All seven of Ashley Lelie’s touchdown receptions last year were longer than 30 yards.
Opponents scored 31.7 percent of their points off Broncos turnovers (29), whereas only 14.7 percent of Denver’s points came after the Broncos forced a turnover of their own (20 total).
The Broncos converted 37.9 percent of third-down attempts, but were just 20-of-33 on third-and-one and 12-of-21 on third-and-two.
Jake Plummer has been sacked just 29 times in 27 games since joining the Broncos, the fewest among quarterbacks who have started at least 22 games in that time. In 852 pass plays, he averages just one sack for every 29.4 attempts. Peyton Manning is tops at one sack for every 35.3 pass attempts over the past two years.
Four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey has started every game of his career (96) since the Redskins drafted him No. 7 overall in 1999 .
Mike Shanahan had a 50 percent success rate in replay challenges last year, but his overall success rate since the system was implemented is only 34.8 percent (16-of-46).
The Prophecy: "If the Broncos have a few players step up at running back, wide receiver, and offensive tackle, there’s little doubt this is a playoff team."
The Lie: "The Broncos finished near the bottom of the league last year with only nine interceptions. That may change with the addition of Champ Bailey and the decision to make the defensive backs go through offensive drills."
— Athlon Sports Pro Football 2004
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With the past two postseasons ending almost identically, in a dizzying blur of blue-and-white in Indianapolis, Mike Shanahan is banking that a little brown will go a long way.
His one-stop shopping spree landed four Cleveland Browns -- all defensive linemen -- in an effort to boost a Denver Broncos defense that Peyton Manning ripped apart in successive years. Never mind that three of the players -- Gerard Warren, Courtney Brown and Ebenezer Ekuban -- are former first-round draft picks who failed to meet expectations. Shanahan is hoping a change of address will bring out the best in them and help the coach get his first playoff victory of the post-Elway era.
Jake Plummer received a vote of confidence last year from coaches, even if his erratic nature irritated fans. While he threw for a franchise-record 4,089 yards and tied John Elway's club mark of 27 touchdown passes, he also tossed 20 interceptions - some in the most critical situations. Still, coaches love his leadership and his ability to make things happen on the run, which is why they opted to pick up his option (with some minor restructuring) rather than void the final five years of his contract.
The hope is, in his third year under Shanahan, Plummer will finally settle down. How well he plays will go a long way toward determining if the Broncos get in the playoffs. Like last year, he won't be looking over his shoulder, though Matt Mauck or Bradlee Van Pelt could push Danny Kanell for the No. 2 job.
The excitement rookie Tatum Bell created in 2004 when he was healthy (5.3-yard average and a 58-yard catch-and-run play against Kansas City) was enough to convince Shanahan to trade away Reuben Droughns (1,240 yards in 2004) -- a move that netted two of the Browns' D-linemen. Even with Droughns gone, there will be competition at the position. As if the Broncos didn't have enough players from Ohio, they added another on draft day in the form of former Buckeye Maurice Clarett -- a troubled running back who hasn't played in two years. "What can I say, I'm a gambler," Shanahan said after using an extra third-round pick (No. 101 overall) on Clarett, apparently on the recommendation of position coach Bobby Turner.
Then there's Quentin Griffin, who showed star potential last year until a bout with fumblitis and a torn ACL (Oct. 25 on a kickoff return). Don't forget Mike Anderson, another in a long line of 1,000-yard Bronco backs, who returns from a severe groin injury suffered last preseason. He could return to the fullback position, but at nearly 32 years old, he'll have to show he has something left in the tank. Ditto for the underachieving ex-Giant Ron Dayne, who hopes to resurrect his career in the Mile High City.
Whoever is blocking and carrying the rock, Denver needs to improve its short-yardage situations.
Rod Smith, doing his best Jerry Rice impersonation, returns for his 11th NFL season. He is as steady as ever. It helped that Ashley Lelie stepped up last year and became a deep threat (a league-leading 20.1 yards-per-catch and seven TDs).
The big question is at the No. 3 wideout spot. Triandos Luke and Darius Watts were spotty at best.
Look for tight end Jeb Putzier to play a bigger role in Denver's offense this year, especially after the Broncos chose to match the Jets' offer sheet (five years, $12.5 million) for the restricted free agent. Putzier has deceptive speed, great hands and a willingness to improve his blocking. If he does the latter, he could grab the starting job from Dwayne Carswell.
Thanks to Plummer's mobility, the offensive line set a franchise record in 2004 by giving up only 15 sacks. It returns pretty much intact for 2005. Though the oft-injured Dan Neil is gone (released in a cap-saving move), he was inactive at the end of last season anyway, and played hurt quite a bit before that.
Though tackles George Foster and Matt Lepsis struggled at times, another year under their belts should improve consistency. Left guard Ben Hamilton and center Tom Nalen are solid at the other positions. Cooper Carlisle, who has started six games in his five-year career, will be the right guard.
Trevor Pryce spent much of the offseason on the trading block; now he must show he's back for real after missing most of 2004 because of surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back. Pryce can be a load to handle up front. But the Broncos lost another top end, with sack leader Reggie Hayward bolting for Jacksonville (five years, $25 million).
It will be up to fourth-year pro Monsanto Pope and troupe of ex-Brownies - Ekuban, Warren, Brown and Michael Myers - to generate the pressure that was missing in last year's AFC Wild Card loss.
The Broncos struck gold in last year's draft by selecting linebacker D.J. Williams. Now they hope the re-acquisition of Ian Gold, who starred for them in 2002 and 2003, will pay even bigger dividends. Gold excelled at weak-side backer in Denver before he took the money (in Tampa) and ran. But he figures to get his old job back if Williams (a team-leading 114 tackles as a rookie) can make the transition to the strong side.
There's no question that the linebacker position, with emotional leader Al Wilson anchoring the middle, is the strength of the defense. With Terry Pierce also on board and Jashon Sykes making strides, the Broncos have the personnel -- at least at linebacker - to play a 3-4 defense. For now, coaches insist it will only be used on passing downs.
The Broncos mortgaged the farm to acquire cornerback Champ Bailey last year, but in the end it didn't matter. Manning still torched Denver's defense for 457 passing yards and four touchdowns in a 49-24 Wild Card blowout.
Now the Broncos have lost two secondary starters, with unrestricted free agent Kenoy Kennedy signing with Detroit and the team deciding not to match Seattle's five-year, $15 million offer to Kelly Herndon, a nickel back who took over for an injured Lenny Walls in 2004. Denver instead is banking that the 6-foot-4 Walls will stay healthy and play even bigger than his size.
For depth, the Broncos turned to the draft; their first three picks were corners with speed to burn. Someone will have to step up, especially with Randy Moss (Oakland) now in the division. Nick Ferguson has the inside track at replacing Kennedy and joining veteran free safety John Lynch in the starting lineup.
Regardless of who lines up, the Broncos' secondary needs to make more plays. Denver ranked 27th in the NFL last year with just 12 interceptions.
Jason Elam was steady as ever, making 29-of-34 kicks and all but one inside 40 yards. Otherwise there wasn't much special about Denver's special teams. The Broncos were forced to use two return specialists, and neither Micah Knorr (who was cut) nor Jason Baker (who finished with a 38.8-yard average) was impressive. Shanahan hopes he solved some of the special teams problems in the draft, with second-round pick Darrent Williams, a cornerback who doubles as a return specialist. The Broncos used their last pick on Northern Arizona's Paul Ernster, who will vie for the punting/kickoff job.
Shanahan, though he has faced mounting criticism, continues to have the backing of owner Pat Bowlen.
But this year won't be any easier for the Denver Broncos, who have gone 10-6 the past two seasons only to be embarrassed in the playoffs. They have a tougher schedule -- both Super Bowl teams are on the slate -- and the AFC West, with the improvements made by Oakland and the Chiefs, figures to be a tougher division. A stretch run that starts Thanksgiving Day in Dallas and ends New Year's Eve in San Diego will determine whether the Broncos will return to the postseason.