MERILATT MONDAY

While the Broncos offense sputters, their defense is in high gear

Sep 26, 2022, 6:00 AM | Updated: Oct 2, 2022, 8:00 pm
Jonas Griffith...
(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

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In a lot of ways, the Broncos look awfully similar to what they’ve been the past few seasons. They’re struggling to score points. They’re having game management issues. And quarterback play has been less than stellar.

Those are the storylines that have gotten all of the attention through the first three weeks of the season. Denver’s offense putting up 16, 16 and 11 points has many wondering if Pat Shurmur is still calling the plays. Wasted timeouts and missed challenges feels like Vic Fangio is still roaming the sidelines. And 20-of-33 for 184 yards and no touchdowns feels like Teddy Bridgewater is still playing QB.

Given how frustrating it was to endure Fangio, Shurmur and Bridgewater, it’s understandable that Broncos Country is filled with angst about those developments. They can’t endure much more of those things.

Lost in the shuffle, however, has been the biggest and best development of the 2022 season. Through three games, one thing has changed dramatically from previous seasons. And it’s the reason why Denver could be in store for a very successful season.

For the first time since the 2015 campaign, a year that ended with the Broncos hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, the team’s defense can make plays. More specifically, they can make plays when it matters most.

During the Fangio years, a lot was made about his “great” defense. And in some statistical categories, they were good. The long-time defensive mind was able to game the system in order to make it appear as though his group was stellar. But anyone who watched the team play knew that they were not.

Why? Because they couldn’t make plays when the game was on the line.

Time after time after time, the Broncos defense squandered late leads. They’d let the likes of Mitch Trubisky, Gardner Minshew and Ryan Tannehill piece together last-minute drives to set up game-winning scores.

They also had an inability to get the opposing team off the field. The opposition was stellar in their four-minute offense, keeping Denver’s O on the sidelines while running out the clock.

This season, it’s already apparent that things have changed on both of those fronts. In their two wins, as well as their loss, the Broncos defense has come up big when it mattered most.

After giving up 17 points in the first half against Seattle, Ejiro Evero’s group held the Seahawks to zero points and only 34 yards after intermission. They also forced a three-and-out when trailing 17-16, giving Russell Wilson and the offense plenty of time to attempt a game-winning drive.

Upon taking a 16-9 lead with 3:36 to play against Houston, the Broncos defense forced a turnover on downs that should’ve ended the game. It didn’t, as Denver’s offense wasn’t able to run out the clock. But it didn’t matter, as Evero’s group once again go a late-game stop, shutting down the Texans once again.

And after getting a razor-thin 11-10 lead on Sunday night against San Francisco, the Broncos defense once again came up big. With 4:10 to play in the game, there was plenty of time for Jimmy Garoppolo to lead a field-goal drive. Instead, Denver forced an interception, with Jonas Griffith coming up big. Then, after Denver’s offense once again couldn’t run out the clock, the defense got another stop, with Kareem Jackson recovering a fumble to ice the game.

In three games, the Broncos defense has been stellar in every fourth quarter. With the game on the line, they’ve come up big.

Ultimately, they’re the reason why Denver is 2-1, and arguably should be 3-0. And they’re definitely the biggest bright spot early in the season.

On Sunday night, the Broncos did something they haven’t done in ages. They overcame a halftime deficit to win a game.

The last 15 times Denver had trailed at intermission, they’d lost. In 27 of their previous 28 times trailing at halftime, the Broncos fell. Against the Niners, they rallied to win.

Why? Because their defense was outstanding.

In the second half, Denver held San Francisco to just three points. They also scored two, forcing Garoppolo into a safety that could’ve easily been a pick-six for the Broncos.

But those weren’t the only stellar numbers. They were everywhere.

The Broncos held the 49ers to just 13 first downs on the night. San Francisco was 1-of-10 on third down. And Denver forced three turnovers.

That’s a recipe for victory no matter how poorly the Broncos offense is playing. That was proven on Sunday night.

They did it by flying around, being aggressive and forcing the issue. Late in the game, they came after Garoppolo, forcing the quarterback to make plays in the face of pressure. He couldn’t.

It’s been a group effort. Bradley Chubb and Randy Gregory have been outstanding as edge rushers. Pat Surtain is stellar in coverage. Mike Purcell and Dre’Mont Jones have been stout on the inside. And on Sunday, Josey Jewell was outstanding at middle linebacker, recording nine tackles, a sack and two tackles for a loss.

So while there are plenty of things that currently feel like Groundhog Day in Broncos Country, one big change is worthy of celebrating. Denver’s defense is legit.

That’s why they’re 2-1. That’s why they’ve been able to keep their head above water.

If the Broncos offense can ever get going, the sky is the limit. Denver has a playoff-caliber defense. And then some.

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