DENVER — His Pro Bowl receivers haven't been on the field with him all offseason. He hasn't found the end zone all month. And he's coming off his first three-sack outing since mid-2013.
Yet, Peyton Manning is thoroughly impressed.
With his defense.
The Broncos' starters have allowed just six points in 11 drives this preseason. Wade Phillips' unit has 15 sacks altogether, most of those coming by backups after cameo appearances from Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, who had a sack for a safety in Denver's 19-12 victory over San Francisco.
The starters didn't allow a completion by Colin Kaepernick until the final minute of the first half and only allowed two catches for 13 yards Saturday night.
"They're certainly playing well so far this preseason, and they're looking to improve, as well," Manning said. "... I think our offense can feed off of them."
The Broncos (3-0) are dusting off the old blueprints from John Elway's final years as a quarterback, when a good ground game and dominant defense took the pressure off the passer's shoulders and resulted in back-to-back titles.
Elway said last week this offense is a work in progress and probably will be for a while. So, they'll be leaning heavily on running backs C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman and their star-studded defense until they get the kinks worked out.
Which is why Manning is so pleased with what he's seeing from the sideline on game day and from the line of scrimmage during the week.
"It's been good for us going against them throughout training camp," Manning said. "Going against the linebackers, our guys up front trying to block their front and trying to go up against their secondary, it's been a good test. I think that will make us better as well throughout the season."
The Broncos are bracing for more low-scoring games after piling up the points in Manning's first three seasons in Denver.
"Actually, when you sort of think about it, defenses win championships. That's what we're trying to do," Ware said. "... The offense is going to do what they need to do and they're going to put more points on the board during the season, but we have to do what we do. We have to keep the other offenses scoring low points."
The Broncos get a boost on offense this week with wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders returning from a hamstring injury and two-time Pro Bowl guard Evan Mathis, signed last week, stepping in to settle down the O-line.
Both are expected to practice Monday, when coach Gary Kubiak said he'll make his first round of cuts. But they won't play in the exhibition finale against Arizona when backups and bubblers get their final auditions.
Among those is Montee Ball, the starter a year ago who has slipped behind Anderson, Hillman and Juwan Thompson on the depth chart. Hillman leads the Broncos' backs with a 7.3-yard average, followed by Anderson (4.6), Thompson (3.4) and Ball (2.6).
Unlike Thompson, Ball isn't a factor on special teams, and that's working against him.
"There's nothing Montee's done (wrong)," Kubiak said. "He continues to work hard. Special teams are a big factor with him and Juwan as far as playing on a regular basis. We'll see. I'm fine with Montee."
Sanders might not be the savior but he's certainly part of the solution to Denver's multiple concerns on offense and special teams, where Omar Bolden fumbled the opening kickoff and Isaiah Burse muffed a punt.
Kubiak gave a strong hint at his solution, saying, "Emmanuel's very capable and could be a great, great punt returner," he said. "We have to get him back. Obviously, protecting the ball is of the utmost importance."
Thomas should get fewer double-teams and the running lanes should widen when Sanders gets back in the lineup, too.
"It will be great when he's back," Anderson said.
Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton