Patrick Semansky/Associated Press file photo
ENGLEWOOD – On almost a daily basis, John Fox needs about as little time to roll through the Broncos injury report as it takes cornerback Chris Harris to return an interception 98 yards for a touchdown.
In a league where injuries can make or break a team’s season, it’s Denver’s lack of them, along with its ability to replace the few players who do go out, that has turned the Broncos into legitimate Super Bowl contenders with a nine-game winning streak.
Led by starting-caliber performances from Harris and running back Knowshon Moreno, Denver (11-3) heads into the final stretch of the season looking pretty much the way the front office envisioned the roster on opening day.
“All in all, I’d say our personnel department’s done an outstanding job,” Fox said. “You try to pick your best 53 and have confidence that all of them can play when called upon.”
Moreno ran for 118 yards on 22 carries against the Ravens last Sunday. He has rushed for 391 yards since filling in for one of Denver’s few injured stars, Willis McGahee, who went down with a knee injury Nov. 18.
On the other side of the ball, Harris had the longest interception return for a touchdown in Denver’s regular-season history Sunday. His 98-yard return down the sideline was his second score this year. Both have come since he replaced Tracy Porter at cornerback opposite Champ Bailey.
“He’s a tough cover guy in practice, whether he’s going against (Brandon) Stokley, (Eric) Decker or (Demaryius) Thomas; it’s been that way all season,” said Peyton Manning, whose own health, atop Denver’s list of preseason concerns, has held up so far this year. “With our secondary, there have been some good challenges.”
Moreno was a first-round draft pick who lost his job and was working on the scout team as recently as four weeks ago. Harris was an undrafted free agent from Kansas.
Mix in 10-year veteran Dan Koppen at center and 15-year veteran Keith Brooking at linebacker, and the picture is clear: By staying patient with the players they have and keeping a sharp eye on who’s available in the free agent market, the Broncos haven’t gone backward on the few occasions when they’ve lost starters.
“There’s never a week you can let up, never a day you can ease up,” said the team’s leading tackler, Wesley Woodyard, whose linebacker position has endured the most flux this year, with an injury to Joe Mays and the nine-game suspension of D.J. Williams.
Woodyard said having depth isn’t only a help when players go down.
“You’ve always got to be at your best because the guy behind you is just as good as you, and everyone wants to be in there,” he said. “They can make plays, too. You’ve got to be focused and be on your game every week.”
Nobody personified that idea better than Moreno. The fourth-year veteran was relegated to the scout team, set back by the lingering effects of a knee injury and a lost fumble during Week 2, which sent him to the bottom of the depth chart.
Only when McGahee got injured did Moreno get another chance.
Growing more confident with each week he’s in the lineup, Moreno is finding and moving toward the holes more quickly. Last week, he had his second consecutive 100-yard game, the highlight of which came when he hurdled Ravens safety Ed Reed.
“Just being prepared and working,” Moreno said when asked how he handled the eight consecutive weeks he was inactive on game day. “Just basically playing my role. Also, if I wasn’t going to play on Sundays, I was going to give it my all in practice. It was just having faith that maybe down the road I’d get my chance again.”
Harris also was just a guy looking for a chance.
A starter for most of his four years at Kansas, he spent three long days during the draft, and his phone never rang.
Only when the draft was over did he get a call from the Broncos, asking him to come to camp as a free agent. He was a long shot to make the roster, but he quickly showed he can play. He also has shown a knack for the ball: Harris’ 98-yard pick and return against Joe Flacco adds to a 46-yard interception return for a score Oct. 15 against San Diego.
Harris has cemented himself in the starting job that initially belonged to Porter, who hasn’t been active since Oct. 7, shortly before doctors began trying to regulate the medicine he uses to control seizures. Porter returned to practice Nov. 22.
Along with 2011 free agent pickup Tony Carter and another savvy free agent signing – eighth-year safety Jim Leonhard was available in August – the defensive backfield has options if anyone beyond Porter goes out.
“You see a guy practice and they practice great, and that’s why they’re still on the team,” Bailey said. “But when it’s time to go out there and do it, some guys don’t do what they did in practice. These guys do. They’re doing exactly what I’ve seen since they got here. I’m just glad that now that they’ve gotten the opportunity to play, they’re taking advantage of it.”