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Broncos face tough choices in pass defense

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- For the Denver Broncos, the Arizona Cardinals will present an odd mix in the preparation for Sunday's game in Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

On one hand, when the Broncos divvy up the assignments in their secondary, Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is going to be at the top of the things-to-do list. Fitzgerald is an eight-time Pro Bowl selection who has often made the ridiculous look routine throughout his career.

But in a still-youthful season when quarterback Carson Palmer has missed two of the Cardinals first three games because of a shoulder injury -- backup Drew Stanton is 2-0 as a starter this season -- Fitzgerald doesn't lead the team in catches, yards receiving or touchdowns. In fact three of the four Cardinals touchdown receptions this year are by rookie wide receiver John Brown.

So, for the Broncos it means giving Fitzgerald the attention he warrants and still finding a way to handle the rest. Beyond Fitzgerald, the Broncos will have keep Michael Floyd from the big play -- he leads the league in yards per catch at 22.9 -- and match Brown's speed.

Floyd, at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, is one of the biggest receivers in the league. The Broncos have added far more size to their coverage looks with Aqib Talib and rookie Bradley Roby for just this kind of scenario.

Talib is really the match-up cornerback for the Broncos now, so he would figure to see plenty of Fitzgerald, but the Broncos have also shown their willingness to use Roby in a variety of 1-on-1 situations on upper-tier receivers. Roby has played both outside and in the slot already this season and the Broncos left him to fend for himself against Reggie Wayne in the season opener.

"I didn't really play the slot in college," Roby said. "Things happen fast, you have to be ready, get yourself to the spot and be ready to battle."

In a nod to their increased versatility, the Broncos moved Chris Harris Jr. back into the slot against the Seattle Seahawks in the Broncos' Sept. 21 game, largely to cover Percy Harvin. Brown is a similar type of player, though a smaller-framed player than Harvin, but the 175-pounder was one of the fastest players at this past February's scouting combine (a 4.34 clocking in the 40-yard dash).

At Pittsburg State, Brown lined up at running back as well as wide receiver while also returning punts and kickoffs. He took his first touch in his first game at the school for a punt return touchdown.

Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians, who has called plays in offenses that have played both wide open and a slug-it-out style in his career, has quickly found a niche in the Cardinals' offense for the rookie. And teams who have deployed to deal with Floyd and Fitzgerald have, too often, left Brown either running away from man coverage or zipping unattended through zone coverage.

The Broncos, who have played out of their nickel package (five defensive backs) just under 60 percent of the time thus far, figure to keep to that schedule in Sunday's game. The Broncos have even used it in some run-first, down-and-distance situations because they like the speed it gives them in the formation.

"I went back in the slot (against the Seahawks) and I don't think many people thought I would be back in the slot all time against somebody," said Harris Jr. "But we can line up a lot of ways and we have to because we're going to play teams with good receivers looking to move them around. But I think we can do more things this year against that."