Reporters' Notebook

Broncos' struggles, Rob Gronkowski's confidence, DRC's return

With Week 7 of the 2017 season upon us, NFL.com's network of reporters collects the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

-- Why Gronk feels like he can beat anyone.

-- Ryan Succop's pre-kick ritual.

But first, James Palmer goes inside a surprising setback for the Denver Broncos ...

DENVER -- "We walked out on the field like we were gonna beat their a--. That s--- didn't happen."

That was Denver Broncos running back C.J. Anderson at 9:50 p.m. MT last Sunday night. A few hours prior, at 6:29 p.m. MT, all had been well in the Mile High City. The Broncos were riding high right before kicking off against the New York Giants. The Chargers had beaten the Raiders on the final play of their game. Then, the fans who arrived early at Sports Authority Field cheered loudly as they watched the Steelers take down the previously undefeated Chiefs on the stadium's massive videoboards.

The Broncos had set themselves up nicely. Denver was 3-1, healthy and coming off an early bye week. The winless New York Giants were limping into the "Sunday Night Football" showdown minus virtually their entire receiving unit and arguably their best pass rusher.

On the preceding Friday, Broncos inside linebacker Brandon Marshall had said, "I know we watch film and we practice plays, but their best players on offense are gone. The question is, what are they going to do?"

What could go wrong in just a few short hours? Well, a lot.

In the wake of a stunning 23-10 loss to the Giants, the Broncos are 3-2 and now trying to become the first team since the 2012 Bengals to make the playoffs after losing a game to an opponent that was 0-5 (or worse). Suddenly, questions abound.

First, the Broncos went from healthy and getting healthier (pass rusher Shane Ray and rookie tight end Jake Butt are both nearing a return to the gridiron) to possibly spending multiple games without star wide receiver Emmanuel Sandersdue to an ankle injury. Right tackle Menelik Watson left Sunday's game with a calf injury and didn't return. His replacement, Billy Turner, broke his hand in relief and is now on injured reserve.

When asked what was the most disappointing aspect of the loss, head coach Vance Joseph said, "Losing a football game after a bye. We had a great week of work. We had our best Wednesday of the year. They were ready to play in pregame.

"We were fresh and we were healthy. The energy was right in the locker room before the game and even pregame. It felt right."

So, what happened?

Well, Denver's defense was eaten up by two players: little-known running back Orleans Darkwa (21 rushes for 117 yards) and rookie tight end Evan Engram (five catches for 82 yards and a touchdown).

Darkwa's big night was surprising, to say the least. But the defense still ranks No. 2 against the run, having held Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott, LeSean McCoy and Marshawn Lynch to a combined total of 95 yards and zero touchdowns on 50 carries. So it's probably safe to assume the Broncos aren't about to spiral back down to the depths of last season, when they finished 28th in rush D.

Engram's breakout game was disconcerting for a different reason. All last week, every coach and player in Denver talked about how they knew New York was going to try to find ways to get the ball to the rookie tight end. They knew it, the Giants knew it, the media knew it, the fans knew it. Still, the first-round pick found success.

"Our game plan, we weren't doubling him at first," Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said after the game. "I thought we were. I thought that was the game plan: doubling him. But us and the linebackers weren't on the same page."

Not an ideal thing to hear. But it's clearly a fixable issue. And at the end of the day, the Broncos' defense only gave up 16 points in the loss. (Giants cornerback Janoris Jenkins had a pick-six.) Denver still ranks No. 1 in total defense. The unit is in the top 10 in points allowed, yards per play, third-down percentage, big plays allowed and a host of other categories. This is a credit to Joseph and first-time coordinator Joe Woods, who's tackling the unenviable task of replacing highly decorated DC Wade Phillips (who is now with the Rams).

Let's be honest. The biggest question in Denver is the one the team's been facing since Peyton Manning's skill set began to rapidly deteriorate during the 2015 campaign: Can the Broncos produce enough offense?

Points -- more specifically, red-zone points -- must be converted. In the first two games of this season, the Broncos averaged 33 points per game, and their red-zone touchdown efficiency sat at a healthy 77.8 percent. But over the last three games, Denver is averaging just 14 points per outing, while the red-zone TD efficiency has plummeted to 18.2 percent.

"I think in both losses, we outgained the team that's beating us in both losses. But we haven't finished in the red zone," Joseph said Monday. "There are too many long third downs, too many sacks and too many negative plays. We have to get better at the critical parts of the football game."

Joseph's right: Denver easily outgained Buffalo (366 to 272) and New York (412 to 266) in total yards during the two losses, but the Broncos had two turnovers in the former game and three in the latter. Four of those giveaways came courtesy of quarterback Trevor Siemian's right arm.

"Taking care of the football is paramount, obviously," Siemian said this week. "Good stuff to learn from. I can't be doing that because I understand that with our team, if I don't turn it over, we're going to be in dang near every game."

Giants safety Landon Collins, who intercepted Siemian to erase a Broncos scoring opportunity, told me on the field after Sunday's game that forcing Siemian to throw was a large part of their game plan. And with good reason: In Siemian's 19 career starts (including Sunday's loss), the Broncos are 10-2 when Siemian throws fewer than 40 passes ... and 1-6 when he hurls it 40-plus times. Denver entered last Sunday's game with the third-ranked rushing attack in the NFL, but finished with just 46 yards on the ground. Meanwhile, Siemian put the ball up a whopping 50 times.

"Trevor's a young quarterback still, so when our running game is clicking, that helps him to play in a more relaxed form," Joseph said. "To throw that many passes, for a young quarterback, it's sometimes not good for a young quarterback."

Can Mike McCoy figure out more ways to make sure the run game sustains success -- and, in turn, help Siemian? Don't bet against it. The offensive coordinator has the personnel to find the correct formula. Keep an eye on the backfield in Denver -- specifically, how the carries are divided moving forward. Anderson has been the bell cow, averaging more than 16 carries per game. But this week, Joseph said Jamaal Charles will get more touches as the season moves on. Also, Devontae Booker has shown he's a valuable pass catcher and could be playing his way toward increased snaps.

Beyond regaining the right balance on offense, the Broncos have one additional concern when it comes to putting points on the board: suddenly unreliable kicker Brandon McManus. He's fresh off signing a lucrative contract extension and was the most accurate kicker in team history entering the season. Not anymore. McManus went 1 for 3 in the loss; only the Bucs have missed as many field goals as he has this season (five). Joseph is standing behind his kicker, who played a huge part in Denver's Super Bowl 50 triumph, but he needs to right the ship, especially if the red-zone offense continues to struggle.

Is it time to panic? No. Is there cause for concern? Yes. Especially considering the Broncos, who played four of their first five games at home, now hit the road for three straight (at Chargers, at Chiefs and at Eagles) before another "Sunday Night Football" bout -- this one against the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots.

Where will the Broncos stand at the end of that Sunday night? Depends on how they've addressed the issues that emerged this past Sunday evening.

NOTES FROM AROUND THE REST OF THE LEAGUE

ARIZONA CARDINALS: "AD" gives Cards new life. In 2016, while still with the Vikings, Adrian Peterson played in just three games. A knee injury in Week 2 sent him to the injured reserve Weeks 3 through 14, and he was never the same again -- even when finally healthy and ready to return to form with New Orleans to start anew in 2017. That '16 season, he ran the ball only 37 times for 72 yards, going touchdown-less. Nope, not the "AD" any of us knew.

Rewind quickly to his first four games as a Saint to kick off his 11th season. Peterson ran the ball a total of 27 times. He mustered 81 yards, good for a paltry 3 yards per carry. Oh, and like 2016, he never saw the end zone. Pretty scary for a guy who's now one touchdown shy of surpassing Hall of Famer Barry Sanders for ninth most rushing TDs in NFL history -- the two are currently locked with 99 trips to the Promised Land.

Now, fast forward to Week 6 this season. A fast forward it was for the seven-time Pro Bowler and former MVP. In a whirlwind week coming off a Saints bye, Peterson was dealt to the Arizona Cardinals, and within five days, he was running back to his glory, literally, against the Tampa Bay Bucs: 26 carries, 134 rush yards and TWO touchdowns. They were the two that landed him in Barry Sanders' territory. And boy did it feel good.

A week removed from that NFC Player of the Week performance, Peterson returned to London with his Cardinals, becoming the first player to do so in the same season (he was in London in Week 4, his final game with the Saints).

I had a chance to talk to the running back during Thursday's practice. He was all smiles. I said, "You looking like you were running mad."

He said, "I was."

But he also told me how tough it was physically because let's face it, he had barely carried the rock, as he reminded me. He had 37 carries in 2016, 27 as a Saint this year, equaling a mere 64 trips on the ground in one season plus four games -- all of this, prior to his 26 carries in Week 6.

Peterson told me the biggest thing he remembers from the Bucs win was, "How heavy my legs were." He recalled the team's opening offensive drive, in which he carried the ball four times for 54 yards. But most important, he pointed out his 27-yard burst into the end zone -- and once more -- telling me how incredibly heavy his legs felt. But it didn't last long ... once the first half was over, he told me, "I was back to normal." That was Peterson ultimately telling me feels as good and healthy as ever.

While the Cardinals state they're not changing their offense for Adrian Peterson, they're certainly not opposed to handing the ball off multiple times for multiple repeat performances.

When offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin was asked this week if the team's going to expect a Tampa-like performance from Peterson every week? His response:

"Gonna expect if every week."

Goodwin adding on AP's overall impact: "With Adrian, when everybody knew we got him, just the excitement in the locker room, and the first practice, and walk-through ... He doesn't know what half speed or walk-through speed is, he's going full speed, so that right there set the tone for everybody ... He's made a world of difference. I think everybody's kind of awake a little bit more now."

* * * **

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Gronkowski confident about beating Atlanta's coverage. When the Falcons visit the Patriotson Sunday night, they'll have to deal with Rob Gronkowski, who missed the final eight games of 2016, including the entire playoff run. Falcons second-year linebacker De'Vondre Campbellsaid this week he believes he matches up well with anyone, including Gronk.

"If I'm doing things right, feeling good, taking the coaching points, then I feel like I can get open on anyone," Gronk said. "It just all comes down to playing the game this coming Sunday night."

Gronkowski fared well against the Jets' rookie safeties last Sunday. His high-step into the end zone after one of his two touchdowns got the attention of Bill Belichick.

"He said I had twinkle toes," Gronk said. "I took it as a compliment."

* * * * *

NEW YORK GIANTS: Rodgers-Cromartie returns. Veteran cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie returned Tuesday to the Giants after a one-week suspension for a violation of team rules that included his walking off the field during the Chargers game and leaving the team facility three days later.

At his locker Wednesday, DRC took complete responsibility.

"I'm dramatic, man. I'm crazy," he said. "I can't help that. I do stuff over the top, man. I apologized. I handled it wrong, but I'm good, baby. I'm back, baby -- that's all that matters."

The Giants got their first win of the season, Sunday night at Denver, without him. He talked to coach Ben McAdoo on Tuesday.

How did that go?

"That was good, man," DRC said. "It probably went good because we got the win."

DRC was his usual self in the locker room Thursday, though he acknowledged that he'll have to earn his way back, to some degree, in terms of playing time.

* * * * *

NEW YORK JETS: Bowles not worried about Wilkerson, Williams. Todd Bowles said this week he believes his Jets team should have another win or two. You could argue it would help if their big defensive linemen, Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Williams, would get to the quarterback. Both are looking for their first sack of the season.

"I'm good with them," Bowles said. "They're playing hard. They're playing well, and they're doing everything we're asking them to do. I'm not disappointed in those two at all."

When pressed, Bowles bristled.

"Nobody is playing great when you're 3-3. You're playing average football," he said. "It has nothing to do with Mo and Leonard. It has to do with our entire team. I'm not going to sit here and make excuses about two guys when we have 11 guys on each side of the ball. So if you want to nitpick, go for it."

Last Sunday, the Jets became the first Patriots opponent not to sack Tom Brady at least twice in a game this season. The Jets didn't sack him at all.

McCown clicking quickly with new WRs.Jermaine Kearse and Jeremy Kerley joined the Jets in the first week of September. Developing their receiver-to-quarterback chemistry with Josh McCown didn't take long. Kearse has three touchdown receptions, and 13 of his 26 catches have gone for first downs. Kerley has been targeted 20 times and has 19 catches.

McCown has lauded Kearse for staying late and watching film, and Kerley for "seeing the game the right way." There's also this: With his eighth team in 15 seasons, McCown has a lot of experience in this department.

"For me, I guess throughout my career, developing chemistry as quickly as possible was part of the job," he said. In terms of setting a tone for a young team, McCown has been terrific for the Jets.

* * * * *

TENNESSEE TITANS: Succop's pre-kick ritual. Quarterback Marcus Mariota received the bulk of the credit for Tennessee's win over the Colts on "Monday Night Football," but the hero of the game was undoubtedly kicker Ryan Succop.

Succop accounted for half of Tennessee's 36 points, making all five of his field-goal attempts (15 points) and kicking three extra points. His 48-yard field goal in the first quarter set a new NFL record for consecutive kicks made from less than 50 yards away. Succop made four more in the game, extending his streak to 51 field goals inside of 50 yards by the end of the night.

The ninth-year pro is as dependable a kicker as there is in the NFL, and he has to be the envy of every special teams coach this season. He explained to me in the Titans' locker room after Monday's win why it is so hard for teams to find consistent kickers.

"I think it has always been a really tough position to evaluate; you don't know how guys are going to do," Succop said. "They can look great on the practice field, and you never know how they will react when they get in a game."

He credits nearly a decade of experience in the NFL for building his confidence, along with a specific ritual he practices to help him handle the pressure. Before each kick, Succop recites a popular Bible verse, Philippians 4:6. The passage says, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God." Then he sharpens his focus, plants his foot and watches the ball sail through the uprights.

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