On at least one San Diego third down Sunday, a third-and-10 early on, Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio dispatched two defensive linemen, two linebackers and seven defensive backs.
If five defensive backs is a nickel defense and six is a dime, I’m guessing seven is a quarter, or possibly a JFK half-dollar, considering the effects of inflation.
As defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson pointed out afterward, Von Miller wears a linebacker’s number (58) but he’s generally rushing the passer, so maybe that was a 3-1-7 alignment rather than a 2-2-7. Either way, let’s just call it Del Rio’s freakout package.
That’s what it did to Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who was under pressure because of Miller and looked downfield to see nothing but the Broncos’ alternate blue uniforms. Symbolizing the frustration he showed much of the day, he threw the ball away into his own bench.
“I’ve never been a part of a team that’s shown this many looks,” said cornerback Champ Bailey, now in his 14th season. “It’s funny because every guy that comes out there could start. It’s not like we’ve got a bunch of guys we’re just trying to get playing time. These guys can play. I’ve got to give Jack a lot of credit for trying to utilize all the guys he has around him.”
Do all those different looks — pretty much every coin in the change machine — confuse opposing offenses?
“I sure hope so,” Bailey said. “I think it does. But I think the most important part of our defense is that front. They’ve been getting it done and that’s what’s really enabled us to play better.”
Good as the front wall has been overall, the difference maker is Miller, who took over the NFL lead in quarterback sacks Sunday, adding three to his previous 10. He became just the fourth NFL player since 1982 to record at least 11 sacks in each of his first two seasons, joining the late Reggie White, Jevon Kearse and Dwight Freeney.
“I told him today, he’s a beast, man,” Vickerson said.
“That boy works his butt off and he plays with a lot of confidence and I see him doing it for a long time,” Bailey said.
“Von Miller is the next Lawrence Taylor, plain and simple,” said safety Rahim Moore. “No lineman in the country — born, not born, past — can block him.”
With the inquiring minds, Miller takes his lead from Bailey, returning the compliment.
“I think it all starts in the secondary,” he said. “I don’t think our guys in the background get too much credit. We got Champ Bailey out there, Chris Harris, Rahim Moore’s been having a great season. I think that’s where it starts.”
The media scrum around Miller afterward was almost as deep as the Broncos’ defense. He used the word “relentless” relentlessly to describe his mindset, citing other dominant defensive players who play with that attitude, including the Cowboys’ DeMarcus Ware, a two-time league sack champion who had 19.5 a year ago and has 10 so far this year, three back of Miller’s league-leading total.
“He’s explosive, he’s fast, he’s a savvy football player,” Chargers center Nick Hardwick said of last year’s defensive rookie of the year. “He uses his hands and feet well and ties his moves together.”
“It’s probably his speed,” said San Diego guard Rex Hadnot. “He probably runs under a 4.4 (40-yard dash). He’s really fast and plays pretty physical.”
For the second week, the Broncos’ defense took the lead. The offense ended up scoring 30 points, but 17 of them came as a result of Chargers turnovers (a Wesley Woodyard interception, a fumble forced by Miller on one of his sacks, and a punt blocked by Nate Irving), giving Peyton Manning and the offense short fields.
Manning’s streak of 300-yard passing games came to an end — he managed only 270 — although he did throw for three touchdowns again, becoming the first quarterback in Broncos history to do that six times in the same season. And he still has six games to play. The previous record was five, set by John Elway in 1997. Still, the story was the defense again, and Manning knew it.
“Anytime you have a change in the defensive coordinator and you have some new players, it’s going to take time forming a little chemistry and getting on the same page,” he said. “I think they just continue to get better each week, understanding coach Del Rio’s system, and those guys are playing at a really high level right now. It sure is fun to watch.”
In fact, the offense sputtered enough that someone actually asked Manning if he felt more happiness or frustration after this one.
“Happiness,” he replied. “We won, didn’t we? Are you not happy? Strange question . . . strange question.”
The defense surrendered a couple of late drives that made the final score closer than the game actually felt, but the Broncos’ growing confidence on the defensive side is a propitious sign for the postseason.
And, yes, although they can’t talk about it, we can start talking about that now. With a record of 7-3, they lead the Chargers by three games with six to play, and effectively four since they swept the season series and own the head-to-head tie-breaker.
In the process, they stretched their string of third-down denials to 26 over three games, the longest such streak in the NFL in 10 years, before the Chargers finally converted one into a first down. San Diego finished three of 16 on third down.
“It’s the best defensive team they’ve had since we’ve been playing against them,” said Rivers, who has been playing the Broncos twice a year since taking over the starting job in San Diego in 2006. “This is definitely as good, if not the best defense they’ve had that I can remember.”
Bailey, of course, was having none of it.
“You look at the fourth quarter, they had two drives that we just can’t give up,” he said. “We’re better than that. We’ve shown we’re better than that. It’s just being consistent. We’ve just got to find a way to keep pressing on the gas throughout four quarters.
“Never become complacent. That’ll put you on your couch.”
It’s now five in a row since they came back from a 24-0 halftime deficit in San Diego on Oct. 15. On both sides of the ball, the Broncos are on a roll.
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