Englewood (AP) — Eric Decker knew fewer passes were going to come his way with Tim Tebow at quarterback, even after All-Pro wide receiver Brandon Lloyd's trade opened up opportunities for a new top target to emerge in Denver.
Decker also figured his impact would only increase, and he was right.
The second-year rising star caught 22 passes in the five games Kyle Orton started for Denver and 17 in the six games Tebow has started.
He has eight TD catches, four from each.
He caught two in a win over Cincinnati in his first NFL start and two more in a loss at Green Bay before Orton was demoted, released and picked up by the Kansas City Chiefs.
With Denver's ground game churning up a league-best 208 yards a game behind Tebow — the Broncos averaged just 101.8 yards rushing with Orton under center — teams are stacking the box to slow down the quirky quarterback running the college-style read option and his trusty tailback, Willis McGahee.
That's left Decker in single coverage and he's shown a knack for beating his man downfield for big gains and clutch catches that have been a major ingredient in Denver's 5-1 run since Tebow took over.
"He does have some deceptive speed, and he runs good routes, as well," said Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier, whose Vikings (2-9) host the Broncos (6-5) on Sunday. "But part of it is they're running the ball so effectively — the No. 1 rushing team in the league — that you commit so many people to the run and all of a sudden Eric is behind your secondary.
"Then you're kicking yourself, but you feel like you have to stop the run. Sometimes you're trying to do it with 10 or 11 people, and there he is behind your secondary."
While he still has some trouble handling the reverse spin from the lefty QB and often erratic placement of Tebow's throws, Decker keeps coming up big in crunch time despite some early drops.
"I try to make the most of the opportunities I get," he said. "Many don't come throughout the game, but you've got to stay up and stay ready for that chance. I think we need to do a better job, including myself, of executing (on) every single passing play we get because like I said, the opportunities are slim."
During the Broncos' 4-0 November, Decker caught a 27-yard TD throw that ignited a comeback win at Oakland, hauled in a perfectly thrown 56-yard pass for a touchdown that clinched a win at Kansas City and made an acrobatic grab for 39 yards Sunday at San Diego that set up the tying field goal in a game the Broncos won in overtime. He also caught an 18-yard TD pass against the Chargers.
More often than not, Decker finds himself using his 6-foot-3, 218-pound frame to block defensive backs in the run game.
"Everyone's bought into what we're doing as a very unselfish offense," Decker said. "We have a lot of receivers that could get more balls and more opportunities, and running backs with more carries. But when it comes down to it, we're winning football games. It doesn't matter how you're doing it. It is about the win and the loss."
Despite completing less than 50 percent of his passes, Tebow has eight touchdown throws to go with just one interception, the best ratio in the league over the last month and a-half.
"Although they're not passing the ball a lot in comparison to how most teams throw today ... you have to pay attention to the fact that they do throw the ball," Frazier said. "It's not just running the ball 60 straight plays. They have had some big plays and Eric has been one of the beneficiaries."
Decker said that despite Tebow's inability to complete even half of his passes in any of his appearances this year, his passing game is making progress.
"Yeah, I think every week we have taken several steps whether people see it or not. Tim's getting confident in his throwing ability, he's been confident in his receivers, his receivers understand to get in the right spots and what kind of ball Tim's going to throw," Decker said.
Decker, who starred at the Metrodome during his college career at Minnesota, could see double-duty as a returner Sunday with Eddie Royal (ankle, toe) ailing and Cassius Vaughn (broken leg) out.
The Broncos will fly out a day early and Decker seems like the only one in the locker room excited about getting to the Twin Cities on Friday night.
"It will be nice. I don't know what the weather's like right now, I'm sure it's pretty cold. That's one thing I don't miss," Decker said.
Notes: McGahee (illness) and Royal returned to practice on a limited basis Thursday, but LB Von Miller (thumb surgery) missed his second straight day of workouts. TE Daniel Fells (concussion) and S David Bruton (Achilles) practiced the entire time after being limited Wednesday. The practice was moved indoors with a snowstorm pounding Denver.
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