Broncos Update Insider - Thursday, Oct. 21

The Broncos built their team around defense in the offseason, and judging by the first six games, they got exactly what they wanted. Denver is 5-1 this season and has a two-game lead in the AFC West not because of another explosive offense under Mike Shanahan, but a defense that ranks among the top few in the NFL.

"I'm very pleased with the way they're playing," Shanahan said. "The great thing about our defense right now is they're not satisfied. They know that we have a ways to go. We can improve."

It is unusual for a Broncos team to be built around defense. Since the days of the "Orange Crush" defense in the late 1970s, the Broncos offense has usually carried the team. Denver's back-to-back Super Bowl championship teams in the late 1990s were built around quarterback John Elway and running back Terrell Davis.

Shanahan took a different approach this season. Almost all of Denver's offseason moves were focused on the defensive side of the ball. The move that best signified the change in philosophy was when Denver traded Pro Bowl running back Clinton Portis to Washington for Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey.

The Broncos signed safety John Lynch, defensive ends Marco Coleman and Raylee Johnson and tackle Luther Elliss in free agency. Denver used its first-round pick on linebacker D.J. Williams. All of those players are significant contributors to the defense this year.

The day before training camp started, Shanahan cited statistics about the past 15 Super Bowl champions, saying that almost all of them were near the top of the league in scoring defense. That was unusual from a coach who is best known for his innovative offensive game plans.

But the defense has exceeded expectations. It is first in the NFL in total defense, second in scoring defense and second in passing defense. And they have played all but one game without defensive end Trevor Pryce, arguably their most valuable defensive player. Pryce is expected back in the next few weeks, which should make the top ranked defense in the NFL even stronger.

Bailey has been the catalyst. By adding him, the Broncos are deeper in the secondary and can match up with three- and four-receiver sets better. Bailey's ability to take a receiver out of a game by playing man-to-man coverage also allows the Broncos to blitz more often.

The Broncos have also gotten a big contribution from Williams. Williams grabbed a starting job at weakside linebacker when Jashon Sykes injured his knee in Denver's first preseason game and it looks like he'll be a fixture there for years to come. Williams leads the Broncos in tackles.

"Even though he's young, he's very mature and very athletic," Shanahan said of Williams. "I like his maturity, the way he handles his preparation and the way he plays the game. He's very talented, so hopefully he keeps playing at that level and keeps having a great year."

SERIES HISTORY -- 23rd meeting. Denver leads the series 15-7, with a dominating 30-10 win in last year's season opener. The Broncos have won 9 of the last 10 meetings in the series.

NOTES AND QUOTES

The Broncos' only loss to Cincinnati since 1981 might be the most famous meeting in the series. Bengals running back Corey Dillon broke the NFL's single-game rushing record against Denver in a 31-21 win in 2000.

Last season the Broncos held Dillon, who is now with New England, to 34 yards on 14 carries, and his longest run was seven yards. Before that game last year the Broncos refused to acknowledge a revenge factor against Dillon, but admitted after the game that they had that 2000 game in the back of their minds.

"It was nothing we would talk about in the media, but it was something we talked about within ourselves," linebacker Al Wilson said after the 30-10 win last year.

Former Broncos CB Deltha O'Neal will play against his former team this week. O'Neal, a starting cornerback with the Bengals, had one Pro Bowl season in Denver but struggled mightily his last two seasons with the Broncos. He played the last half of last season at wide receiver, even though the Broncos were thin at cornerback.

The Broncos players harbor no ill will towards O'Neal. Safety Kenoy Kennedy wore a No. 24 Bengals jersey with O'Neal's name on it earlier this year in the locker room. He said O'Neal, one of his best friends, sent him the jersey. ...

Cincinnati is making its first appearance in a Monday night game since 1992, and its first home Monday night appearance since 1989. Since the Bengals last played on "Monday Night Football," the Broncos have had 25 games on Monday night.

"We've been on national TV quite a bit," Shanahan said. "So, to be honest with you, I don't even think about it."

BY THE NUMBERS
369 -- RB Reuben Droughns has rushed for 369 yards in his first two starts at tailback this season. This week Denver faces Cincinnati, which as the 32nd ranked run defense in the NFL.

QUOTE TO NOTE
"We've been playing some good football, not great, but pretty good. The season is still young. Too early to count your chickens." -- S Kenoy Kennedy, when asked about Denver's strong start and its two-game lead in the AFC West.

The Broncos didn't make a roster move to add a tight end after Dwayne Carswell's one-game suspension because they are confident long-snapper Mike Leach can handle a role as the team's third tight end.

Leach hasn't seen action at tight end since 2000 when he was with Tennessee, but the Broncos thought enough about his play in training camp to release Jed Weaver and Byron Chamberlain because they felt comfortable if they had to use Leach on offense.

Leach was had 106 receptions in his college career at William & Mary. Jeb Putzier and Patrick Hape will be Denver's top two tight ends in Carswell's absence.

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

-- TE Jeb Putzier will need to have a good all-around game with Dwayne Carswell out because of a suspension. Putzier, a wide receiver in college, has improved on his blocking and will have to be a big part of the run game this week.

-- FB Kyle Johnson didn't play much against Oakland but that could change this week. The Broncos will have less flexibility without Dwayne Carswell in the lineup so Johnson could see more time as Reuben Droughns' lead blocker. Against Oakland, tight ends Patrick Hape and Carswell lined up in an H-back look to block for Droughns.

--RB Tatum Bell saw as much playing time as Quentin Griffin did on Sunday. Bell, a second-round pick, will compete with Griffin for the primary backup role but his contributions this season will be limited as long as Droughns continues to shine.

-- DE Anton Palepoi will continue to be active and a pass rusher in Denver's nickel package as long as Patrick Chukwurah is out with a quadriceps injury. Palepoi had one-and-a-half sacks against Oakland.

-- WR Triandos Luke had his best game as a punt returner against Oakland. Luke, a rookie who didn't return punts in college, appears more comfortable returning punts as he gains experience.

GAME PLAN
The Broncos' running game will be weakened a little bit with the suspension of TE Dwayne Carswell, one of the best blocking tight ends in the league. However, the Broncos should have a lot of success running the ball. The Bengals have been unable to stop anyone in the ground game and the Broncos have been dominant running the ball since Reuben Droughns took over as their starting tailback two games ago.

The Bengals will also have to try to establish the run, because QB Carson Palmer is an unlikely candidate to be the first passer this year to make Denver's secondary look bad. The Broncos have been very difficult to pass against this season, and they are looking to force more interceptions. Denver only has two interceptions this season, but one last week and with as well as they have played the pass, it seems hard to believe that they will be stuck near the bottom of the league in interceptions all season.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

--Broncos CB Champ Bailey vs. Bengals WR Chad Johnson. This will probably be Bailey's toughest individual test to date this season. Bailey has shut down just about everyone he's faced this year, including allowing only 21 receiving yards to Oakland's Jerry Porter last week. Johnson's numbers are down this season but he's still one of the most talented receivers in the NFL.

--Cincinnati's front seven vs. Denver's offensive line. Somehow, the Bengals have to slow down the Broncos run game. Cincinnati is allowing more than 160 rushing yards per game, and that includes holding Miami to 25 yards rushing in Week 2.

--Broncos WRs vs. Bengals CB Deltha O'Neal. The Broncos traded O'Neal, who fell so far in Mike Shanahan's doghouse last year he was moved from cornerback to wide receiver in midseason. Shanahan should know how to exploit O'Neal's weaknesses, and he'll likely take a shot or two downfield against him.

INJURY IMPACT

--CB Lenny Walls has a dislocated shoulder, and the training staff was less confident Wednesday about his chances of playing against Cincinnati. Walls has dislocated the same shoulder twice this year.

--CB Willie Middlebrooks might be back much sooner than expected. Middlebrooks was supposed to be out four weeks with a hamstring injury, but might be back this week after missing only one. The Broncos could use him to play in the nickel defense with Walls banged up.

--DE Patrick Chukwurah appears to be close to being able to play this week. He missed one game with a quadriceps injury but if he has a good week in practice he could return to the lineup as a pass rusher in the nickel defense.

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