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MHS Mailbag: Broncos writer Andrew Mason

Where does this Broncos team compare to other Broncos teams of years past? Are they as good as the Super Bowl teams of the late 90′s? – Herb, Commerce City
Whoa, whoa, whoa … ease up there.  From a point-scoring perspective, yes, it resembles the teams of the late 1990′s.  But the defense is only now rounding into form and the offense would like its running game to become more consistent.  Sticking with the ground game even when it struggles is part of building that aspect of the offense; we’ve seen against San Diego and Cincinnati how a willingness to keep probing with Willis McGahee runs — even as he struggles to get beyond the line of scrimmage through a thicket of blockers and defenders — helped set up play-action and some double-digit gains in the fourth quarter.
The next few weeks represent the chance for this Broncos team to start resembling those vintage 1997 and 1998 squads; they play teams they should beat, and perhaps convincingly.  Denver’s mistakes let the Bengals hang around a bit longer last Sunday than the Broncos would have preferred.  What the Broncos need are more performances like they had against Oakland in Week 4: land an early punch, gradually pull out in front and then pull away for a convincing win.  If we see that in Carolina on Sunday and at least twice more against San Diego, Kansas City, Tampa Bay and Oakland in the weeks that follow, then you can start making the comparison.  But I’d hold off for now.

Nobody seems to talk about the Broncos’ run defense anymore, is that because it’s so good, or has it been overlooked by Peyton Manning? – Sam, Denver
Everything’s overshadowed by Manning, including the run defense.  But it shouldn’t be, for two reasons:
1. It’s the area that has improved the most as a result of the lineup tweaks made at linebacker, when Keith Brooking was inserted at the middle slot for Joe Mays, which moved Wesley Woodyard to the weak side on an every-down basis.  In the games the Broncos have used a Woodyard-Brooking-Miller combination as the base linebacker package, Denver has allowed fewer rushing yards per game (72.0), yards per carry (3.39) and has permitted first downs at a lower rate (one per 6.54 rushes) than in the games that Mays started at middle linebacker (136.3 yards per game, 3.83 yards per carry and one first down per 4.73 rushes).
2.Von Miller’s improvement.  While his pass-rushing skills are the first to be noted — he’s on pace for what would be a franchise-record 18 sacks — he also already has 17 tackles for losses, which is 12 more than anyone else on the Broncos.  His progress as a run defender in 12 months has been profound; remember, last year, he was benched a few times for Mario Haggan when the Broncos were in their base 4-3 package preparing to defend the run.  If the Broncos did that now, they’d remove their best run defender among the back two lines from the defense.

You’ve watched football for years, is this the best that you’ve ever seen Peyton Manning? His numbers seem to say so! Go Broncos! – Amy, Denver
Not quite; his numbers reveal that his 2004 season, in which he threw a then-league-record 49 touchdown passes, was better — in part because the Colts’ wide-receiver group was at its zenith.  Marvin Harrison was still in his prime; Reggie Wayne had emerged as a legitimate No. 2 threat who was better than most No. 1 receivers — as he demonstrated when he exposed Denver’s lack of secondary depth in that year’s wild-card playoff game — and Brandon Stokley had the only 1,000-yard season of his career before a series of injuries began to shorten his seasons more often than not.
What is significant is that Manning has returned to his 2009 form, when he led the Colts to their second AFC championship in four seasons.  He struggled at times in 2010, particularly in the second half of the season, when at one point he had three consecutive games with at least three interceptions before he got back on track.   Manning had surgery on a pinched nerve in his neck in March 2010 and played all 16 games that year, but his numbers were off. Multiple surgeries later, he’s back to his old form.
This may not be the absolute best Manning we’ve ever seen, but he’s on pace for one of the 10 best seasons any quarterback has ever had — and the best in Broncos history.

Derek Wolfe had a lot of hype coming into the season, but I haven’t heard much from him lately, how has he done in his rookie year? – Justin, Thornton
Fine, all things considered.  Remember, he was a second-round pick — by no means a sure thing — and he’s learning how to play two positions (left defensive end and defensive tackle).  The inside slot, in particular, requires a steep learning curve that usually precludes a solid rookie season.  (This is one of the reasons that went into the Broncos’ decision to take Von Miller over Marcell Dareus with the No. 2 pick last year; Miller was more likely to have a profound, transformative impact right away — and of course, he did.) But Wolfe plays with a high motor, is on pace for six sacks and is improving as a run defender.  It’s hard to see his rookie season as anything other than a success that offers a hint of better days in the future.

Do you buy the Tracy Porter story? We’ve heard that his demotion is performance-based, yet the seizure condition is also being cited. What exactly is going on with him? -Josh, Glendale
Reality is probably a combination of both. If you’d been through a seizure  – and if you’d also seen Jeremy Shockey have one in New Orleans, as Porter did — you’d be freaked out to the point where it might impact your play, since there’s bigger issues to deal with than just covering a cornerback.
If/when Porter comes back, he’ll provide some nice depth, but given that Chris Harris and Tony Carter have played well in Porter’s absence, there’s no reason to change the regular lineup.  That sentiment is heightened by the fact that Porter is on a one-year deal; their play means that Porter might not be in the Broncos’ long-range plans as Carter and Harris appear to be.

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