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Horse Tracks: Broncos' D-line challenging itself to beat out the Bills on best defense

There are no gimmes in the NFL, and this week's game against the Buffalo Bills will likely be another reminder of that as the Broncos' injury-riddled roster takes on yet another top-ranked NFL defense.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Good morning, Broncos Country!

As the Broncos head into Week 14 and the "fourth quarter" of their season this Sunday, the injury list is getting longer and the questions about playoff standings are becoming unavoidable.

A win at home this weekend plus a win by AFC West rival San Diego Chargers over the New England Patriots would put the Broncos in first place for the race to home field advantage. (*note to Chargers: this is the only time we will root for you, so don't screw it up!)

But since a win over the Buffalo Bills is no slam dunk and a Chargers victory over the Patriots is certainly no guarantee, the players insist they are concentrating on just one thing this week - beating the Bills.

And while a lot of the talk this week has focused on Kyle Orton's return to Mile High, a place he tried to quarterback for two and a half seasons, Terrance Knighton knows where the real story of the game is going to rest - with the defense.

The Bills will come into Mile High with a top 10 rated defense that is leading the NFL in sacks - a staggering 48 on the season.

Although two Broncos - Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware - are both among the top 10 sack leaders in the NFL with 12 and 10 respectively, as a team the Broncos have 34, 14 less than their opponent.

"We feel like we're being challenged this week," Knighton said of the defensive line. "We want to outplay their D-Line. If they get a sack, we want to get two. If they get a [tackle for a loss], we want to get three. So it's going to come down to the trenches, whichever O-Line and D-Line plays better."

Both will be tall tasks. Though the Broncos defense won't be going up against a top 10 offense in the league, Orton has been able to effectively manage his receivers and running backs to move the ball down the field.

We want to outplay their D-Line. If they get a sack, we want to get two. If they get a TFL, then we want to get three.   -Terrance Knighton, defensive lineman.

And as a nine-year veteran, Orton is not without skills.

"He's thrown 13 touchdowns and four or five picks on the year, so he's doing a good job with that ratio," said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. "He's veteran guy that knows where he's going with the ball. We've got to make sure we're on point."

Cornerback Aqib Talib, who should be back in the starting lineup, noted that Orton is a smart quarterback.

"He's running the show," Talib said, adding that Orton and the Bills' defense are the reason the Bills are in the running right now. "He's controlling the game, definitely, and playing good football."

Orton also is not without his weapons, though two have been hampered by injuries this season. Receivers Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods were limited in practice this week but both are expected to play.

"Explosion. A lot of speed, crisp route runners," Del Rio said of Woods and his fellow receivers. "They have a real smart quarterback feeding them the ball."

Getting to the QB then, should be priority No. 1.

"Obviously [Orton] will be juiced up coming back here to play, and we've just got to get after him. We've got to get him off the spot," Knighton said. "If he's comfortable, he can dump the ball and control the clock and keep our offense off the field. Once he starts moving and feels uncomfortable, we feel like that works in our favor."

There's a mentality you have to play with. You're playing together, you need to do it urgently, you need to do it together, and you need to play fast.   -Jack Del Rio, defensive coordinator

Given the Bills' offensive line, there is good potential for the Broncos to make Orton uncomfortable a lot. Will we see another spinning takedown from DeMarcus Ware or a Knighton-Ware alleyoop this week?

Ware isn't promising anything, but at least there won't be lights to blind him in the process this weekend.

"Actually, I lost the ball in the lights, and I'm like, ‘Is it close enough for me to catch it?'" Ware said of his interception against the Chiefs last Sunday night that came off a tip from Knighton.

Adding that he panicked when it landed in his hands, Ware finally figured out which way to run. "That was a big play, a big bat down with Terrance Knighton, and I finally figured out which way I was going, which was the right way."

Alleyoop or not, Del Rio said what he wants to duplicate this week is the tempo with which the defense played the whole game.

"There is a mentality you have to play with. You're playing together, you need to do it urgently, you need to do it together, you need to know where everybody's going to be and play fast," he said. "You start doing that and you build some of that momentum and some of that feel, and I saw it for the most part throughout the game last week and that was good."

The Broncos' offense will likely have a tougher time on Sunday as the offensive line goes up against yet another top-rated D-line.

"The schedule-makers don't like us," said offensive coordinator Adam Gase, laughing. "Every week it seems like the front gets better. This group is really good. Three guys with double-digit sacks - you don't see that very often."

Manning, C.J. Anderson and the O-Line will have to fend off Mario Williams (12 sacks), Marcel Dareus (10) Jerry Hughes (9.5) and even Kyle Williams (5) if they're going to put points on the board.

The good thing is I like the size of our two guards and then what Will Montgomery brings as far as his ability to get to that second level.   -Adam Gase, offensive coordinator about stopping Williams.

"You have to make a decision on each play and somebody's going to have to hold up one-on-one," Gase said, pointing out that Anderson does a great job avoiding direct hits, which will serve him well on Sunday. "The good thing is I like the size of our two guards and then what Will Montgomery brings to the table as far as his ability to laterally get to that second level. I really like our match ups."

That's key because Manning is going to likely be without some key receivers this weekend. Both Julius Thomas and Demaryius Thomas could miss the game due to ankle injuries, and rookie Cody Latimer was treated for concussion-like symptoms on Thursday, so it could be a decimated receiving corps.

But there's still C.J.

"C.J., his ability to make some guys miss the past couple weeks I think has really been special and has made a big difference," Manning said of the running back who has rushed more than 160 yards in each of the past two games. "There is no question the guys up front have done a heck of a job. And he's made some really good cuts. That can be hard to coach ... that's a real credit to him and it's been fun to watch."

And luckily, Anderson is feeling strong.

"Their front four is really good and that's what makes them go," Anderson said earlier this week. "Our whole thing is just try to slow them down and eliminate them so we can do things that we need to do to be successful on Sunday. If we just focus on us and execute the way we want, the outcome will be what we want it to be."

Another key piece to that run game working is tight end Virgil Green, possibly the only healthy TE on the team right now. Although Green has primarily been used for his blocking skills, he may get his shot at the endzone finally if Manning has no other TEs to throw to.

But he's just as happy to keep blocking for his teammates.

"I take a lot of pride in [blocking]. In college we ran the ball quite a bit, so it's something that has been ingrained in my mind - to make those big blocks and spring guys to get them down the field," Green said.

And if his 240-pound frame is matched up against Williams' 290-pound body, Green insists he can handle it.

"I'm going into the game with a mindset that regardless of how big he is I'm going to move him off the ball," Green said. "Whether that happens on every play or not, I don't know, but that's my mindset and my goal for this game."

A lofty but solid goal...and one nobody is going to argue with!

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