ENGLEWOOD, Colo.** – Just three days from the season opener against the Ravens, Denver's three coordinators spoke with the media as game preparation gets into full swing.
Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips, Offensive Coordinator Rick Dennison and Special Teams Coordinator Joe DeCamillis talked about what to expect in the first game, starting with the Broncos' punting situation:
1. DeCamillis not worried about Sanders at punt return
There were plenty of questions when Week 1's depth chart listed wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders as the No. 1 punt returner. In 2014, Sanders eclipsed the 1,000-yards receiving mark and was one part of the Broncos' dominant aerial attack but only saw one return for 11 yards.
"[Emmanuel's] looked good," said DeCamillis. "We worked him during training camp some, as you all know. He's had good speed and quickness during practices. We had punt return yesterday and then he's caught the ball well. It's going to be exciting to see him back there."
Sanders provides a reliable set of hands at punt returner, but the position leaves him in a vulnerable spot with 10 players gunning for him. But DeCamillis has seen a star receiver field punts in Baltimore's veteran wide out Steve Smith. Smith was a potent returner during his tenure with the Carolina Panthers. While he hasn't fielded punts in some time, he still boasts a career punt return average of 9.3 yards and a kick return average of 24.2 yards. He's scored six touchdowns on returns, four from punts.
"My risk versus reward is we played Steve Smith about 20 times when I was in Atlanta and I never saw him get hurt, but I know he hurt me because you always sit back there scared to death," said DeCamillis. "Those guys that are back there, there's no question that you're at more of a risk because you are on the field. Any time you're on the field for any play, you've got a chance of getting hurt. Any extra plays, there's obviously a chance. We've got to do everything we can to make sure he doesn't get hurt. If you don't get hit, it's hard to get hurt."
**2. Dennison confident in Mathis' progress
At the end of training camp, the Broncos welcomed veteran left guard Evan Mathis to the team to help inject some experience into Denver's otherwise young offensive line. Mathis is expected to make his debut as a Bronco this Sunday against the Ravens, and Dennison said Mathis has unsurprisingly picked up their schemes fast.
"[He's caught on] very quickly, but that's not uncommon for a guy who has played a long time," said Dennison. "The combinations—the play—may be called something different, but they figure it out. They get the Rosetta Stone of football and figure out how to call things and communicate with the guy next to them."
3. Wade pleased with replacements for game one
Safety T.J. Ward will sit out just the Broncos' home opener Sunday due to a suspension, while defensive end Derek Wolfe will miss the first of four games from a suspension. Both Wolfe and Ward were projected starters for this season, leaving Phillips and his staff to find replacements.
There are three days until the Broncos' season opener and to begin Thursday's practice, we focused on the offensive line.
"Any time you lose two of your top players off of defense it's got to effect you some but the other guys will step up and think we'll play really well."
A recently appointed captain, safety David Bruton Jr. looks like he's secured the starting spot at strong safety for Sunday's contest, and Phillips plans to play to his strengths.
"Whatever a player can do, we try to analyze that and fit it into our defense," said Phillips. "There will be a few things that are different. Overall, our schemes are certainly similar, but it's how you play the techniques as really involved is the way we individualize every player."
Defensive end Antonio Smith will be part of a line that rotates to fill in for Wolfe. Thankfully for the defense, Smith, while different than Wolfe, played under Phillips as a Texan.
"He's a different type player than Derek, and we utilize him different, but it's always good to have guys that don't make many mistakes," said Phillips. "He knows what to do, and he knows how to do it in our defense."
4. Flacco elite by Phillips' standards
In the ongoing and seemingly endless conversation regarding whether Joe Flacco is elite, Phillips is firmly in the camp that he is.
"They've got an elite quarterback," Phillips said. "Somebody asked me whether he was elite or not and I said 'Well, the guy was the MVP of the Super Bowl. He's won seven playoff games on the road, he's set the all-time record for 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in the playoffs, so I would say, yes, he is an elite quarterback.'"
The question of whether Flacco is "elite" has been raging for years and even made it on television in the background of media coverage of a major political debate.
"He's a great player under pressure," Phillips continued. "You can pressure him, you can lay off — whatever, he's a great player. We really respect their offense. They've got a big-time offense and that's why they've been there. They've got a great quarterback and a great running game."