves in league history in the next three games by maintaining their offensive pace, particularly in the passing game.
Peyton Manning is on pace to break the league's single-season touchdown and passing yardage records. The team as a whole is on pace to break the league's scoring record. And if the Broncos can average eight more yards a game than they did in Weeks 1-14, they will set the league's single-season yardage standard.
While the Broncos are trying to keep the focus on the Chargers, some of these superlatives are bound to come up -- even if they try to avoid them.
"To tell you the truth, I haven't paid attention to anything until today when I heard Bubba (wide receiver Andre Caldwell) talking about the touchdown record for Peyton," said wide receiver Demaryius Thomas.
"I think he was looking at some stats and he was like, 'Peyton is for sure going to be MVP. He has this many more touchdowns to break the record.'"
It's six touchdowns, to be precise. And after throwing four against the Titans in Week 14, Manning is on pace for 55.4 touchdown passes. But that doesn't mean he can maintain it.
"I remember (in 1999), we were playing Cleveland late in the season and we had a touchdown streak going -- consecutive games," he said, referring to a streak of 27 consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass.
"We got down (near the goal line) late and hadn't thrown one and we had a pass play called. They were dropping eight guys. We checked to a run and got the touchdown and the streak ended."
But the Colts won, 29-28. And if the Broncos win their next three games with most of the touchdowns coming on runs by Knowshon Moreno or Montee Ball, so be it.
"Yeah, the (record) we're concerned with is our win-loss record," Manning said.
BY THE NUMBERS:
3: Number of games in which the Broncos have scored at least 50 points, which is tied for the most in league history, last achieved by the 1969 Minnesota Vikings.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Well, late in the season, I think certainly the disadvantage is that you have an injured player that may or may not have a chance to recover in time whereas he might possibly play Sunday as opposed to Thursday. I think that is a disadvantage, sure." -- Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, on whether he would rather play a Thursday game.
NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--RB Knowshon Moreno had 20 touches on 14 runs and six receptions last week. Moreno has averaged 19.5 touches a game the last two weeks after averaging 29.3 per game in the previous three weeks. The Broncos are trying to be mindful of his workload so he doesn't crumble before the postseason.
--TE Jacob Tamme is in line for extensive playing time if Wes Welker can't play Thursday. Although listed as a backup tight end, Tamme is in effect the Broncos' No. 2 option at slot receiver. He filled in for Welker in the second half Sunday and flourished in a similar backup slot role when he replaced Brandon Stokley against Tampa Bay last December.
--LB Wesley Woodyard's workload will merit close scrutiny Thursday. He played just 10 snaps against the Titans on Sunday, as Paris Lenon worked at middle linebacker in the base package, relegating Woodyard to work in the nickel. Woodyard has battled a nerve issue in his neck this year, but had played through it since returning from a two-week absence in Week 8.
--WR Eric Decker's recent revival put him over the 1,000-yard mark for the second consecutive season. With two more touchdowns, he will become the fifth Bronco with at least 10 touchdowns. No other team in league annals ever had more than three.
--S Duke Ihenacho worked in the Broncos' nickel and dime packages Sunday, but most of the base-package work went to Omar Bolden. Ihenacho started the game, as he has every game for which he has been healthy this year, but played just 21 snaps.
--WR Wes Welker did not practice Tuesday, and will go through the league-mandated post-concussion protocol after leaving Sunday's game following a hit from Titans safety George Wilson. It is Welker's second concussion in four games, and the short week makes it unlikely he plays against San Diego.
--QB Peyton Manning practiced Tuesday. It marked the first time since Week 7 that he took part in the first practice of the week, owing to the truncated schedule dictated by a Thursday night game. Manning had missed at least one practice for seven consecutive weeks because of ankle problems.
--DL Derek Wolfe did not practice Tuesday, two days after missing a second consecutive game after suffering seizure-like symptoms on Nov. 29. Doctors "have a better grasp" on his condition, but Broncos coach John Fox declined to identify it, citing privacy.
--KR/PR Trindon Holliday returned to practice on a limited basis Tuesday after missing the Tennessee game with a shoulder injury suffered early in the Dec. 1 win over Kansas City.
--CB Champ Bailey was on the field, but did not take part in Tuesday's practice. He was inactive for Sunday's game, one week after playing at Kansas City, his first game action since Week 7. Bailey has missed 10 of 13 regular-season games since spraining his foot in a preseason loss at Seattle on Aug. 17.
--S Rahim Moore was cleared to begin lifting weights this week. Moore has not played since being placed on recallable injured reserve after suffering compartment syndrome following the Week 11 win over Kansas City. He cannot return until the AFC Championship, if the Broncos advance that far.
If San Diego's passing game finds its rhythm against the Broncos on Thursday, there could be an upset. The Broncos kept the Chargers from getting comfortable until the second half in their Nov. 10 game at San Diego, but when Philip Rivers settled in, he guided San Diego to a pair of touchdowns, while completing 12 of 17 passes for 127 yards in the second half. The continued injury woes of Champ Bailey and the recent de-emphasis of safety Duke Ihenacho have left the Broncos' secondary in flux, and Rivers will attempt to expose a pass defense that currently ranks 29th in yardage allowed per game.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Broncos CBs Chris Harris, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Kayvon Webster vs. Chargers WR Keenan Allen.
Harris shadowed Tennessee's Kendall Wright for most of last Sunday's 51-28 win and held Wright to two catches for 17 yards, well below his averages of 6.3 receptions and 75.4 yards in the previous 11 games. But he won't be on Allen all the time, and likely will hand that duty off to Webster and Rodgers-Cromartie on some plays, while focusing on inside targets like Antonio Gates and Eddie Royal. Webster was targeted by the Titans early, and if he's in one-on-one coverage against Allen, the Chargers might test the rookie cornerback again.
--Broncos WRs Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker vs. Chargers CBs Richard Marshall and Shareece Wright.
With Wes Welker unlikely to play because of his concussion, the onus will fall on the Broncos' outside targets, with whom Wright and Marshall will have their hands full. Complicating matters is the Broncos' collection of tight ends; with Jacob Tamme expected to replace Welker in the slot and Julius Thomas back to health, Marshall and Wright will not be able to count on much help from their safeties. The Broncos have used the play-action more in recent weeks, which further increases the burden on San Diego's cornerbacks.