Denver Broncos

Defensive effort re-establishes Broncos as AFC West frontrunners

02 October 2016: Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris (25) during the NFL regular season game between the Denver Broncos and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)
(Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)

At their best last season, the Broncos’ defense authored efforts that broke teams down and ruined their blueprints.

Denver’s most dominant outing in 2015 came against the Packers, and Aaron Rodgers hasn’t been quite the same since his bizarre box score. Its most important performance obviously came months later in Super Bowl 50, and the Panthers haven’t been able to re-establish their zone-read-fueled mojo on the same level in what’s been a mess of an NFC title defense.

The Broncos’ Monday-night performance did not feature an opponent of this caliber, but considering where the defending Super Bowl champions’ title defense stood after six weeks, it’s one of the Broncos’ best all-around games in the Gary Kubiak/Wade Phillips 2.0 era.

Defensively, it’s about as consistent as a team can be, and the Brock Osweiler-led Texans could endure a fallout similar to what happened to the aforementioned victims of stifling Broncos outings.

Sitting in a strange position in AFC West standings graphics coming into Monday (in third place) and in reasonable danger of losing three-straight for the first time since the Tim Tebow season, the Broncos encountered their former quarterback with the possibility of regressing back to second-tier status.

The all-around defensive romp squashed that notion and places the Broncos back on their previous course before Trevor Siemian’s injury and Kubiak’s health scare threatened to send them back toward the NFL’s middle class.

But Denver’s defense entered Monday after both the Falcons and Chargers appeared to have decrypted some of the codes that puzzled the league’s powers since the beginning of last season. What transpired Monday night in Colorado reinstalled the Broncos as the AFC West favorites. None of their rivals have a gear like the five-time reigning division champions showed in this game, even if the Chiefs are more reliable offensively and the Raiders are quite frisky now.

Brock Osweiler rocketed toward the top of a specific, but telling stat category thanks to his disastrous reunion night. The fifth-year passer throwing for just 131 yards on 41 attempts places him behind only Jesse Palmer of the 2003 Giants — the ones who lost their final eight games to land Eli Manning — for fewest yards in a game involving 40-plus pass attempts. The 6-foot-7 quarterback didn’t come close to connecting on a deep shot, with either Chris Harris or Aqib Talib — or a combination of one of them and a safety — enveloping DeAndre Hopkins. Harris held Hopkins to two catches for nine yards when the teams’ best aerial components battled. Osweiler’s three-quarters delivery resulted in two passes being batted down at the line, and Denver’s edge rushers (well, mostly just Von Miller beating Chris Clark) frequently moved the now-maligned quarterback off his spot and thus he abandoned plays early.

Then of course, the strange fumble sequence that left Harris perplexed enough he didn’t think of trying to score what would have been the easiest touchdown of his career (this proved doubly interesting since defenders constantly perform the scoop-and-score routine on plays they know are dead, often making them late for the ensuing huddle).

After the likes of Tevin Coleman and Hunter Henry lit them up the past two weeks, the Broncos’ auxiliary defenders made sure they wouldn’t be viewed as the surefire weak links going forward by preventing any notable gains. There just weren’t relevant Texans’ passing plays Monday, with Osweiler actually having 81 air yards on 14-of-27 passing before adding some garbage-time gains against a prevent defense.

Again, this wasn’t as impressive as the dismantling of Green Bay last season. Rodgers finished with 77 passing yards on 14-of-22 through the air last November, and the Peyton Manning-led offense returned to form of past years if only for a night. But considering the circumstances — improved division, two straight losses, Osweiler’s return — it ranks on an adjacent tier.

The Broncos, though, no longer blow teams out to the degree they displayed against the Texans.

Despite being 20-6 counting the playoffs since Kubiak took over, Denver only has three victories that came by more than two touchdowns — Monday night, last season’s high-water mark against the Packers, which ended in a 29-10 rout, and Week 4’s mauling of the Buccaneers.

Having multiple showcases like this to start this season — one that presents a Denver defense devoid of Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan and mostly DeMarcus Ware — reveals what’s possible if the Broncos can manage relative facsimiles of the rushing attack they unleashed Monday. The reason the Broncos don’t have more of these type of wins: their offense often cannot produce enough points to run away from teams their defense controlled.

Denver’s defense is entering a critical stretch as well, with road tilts in New Orleans and Oakland following the now-important Chargers rematch. The Broncos will face stauncher opposition from those offenses, and proving they can still reach this level should provide a considerable lift as they attempt to keep pace with the Raiders and Chiefs. Of course, this was the best possible situation for this defense to thrive, facing an opponent many of its cogs had lined up against for years in scout-team sessions and doing so on 10 days’ rest. That doesn’t discount the result too much, though, as few defenses are capable of this kind of wire-to-wire mastery.

Their performances against Drew Brees and Derek Carr’s suddenly explosive attacks will be more telling, but the Broncos recaptured their top form on a national stage.

Given what they showed in Weeks 5 and 6, the element that makes them frightening needed to come through to reignite the title defense.

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