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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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Lamar Jackson ‘honored’ at the chance to break Michael Vick’s single-season rushing record on Sunday

Lamar Jackson ‘honored’ at the chance to break Michael Vick’s single-season rushing record on Sunday

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Lamar Jackson didn’t grow up watching Michael Vick play football in Atlanta. He was too young. 

That didn't stop Jackson, born when Vick had just finished his sophomore year of high school, from studying Vick's highlight tapes as a kid.

Now, on Sunday in Buffalo, Jackson has the chance to put his name in the record books ahead of his favorite player with the most impressive season a quarterback has ever had on the ground. 

With just 63 yards rushing, Jackson would rank first all-time for rushing yards by a quarterback in a season. The record, as of Thursday, is held by Vick with 1,039 yards rushing. Vick set the record in 2006 with the Falcons.

“It would be an honor,” Jackson said. “Like I said, Michael Vick is my favorite player. For me to do such a thing, it’s incredible. He had that record for a long time, and it will be pretty cool. But I’m focused on the win, regardless.”

Jackson has led the NFL’s most dynamic offense through the first 12 games with a mix of rushing and passing that’s kept defenses on their heels. He ranks ninth in the NFL with 977 yards, which is more than five teams have as a whole.

Currently, Jackson has rushed for 1,672 yards in 28 games in his NFL career, good for 44th all-time. 

Over a 16-game season, he’s on pace for 1,302 yards on the ground, which would shatter Vick’s old record and put Jackson in another stratosphere compared to some of the best mobile quarterbacks the league has ever seen. 

Should he finish with 1,302 yards this year, he’ll be at 1,997 yards through his first two NFL seasons. That would put him 32nd all-time and about 500 yards away from cracking the top 20. 

So as Jackson adds to his place in history in the long term, there’s a significant record to break in the short-term, too.

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Ravens defense faces another challenge in dual-threat QB Josh Allen

Ravens defense faces another challenge in dual-threat QB Josh Allen

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — When Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson take the field on Sunday, they’ll set an NFL record before either one takes a snap from under center. 

The matchup pits the two second-year quarterbacks against one another in the NFL’s best matchup for rushing quarterbacks in history. 

The biggest difference, however, is how those yards have been reached. Jackson’s speed and acceleration is something the league hasn’t seen before, and while Allen can move, it’s not just his moves that make him difficult to bring around. 

“He’s a big kid, man, he’s like tackling a tight end scrambling,” Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale said. “It’s going to be a great challenge. So we’ll see what happens on Sunday. He makes a lot of plays on his feet, that’s been their success the last five, six weeks.”

At 6-foot-5, Allen has been a problem for opposing defenses to bring down all season. He’s rushed for 430 yards (third-best for quarterbacks) and eight touchdowns (tied for sixth in the NFL).

“It's not like he's a pipsqueak or anything like that,” Josh Bynes said. “He's a big, solid quarterback, and he runs like a running back. That makes it a little bit more challenging, because he's a quarterback, as well. So, we just have to make sure we wrap up and we bring our pads with us and bring our feet and just make sure we get him to the ground.”

Allen’s size has made him a tall-task for defenses, which plays out in a deeper dive of the numbers. 

According to Pro Football Reference, Allen ranks 22nd in the NFL in yards before contact at 2.2. Jackson ranks first at 4.8 yards.

But Allen averages 2.4 yards per rush after contact, 13th in the NFL and first for quarterbacks.

“When you watch him, he can run and move around,” Chuck Clark said. “He’s more elusive than what people would say or think. He can definitely get out the pocket, extend the play and run the ball himself. They’ve got a solid offense, they’re effective at what they do.”

Allen rushed for 631 yards last season in 12 games — the same amount as he’s played so far this year. He’s gotten better as a passer from a year ago, having improved his completion percentage, yards-per-attempt and touchdown-to-interception ratio. 

But while his big-time arm is something the Ravens are still focused on, it’s Allen’s legs — and size — that pose an extra dimension to his game that can be dangerous for the Ravens.

“You just have to be fundamentally sound and make sure you wrap him up, drive your feet if possible,” Michael Pierce said. “With the penalties, you have to be very careful. But he's a physical dude, big, 6-4 guy, so yes, you have to be fundamentally sound and bring your pads with you.” 

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