The Denver Broncos are coming off the most surprising and demoralizing loss they have suffered for some time and an aspect of the game that reared its ugly head was the special teams performances. The kicking game and return game had blatant, game-changing negative impacts on the outcome and the injuries to the entire team forced the unit, as a whole, to play short-handed.
The Broncos listed 22 players on the injury report last week and Friday again named 22. The special teams unit is always a mash-up of offensive and defensive back ups and of course the specialists. Special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis was asked about how thin his roster was for the Oakland Raiders game and he was adamant that it didn’t affect their performance but it undeniably will force adjustments.
“I thought, for the most part—I didn’t think that was an issue. Let’s just say that. I don’t think that’s an excuse. I think you have some guys like [OLB Shaquil] Shaq Barrett that played a lot of plays on defense and had to play a lot of plays on teams and was productive on both. It’s just that time of the year. We’re going to have to really bear down and play well in both phases, there’s no question,” he said Thursday.
The fact of the matter is players like Barrett and even Brandon Marshall who has played in over 90 percent of all defensive snaps had to contribute last week on special teams and will likely have to do so again this week. The more snaps on the field, the more energy is used, that is a fact. The Pittsburgh Steelers have the explosive Antonio Brown back on punt returns and that is DeCamillis biggest fear for Sunday’s contest.
“I’ve gotten about three hours of sleep this week thinking about Brown. In my opinion, he’s the best punt returner in the league. You can tell that he’s passionate about what he wants to do back there. It’s not just like—some starters that you see back there, they don’t have the same passion. This guy, he wants the ball in his hands and he wants to try to take it to the house every time. We have our work cut out for [us]. You have to have a plan for him.”
Brown not only has 1,397 receiving yards (second in the NFL) but he has 17 punt returns for a 10.8 yard average, his longest return being a 71-yard touchdown that earned him Week 13 AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors. The Broncos have only allowed opponents to return punts for an average 7.7 yards and have yet to allow a touchdown. Punter Britton Colquitt has been up and down this season and has been among the middle of NFL punters this season. Unprompted, DeCamillis defended Colquitt Thursday after he has received some criticism , hoping his punter can continue to do what he did last week, Sunday against Brown.
“I think he [Britton Colquitt] hit a 46-yarder out-of-bounds the other day and people are upset with that. I mean, I’ll take 46 and out-of-bounds every single time. You’d lead the league in net [punting yards] every time. There’s no return against you. You got the ball off, so it’s obviously not a block. I think that you have to be pretty realistic with that. That’s a great play against this guy this week. I’d love to have that every single time. If we go into the game and we said that, and punt it five times and get that every time? Put me down. Mark me down right now. I’ll take it.”
Another area of concern entering Sunday is kicker Brandon McManus’ last three games. He has three of his four total missed field goals of the season in the last three games. Last week he missed a 49-yard field goal to tie the game in the fourth quarter and the Broncos ultimately lost by the three point difference. DeCamillis understands the concern but believes McManus will get back on track.
“You’re always concerned anytime you miss a field goal. You’d like to make them all. That’s what you’re striving for, but I don’t see anything that’s a technical issue. I don’t see anything that has to do with his psyche at all. I just think that he’s had some longer field goals that, hopefully, we can convert. I think we all got really spoiled getting them at the start of the year every single time.”
McManus is 26 of 30 on field goal attempts for 86.7 percent but all of his misses have come from 40 yards or further. His power is not the issue but his accuracy. Heinz Field is a notoriously tricky place to kick and DeCamillis will test McManus in pregame and sort out a game plan for the Pittsburgh conditions.
“We’ll go through it just like we do in every pre-game, trying to find a good mash of where we think his ‘spot’ is, where we think his ‘absolute make-it’ is, his desperation and make it. We’ll try to do that before the game. It’s definitely a tough place. We’ve been there—I’ve been there several times,” he said. “It’s a tricky place to go, no question. It’s going to be a real challenge. Not just the field goal game, but a lot of other things about them.”
The game very well may come down to field goals. The Broncos have played in eight games that have ended within six points and Steelers have competed in five games of the same scoring margin.
Lastly, the turning point in last Sunday’s game was certainly Emmanuel Sanders muffed punt to start the fourth quarter. The turnover resulted in the Raiders’ go-ahead touchdown. The usually sure-handed Sanders changed the game negatively but DeCamillis was as surprised as anyone that it happened.
“It’s a shame that happened to him because there’s nobody that I trust more as far as his hands. He’s not shown one time in practice that was going to be an issue. It was just an unfortunate thing and there’s nobody that feels worse about it than him,” he said.
As for this week’s contest in Pittsburgh, DeCamillis wouldn’t commit to a particular punt returner yet.
“Yeah, both of those guys have gotten reps with [Omar] Bolden and Emmanuel [Sanders]. Like we said last week, there’s Jordan Norwood and Shiloh [Keo], too. We’ll just have to wait and see how the game goes and see exactly who is going to be active, who’s healthy and all of those things.”
The Broncos sit at 10-3 while the Steelers are 8-5 and fighting for a playoff spot but the opposition is playing far better on offense and it will take a great game in all the three phases to escape Pittsburgh with a W. Special teams has taken a hit recently but they will have to play mistake free and sound in order to slow the Steelers talented team and adjust to the elements.
“I think it’s going to be a real challenge for us, just like their whole special teams [unit]. [Steelers Head] Coach [Mike] Tomlin has really supported and done a good job of getting guys in there that know how to play. He’s not afraid to dial up some fakes, as we saw in the Seattle game and some of the other times during the year. We have our work cut out for us this week. It’s going to be a tough game,” DeCamillis said.
The Broncos have not been ready for anything recently but after last week, DeCamillis better heed his own advice or it could be another disappointing Sunday for Broncos Country. Sanders, who returns to the team that drafted him, may have the mindset going into a game that special teams will surely play a factor.
“We have to handle business. Obviously, we dropped an egg versus Oakland and we had an opportunity to be first place in the AFC,” he said Wednesday. “We can’t carry that luggage. We can only move forward. It’s on to Pittsburgh.”