Sitting in the shadow of the media scrum around Wesley Woodyard, the linebacker who gave the Broncos’ resurgent defense a face Sunday night, veteran Keith Brooking considered the question briefly, then bent over deliberately to tie his street shoes.
The question, of course, was how a defense that had looked so ordinary through the first six games — tied for 17th in points allowed, 24th in red zone touchdown percentage, 29th in third-down percentage — could suddenly dominate one of the NFL’s best offenses, as it did Sunday night against the Saints, powering a surprisingly easy 34-14 victory that left the Broncos alone in first place in the AFC West.
“It’s a new system,” Brooking explained. “We knew it was going to be a progression to get acclimated to Jack’s system and what he wants. We were going to get better week in and week out if we just believed in the system and what the coaches were telling us to do.”
The Broncos are familiar with this process of acclimation. Jack Del Rio is their seventh defensive coordinator in seven years.
“We obviously have the talent and the ability to play dominating defense,” Brooking said. “When you’re shown the film, you see the way we play. We play with great intensity, with great energy, with great effort. When you add that to talent and a great scheme and really good coaches that put you in position to make plays, I feel really good about where we’re at and, most importantly, where we’re going.”
Talk to enough veterans who have played this game at the highest level and you finally accept that the difference between good and bad is an episode or two of brain lock in a three-hour contest, the sort of thing that happens to many of us routinely in considerably less stressful circumstances. The newer and more complicated the scheme, the more of those there are likely to be.
“It does take a while,” said veteran cornerback Champ Bailey, finally part of a Denver defense that doesn’t require him to be the only playmaker. “It’s really getting a feel for everybody around you — the people you’re playing with, the coaches. It’s a big team thing. Once you get comfortable with your team and your teammates, I mean, the sky’s the limit.
“I’ve said for a long time how important practice is, but it’s getting the younger guys to understand the importance of it. And they bought in and they continue to buy in and everybody’s getting better, which makes our team better.”
In particular, young cornerbacks Chris Harris and Tony Carter have made an impression of late with starter Tracy Porter on the shelf, which should make for an interesting coaching decision when Porter is fully recovered from seizure-related symptoms.
Before you start checking into Super Bowl reservations, keep in mind that despite their gaudy offensive statistics, the Saints are a battered football team. Two of their players — defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma — remain tied up in a contentious dispute with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell over suspensions arising out of the team’s so-called bounty scandal. More important, the scandal cost the team its head coach, Sean Payton, for the entire season.
Sunday was the first game back for his replacement, interim coach Joe Vitt, who was suspended over the same scandal for the first six games. It’s all added up to a 2-5 start for a team that went 13-3 last season.
“I just met with our football team and I certainly share in their disappointment,” Vitt said afterward. “I told them quite frankly there was probably too much hype and not enough substance about me coming back last week. I’ve got to do a better job . . . .”
Vitt admitted a more sure-footed head coach might not have had to call timeout before going for it on fourth-and-two at the Broncos’ 47-yard line with the game tied at 7 midway through the second quarter. Woodyard, the defensive star of the game, leaped and intercepted a Drew Brees pass intended for tight end Jimmy Graham. Woodyard became the first Broncos linebacker with more than one interception in a season since Al Wilson in 2004.
“They ran that play earlier in that drive and I wasn’t there to make that play, so I knew I had to come back and make something happen,” the fifth-year linebacker from the University of Kentucky explained. Woodyard, who went undrafted in 2008, also had the Broncos’ only quarterback sack of the game.
But that wasn’t the last of the Saints’ coaching issues. Vitt also acknowledged he should have gone for it on fourth-and-six at midfield in the third quarter trailing 24-7, while his team still had a chance to climb back into the game. It’s rare that an NFL team is breaking in a new head coach at this stage of the season, but that’s part of the bounty scandal’s legacy for the Saints.
The Broncos, on the other hand, are coming together just as their schedule softens up a bit. They didn’t believe they were as bad defensively as they had looked, particularly against the Falcons, Texans and Patriots, but their inability to get off the field on third down overshadowed anything good they did on earlier downs.
Coming back from their bye week fresh and rejuvenated, their mission was to shut down New Orleans on third down. Mission accomplished. The Saints converted one of 12, or eight percent, a far cry from the 46 percent conversion rate the Broncos gave up through their first six games.
“I felt like you have to give their defense credit — they played well and made some plays — but overall I believe there were things that we did to ourselves in a lot of cases that prevented us from converting those,” Brees said.
“We’ve been preparing for third downs,” said Broncos linebacker Von Miller, who chased down Darren Sproles from behind for his 14th tackle of the season behind the line of scrimmage, putting him just one back of Houston’s J.J. Watt for the league lead.
“We were ranked 29th in the league on third downs and there’s no way we should have been ranked there,” Miller said. “We’ve got all the personnel on this team. We’ve got Champ and Elvis (Dumervil) and all these guys. We just haven’t had too much success on third downs. That was our mindset coming in this week, was to get off the field on third downs, and I think that was the key to the game today.”
If you expected a shootout between two of the best quarterbacks in the game, you weren’t alone. I spent much of last week telling anyone who would listen to bet the over on an over/under of 55 1/2 total points in the game. After all, these were two of the NFL’s most prolific offenses, and two of its more pedestrian defenses.
So the performance of the Broncos’ defense — or, conversely, of the Saints’ offense — was the surprise. Averaging 29 points a game coming in, New Orleans managed only seven while the outcome was in doubt.
Denver’s offense, averaging 28, scored six more, perhaps predictably given that the Saints ranked last in defense by a number of metrics. In fact, they became the first team in NFL history to give up 400 yards or more to each of their first seven opponents. The Broncos piled up 530.
Slightly more than half of them came from the arm of Peyton Manning, who had another nearly flawless outing, completing 22 of 30 passes for 305 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 138.9. In the process, he passed Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers to become the top-rated passer in the league at 109.0 for the season.
“I’m a different player coming off the injury, I’m on a different team, and so I’m just working on kind of finding my way, and our team is finding our way,” Manning said modestly, referring to the four neck surgeries that forced him to miss all of last season.
“I keep mentioning finding our identity, and we’re starting to form it,” he said. “I still think there are some things we need to improve on, and we’re going to build off this win — build some consistency as an offense and hopefully I can just continue to make strides and be on the same page as the receivers.”
“You could just see his comfort level rising,” Bailey said of Manning. “I don’t know if he could be any better than he was, but after you see how he’s progressing and getting more comfortable with the guys around him, I don’t know how far he could go.”
Although his fondness for old friends and teammates Brandon Stokley and Jacob Tamme is undiminished, Manning’s top targets are emerging as the Broncos’ talented young duo of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.
Decker had two touchdowns Sunday. Thomas had seven catches for 137 yards and a touchdown, including a 41-yard catch in the first quarter that served as the centerpiece of a 98-yard touchdown drive after a New Orleans punt had backed the Broncos up on their own 2-yard line.
“I feel like stuff can always get better, but I feel like I know what he wants and he feels like he knows what I can do and knows where I’m going to be, that I’m going to be in the right spot,” Thomas said. “So I think it’s good and can only get better.”
For the rest of the NFL, that now qualifies as a scary thought. The Broncos moved up to fourth in the league in scoring at 29.1 points per game. Manning now has 17 touchdowns and four interceptions on the season. People who doubted his arm strength are stubbornly sticking to their story, but he is making all the throws and, as usual, all the right reads. He bloodied his thumb on a defensive lineman’s helmet Sunday and played through it. After missing an entire season, toughness may be Manning’s most underrated quality.
Granted, the Saints are lousy defensively and the Broncos were coming off their bye week, fresher and friskier than usual. Nevertheless, seven games into the Manning era, they look like a team with a relentless offense and an improving defense.
The version in which they play five defensive backs, a previous weakness, became a strength Sunday by doubling down on speed. Woodyard and rookie Danny Trevathan, another University of Kentucky product, manned the linebacker spots while Miller put his hand on the ground and became a defensive end. Teams usually run against the Broncos’ nickel, but that didn’t work Sunday. New Orleans gained only 51 yards rushing compared to the Broncos’ 225.
“I tell my DBs all the time, ‘If you want to play, we’ve got to stop the run in nickel. We’ve got to make sure we don’t give up big plays,'” Bailey said. “It’s those little things that cause coaches to want to put the big guys out there. We (defensive backs) feel like we’ve got the best room on the team, so we’ve got to keep proving it every week.”
The biggest threat to the Broncos now might be feeling too good about their situation. Although they are on the road the next two weeks, their opponents get markedly less challenging than the first six weeks. The Ravens are the only team remaining on the schedule with a winning record.
Not only that, but San Diego’s unsightly 7-6 loss to Cleveland on Sunday left every team in the AFC West other than the Broncos below .500. At this rate, they might be able to sleepwalk to the division crown, but if they hope to be a threat in the postseason, that’s not how they want to do it.
“That’s about as complete as we’ve looked all year,” Bailey said. “One thing we can’t do is become complacent. That can happen after big wins. We’ve had two in a row and we just got to keep it rolling.”
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