Defensively, the Broncos got their wish and the defense looked fantastic in the preseason and training camp. But the defense might have to carry the team because the offense has not looked as good as a typical Mike Shanahan-coached offense.
The Broncos starting offense was held out of the end zone for its first three preseason games. Quentin Griffin has been as good as advertised as Portis' replacement, but Denver already lost valuable RB Mike Anderson for the season with a groin injury and the passing game was unimpressive in the preseason. Quarterback Jake Plummer threw for no touchdowns and four interceptions in about six quarters of work.
The Broncos have major questions at receiver, where they are hoping for Ashley Lelie to break out in his third season or rookie Darius Watts to have a major impact, and tight end where they have to replace future Hall-of-Famer Shannon Sharpe. They also have issues on the offensive line, where LT Matt Lepsis is moving from right tackle to left, and with untested second-year RT George Foster.
The offense's problems weren't a concern for Plummer.
"When the regular season starts and we score touchdowns I don't think anybody is going to care that we didn't score three TDs on three drives against Seattle in the preseason," Plummer said.
The defense hasn't had many similar issues. Denver's starting defense showed glimpses of how good it can be defensively in the first three games of the preseason, allowing 139 yards and no touchdowns in about four quarters.
Having Bailey should allow the Broncos to be more aggressive blitzing the quarterback. Denver can play more man-to-man defense and maybe generate some more turnovers. The Broncos have had only nine interceptions in each of the past two seasons.
"We had a high number of passes defended, very high, but no catches," defensive coordinator Larry Coyer said. "The key to the game is making plays when you get chances to alter the game."
The Broncos played well in the preseason but that didn't mean a whole lot to the leaders of the unit.
"Preseason doesn't count so it's hard for me to get hyped about our defense in the preseason," linebacker Al Wilson said. "If we do the same things we've done in the preseason in the regular season, then I'll give you a little more and feel more comfortable about it."
Mike Shanahan, 12th year, 10th with Broncos (91-53).
2003 record: 10-6 (2nd in AFC West); lost in wild card game to Colts, 41-10.
2004 regular season record 10-6 (1st in AFC West); lose in AFC divisional playoff game.
NOTES AND QUOTES
--DE Trevor Pryce might be moved inside to tackle if DT Luther Elliss misses any time. Pryce, who played his first five seasons at tackle, said he has no problem moving inside if it's needed. "As long as I'm out there. You can line me up at corner for all I care," Pryce said.
--RB Quentin Griffin won't be as boisterous as his predecessor, Clinton Portis. Portis once wore a championship belt on the sideline and was always good for a brash quote. Griffin is the quietest player on the Broncos, usually coming up with any excuse to avoid being interviewed. "He's a different character," running back Mike Anderson said. "He's a great guy, don't get me wrong. He's just real quiet and shy."
--S Nick Ferguson spent three seasons in the Canadian Football League before finally sticking with the Jets in 2000. In 2003 he started 10 games for Denver, his first season as a starter, but the signing of free agent John Lynch pushed him to the bench. The Broncos haven't ruled out rotating safeties to get Ferguson, a big hitter who played well in preseason, on the field more, but Ferguson isn't worried about what might happen. "Some guys would probably say I'm a little bit stupid in saying this, I guess I would love to start, but having that faith and confidence from those coaches (that he could start) is a whole lot better," Ferguson said.
--LT Matt Lepsis had a tough time adjusting to playing left tackle after starting 79 games at right tackle the past five seasons. He said he knew in the Broncos' post-draft minicamp it wouldn't be an easy switch. "It was like going from tackle to linebacker, it was that awkward for me," Lepsis said.
--OLB Donnie Spragan can play all three linebacker positions, and went from a starter on the weak side to being a starter on the strong side when LB Jashon Sykes hurt his knee in Denver's first preseason game. Spragan has a degree from Stanford in civil engineering, but didn't think his off-field smarts had much to do with picking up many different positions. "I'd do it if I was dumb or not," Spragan said. "I'd be a dumb guy that knows three positions."
BY THE NUMBERS
3,099 -- Clinton Portis' rushing yards in two seasons with the Broncos. The Broncos traded Portis to Washington in the offseason, and face a lot of second-guessing if they can't find someone to match his productivity.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"I've always played running back, receiver, quarterback, and I got to college and I stopped getting the ball for a minute. Then I started back, I've played both ways successfully, so why not? I think I can make some things happen." -- CB Champ Bailey, who has lobbied Denver's coaches to use him on offense this season. Bailey lined up at receiver during one training camp practice.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Broncos lost a key component when running back Mike Anderson suffered a season-ending groin injury in Denver's second-to-last preseason game. Anderson was a jack of all trades: Denver's No. 2 running back, backup fullback, special-teams player and potential goal-line back.
The Broncos are fortunate to have veteran Garrison Hearst, who takes Anderson's job as the reliable backup for starter Quentin Griffin. Anderson's injury could mean a roster spot for a true fullback like Kyle Johnson. Coaches say Griffin will get every chance to be the goal-line back.
The Broncos also lost DT Luther Elliss in that second-to-last preseason game with a partially torn pectoral muscle. Elliss, who has missed 15 games the past three years with an assortment of injuries, said he wants to return by Denver's regular-season opener. If he doesn't play, either Mario Fatafehi will start in his place or the Broncos will move DE Trevor Pryce to tackle.
PLAYER TO WATCH
TE Jeb Putzier -- Putzier has the best pass catching ability of any Broncos tight end and can get downfield to make plays. Putzier, a sixth-round pick in 2002, could end up being a breakout player for Denver this season as the Broncos look for a replacement for Shannon Sharpe.
DRAFT PICKS TO STICK
Rd. 1/17, LB D.J. Williams, Miami (Fla.) -- Williams has a good chance to start this season at outside linebacker. He was put into the starting lineup when OLB Jashon Sykes hurt his knee in Denver's first preseason game. Sykes returned for the Broncos last preseason game, but it will be hard to demote Williams.
Rd. 2/41, RB Tatum Bell, Oklahoma State -- Bell was set back by a broken middle finger in his first training camp practice, and will enter the season as the No. 3 back. He's got great speed and has shown willingness to run between the tackles, so he could move up the depth chart during the season.
Rd.2/54, WR Darius Watts, Marshall -- Watts has done nothing but make plays since he arrived with the Broncos. He's looked better than starter Ashley Lelie since training camp started and will be relied upon in Denver's passing game.
Rd.3/85, CB Jeremy LeSueur, Michigan -- Struggled early in camp, but made strides as practice went on. He'll be a special-teams contributor this year.
Rd.5/152, CB Jeff Shoate, San Diego State -- Shoate came in more comfortable in Denver's man-to-man schemes than LeSueur. Possible contributor in the Broncos' dime package as their sixth defensive back.
Rd.6/171, WR Triandos Luke, Alabama -- Luke wasn't a punt returner at Alabama, but worked on it over the summer and looked like a natural doing it in preseason. He'll start the season at that position and provide depth at receiver.
Rd.7/225, QB Matt Mauck, Louisiana State -- Showed poise, good athleticism and a very good arm in minicamps and early in training camp. He took a bit of a step back once the preseason games started, but Mauck is a favorite of the organization and will get some time to develop on the roster.
Starter -- Jake Plummer. Backups -- Danny Kanell, Matt Mauck.
Plummer is back for his second season in Denver, after a pretty successful first year. Plummer went 9-2 as a starter in the regular season last year, but he also had Clinton Portis, Shannon Sharpe and Ed McCaffrey around him. All three are gone this season, and more pressure will be on Plummer to carry the offense. Kanell looks much more comfortable as the backup than he did last year when he was thrown into the lineup after injuries to Plummer and since retired Steve Beuerlein.
Starters -- RB Quentin Griffin, FB Reuben Droughns. Backups -- RB Garrison Hearst, RB Tatum Bell, FB Kyle Johnson.
It seems like every back who has been the workhorse in Denver's offense gains over 1,000 yards and Griffin should be no exception if the 195-pounder stays healthy. If he were a little taller and heavier, he would be widely regarded as a potential superstar. He has fantastic quickness and vision. Hearst took over as the primary backup when Mike Anderson suffered a season-ending groin injury. Bell will be a good player but missed a lot of time in camp and needs to catch up. Droughns is dependable as a blocker and catching balls out of the backfield.
Starter -- Byron Chamberlain. Backups -- Jeb Putzier, Jed Weaver, Patrick Hape.
The Broncos will likely use a committee. Putzier could emerge as the top guy in that committee -- he was the best tight end throughout training camp and preseason. Chamberlain and Hape know the offense and are ahead of Weaver, who started 15 games with San Francisco last year but has never seemed comfortable in Denver's offense.
Starters -- Rod Smith, Ashley Lelie. Backups -- Darius Watts, Triandos Luke, Nate Jackson.
This unit could make or break the Broncos. Smith is a possession receiver at this point in his career, but he's still one of the team's hardest workers and a great leader. Lelie needs to show more than he did through the preseason. Watts is ready to take his spot away if he doesn't. Luke and Jackson will only be used if there are injuries.
Starters -- LT Matt Lepsis, LG Ben Hamilton, C Tom Nalen, RG Dan Neil, RT George Foster. Backups -- LT Dwayne Carswell, C/G Chris Watton, G/T Cooper Carlisle, G/T P.J. Alexander.
The development of Lepsis, who is moving from right tackle to left tackle this season, and Foster, who was active for only one game as a rookie last year, will be important. The interior of the line is very good, especially in the middle where Nalen returned from a knee injury that ended his 2002 season to once again make the Pro Bowl. There's decent depth, but nobody who will push for a starting job.
Starters -- DE Trevor Pryce, DT Monsanto Pope, DT Luther Elliss, DE Raylee Johnson. Backups -- DE Reggie Hayward, DE Marco Coleman, DT Darius Holland, DT Nick Eason, DT Mario Fatafehi, DE Bryant McNeal.
Pryce had a great camp after getting his body in shape during the offseason. He might end up at tackle if Elliss can't shake the injury bug that he's had for the past few years. Pope came on late in the preseason to claim a job. Hayward's regression left the Broncos shaking their heads. He had 8.5 sacks as a backup last year and will start the season as a backup again after he couldn't hold onto a starting job in camp. Johnson, who was let go by San Diego in the offseason, has showed signs of the quickness he was known for early in his career.
Starters -- OLB D.J. Williams, MLB Al Wilson, OLB Donnie Spragan. Backups -- OLB Jashon Sykes, OLB Terry Pierce, MLB Patrick Chukwurah.
The best move the Broncos made this offseason was re-signing free agent Wilson, one of the best in the game at middle linebacker. Williams will make rookie mistakes, but he's got a lot of talent. Sykes entered training camp as a starter but hurt his knee in Denver's first exhibition game. Spragan is probably better suited for the weak side and could end up battling Williams for a starting spot there. Chukwurah cemented his spot by showing flashes of brilliance as a situational pass rusher in preseason.
Starters -- CB Champ Bailey, FS Kenoy Kennedy, SS John Lynch, CB Lenny Walls. Backups -- S Nick Ferguson, S Chris Young, CB Kelly Herndon, CB Willie Middlebrooks, CB Jeremy LeSueur, CB Jeff Shoate.
The acquisition of Bailey could mean great things for the Broncos' defense. His presence will allow the Broncos to blitz more. Walls won't have the pressure of covering the opponent's best receiver as he did last year and should benefit. The Broncos have three safeties that can play at a high level, and Ferguson is the odd man out. The Broncos have a lot of confidence in him though. Herndon might be better suited as Denver's nickel cornerback this season instead of a starting role like he was in last year.
K Jason Elam, P Micah Knorr, LS Mike Leach, KR Reuben Droughns, PR Triandos Luke.
Elam is almost automatic, and is a fantastic clutch kicker. In his last 10 seasons, he has only had one season with a field-goal percentage lower than 75 percent. Knorr and Leach are each entering their third season with the Broncos and are solid. Droughns is not going to break many long returns, but he won't make many mistakes either. Luke's emergence means the Broncos won't have to use Rod Smith or Champ Bailey to return punts.
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