9:15 PM EST, December 20, 2013
The Sports Xchange
NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - INSIDE SLANT
With a timetable for Derek Wolfe's return still unknown, Kevin Vickerson lost for the season due to a hip injury, the Denver Broncos' recent troubles on the defensive line were understandable. But without some help from outside, they could also be fatal, as their pass rush struggles to generate consistent pressure, while their run defense continues to buckle.
In that situation, a gamble on a player like defensive end Jeremy Mincey is understandable. Mincey, who has two sacks this season, has shown flashes of brilliance over his eight seasons in the NFL, seven of which were spent with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Those glimpses were enough for former head coach Jack Del Rio to stick with him, and for the team to give him an $8 million signing bonus when he signed a four-year contract in 2012.
But this season, Mincey was dragged down by disciplinary issues. He was fined for missing a meeting. He was suspended for one game for a violation of team rules. And finally, last week, the Jaguars cut him.
Days later, he walked into the locker room of a team that is 11-3, has the AFC's best record and likely the league's most valuable player, assuming Peyton Manning can maintain his league-record paces.
"Peyton knew exactly who I was when I walked into the locker room and welcomed me with open arms," Mincey said. "(He) said, 'We need a guy like you around,' and I said, 'Appreciate it.' That made me feel really good, from a guy like that, a guy of that status."
Broncos coach John Fox said that Mincey has a "clean slate." Mincey believes he can live up to that, because, in his mind, he has a motivation that he lacked while enduring what will be six consecutive years without a winning record with the Jaguars.
"Peyton knew exactly who I was when I walked into the locker room and welcomed me with open arms and said, 'We need a guy like you around,' and I said, 'Appreciate it.' That made me feel really good, from a guy like that, a guy of that status."
Manning knew from experience of facing Mincey when the two were AFC South rivals. But he also knew from the Broncos' compromised defensive front, which has been beset by injuries and inconsistency throughout the season. Vickerson's hip injury, Wolfe's medical issues and the six-game suspension of edge rusher Von Miller to start the season have placed cohesion at a premium.
Mincey's addition would not seem to help cohesion, since it's another new face into a group that has already thrust former Panthers draft pick Sione Fua into rotational work the last two games, just after he'd learned the defense. But his familiarity with Del Rio from their Jacksonville days helps his chances, as does the play of Terrance Knighton, a fellow ex-Jaguar who has been the Broncos' steadiest interior presence this year.
"A lot of the terminology is the same, but let's just say it's worded differently. But football is football," Mincey said. "I'm not the dumbest guy in the world, so I can pick it up pretty quickly."
And he thinks Del Rio can harness the ability that resulted in a career-high eight sacks two years ago.
"I mean, he understood me. He knew me," said Mincey. "It was kind of like home-grown fruit growing in your backyard that you watched grow over and over. You water it, and you give it the sunshine. He pretty much did that with me.
"I reached his expectations and I feel like getting back to those expectations."
SERIES HISTORY: 5th regular-season meeting. Series tied, 2-2. Houston has won the only game played between the clubs at Reliant Stadium. The most notable meeting between the two teams was on Dec. 26, 2010, when the Broncos got their only win under interim head coach Eric Studesville, rallying from a 17-0 deficit for a 24-23 win. At the time, it was the Broncos' biggest comeback since John Elway's rookie season of 1983.
NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - NOTES, QUOTES
-- Ten days have passed since wide receiver Wes Welker suffered his second concussion in a four-game span, and he still has yet to be cleared to return to practice.
Welker has not passed the league-mandated post-concussion protocol since suffering the second injury late in the second quarter against the Titans on Dec. 8.
"The biggest thing with his is we just want to make sure he's healthy," said Broncos head coach John Fox. "When they give us the go ahead, we'll have him out here. Right now, our biggest concern is Wes' health. When he's available, he'll be available."
Andre Caldwell caught two touchdown passes last week with Welker out, and is in line to receive just as much work against the Texans if Welker has not recovered.
"I feel great. All the hard work is paying off," said Caldwell, who joined the team as a free-agent pickup in 2012. I've been around here for two years and finally got a chance to make something happen."
-- The biggest speech Peyton Manning made in the past week was not the one he delivered at a Monday night banquet when he was honored as Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year, but the one he gave to teammates in the Broncos' weight room the day after their 27-20 loss to San Diego.
"He talked to us in the weight room the next day and told us this was the time that's kind of gut-checking time for us," said running back Montee Ball. "Every player has to focus on what they can improve on.
"Don't point the finger at anybody, the media, the fans, anybody. Don't point at anybody -- (such as) the coach -- point it at yourself and improve on what you can improve on and move on from there."
Denver's offense lurched to its worst performance of 2013 in its loss last week, going two consecutive quarters without scoring for the first time this season. Such a performance forced the Broncos to reassess and refocus, and kept Manning from being too distracted by his honor.
"You really don't have time to think about it when you're in the middle of a football season and trying to get ready for new opponents and different players that you haven't seen before," he said. "Every week, we're still learning new plays that we may be putting in. You're always working on timing with some new receivers, maybe some guys haven't played as much."
BY THE NUMBERS: 30 minutes, 41 seconds -- Average amount of time the Broncos have spent trailing the last two games. In the first 12 games, the Broncos trailed for an average of 11 minutes, 13 seconds each game.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Matt Schaub makes a difference, believe it or not. Matt Schaub is a seasoned, savvy veteran, and he does a good job. The key to Matt Schaub is to get some pressure on him, get a lot of penetration in the (offensive) line so they can't have seams to have the backs cut through, and just cut off the gaps. Just be gap sound and disciplined, and we'll be fine." -- Broncos defensive tackle Jeremy Mincey, on facing Matt Schaub, who was named as the Texans' starting quarterback Wednesday.
AFC PLAYOFFS AT A GLANCE:
CLINCHED: Denver - playoff spot; Indianapolis - AFC South; Kansas City - playoff spot
Denver clinches AFC West division and a first-round bye with:
1) DEN win + KC loss
Denver clinches home-field advantage throughout AFC playoffs with:
1) DEN win + KC loss + NE loss or tie
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
New England clinches AFC East division with:
1) NE win or tie OR
2) MIA loss or tie
New England clinches a first-round bye with:
1) NE win + CIN loss or tie + IND loss or tie OR
2) NE tie + CIN loss + IND loss
New England clinches a playoff spot with:
1) CIN loss or tie
Cincinnati clinches AFC North division with:
1) CIN win + BAL loss or tie OR
2) CIN tie + BAL loss
Cincinnati clinches a playoff spot with:
1) CIN win + MIA loss or tie OR
2) CIN tie + MIA loss
Baltimore clinches a playoff spot with:
1) BAL win + MIA loss + SD loss or tie
Miami clinches a playoff spot with:
1) MIA win + BAL loss + CIN loss
NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--DE Jeremy Mincey could play Sunday, just five days after the Broncos signed him to bolster their injury-riddled defensive-line corps. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said it was "possible" that Mincey could play against the Texans.
--LB Danny Trevathan leads the Broncos with interceptions (three) and tackles (111) through 14 games, and has proven durable, playing more snaps than all but one Denver defender this season (cornerback Chris Harris).
--DE Shaun Phillips has maintained the Broncos' lead in sacks, even after Von Miller's return in Week 7. Phillips has 10 sacks, his highest total since 2010, and is just two sacks off setting a career high.
--K Matt Prater has 127 points this season, and if he maintains his pace, will break the franchise single-season scoring record set by Terrell Davis in 1998, when he scored 138 points on 23 touchdowns.
--WR Eric Decker's output of 333 yards on 18 catches the last three weeks has allowed him to push his season total to 1,130 yards, the highest of his career. Decker has also averaged three more yards per reception this year than last year, and his average of 15.5 yards per catch leads the Broncos.
--WR Wes Welker has not practiced since suffering a concussion Dec. 8 against Tennessee. The concussion was his second in four weeks, and he has not been cleared to return, per the NFL's concussion protocol. Welker ran and worked out in the weight room Thursday and is "feeling better every day," according to Broncos coach John Fox.
--CB Kayvon Webster underwent surgery to repair a fractured thumb on Dec. 13 and has not practiced since then. Webster suffered the injury against the Chargers a day earlier and is not expected to play against Houston.
--QB Peyton Manning practiced Wednesday and Thursday after sitting out the Broncos' Monday session that followed their off weekend after the Thursday night loss. Prior to the last two weeks, Manning had missed at least one practice for seven consecutive weeks because of ankle problems.
--DL Derek Wolfe has not practiced since suffering seizure-like symptoms on Nov. 29. He has been exercising this week, but will have to be eased back into playing shape once he is cleared.
--CB Champ Bailey had full participation in practice Wednesday and Thursday. Bailey has missed all but three games this season because of a sprained foot, but is expected to play Sunday.
OFFICIAL FRIDAY INJURY REPORT:
--OUT: CB Kayvon Webster (thumb), WR Wes Welker (concussion), DE Derek Wolfe (illness)
-- PROBABLE: CB Champ Bailey (foot), TE Joel Dreessen (knee), WR Trindon Holliday (shoulder), T Winston Justice (finger), G Chris Kuper (ankle), QB Peyton Manning (ankle), WR Demaryius Thomas (shoulder), TE Julius Thomas (knee), LB Danny Trevathan (shoulder)
--OUT: QB Case Keenum (right thumb), WR DeVier Posey (ankle)
--QUESTIONABLE: TE Garrett Graham (hamstring), RB Brad Smelley (back)
--PROBABLE: WR DeAndre Hopkins (ankle), WR Andre Johnson (wrist), RB Greg Jones (knee), CB Johnathan Joseph (groin), LB Joe Mays (knee), T Derek Newton (knee), LB Darryl Sharpton (ankle), DE Antonio Smith (knee), G Wade Smith (knee), S D.J. Swearinger (foot), LB Justin Tuggle (elbow), CB Josh Victorian (back), DE J.J. Watt (hand), LS Jonathan Weeks (back), QB T.J. Yates (back).
Only the Browns' quarterbacks have been hit more often than those of the Texans, who have absorbed 106 hits this season.
And with Matt Schaub scheduled to start after Case Keenum was placed on injured reserve, the Broncos will face a passer who is less likely to be sacked -- but also less likely to run, as Keenum has run once every 20.4 dropbacks, while Schaub has run once every 153. With Ben Tate out for the season, Houston could opt to put greater emphasis on the passing game and try to force Schaub into mistakes like the ones that have defined his season to date.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Broncos DTs Terrance Knighton, Mitch Unrein and Sylvester Williams vs. Texans RB Dennis Johnson -- Since the season-ending injury to defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, the Broncos have been gashed on the ground, giving up 144 yards per game the last three weeks after allowing 94.8 in Weeks 1-12. Johnson averaged 5.7 yards on 13 carries in extensive duty in Week 12 against Jacksonville, and the squat 5-foot-7, 193-pounder could cause the Broncos some problems if they cannot improve their run defense.
--Broncos OL Zane Beadles, Manny Ramirez and Louis Vasquez vs. Texans DL J.J. Watt -- Watt had arguably the best performance of his career at the Broncos' expense 15 months ago, mostly at the expense of Ramirez, who was starting at right guard. Houston lined up Watt against Ramirez repeatedly in that game, and Watt sprinted past him for 2.5 sacks, and would have had another if Ramirez had not held him. Ramirez has been more comfortable at center than at guard, and there may not be as many opportunities for the Texans to force one-on-ones between Ramirez and Watt, leaving the onus on Beadles and Vasquez.
Copyright © 2013, Reuters