Broncos' first job: Protecting Peyton

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It may be the toughest of calls for Peyton Manning, a sort of heads-or-tails, no-win choice between talking about what happens when he gets hit on a football field or actually getting hit on a football field.

The Denver Broncos quarterback may be, after all, the first player in recorded history to cite federal HIPAA guidelines when discussing how he was listed on the team’s injury report this year. But make no mistake, how much Manning has or hasn’t been hit is the hottest of topics across the Front Range.

In the eyes of most, both inside and outside the NFL, there is no more important item on the Broncos’ to-do list than keeping Manning happy, healthy and in the pocket. As the punishment has increased in recent games on the 37-year-old -- so much so that he now has missed two practice days in recent weeks with ankle troubles -- Manning was asked Wednesday if there was anything more he could do to limit the hits he’s taken in the past four games.

"I’m all for some suggestions if you’ve got any," Manning said. "I think I’ll be OK. It’s football. It’s part of football."

"I think we all know we want him back there and have to take care of him," Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas said.

Manning is listed on the Broncos' injury report with a right ankle injury. After cruising through the Broncos’ first five games with relatively few hits, Manning now has lost fumbles on sacks in each of the past three games. And, oddly enough, if you looked at the standings, it was the now one-win Jacksonville Jaguars who decided to not sit back and let Manning pick them apart.

The Jaguars turned up the heat, and Manning suffered two sprained ankles in the game, including a high ankle sprain to his right leg. Manning then took a few more shots in the loss to the Colts the following week, including a low hit by Robert Mathis, on the ankles, when Mathis ran down Manning and sacked him from behind. Despite being banged up, Manning was not on the NFL injury report.

Then Manning sat out a practice, his first with the Broncos, in the days before they beat Washington. And he took a few more hits against the Redskins. He took two low hits Sunday against the Chargers, reaggravating the high ankle sprain. And for a right-hander, it’s Manning’s plant leg, which influences how hard he can push off it to deliver the ball, especially for a quarterback who relies on his lower-body strength to create power after four neck surgeries.

"When there is an injury there, it’s a problem with putting the full weight through the ankle," said Stephania Bell, a senior writer for ESPN who is a physical therapist, as well as certified orthopedic clinical specialist. "... On the one hand, it’s not like he has to load it up as weight bearing, but he is pushing off the leg. The issue with a high-ankle sprain is when the leg is being twisted, that’s usually how the injury happens. So, if there is rotation to that ankle as he is making the throw, that can be problematic."

An analysis by ESPN Stats & Information shows Manning has taken additional hits over the past three games. Manning was pressured or hit on 12 percent of his dropbacks in the Broncos’ first six games this season. That number has increased to 23 percent in the past three games.

Manning has been pressured or hit on 16 percent of his total dropbacks this season compared to 14 percent last season with the Broncos and 11 percent of his dropbacks in 2010, his last season as the Colts' starter.

"I think we were on a pretty close to record pace early [in the season]," said Broncos interim head coach Jack Del Rio of Denver's production. "Maybe [we’re] not quite sustaining that, still at the top of the league in terms of what we’re doing. So we feel good about what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, who we’re doing it with. We just want to do a little bit better this week."

Manning has also put up ridiculous numbers. His 33 touchdown passes are still more than any other team has scored overall and he’s thrown for more yards after nine games (3,249) than any quarterback in NFL history. The only other starting quarterback in the league who has also played in every game this season and been sacked less than Manning (13 times) is Detroit’s Matthew Stafford (10).

"[Kansas City] is an outstanding pass-rushing team and they do it in a lot of different ways, the Chiefs, if you watch, the style of blitzes ... just the guys who can beat you up in one-on-one opportunities," said ESPN analyst Jon Gruden on the "Mike & Mike" radio show on Wednesday. "Peyton Manning’s not the most mobile guy to start with, and if he can’t step through throws and throw in rhythm comfortably, that can be a problem, as the weather starts to be a factor as well."

So it leaves the Broncos with a choice moving forward as they try to keep perhaps the most important piece of their postseason puzzle in place. Their base offensive set is three wide receivers, and when they put tight end Julius Thomas into the pattern as well, Manning has an embarrassment of riches to throw to as the Broncos already have three players with nine touchdown catches each. With that production, the Broncos have played that set on 76 percent of their offensive snaps this season.

It leaves the Broncos often blocking whatever the defense has to offer with only their five linemen. However, presented with the idea that the Broncos should play with two tight ends, Del Rio, a longtime defensive coordinator, believes a three-wide look actually gives an offense fewer pass-rushers to deal with because defenders are spread out over the formation to cover potential pass targets.

"If you go bigger, you are pushing more people into the middle of the field," Del Rio said. "I think quarterbacks get hit more often in the bigger packages than they do when things are spread out. I believe that and have always believed that even when we’re the ones chasing the quarterbacks."

No matter what set the Broncos use, high ankle sprains are notoriously slow to heal, and the potential for Manning to aggravate the injury or set back his recovery is there at every snap.

"The biggest thing is the exposure to getting collapsed into the pile with people around his legs," Bell said. "Because when your foot is planted and your leg is twisted, absolutely those injuries are going to happen with his leg twisted relative to his ankle."

"We’re playing football; people are going to get hit," Del Rio said. "We do as good a job as anybody out there in terms of protecting our guy. It’s important to us. We’ll continue to do that. But at the end of the day, it’s football. We’re going to play football."