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Decker a different receiver with Manning around

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Decker a different receiver with Manning around

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) Eric Decker was the first of Peyton Manning's workout buddies, sneaking onto high school football fields in the spring to work on his rhythm and rapport with his new quarterback.

The sessions helped Manning regain his arm strength and rediscover his old form after a series of neck operations that sidelined him all of last season and led to his departure from Indianapolis.

They were just as helpful for Decker, recovering from a sprained left knee he hurt in the playoffs.

All those hours together are paying off.

Decker leads the Denver Broncos (11-3) with nine touchdown grabs and he's 77 yards shy of joining fellow third-year receiver Demaryius Thomas with his first 1,000-yard season. No Denver duo has accomplished that feat since 2004.

Decker and Thomas both have hit their stride this season after dealing with injuries much of their first two years with the Broncos. And patiently playing in Tim Tebow's option-read offense a year ago.

Thomas was recovering from left-thumb surgery when Manning signed in March, so it was up to Decker to get the four-time MVP acclimated to the Mile High City.

With 1,210 yards on 78 receptions - six more than Decker - Thomas has emerged as the Broncos' biggest downfield threat. But Decker's no slouch.

Decker was so productive earlier in the year that defensive coordinators started to key on him more. The result: a monthlong lull in which he totaled just 10 catches and one TD before putting up consecutive eight-catch performances the last two weeks.

``The defense does dictate a little bit of what you do in a lot of different ways,'' coach John Fox said. ``It just works out that way. I think we've got a quarterback where he's going to take what the defense gives him. He can sort those things out pretty well, as good as probably anybody.''

Manning doesn't force throws to a go-to receiver. This season, he's completed passes to 15 players, including a touchdown to defensive tackle Mitch Unrein. And with tight ends Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme, he has four big targets, all 6-foot-3 or taller and packing an average of 232 pounds.

Complaining isn't in Decker's DNA. The affable receiver isn't a prima donna who goes public with his desire for more touches. He never griped last year when he caught just 14 passes after the Broncos dusted off the old read-option to fit Tebow's unusual skill set, and he's not about to complain by lobbying for more action while playing with an all-time great QB.

``You never know when your number is going to be called and we all continue to work hard and try to get better, and he's done that and it showed,'' teammate Brandon Stokley said. ``Next week, it might be Demaryius getting a lot of balls thrown his way. But the last few weeks, Decker stepped his game up and had the opportunities and made the most of it.''

Decker has tied his career high with eight catches in each of the last two games, totaling 221 yards. His 51-yard touchdown turned Denver's showdown at Baltimore last weekend into a rout and caused Ravens safety Ed Reed to rip off his helmet in disgust as he stormed to the sideline.

``My mindset doesn't change at all,'' Decker said. ``I come to practice and work hard every day and expect to be the best and I expect the best out of myself. In certain games, obviously defenses allow different guys to be open with coverages, different schemes.''

Decker's team-high nine TDs, one more than Thomas, are a career best and give him 18 for his career, the most by a Bronco in his first three seasons.

``I like a lot of things. I like touchdowns. I like wins. I like catches. It's all fun,'' Decker said. ``When you're winning ballgames, it doesn't matter how many yards you got, how many catches you got, as long as you're doing your piece to win the ballgame, that's what it comes down to.''

Decker and Thomas have been the biggest beneficiaries of the pinpoint passing Manning brought to the Broncos. His 67.9 completion percentage is second highest in his career. Tebow, on the other hand, completed just 46 percent of his passes a year ago and 40 percent in the playoffs.

Decker also is benefiting from his first full training camp last summer. There was the lockout in 2011 and he was on the mend in 2010 after missing the last half of his senior season at Minnesota with a foot injury.

There have been some hiccups along the way. Decker has dropped seven passes so far; Thomas has eight. So, it's not quite the chemistry Manning built up with Reggie Wayne or Marvin Harrison in Indianapolis - or the comfort zone he maintains with Stokley, a former teammate of his with the Colts - but it's getting there.

As Manning says, it's a crash course and everybody's been cramming.

Decker and Thomas are taking turns as teacher's pet.

``I like young players that really want to get better, and those guys have done that,'' Manning said. ``Our timing has improved throughout the season. It's not what it would be had we played together for five years.''

Decker, though, sees it getting better, from way back in March to this week as they iron out wrinkles in preparing for the Cleveland Browns (5-9) - and then the playoffs.

``I think in any relationship, whether it's a significant other or a teammate,'' Decker said, ``the more time you get, the better it always develops.''

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Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale welcomes second chance at role

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Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale welcomes second chance at role

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Don Martindale wondered if he would ever get a second chance to be an NFL defensive coordinator after his one-and-done disaster with the Denver Broncos in 2010.

The Broncos went 4-12 that season and gave up more points (29.4 per game) and yards (390.8) than any team in the league. Those miserable numbers, not surprisingly, cost Martindale his job.

He latched on with the Baltimore Ravens in 2012 as linebackers coach. After working diligently with several stars, including Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Zachary Orr and C.J. Mosley, the 54-year-old Martindale last week was promoted to defensive coordinator.

RELATED: WHO WERE THE RAVENS' MVP'S IN 2017?

To say he's pleased to be in charge of an NFL defense again would be a profound understatement.

"Without a doubt," Martindale said Thursday. "My family knows it. Everybody knows it. My players know it. I can't wait."

His performance in Denver eight years ago is hardly worth putting on a resume, but Martindale believes it was a worthwhile experience.

"Even though the stats were what they were, I was really proud with how we played," he said. "I'm glad I went through that process because I think that makes me a better coach today. It's like I tell my guys: You either win or you learn."

Martindale's new job with the Ravens carries the responsibility of overseeing a unit that has long been among the best in the NFL, thriving under notable leaders such as Marvin Lewis, Rex Ryan, Chuck Pagano and Dean Pees, who retired on Jan. 1.

"I've been preparing for this job all my life," Martindale said. "It's very humbling, but I understand the pressure and I look forward to the challenge."

Martindale takes over a defense that this season ranked 12th in net yards allowed, first in takeaways (34) and sixth in fewest points allowed (18.9). He has no plans to revamp the unit or change the philosophy, especially since head coach John Harbaugh stressed the need to retain continuity before launching his search for Pees' replacement.

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Martindale will, however, put his own stamp on the unit.

"I think personality-wise, and just calls, there's going to be some things that are the same. And then there are going to be sometimes where I'm going to pressure more," Martindale said. "I just think I have a more aggressive personality in calling the game. Sometimes, too aggressive. That's some of the things I've learned from the past."

His most daunting task will be finding a way to make the defense to come up big late in the game. In 2016, a fourth-quarter collapse in Pittsburgh cost Baltimore a playoff berth. This season, a fourth-down touchdown pass in the final minute by Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton bounced the Ravens from the postseason chase.

"Our mantra has always been to finish," Martindale said. "We're close. Obviously, the last two years, it's been the last play that's knocked us out of it. We are going to work diligently -- all of us -- with our package and situational football.

"That's going to be the next step, I think, that will skyrocket us. That's the big thing that I see. We were really good. Let's make it great."

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Offensive, defensive and rookie of the year awards for Ravens' 2017 season

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USA Today Sports

Offensive, defensive and rookie of the year awards for Ravens' 2017 season

The Ravens' season had it's ups and down, but out of it came some bright spots.

The defense continued to prove dominate and the offense found its groove during the second half of the season, but who stood out the most?

Offensive MVP: RB Alex Collins

Collins was a late preseason pickup after being cut by the Seattle Seahawks and Ravens fans are grateful they let him go. After new acquisition Danny Woodhead injured his hamstring on the first drive in Week 1 and Terrance West injured his calf Week 5 in Oakland, Allen emerged as a saving grace. He finished the season with 973 yards, six touchdowns and 212 attempts averaging 4.6 yards-per-carry. His longest rushing attempt was 50-yards against the Steelers in Week 4, and then in Week 14, rushed 120-yards on their defense. 

RELATED: RAVENS' 2018 NFL MOCK DRAFT ROUNDUP

Defensive MVP: OLB Terrell Suggs

This one was a toss up between Suggs and inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, but considering the level at which Sizzle is playing at in his 15th season, his 2017 performance is MVP worthy.

The 35-year old finished the season with 49 combined tackles, 12 assist, 11 sacks and four forced fumbles. Suggs ranks 11th in the league in sacks and was voted to his seventh Pro Bowl, something that should be expected from the leader of a defense that finished the regular season ranked sixth in points allowed. During the Ravens' Week 12 matchup, Suggs proved he doesn't age when he strip sacked Texans QB Tom Savage with 4:44 remaining in the fourth, shifting the momentum back to the Ravens who were clinging on to a 23-16 win. He's suffered two Achilles tears and a torn bicep over the last 5.5 seasons but has remained Hall of Fame worthy. As of right now, T-Sizzle has no plans of retiring. 

RELATED: FIVE OFFSEASON QUESTIONS RAVENS MUST ANSWER

Rookie of the Year: CB Marlon Humphrey

The Ravens' 2017 first-round pick stepped up to the plate when starting CB Jimmy Smith's season was over after suffering a torn Achilles in Week 13. The rookie out of Alabama finished the season with 34 combined tackles, four assists and two interceptions. Pro Football Focus graded Humphrey the fifth-best cover corner in the league. QBs only had a 53.5 rating when they threw in his direction. PFF also gave Humphrey a 82.7 rookie rating. 

Humphrey will continue to prove his worth during the 2018 season if Jimmy Smith is still recovering come Week 1.

RELATED: IMPORTANT 2018 OFFSEASON DATES

Special Teams MVP: P Sam Koch

Koch is in his 12th season with the Ravens and he's continuing to prove how efficient that leg of his is. He had a season long of 67-yards and placed 40 of 84 punts inside the 20-yard line. Koch's accuracy earned him AFC special teams player of the week not once, but twice this season. The first came in Week 12 against the Houston Texans when he not only placed five punts inside the 20-yard line, but also faked a punt and threw a 22-yard pass to Chris Moore for a first down. The second honor came in Week 15 against the Cleveland Browns after placing four punts inside the 20-yard line, three of them inside the five. While neither Koch or kicker Justin Tucker were named to the Pro Bowl, Ravens fans never break a sweat when the game is in their hands, or should we say, legs.