BRONCOS

How the Broncos defense is buying the offense time to get right

Sep 26, 2022, 1:30 AM | Updated: 6:44 am
Bradley Chubb...
(Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)

DENVER — Sunday night, a transcendent Broncos defense carried a sluggish offense led by a Hall-of-Fame quarterback adjusting to a new coach and a scheme that has him playing outside of his long-preferred skill set.

You don’t need eidetic memory to experience déjà vu from that description.

But before one starts comparing Peyton Manning in Gary Kubiak’s offense to Russell Wilson in Nathaniel Hackett’s scheme and this year’s “Dark Side” and the “Dirty Dogs” — more on that later — to the “No-Fly Zone,” let’s put the Broncos’ 11-10 slugfest over the San Francisco 49ers into proper context.

First, it was the kind of win that could make all the difference between returning to the postseason or staying at home for a seventh consecutive winter. All around the Broncos, AFC West rivals lost games that were equally taut.

  • Kansas City squandered opportunities and fell to a Colts team known recently for its sorry Septembers.
  • The Los Angeles Chargers absorbed a 28-point home defeat and gave the Jacksonville Jaguars their most lopsided road win in nearly 21 years. And in doing so, they lost both Joey Bosa and Rashawn Slater to injuries.
  • And the Broncos’ foe next week, the Las Vegas Raiders, lost their third one-score game after going 9-3 in their previous 12 one-score games dating back to January 2021. Regression to the mean has kicked Raider Nation in the rear.

“The best thing we can do is stack wins,” Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson said.

“… Everybody’s learning – we’re all learning each other. You have young guys that are learning. It’s a young football team. We’re all learning what the thought process [is] in this moment and that moment — how you want it to look in this or that [moment]. It’s all coming together.

“In the fourth quarter, when it mattered most, it clicked. It clicked and we got it done.”

Further, the Broncos’ trends reflect that: They have three touchdowns this year, and two came in the fourth quarter.

So you take the win, unsightly as it was, and say, “Thank you.”

And then you start trying to fix what went wrong along the way.

***

It wasn’t until the middle of the fourth quarter that the Denver offense finally began functioning.

Two third-down plays that finally saw Wilson doing Wilson things unclogged the offense’s pipes. On the first, he scrambled left and hit Kendall Hinton downfield for a 27-yard, third-and-10 gain. Three plays later, Wilson scrambled and picked up 12 yards on third-and-6.

When the Broncos finally found the end zone three plays later — scoring from 1 yard out on a Melvin Gordon burst out of the I-formation in a jumbo package with two tight ends at the line, Andrew Beck at fullback and an extra offensive tackle — an overwhelming release seemed to engulf the offense. Gordon leaped into the air for joy and sent the ball soaring deep into the stands.

As much as it was for the offense, it was a relief for Gordon, who fumbled twice earlier in the game, although he and Wilson recovered the loose footballs.

“Man, I was just happy,” Gordon said. “I’ve been trying to fight so hard to make a play, and when you make one for the team and put the team in good position to win, there’s nothing like it.

That was really our first goal-line run of the year,” Gordon said. “I was like, ‘[Shoot], I’ve got to make this count.”

After back-to-back goal-line fumbles in Week 1 for Gordon and Javonte Williams, the red-zone and third-down inefficiency of Week 2 and the parade of three-and-outs in Week 3, Gordon’s burst past Beck’s lead block and over the goal line was cathartic.

Gordon probably best encapsulated the entire offense. Nothing about the night was elegant. His two fumbles made hearts from field level to the top rows stop. He had 55 yards from scrimmage on 17 total touches, with Williams chipping in 60 yards from scrimmage on 18 touches. Every yard came hard.

“I was out there. My chin strap broke. I was like, ‘I ain’t getting out of this [darned] game,” Gordon said.

He went on.

“I was out there a couple of plays without it. I was like, [screw] it. I’m not getting out of this game, man … I’d rather my helmet get hit and fly off than me take myself out.”

It was not a game for the faint of heart — or the faint of equipment.

Which meant it was a lot like how the Broncos won a few years earlier.

***

If you closed your eyes Sunday, it did feel like 2015.

The vicious, swarming pass rush that made the opposing quarterback uncomfortable. The running lanes that quickly closed off. The speed that defused myriad plays before they could begin.

And finally, the noise. As the second half progressed and the 49ers offense regressed — eventually culminating in Jimmy Garoppolo fading back, back, back to the point where he pulled an Orlovsky and meandered out of the end zone for a safety.

Boos eventually became furious chants of “Let’s Go Broncos!” The stands shook. Mile High Thunder returned. Empower Field’s steel stands shook with fury.

And like 2015, the defense seized the moment with timely takeaways — specifically, two in the last 2:10 of the game to prevent the 49ers from marching into field-goal range. On the first, Garoppolo threw into double coverage. Big mistake. Kareem Jackson got a hand on the football and Jonas Griffith plucked it out of the air.

Sixty-four seconds of game play later, P.J. Locke punched the ball out of Jeff Wilson Jr.’s grasp. Jackson recovered.

This also marked the third consecutive game that the defense put up the stop sign in the final moments.

“I don’t want to get too brash in saying this, but I think we’re the best in the league, man,” Bradley Chubb said. “We put it on film; we put it on tape. We’ve just gotta keep building on it.”

Within seconds, his locker-room neighbors, edge rushers, egged him on. Hollers rose. Jubilant Broncos barked like dogs.

“The outside linebackers call ourselves the ‘Dirty Dogs.’ Man, you can see us barking at practice and doing all types of crazy stuff,” Chubb said. “It’s just that mindset, how we have to go out there and be like a dog with rabies.”

And the statement Chubb wanted to make rang out in a series of yells:

“We the best in the ****ing league! We the best in the ****ing league!”

“Dirty Dogs” at linebacker. “Dark Side” on the defensive line. They certainly have the nicknames you expect for a great defense. Further, you can’t argue with the performance. According to pro-football-reference.com, the Broncos are the first team in 14 years to allow fewer than 7 second-half points in their first three days.

No Denver defense has done that sort of thing since 1977, when the Orange Crush started in similar fashion.

The same cannot be said for the offense.

***

But … the defense hasn’t lost its faith in its teammates.

“On the offensive side, I know they’re going to get it right,” Chubb said. “I know everything is going to fall into place, and the floodgates are going to open for that.

“But at the end of the day, man, we just want to do our part. Put ’em in the best position to possibly win.”

The defense did that. The special teams — with Corliss Waitman delivering precision punts and his teammates covering with aplomb — did that, too.

However, it’s far too early to make comparisons to the past, even though you can squint and see them.

And in today’s NFL, winning a championship based on a defense and special teams carrying a struggling offense is an aberration. But there’s a long way before such discussions can responsibly take place.

What’s happening now is that those units are buying time for the offense to figure out what it must be. It didn’t function until Wilson went off-script

It was apparent in training camp that the defense would round into form first.

Defensive-dominant days outnumbered those controlled by the offense. Wilson and Co. made some plays, but they also looked very much like a work in the early stages of progress.

So, in a way, this was to be expected.

But expecting it and living it are two different things.

For now, until the Broncos’ offense rallies, this is their reality. But every win they “stack,” in the parlance of Wilson, buys another week to fix, tweak and recalibrate the offense into something that won’t leave fans having déjà vu not of that magic 2015 season, but the wretched six years that followed it.

***

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How the Broncos defense is buying the offense time to get right