ENGLEWOOD Colo. –The Broncos opened practice on Wednesday with a series of drills designed to emphasize holding onto the football.
Defensive players rotated between different stations that had the players strip the football from their teammate, then fall on the loose ball.
On the other side of the field, offensive players dove on bouncing footballs and practiced making a catch and holding on through contact from coaching assistants. Tight Ends Coach Clancy Barone presided over a drill where an assistant would use an elastic band tied around the ball to try to tug it from the player's grasp.
"I think protecting the ball," Head Coach John Fox said when asked what the emphasis for the offense would be this week. "Last week, we had the one giveaway on an interception, a deep ball. We've got to do a good job as far as protecting the football."
The Broncos have a negative-three turnover margin, which is tied for 18th in the NFL through Week 12, and have turned the ball over 21 times, which tied for 24th in the league.
Sunday's opponent, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, have turned it over just 11 times and have taken it away 22 times for a plus-11 margin that ranks sixth in the NFL.
"I see a very opportunistic defense that causes a lot of turnovers," quarterback Peyton Manning said of the Buccaneers. "They're stout against the run. I see a team that's causing turnovers and their offense is turning those turnovers into touchdowns. They're not giving it right back to the other team or settling for field goals. It's sometimes 14-point swings."
BUCS RED HOT
After starting the season 1-3, the Buccaneers won five of their next six games to bounce into the thick of the NFC playoff hunt. Tampa Bay lost by one point last week to the Atlanta Falcons, who at 10-1 through Week 12 are tied with the Houston Texans for the best record in the league this season.
"They're a good football team, 6-5, fighting for a playoff spot," Fox said. "They've whupped up on everybody in our division thus far, and they've got a fourth-rated offense as far as scoring points in the league, one spot behind us. Defensively, they've taken the ball away very efficiently, in particular with interceptions. They're a very viable opponent for sure."
In their last seven games since that 1-3 start, Tampa Bay has averaged 32.5 points per game, while allowing just 23.3. Both of the Buccaneers' losses have been by one score or less.
The Broncos know that they'll have a steep test on Sunday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, where the team will look to clinch its second consecutive AFC West title with a victory.
"We need to have a good week all week," Manning said. "That's really all we've talked about is one week at a time, playing a team that's hot right now, that's playing with some confidence so it'll be a tough test and that's all we're focused on."
MANNING FEELING GOOD
Even though there are only eight Broncos officially listed on the team's injury report on Wednesday, there isn't a player in the locker room who doesn't have an ache or bruise as Week 13 arrives.
For the veterans, taking care of their bodies is essential to staying on the field as the season rolls on.
Denver has eight players that have been in the league for a decade or longer, led by 15th-year pros in Manning and linebacker Keith Brooking.
"I think, like I said, I've learned a lot about my physical state and you learn what you have to do each week, physically, to get ready to play," Manning said. "We have a number of guys, (wide receiver) Brandon Stokley, Keith Brooking, guys that are older, (cornerback) Champ (Bailey), that kind of have a certain routine that we all have to do in order to get ready to play, physically."
Aside from Ty Warren, who was placed on injured reserve after the team's Week 1 game and Willis McGahee, who went on injured reserve with a designation to return after suffering a knee injury in Week 11, the six remaining 10-plus-year vets haven't missed a game for the Broncos this season.
"The strength coach and the training staff do a great job providing any type of help or resource to help guys get ready to play," Manning said. "Coach Fox plays a role in that as he may adjust repetitions or the schedule here late in the season. All those things come together."