Broncos Inside Slant - October 14

The Broncos have had a knack for taking players nobody else wanted and making them into starters. Read about these players, as well as how each Broncos unit graded out last week in the latest edition of Broncos Inside Slant.

The Broncos have had a knack for taking players nobody else wanted and making them into starters. Just look at Denver's defense, where Darius Holland and Nick Ferguson were street free agents not too long ago, and cornerbacks Lenny Walls and Kelly Herndon went undrafted. All four are starting, along with former CFL exile Bert Berry, and playing well on a defense ranked No. 2 in the NFL.

This week, the Broncos will start another undrafted free-agent when Donnie Spragan steps in for injured weak-side linebacker Ian Gold.

"Well, we're here for a reason and we understand if we couldn't play we wouldn't be here," said defensive end Berry, who toiled in the Canadian Football League for a while before earning a starting job this year with Denver. "Coach believes in each and every one of us and that's why we wear the Broncos uniform. No matter where we came from, what your situation has been in the past, he expects you to come in and play.

"That's what guys do. So far we've been getting that done this season."

Berry is second in the AFC with 5.5 sacks.

Spragan may not be lightning-fast like Gold, but speed and smarts are his two biggest attributes. Gold is out for the rest of the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES

--QB Jake Plummer said Monday that he still doesn't know if he'll be able to play this weekend against Minnesota but will have a better idea Wednesday. Chances are good that he'll get the nod if he can practice Wednesday without too much pain in his throwing shoulder.

--LB Ian Gold will have surgery in a week or two to repair a torn ACL suffered Sunday. He will be out for the rest of the year.

--LB Keith Burns had an MRI on his left knee Monday and it was negative, which means he has no damage only soreness. He could miss some practice time, but he'll be ready to play Sunday.

--SS Nick Ferguson, who played well in place of Kenoy Kennedy again, is having an MRI on his knee Monday but coaches were optimistic it was nothing serious. He could hold onto the starting job even if Kennedy is healthy.

--DT Daryl Gardener played 8-10 snaps and was credited with a tackle and an assist but coaches said he still clearly is favoring his right wrist which remains in a cast. Until he shows more improvement, he'll play only a limited role on defense.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Rod put his money where his mouth was. He called us out, and then he came up with big plays of his own." -- Tight end Shannon Sharpe on veteran wide receiver Rod Smith, who made two critical catches in the fourth quarter, including an 11-yard TD reception - his first of the year.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

REPORT CARD VS. STEELERS

PASSING OFFENSE: D -- It was ugly, yes. And Steve Beuerlein looked rusty in his first start since the 2002 season finale. But in crunch time, he made some plays and so did his veteran receivers, Rod Smith and Shannon Sharpe. Smith had two spectacular catches, including one for an 11-yard touchdown, as the offense scored 10 points in the fourth quarter.

PASS DEFENSE: A -- It helped that the Steelers were playing with a shuffled offensive line, and that they continued shuffling it throughout the game. But the Broncos played with passion, sacking Tommy Maddox seven times. The secondary was just as good, with Lenny Walls doing a good job shadowing 6-foot-5 wideout Plaxico Burress (five catches, 60 yards).

RUSH DEFENSE: A -- The Broncos held the Steelers to just 2.8 yards a carry, with Amos Zereoue going nowhere (10 carries, 15 yards) and Jerome Bettis managing just 34 on 14 carries. The tackling was solid, even though the Broncos were without starters Ian Gold (torn ACL) and Kenoy Kennedy (sprained ankle).

SPECIAL TEAMS: B-plus -- A week after losing the game by allowing a 93-yard punt return by Dante Hall, the Broncos were solid in this phase. Jason Elam nailed his only FG attempt, from 47 yards on the final play, to win it. Micah Knorr averaged 52.8 yards on six punts with a net average of 46.8 and three downed inside the 20. Denver's coverage teams, meanwhile kept the Steelers in check, holding Antwaan Randle El to a 7.2-yard average on five punt returns and 23 on one kickoff return. The only down side were the averages for Denver's return men, Deltha O'Neal (3.7 on punts) and Chris Cole (16.0 on kickoffs), but at least O'Neal didn't fumble this week.

COACHING: B -- Coaches made a wise decision to switch to a max-protection scheme. It made Clinton Portis and Dwayne Carswell responsible for picking up blitzes rather than force Beuerlein to make the "hot" read under pressure. It worked wonders as he felt more comfortable in the pocket in the fourth quarter. Another key was Denver's eight-man defensive line rotation. The Broncos were fresh, which contributed to their seven sacks on Tommy Maddox.

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