Denver Broncos  

 

Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos ready to sprint from the start

DENVER -- Peyton Manning's Mile High Aerial Circus, Act II, had its dress rehearsal 12 days ago, and the head coach who experienced it from the opposing sideline came down with an acute case of altitude sickness.

Reflecting on the dizzying no-huddle attack employed by the Denver Broncos in the first half of an Aug. 24 preseason game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High -- a half in which the home team gained 290 yards and ran 49 plays, including 34 passes by the 37-year-old Manning -- St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher sounded grateful that the two teams won't be playing in the regular season.


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Noting that Manning's fast-paced forays up and down the field during those two frenetic quarters were accomplished without the services of prolific wideout Wes Welker, the marquee offseason acquisition who was nursing a mild ankle sprain at the time, Fisher sighed and said, "It's a very talented offense, and Peyton has not lost a step. He's controlling everything on the line of scrimmage, and with their tempo, you're talking about 80 plays a game -- and the scoring opportunities will increase.

"When you add in Welker, that will keep the chains moving. And in the unlikely event that they get in third down, Welker's going to keep drives alive."

In other words, if you thought the Broncos' high-scoring offense was exciting in Manning's first year in the Rockies, fasten your seat belts: Beginning with Thursday night's regular-season opener against the Baltimore Ravens -- the team that stunned the top-seeded Broncos last January en route to a Super Bowl XLVII triumph -- Denver's need for speed will be far more pronounced than it was in 2012.

With an aggressive rookie coordinator (Adam Gase) and a pair of intriguing young skill players (running back Montee Ball and tight end Julius Thomas) joining Welker to spice up an already potent offense, expectations are high for a team that has obvious championship aspirations.

"Yeah, they should be (even better)," said Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, whose team got a taste of Denver's hurry-up attack in Week 2 of the preseason last month. "It's tough to defend. Peyton is a master of it."

Consider that last year's Broncos, whose 13-3 record was the AFC's best, ranked fourth in total offense and averaged 30.1 points per game, second only to the New England Patriots. This year, with Manning expected to emulate Pats counterpart -- and chief rival for the title of Greatest Quarterback Of The Era -- Tom Brady in pushing the pace, end-zone celebrations might become even more frequent.

One stat that is almost certain to go up: Tap-outs by gassed defenders, who might not be able to get to the sideline before the Broncos race to the next play.

"We're all pretty confident that if we're all doing the right things and on our assignments, we can be as good as we want to be," said Ball, the second-round draft pick and ex-Wisconsin star who will split time with nominal starter Ronnie Hillman at halfback. "And we like a quick pace, especially here at home, because the altitude's on our side. We're used to it. It keeps defenses on their heels."

The Broncos' defensive holdovers know this from personal experience. Last October in Foxborough, Mass., Denver suffered a 31-21 defeat to the Pats in which the home team ran 89 plays. Brady controlled the tempo, sometimes rushing to the line and then taking a long, deliberate look at the defense before beginning the snap count; the Broncos' D was discombobulated all afternoon.

After the season, Broncos coach John Fox and his assistants studied the Pats' multi-speed approach and implemented some of the same principles.

"You want change of pace," Fox said. "Just like a pitcher -- you don't throw all fastballs. The good ones throw different speeds. They throw curves and sliders and changeups. That's the trend. Call it the 'Chip Kelly Effect'. We fell victim to it a year ago in New England. We kind of stole it from them, really."

In March, the Broncos pulled off an even bigger heist, signing Welker away from the Patriots -- in that October game, the slot receiver hauled in 13 passes for 104 yards and a touchdown -- with a two-year, $12 million contract.

Teaming Welker, who caught an NFL-high 672 passes over the previous six seasons (averaging 112 receptions and 1,243 yards per year during that stretch), with accomplished outside pass-catchers Demaryius Thomas (94 receptions, 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2012) and Eric Decker (85 receptions, 1,064 yards and 13 TDs) creates an unparalleled triple-threat that should spawn a multitude of matchup problems for opposing defenses.

Then there's Julius Thomas. The third-year tight end, who has been plagued by injuries for most of his career, won the team's starting job with an impressive preseason.

Thomas, a fourth-round draft pick in 2011, is a former Portland State basketball standout who played just one season of college football. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound prospect was initially championed within the organization by tight ends coach Clancy Barone, who held the same position with the San Diego Chargers from 2007-08 -- when former Kent State hoops star turned NFL All-Pro Antonio Gates was in his prime.

Thomas understands that, because of his history on the hardwood, he'll be compared to fellow roundball refugees like Gates, Tony Gonzalez and Jimmy Graham.

"When you're a guy that has played limited football, you automatically fit into that group," Thomas said. "You're not as good as they are, and you're not as accomplished, but you are mentioned. I hope, at some point, I've done enough to be legitimately mentioned as part of that group."

Said Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway: "He's really athletic, and he's a competitor, too. It just adds another weapon where they're gonna have to make a choice. You're gonna get great matchups with him."

Manning, who sat out the team's preseason finale, was exceptionally pass-happy the previous week against the Rams, throwing 20 times in the first quarter alone. Yet the Broncos insist they'll strive for balance once the real games begin, with between-the-tackles slasher Ball likely to join the explosive Hillman in assuming the bulk of the carries.

With only one ball (and, for that matter, one Ball; the team cut veteran running back Lance Ball last week) to go around, it's hard to imagine every skill player in the Broncos' huddle being satisfied. Playing at a faster pace -- and, thus, running more plays -- could help Manning satiate those appetites.

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The unlikely ringmaster of the Mile High Aerial Circus is the 35-year-old Gase, who was promoted from the position of quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator last January after predecessor Mike McCoy got the San Diego Chargers' head-coaching job. Though McCoy received widespread credit for overseeing the unconventional scheme that helped produce a stunning division title for the Broncos during the Tebowmania season of 2011, Gase also played a major role. Fox didn't hesitate to entrust his offense to a coach who's two years younger than the starting quarterback.

"Look, we could've hired a lot of people," Fox said earlier this offseason. "There were a lot of people interested. I'm not gonna mention names, but there were a lot of, quote, more proven names. But it's not one guy that does this. Adam and Mike were both here for two years. Adam was part of that success, too, and that was a group effort.

"I just think he's a bright young coach, an up-and-coming guy, and he has what I call it."

Gase also has perhaps the NFL's greatest safety net in Manning, who, throughout his Hall of Fame career, has assumed an unmatched share of responsibility at the line of scrimmage. He also turned messing with the minds of opposing defenders into an art form.

"We never want to handcuff him," Gase said of Manning. "He has a lot of freedom, and that's a good thing. If we make a call and it's not a good play, he gets you into a good play."

A year ago, Manning was coming off four neck surgeries and fearing for his career. He also was adjusting to a new city, a new system and a new set of teammates, an experience he would liken to enduring a second rookie season. To say that his comfort level has increased over the past 12 months is like saying former No. 1 overall draft pick JaMarcus Russell's gut got larger during his first year away from football.

"Probably bigger than any personnel change, the biggest thing for us is the (lack of) growing pains for Peyton," Fox said. "Peyton's in a different place than he was a year ago. He's way better."

So, too, is the Broncos' offense, at least on paper. It's also faster.

Beginning Thursday night, we'll find out if Denver can hightail it back to the postseason -- and this time, avoid tapping out in mid-January.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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