Broncos Update Insider - 11/21

Mike Shanahan and his coaching staff are pushing the right buttons for the Denver Broncos this season.

A few weeks ago, the Broncos were in a downward spiral, having lost four of five with injuries piling up and many problems on both sides of the ball. After a couple of tough road wins, the Broncos are back in control of the AFC West as they head into a divisional battle against Oakland on Sunday.

The Broncos have used a lot of young players and had to shuttle in many backups because of injuries, but the coaching staff has gotten them all ready to contribute.

"You've got to have good players and good coaches to get those players ready to go," receiver Brandon Stokley said.

The Broncos have had seven rookies start this season and many other key players are young, such as third-year quarterback Jay Cutler. They were prepared for the challenges of getting some of those young players ready before the season. The staff had to adjust on the fly when injuries struck hard at a couple of positions.

Running backs coach Bobby Turner had to get his unit ready to play Atlanta without five injured tailbacks. Peyton Hillis moved from fullback to tailback, the team signed Tatum Bell off the street and P.J. Pope was given his first NFL carries. Denver rushed for 124 yards against the Falcons.

Hillis led the way, getting 44 yards on 10 carries and a couple of touchdowns in his first start at tailback.

"I thank God for the coaches for putting me in a situation to help me succeed," Hillis said.

Denver had to find some answers at linebacker too, when all three starters went down with injuries. Undrafted rookie Wesley Woodyard was tabbed to replace D.J. Williams, and he played two good games in a row. The Broncos got creative at middle linebacker, taking rookie Spencer Larsen from the running backs meetings.

Larsen was a college linebacker and played linebacker in training camp, but moved to fullback at the end of the preseason. He hadn't practiced at linebacker since preseason, but thanks to extra meetings with the coaches -- linebackers coach Jim Ryan in particular -- Larsen looked comfortable as he racked up six solo tackles.

"They coached me in such a way it gave me confidence," Larsen said.

The Broncos came through with a big road win at Atlanta, thanks to some good calls by the coaches and some extra preparation with unlikely players.

"I thought the coaches did a good job getting these guys ready and the guys responded and played very well," Shanahan said.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Some players believe a change in practice philosophy has helped the Broncos improve on defense. After a 41-7 loss to the Patriots, Broncos coach Mike Shanahan had his team begin to practice in pads.

Shanahan is known for taking it easy during practice to keep his team fresh, but he figured more physical practices could help.

"Our rush defense was going downhill," Shanahan said. "And we felt like we needed to tighten things up a little bit. I think we've improved in that area over the last few games so we'll keep on doing it."

--The Broncos moved Niko Koutouvides, who was signed to a $7.5 million contract this offseason, to weakside linebacker. He was brought in to compete for a starting middle linebacker job, but hasn't made any starts on defense despite injuries to all three starters.

"I think Niko is still a good linebacker," Shanahan said. "We've got some guys that are playing very special."

Broncos coach Mike Shanahan heaped praise on Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who the Broncos rarely tested in the first week of the season. Denver plays Oakland again on Sunday.

"He is the most underrated football player in the history of the game," Shanahan said. "I can't believe this guy hasn't been to the Pro Bowl or people don't talk about him all the time. He is off the charts and as good as it gets. He doesn't get the attention for the way he plays consistently. He is the most underrated football player that I have ever seen in my coaching career."

BY THE NUMBERS: 28 -- Starts by seven Broncos rookies this season, including Ryan Clady, who has started all 10 games at left tackle.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's a veteran coach and he knows when to push and pull back." -- Broncos WR Brandon Stokley, on coach Mike Shanahan.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Broncos will have to figure out what role each of their tailbacks will have going forward. The rotation of Peyton Hillis, Tatum Bell and P.J. Pope worked well against Atlanta, but it will change when Selvin Young returns from his groin injury.

Young was the starter at the beginning of the season, but he wasn't a full-time player and is unlikely to be one when he returns. Young didn't have more than 11 carries in any of his five starts. The Broncos will likely use him as a change-of-pace back, at least early on.

PLAYER NOTES

--DE Tim Crowder has been inactive five times this season, including the last three games. The second-round pick probably won't contribute much for the rest of the season, and might need a good offseason to get back in the team's future plans.

--C Casey Wiegmann has started every game for the Broncos, running his consecutive starts streak to 121. Wiegmann was a shrewd offseason signing for the Broncos, who lost Tom Nalen to a knee injury early in training camp.

--TE Daniel Graham has a touchdown in four of Denver's past five games. Three of those touchdowns have come inside the red zone. Graham rarely comes out near the goal line because he's a great blocker, and QB Jay Cutler has confidence throwing him the ball.

--WR Eddie Royal will likely continue to return kickoffs. Royal has given the team a spark with his returns, and although he could get hurt returning kicks, his value on special teams is worth the risk.

--RB Ryan Torain was scheduled to have surgery on his torn ACL this week. The team is hopeful Torain can bounce back and be fully healthy by training camp. He was impressive in his first NFL start, two weeks ago against Cleveland.



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