ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Play cornerback for 14 seasons before this one, as the Denver Broncos' Champ Bailey has, and you've seen some of the game’s greatest quarterbacks do all kinds of damage to all kinds of defensive game plans.
Bailey says no quarterback he has faced, or watched, over that timeline has started a season like Peyton Manning has started this one.
“I haven’t seen any quarterback be as sharp as him through the first three weeks of the season," Bailey said. “Usually you have some bumps the first three games, but he's smooth sailing right now."
Manning has thrown 12 touchdown passes -- a record over a season’s first three games -- without an interception -- a total that is more than 29 teams had scored so far this season after three games. The Broncos have scored 127 points, tied for the second-highest total over a season’s first three games in league history. Even long-time opponents, especially those who saw Manning's performance against the Raiders on Monday night, say Manning has flashed some of the best accuracy of his career over this current stretch.
An assessment Bailey agrees with.
“He’s going to put the ball where it needs to be, and that’s so frustrating (for defensive backs) because you can have good coverage," Bailey said. “You saw that the other night, people were in tight coverage, but he puts that ball in there and he’s the best at it."
Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase has no shortage of accountability. Gase, in his first season as the Broncos’ play-caller on offense, sets a high bar when evaluating his players. He keeps it there for himself as well. Gase was not fond of a pass play he dialed up in the third quarter of the Broncos’ 37-21 victory against the Raiders. The Broncos were leading, 30-7, at the time and on a first-and-10 from the Raiders' 13-yard line, had Manning in the shotgun. Former Broncos defensive end Jason Hunter beat Broncos’ left tackle Chris Clark around the corner, then swatted the ball out of Manning’s right hand. Hunter then recovered the fumble and the Raiders scored six plays later. Gase simply felt at that point in the game, with the Broncos holding a 27-point lead, the play called for Manning to hold the ball longer than necessary. “The sack-fumble is the one that bothers me because that was a bad play call, I put Chris in a bad position there," Gase said. “That was a ball-holder, we didn’t need it, that would be one I would want to take back … That one bothers me, and I’m going to make sure it doesn’t happen again." Gase was then asked Thursday, if he put the play’s result on his shoulders, and he said; “Absolutely, that play call was terrible."
Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has had plenty of rehearsals for the Eagles’ ultra up-tempo offense, like every series of every offseason practice after the Broncos decided to pick up the pace as well. He’s hoping all of that work against Manning & Co. will enable the Broncos to keep the assignment mistakes to a minimum Sunday. “We’re comfortable going fast, that doesn’t mean everything will be beautiful on Sunday," Del Rio said. “But we work at that tempo a lot, it’s part of what we do daily, so we should be more comfortable.’’ Del Rio added that if the Broncos handled their communication business properly, they will have the opportunity to audible defensively if the Eagles change their play at the line of scrimmage. Even if Philadelphia is doing it all at warp speed. “(If) they check we can check,’’ Del Rio said. “ … I think with the way Peyton operates out here, we find ourselves needing to do that at times. That’s part of the cat and mouse.’’
Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard on playing at altitude; “There is no hype about the altitude. The altitude is a different beast, they’re going to get a test of it."
Bailey, who hasn’t played in a game since injuring his left foot in an Aug. 17 preseason loss in Seattle, has practiced the past two weeks, but has yet to be listed officially as a full participant. He was listed as limited every day last week and both Wednesday and Thursday this week. The 12-time Pro Bowl selection tested the foot in the pregame hours Monday night, but both he and the Broncos decided he wasn’t quite ready. He said after Thursday’s practice he’s still not quite where he wants to be, and can't quite do everything he needs to do to play. "Not everything I want to do," Bailey said. “I don’t want to be out there half-stepping, this is the NFL, you can’t be out there half-stepping, you have to get the job done … I can’t do everything I want to do yet, I’m very close, I feel like I am anyway." The Broncos have used rookie Kayvon Webster far more on defense in some of the specialty packages in Bailey’s absence. They do have other injury concerns in the secondary as well. Safety Duke Ihenacho has been held out the past two days because of an ankle injury suffered against the Giants and re-injured against the Raiders, and cornerback Tony Carter was limited Thursday after being held out of practice Wednesday because of an ankle injury. However, the Broncos kept 11 defensive backs on the roster, so they have been able to cover for Bailey on the depth chart even with veteran cornerback Quentin Jammer having been a game-day inactive for all three games.
Former Broncos wide receiver and Ring of Fame member Rod Smith worked with the team’s wideouts during some of Thursday’s practice.