|Peyton Manning sets the tone of a perfectionist around the Broncos. (Getty Images)|
Head coach John Fox was good enough to allow me on the practice field to get up close to drills and a scrimmage. If you have ever been to a padded Fox practice, you would appreciate all I was able to observe in the two-and-a-half hours of live football in all the situations a game could present. Manning worked the two-minute offense, the four-minute offense, the red-zone package, the no-huddle attack and a number of other important situations. It was the first camp stop in my past 12 that running backs were tackled and brought to the ground.
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"We have to loosen up the pads and get used to the things that happen in football games," Fox said.
To put it lightly, it was a great practice to evaluate where this team is right now.
As I leave camp I have my standard five questions that need to be answered as the summer moves along and this team gets ready to defend its AFC west title. You can throw out all the offensive statistics from last year when Tim Tebow was under center. Look at this team as an extension of the 2010 Indianapolis Colts on offense, with a defense that will be playing a lot more nickel and dime packages as opponents try to keep up with the Broncos' scoring.
1. Can the rest of the offense be as ready as Manning?
Peyton Manning is hard on himself and almost as hard on his teammates. He demands perfection and is always talking to me about the details of the game. Protections, line splits, motion land marks, audibles, receiver route depth, hard counts -- he pays attention to everything. His teammates love it and even though there are some mental errors, especially when he picks up the pace, this group will be ready for Week 1 and all that Peyton does to a defense. Champ Bailey said, "Manning does so much at the line of scrimmage in practice that our young defenders get confused." I must say the whole offense embraces the challenge of keeping up with Manning, and that includes the coaches. One of the people who will see Manning all day and works hard to get on the same page is offensive line coach David Magazu. I told Manning I saw him on the sideline a thousand times in Indianapolis with line coach Howard Mudd. He smiled and said it always starts with protections and Magazu has a little Howard Mudd in him.
2. What personnel group will scare opponents most?
The Broncos have multiple personnel groups on offense but one will scare defenses the most. When Denver takes the field in 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) they present a lot of problems. When I brought up the dynamics of this group, Manning had a big smile on his face. Joel Dreessen said they had a whole large section of their playbook dedicated to it. I counted at least 15 formation variations in that one personnel group. It will be the backbone of their no-huddle package, which they will use a lot at home. Fox said, "We may have the best home-field advantage in the league because of the altitude and we will take advantage of it." Manning added that Jacob Tamme understands the role Dallas Clark played in Indy and already delivers that aspect to the package. He also added that Eric Decker is faster than people think and DeMaryius Thomas is bigger than any receiver he has ever thrown to. Manning said "The key is the versatility of Joel Dreessen. He can line up anywhere from fullback to tight end to H back to wide receiver."
3. What will the Broncos do about the linebackers?
It's a foregone conclusion that weak-side linebacker D.J. Williams will miss at least six weeks due to suspension. Keith Brookings is not practicing with a hamstring injury and the team is working on different combinations. Wesley Woodyard looked good in practice next to Joe Mays, especially against the four-minute offense. Fox said he was pleased with the progress Nate Irving is making and the team may be able to weather the storm at linebacker as long as the Broncos don't lose another player.
4. What are the issues with the offensive line?
The line has to switch gears from the spread option run game to defending a passer who isn't going to run around and escape trouble. At Tuesday's practice, the Broncos lost their best guard, Chris Kuper, for four to six weeks with a broken arm. That will affect the team's ability to protect Manning's launch point. John Elway said the team will look at the waiver wire but that the coaches were OK with the men on the roster. That means Manny Ramirez starts for now. The other issue I came to see was how center J.D. Walton could handle the pressure of playing with Manning. Former Colts center Jeff Saturday told me Manning will change plays often and the center is changing protections two seconds before the snap. Glad to report that Walton looked terrific doing the job. Keep your eye on the Broncos' pass protection and run-blocking this summer because it is still a work in progress.
5. Can this defense match up with teams that try to spread it out?
Elway and Fox admitted that in 2011 teams with spread offenses like Green Bay and New England gave them a lot of trouble. Frankly, they couldn't match up with all the receivers. Right now they feel good about what they have done to remedy the situation. Bailey loves the secondary depth right now with Drayton Florence probably manning the slot receiver and Tracy Porter opposite Champ. The Broncos are also working hard on their "Big Nickel" package when Quinton Carter and Jim Leonard return to action. The pass rush up front in spread situations should feature Elvis Dumervil, Von Miller, Robert Ayers and rookie Derek Wolfe. The Broncos are not going to have the same problems they had last year.