ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Peyton Manning is taking a beating.
The Broncos’ offensive line is battered and his right ankle is throbbing.
And now here come the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs, leading the league in sacks.
Fans in Denver would love to put a Brink’s truck around their hobbled quarterback for Sunday night’s showdown pitting the divisional rivals who have combined to go 17-1.
They might be surprised, however, to hear Jack Del Rio doesn’t share their affinity for the concept known as “max protect.”
That’s where a tight end and a running back are kept in the backfield to help the five offensive linemen keep defenders from reaching the quarterback. The strategy sacrifices options in the passing game to deny the defense pressure on the passer.
In Denver’s case, it could keep two of their most productive players in tight end Julius Thomas and tailback Knowshon Moreno from doing what they do best.
Adding another tight end to the mix would sideline Wes Welker. Like both Thomas and Moreno, Welker has nine touchdowns so far.
Moreover, heavy doses of “max protect” could actually lead to more hits on Manning.
“Ironically, that’s the natural way to start (thinking) is to pack more in,” said Del Rio, Denver’s interim head coach.
“But quarterbacks are actually hit more often when you pack them in. And they’re hit far more often in maximum protection. In fact, one of the times he was hit Sunday was on a max protection and the tight end got beat.”
When a team packs players in to provide the QB more security, linebackers occupy the rushing lanes and are closer to the quarterback.
Keeping extra protectors in the backfield also opens the possibility of more defenders crashing the quarterback’s pocket of protection, disrupting his throws.
So, the high-scoring Broncos will stick with their spread offense, which in turn spreads the defense.
“More people doesn’t ensure that he’s not going to get hit. I mean, he’s going to get hit some in the flow of the game. That’s just how it is,” Del Rio said. “And I think we do a very good job. I think our guy gets hit less than most, and that’s going to remain a focal point for us.”
Manning has taken some nasty hits over the past month, beginning with one from Jacksonville’s Jason Babin, who wasn’t whistled for a low hit on Oct. 13.
The following week, former teammate Robert Mathis put two big hits on him, and Manning missed some practice time with a sore right ankle that next week.
Manning might be limited Wednesday or even miss practice altogether after aggravating his high ankle sprain Sunday when defensive end Corey Liuget dived at his ankles in the closing minutes of Denver’s 28-20 win at San Diego.
Manning limped through the closing minutes after that hit.
The Broncos asked the league to look at that hit, contending it was late and low and should have drawn a flag. An NFL spokesman, however, told The Associated Press on Tuesday the league determined the hit was clean.
In a conference call with Denver media on Tuesday, coach John Fox declined to confirm that he brought up the issue with the league himself while he recovers from heart surgery in North Carolina.
“Well, we’re not really allowed to discuss anything to do with officiating. I can say that I did communicate with somebody at the league office,” Fox said.
Fox said he watched the game from his home, but had to turn away at some points lest his blood pressure get too high.
Surely, Liuget’s hit was one of those moments.
“Yeah, I don’t know that I want to get into specifics,” Fox said. “I’ll just leave you with the thought that there was a few and that could have been one of them.”
He wasn’t alone in his concern.
“Of course, I hold my breath,” teammate Shaun Phillips said of seeing Manning so slow to get up. “He’s our breadwinner.”
So far, Manning has fumbled seven times and lost five of them, in large part due to the loss of three-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady to left foot surgery in September.
Clady allowed just one sack in more than 1,100 snaps last season, which he parlayed into a $57.2 million contract on the eve of training camp.
His replacement, journeyman Chris Clark, whose only career starts before this season came at jumbo tight end during Denver’s short-lived Tim Tebow era, stepped in as Manning’s new blind-side protector in Week 3.
Since then, Manning has been sacked a dozen times and hit 27, and in three straight games, Clark has allowed Manning to be sacked and stripped from the blind side.
“I hate these fumbles, but they are all when I’m throwing,” Manning said. “I’m conscious of protecting it when I’m in the pocket but all of them have been while I’m throwing. I haven’t quite figured out how to not fumble when they hit you while you’re throwing, that’s a tough one.”
Figuring out how to keep the Chiefs, who have collected 36 sacks, from getting to the quarterback has proved a difficult task for Kansas City’s opponents.
One way or another, the Broncos will have to tighten things up Sunday night.
“We’re definitely on high alert wanting to protect our quarterback,” Del Rio said. “We didn’t do as well as we can (at San Diego). We’ve got an even greater challenge coming up this week with a team that’s sacked quarterbacks more than anybody in this league. So, I’m sure that will get plenty of attention.”