John Elway decided John Fox just wasn't going to get it done after losing a division round playoff game at home for the second time in three years. Despite a sure-fire Hall of Fame quarterback. But could Elway help 39-year-old Peyton Manning outrace Father Time under Elway's former backup and roommate for nine seasons, including the back-to-back Super Bowls Elway finally won in the late 90's in the twilight of his own Canton-bound career? The surrounding weapons seemed enough, and the defense was more than good enough for ex-Ravens play-caller Gary Kubiak, who initially turned down an interview request for the Bears job Fox eventually got. While Fox won a division and made the playoffs with Tim Tebow at quarterback prior to Manning's arrival four years ago, Elway may need to face a similar task with Brock Osweiler behind center. Kubiak announced Monday Osweiler will get his first NFL start Sunday in what was planned as Manning's local farewell, even though he won his lone Super Bowl at the Bears' expense. A partially-torn plantar fascia and rib problems would seem to leave an open timetable for his return. Lucky for the 7-2 Broncos, they still own a three-game division lead, even after losing their second straight to the Chiefs, and leading to the revelations over Peyton's pain. Ex-Northwestern signal-caller Trevor Siemian will back up Osweiler, with Manning's status not being reviewed until next Monday.
No matter what Fox says over what he's already been asked about the Denver Divorce, it's hard to believe he, Adam Gase, and six other assistants who came over with him from the Broncs wouldn't especially love to win a third straight, and reach .500, at the expense of the man who doled out the pink slips, due to a "better" alternative.
Manning heads to the sidelines leading the league in interceptions, ninth in touchdown passes, 16th in passing yards, 24th in completion percentage and 31st in passer rating. Maybe it'd be better if the Bears faced him. But enter impending free agent Osweiler, with the future of Denver's quarterback position in question. The 6-foot-7 second-round draft pick out of Arizona State had just 30 pass attempts subbing for Manning his first three seasons. Upon entering midway through Sunday's third quarter, he started 5-of-11 for 56 yards and an interception his first two possessions. He was 9-of-13 for 90 yards and a touchdown thereafter. He's generally thought of as a better fit for Kubiak's blueprint for play-action behind center and run-heavy zone blocking, and rollouts. But safe to say, after working with him his first three years, Fox and Gase have a pretty good idea about him.
Dave Magazu was no stranger to banged-up offensive lines with Fox in Denver, and while that's continued here, it also has in his former place. Five-time Pro Bowl tackle Ryan Clady blew out his knee in OTA's. Rookie second-rounder Ty Sambrailo slid in, but recently landed on Injured Reserve himself. Notre Damer Ryan Harris then shifted from right to left tackle, replaced by Michael Schofield of Orland Park (Sandburg H.S. and 2014 third-round draftee out of Michigan). The interior of the line has been more stable after signing ex-Eagle Evan Mathis, last year's sixth-rounder - Matt Paradis - at center, and versatile Louis Vasquez at right guard. They've allowed just 18 sacks.
That line has only helped generate a 29th-ranked rushing offense, with C.J. Anderson (the 5'8 224-pounder referred to as "chubby" by Gase in the spring while praising Matt Forte) still listed as the starter, but with 324 yards (and a 3.6 average) has about 100 fewer than the speedier Ronnie Hillman.
Demaryius Thomas set another Alshon Jeffery payday bar before training camp (five years, $70 million, $43.5 million guaranteed), and despite Manning's troubles is still sixth in the league in receiving yards (816, on 68 catches) and seventh in yards per game, despite just one touchdown. Emmanuel Sanders (46-639, 4 TD's) missed the Chiefs game with an ankle injury. Last year's second round pick out of Indiana, Cody Latimer, has just five career receptions thus far.
Ex-Naperville Central quarterback Owen Daniels was brought in to offset the loss of Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas in free agency, and has three touchdowns on 24 catches. Third-round pick Jeff Heuerman from Ohio State tore an ACL in rookie minicamp. Virgil Green remained Mile High after Fox and Gase tried to get him to sign here to back up Martellus Bennett. Trade deadline pickup Vernon Davis, envisioning happiness leaving the 49ers, is reportedly confused by his lack of playing time and involvement thus far (two catches, 19 yards).
A league-leading 32 sacks. A league-leading 16 forced fumbles. And nine interceptions in as many games. Stopping the Broncos might be easier for the Bears than avoiding being stopped themselves by the league's top overall defense (277 yards per game) and third-ranked scoring D (18.7 ppg).
Wade Phillips is an absolutely masterful coordinator of the 3-4 defense, every bit as much as Vic Fangio, and some would argue even moreso. But he returned to the franchise for which he was not just previously in his current role, but as head coach (1993-94). And he inherited a lot more horses than Fangio did here. As in five Pro Bowlers.
The scheme doesn't always add up to pressure from the three down linemen, but Malik Jackson, Sylvester Williams and ex-Cowboy Antonio Smith have combined for nine sacks, softening the free agent departure of another Pro Bowler - Terrence Knighton, whom the Bears will see versus the Redskins.
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But the heartbeat of the 3-4 is in the linebackers, the exact area where the Bears need playmakers moving forward. DeMarcus Ware had 6.5 sacks from the weak side before missing the Kansas City game with back issues. Free agent-to-be Von Miller had 49 sacks his first four seasons under Fox, and has five this year (same as Pernell McPhee), usually from the strong side. The inside `backers are this team's top two tacklers, Exhibits 'A' and 'B' in how Fox's staffs coach-up relative castoffs. Brandon Marshall was let go by Jacksonville and totaled four tackles in all of six games his first two seasons. In 2014, he was arguably the talented defense's MVP as a tackling machine. Danny Trevathan was a sixth-round draftee in 2012. He was their top tackler in the 2013 Super Bowl season before a knee injury sidelined him after three games a year ago. Speaking of which, the Broncos rolled the dice with Shane Ray after his misdemeanor marijuana arrest four days before the draft dropped him all the way to Denver at 23. He's expected to return Sunday after missing the last two games, and has two sacks among his five tackles in spot duty.
Similar to low-round draftees Marshall and Trevathan, Chris Harris went undrafted in 2011. He became their Defensive Player of the Year in that wild first season under Fox and earned Pro Bowl honors last season. The opposite corner belongs to 6-foot-1 Aqib Talib, who'll return from his one-game suspension for poking a Colts player in the eye, looking to build on his three interceptions after going to consecutive Pro Bowls for different teams (Patriots in 2013). Big-time hitter and in-the-box safety T.J. Ward avoided suspension for his own incident Sunday. Rahim Moore was replaced by ex-Raven Darian Stewart at free safety, while top 2014 pick Bradley Roby rotates in regularly.
Brandon McManus is 19-for-20 on field goal attempts (that only miss from beyond 50). He and his teammates are ranked fourth in kickoff coverage. Sanders has held the bulk of the punt return duties, but Omar Bolden took an 83-yarder to the house in just two opportunities, while averaging more than 24 yards on his kickoff returns.