David Zalubowski/The Associated Press
David Zalubowski/The Associated Press
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Peyton Manning is discovering that one of the biggest benefits to joining the Denver Broncos is their star-studded secondary.
It’s helping him gauge his progress in his comeback, sharpen his timing with his new targets and scrape away the rust after his lost 2011 season.
The Broncos restocked their defensive backfield over the winter after seeing Pittsburgh’s four-wide receiver sets and New England’s big tight ends torch them in the playoffs.
They added veterans Tracy Porter, Drayton Florence and Mike Adams along with rookie Omar Bolden; they released Andre’ Goodman and wished Brian Dawkins well in his retirement.
With Quinton Carter sidelined, fellow second-year safety Raheem Moore is turning heads again, as is second-year cornerback Chris Harris, who will prove hard to bump out of his nickel back spot.
“We’ve got three great cover corners to work against,” Manning said in the offseason, speaking of veterans Champ Bailey, Porter and Florence, who have a combined 26 years of NFL experience.
Anymore in the pass-happy pros, you need three starting cornerbacks.
“Oh, you know what, I even think we’ve got a fourth one in Chris Harris, put him in the mix, also,” secondary coach Ron Milus said.
Led by Bailey, an 11-time Pro Bowler, this restocked secondary is providing Manning with some tough tests as he returns from a nerve injury that caused weakness in his throwing arm and led to a series of neck operations that cost him the entire 2011 season along with his job in Indianapolis.
The Broncos (No. 10 in the AP Pro32) had to do something to counter the spread offenses that are all the rage in the NFL these days. So, they brought in the reinforcements to reshape their defensive backfield.
“I think it is important. I know one thing that happened a year ago, particularly when we had to play Pittsburgh when they had their four wide-receiver sets and then when we had to play New England and they had those tight end/wide receiver guys that we had to have some guys out there to help us cover and bring them down,” Milus said.
Carter and Moore took turns struggling as rookies last season, with Moore the starter early on and Carter earning more playing time down the stretch. Now that they’ve had a full offseason of work “they’re kind of starting to look like we thought they were going to look,” Milus said.
Adams is wearing No. 20, just as he did in Cleveland, in honor of Dawkins, whom he began to admire and emulate back at the University of Delaware a decade ago.
“I enjoyed watching him my whole career and hopefully I make him proud wearing that number,” Adams said.
Adams reminds Milus a little bit of Dawkins.
“This guy will get ‘em down,” Milus said. “I don’t know if he’s going to knock `em back like Dawk, I mean, c’mon. But he’s tenacious, and I think he’s got some ball skills. And he appears to be fairly fast and agile.”
Bailey, who turns 34 next month, is coming off his 11th Pro Bowl, which extended his record for cornerbacks, and Porter can’t wait to line up next to him on Sundays.
“To come and to learn from him, that’s something that any corner would dream of,” Porter said. “As far as me getting the ball because they’re not going to throw at him, if that was something that I was afraid of I wouldn’t have signed here. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
The defensive backfield room is like musical chairs, apparently, with veterans and rookies alike trying to sit next to Bailey like all those kids in high school who want to sit next to the smartest kid in class.
Bolden is one of them.
“He’s found a seat right next to Champ, and so that’s good for him,” Milus said. “Maybe some of that will rub off on him.”
Bolden’s career at Arizona State was stunted by knee injuries, causing his draft stock to drop. But the Broncos took a chance on him by selecting him in the fourth round, and Milus said he’s been impressed by his work ethic.
Florence joined the Broncos’ crowded field of cornerbacks after his release from the Buffalo Bills, where he started 45 games in three years.
Like several other newcomers, Florence said he was drawn to Denver for a shot at playing with Manning.
“With Peyton Manning being here and it being my 10th year in the league, I’m trying to win a Super Bowl ring,” Florence said.
The Broncos have a brutal first half of the season against an impressive collection of quarterbacks, including Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Drew Brees followed by games at Cincinnati and Carolina, where they’ll play two of the league’s rising young passers in Andy Dalton and Cam Newton.
Milus likes the Broncos’ chances with this enriched secondary.
“Well, we went out and addressed a couple of those needs to help us against those teams that are going to be throwing the football,” Milus said. “And by us having Champ and Tracy and Florence and some of the guys we have on our team now I would hope that we can go out there and match up with people. So, when we face the tight end from New England (Aaron Hernandez), when he goes out there and he’s a quasi-wide receiver, we’ll feel good about putting that corner on him.”