Special teams is the glue of the Denver Broncos
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By ARNIE STAPLETON
AP Pro Football Writer
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Britton Colquitt's right leg seemed to get as much work as Tim Tebow's left arm last year. He punted 101 times, which he likens to packing two years' worth of experience into one season.
This year, it's down to 37 punts, on pace for 66.
Such is life with Peyton Manning under center in Denver.
Colquitt's still getting plenty of work -- as Matt Prater's holder. The Broncos kicker has already collected more PATs (31) than he did all of last season (30).
Yes, Manning's having a great year. Von Miller, too. It's the special teams, though, that's the binding to this story of the Broncos' resurgence.
The latest example of executive John Elway's Midas touch is Trindon Holliday. Claimed off waivers from Houston, the former track star from LSU needed barely a month to become the third player in team history to return a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown in the same season.
"It just feels good to know that the special teams and I have to be accounted for in the game plan," Holliday said.
So, now the Broncos (6-3) ostensibly have it all: a top-notch punter who flips field position, a clutch kicker, superior coverage and protection units and a roadrunner of a returner.
Like so many other things at Dove Valley, it all started to coalesce when Manning chose to make his new home in Denver back on March 20, which led to Tebow's trade to the New York Jets.
Colquitt knew his workload would decrease considerably, making each punt he does get that much more critical. His numbers so far are better than last year's, when he set single-season team records for gross and net punting average while leading the league in punts dropped inside the 20-yard line.
He ranks second in the NFL with a 43.6-yard net punting average, having allowed a league-low 3.5 yards per return.
"Well, that's an incredible punt team," Colquitt said, noting how gunners Matt Willis and rookie Omar Bolden have been outstanding in coverage along with safety David Bruton, whom special teams coach Jeff Rodgers touts as the NFL's best personal protector.
Unlike Colquitt, Prater prepared for a heavier workload this season. Although he only has 13 field goal attempts so far, he's gotten more work on kickoffs and extra points this season.
"I thought we'd obviously kick off a lot more, we'd score a lot more touchdowns," Prater said. "So, extra points are fine with me."
Prater had 67 kickoffs last year, 47 of them touchbacks. He's on pace this year for 94 kickoffs and 64 touchbacks.
He had game-winning field goals on the last play in three consecutive games during the height of Tebowmania last year but hasn't had any make-or-break attempts this year. Still, he's as clutch as ever, nailing all five of his fourth-quarter attempts. That makes him 33 of 34 in his career in the fourth quarter or overtime. He's also made all three from 50-plus so far, making him 16 for 19 for his career, an NFL-best 79 percent conversion rate.
Prater also leads the AFC with 36 touchbacks, a product of both his aptitude and the altitude.
All of this is happening with a new long snapper, Aaron Brewer, an undrafted rookie out of San Diego State.
"I think as a snapper he's got the best mind-set that you can possibly have," Prater said.
"Yeah, real chilled, nothing bothers him, real calm," Prater said. "He's done a great job."
"Yes, he has," concurred Colquitt, whose 47-yard gross punting average is just shy of the 47.4-yard mark he established a year ago and who is once again among the league leaders in dropping punts inside the 20.
"It helps with Peyton around," Colquitt said. "We've had more punts closer to the 50 than last year."
That's not a knock on Tebow, mind you -- Colquitt was as big a fan of No. 15 as anyone -- but the workload the fourth-year punter got in 2011 is paying big dividends this year.
"It was almost like I played two years in one last year, I was out there so much," Colquitt said. "The field position mattered that much more. Now, I'm more rested, but definitely the experience from last year helped a lot and just to be more focused on: I might not punt that much this game, so I've got to make every one count."
Colquitt doesn't mind being more of a sideline spectator this season, and Prater said he'd love trotting out for extra points every time.
The wild-card in all this is Holliday, whom the Broncos snatched off waivers from Houston three weeks after getting a firsthand look at the short speedster in a loss to the Texans in Week 3.
"We felt like he had game-breaking ability and game-changing ability and it took a couple of weeks for that to really show up but certainly it's shown up," Rodgers said.
It was more his teammates adjusting to him than the other way around, too.
"We hadn't had that many long returns up until that point and the plays are going longer, and the longer the return, the longer guys are going to have to hold their blocks," Rodgers said.
Hiccups, however, have occurred.
Holliday flipped the ball out of his hands too quickly on his 105-yard kickoff return TD at Cincinnati and the NFL acknowledged this week that Holliday's 76-yard punt return at Carolina last week should have been ruled a touchback instead of a touchdown because the ball came out before he crossed the goal line.
So, the Broncos have now instituted the "Holliday Rule," where he has to hand the ball to Rodgers on the sideline the next time he scores.
And they certainly plan on him getting into the end zone again.
DE Elvis Dumervil said his sprained left shoulder held up well in limited duty at practice and he expects to play Sunday against San Diego: "It felt good. I tested it aggressively and I didn't aggravate anything." ... SLB Von Miller ($21,000) and DT Kevin Vickerson ($15,000) are both appealing their fines for hits on Carolina QB Cam Newton. ... CB Tracy Porter practiced Friday but will miss his fifth straight game. ... RG Chris Kuper (ankle) is doubtful. ... Coach John Fox hinted he'll put LB D.J. Williams on the 53-man roster this weekend. Williams returned this week from a pair of suspensions that sidelined him for the first nine games and cost him about $4 million.
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Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press
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