By Arnie Stapleton, AP Pro Football Writer
He’s watched draft picks flounder and free agents falter, seen some of his best players sidelined by injuries and witnessed Peyton Manning’s successor struggle to stay safe behind a spongy offensive line.
Yet, John Elway’s Denver Broncos are 7-3 at their bye.
He can thank a great defense led by Super Bowl MVP Von Miller and some lucky breaks such as Carolina’s missed last-second field goal in the season opener and Justin Simmons’ block of an extra point last week that led to the first defensive 2-point game-winner in NFL history.
“I think we would take it if you said at Week 10 we’d be 7-3 with what’s happened,” Elway said. “We haven’t played our best football yet, which I think is the encouraging thing.”
Another reason Elway is grinning and not grimacing is that his team is about to be astonishingly healthy when they host Kansas City (7-2) in a Sunday night showdown that begins a brutal six-week homestretch.
DeMarcus Ware’s fractured forearm is history, and he’s about to double his snap count after averaging just under 29 snaps in the three weeks he’s been back in the lineup.
Aqib Talib’s bad lower back has quieted down and Derek Wolfe’s cracked right elbow is on the mend.
The only sidelined star that won’t be coming back anytime soon is running back C.J. Anderson , who had knee surgery but hopes to be available for the playoffs.
Anderson’s absence looms large because the Broncos sport the youngest backfield in the NFL.
Second-year quarterback Trevor Siemian threw his first NFL pass this season. Rookie tailback Devontae Booker has two TD runs, rookie fullback Andy Janovich has been hampered by a broken hand and third-year backup running back Kapri Bibbs scored his first career touchdown this month.
Additionally, the tight end group has been largely invisible in the passing game with veteran Virgil Green averaging 1.8 catches per game without a single touchdown grab and second-year pro Jeff Heuerman managing just two catches.
Similar to last season when he acquired Vernon Davis for the stretch run, Elway made a deadline-eve deal to toughen up his tight end group, this time getting A.J. Derby from the Patriots.
Derby has two catches and tons of promise as the Broncos try to clear out defenders in the middle of the field. That would open up more chances for star wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders plus clear some running room for the Broncos’ sputtering ground game.
Denver’s dazzling defense is just as star-studded as last year’s version that brought home the Lombardi Trophy. But the Broncos’ run defense has proven leaky without free agent departures Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan and Vance Walker, who blew out a knee in training camp.
Elway exudes confidence even with Denver’s offense sputtering as it did last season.
“We feel like we can get better on the offensive side. We have room for improvement there,” Elway said. “We’ve figured out ways to win. That’s what you have to do. We’re excited about the last six.”
Two of those are against Kansas City, one with Oakland and another versus rival New England in addition to trips to Tennessee and Jacksonville.
“I know that the schedule is a tough schedule from here on out,” Elway said, “but that’s what happens when you win the division.”
That’s something Denver has done five years in a row.
The AFC West is much more competitive this season, sporting three of the conference’s four seven-win teams.
That’s why Kubiak says it’s time for Siemian, 7-2 as Denver’s starter, to step things up a notch.
“I want Trevor to play big,” Kubiak said.
To do that, he’s going to have to stay upright.
“The reason he does make a lot of plays is because he will sit in there and get hit right in the mouth and make a play,” Kubiak said. “That is a great characteristic of a quarterback because you have to do that sometimes.”
But it can also send a quarterback to the sideline as it did Siemian for six quarters in October after he bruised his left shoulder.
It’s been a target for pass rushers ever since, and it’s not only his scuffling O-line that’s to blame. Kubiak said he’s dropping back too far in the shotgun at times.
“We’re not going to protect you if you’re doing that,” Kubiak said.
That was Kubiak defending his beleaguered O-line, something he’s willing to do because he’s as much assured in Siemian’s mental toughness handling criticism as he is in his physical toughness.
Siemian received another cortisone injection in his bruised left shoulder this week and watched rookie Paxton Lynch run the one full practice before they all bolted on a five-day furlough.
Siemian wasn’t planning anything special.
“A lot of rest. Won’t be doing much bench press this week,” said Siemian, well aware he’ll be doing the heavy lifting soon enough.