ENGLEWOOD – It would be easy to mythologize what happened in the Broncos’ locker room at halftime in San Diego on Oct. 15. So resounding was their turnaround from that point that they’ve scarcely been the same team — especially on defense and on special teams, which have collectively scored more touchdowns on returns in the last 14 quarters than the Broncos did for any entire season between 2001 and 2010.
But while there were words, you won’t find any evidence of a Knute Rockne speech — or even a John Blutarsky one — from John Fox. Instead, the Broncos knew that they were a tweak or two away — a change in emphasis here, an improved diligence to avoiding self-inflicted mistakes there.
“That’s what we knew: that we were beating ourselves,” said defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson on Wednesday. “That’s why we focused in that second half and believed and came out and played.”
Giveaways dropped. Takeaways spiked. The special teams grew more opportunistic. The offense generally became more efficient, even though it had hiccups the last two games. The scoring margin since halftime at San Diego — Broncos 136, opponents 51, which extrapolates to a per-60-minute average score of 39-15 — illustrates the degree of Denver’s dominance since hitting rock bottom.
“It really was amazing kind of how fast things started turning once we hit our stride,” but that’s what happens when you create some turnovers on defense and Peyton (Manning) gets as hot as he did in that game,” said safety Jim Leonhard.
Manning has stayed hot, but he was playing well even before the turnaround. The key to the Broncos’ revival lies in what else changed, besides the schedule, which was more benign than the five-week opening gauntlet that included the Steelers, Falcons, Texans and Patriots.
1. DEFENSIVE AGGRESSION.
Not every quarterback settles in the pocket for as long as San Diego’s Philip Rivers, and most teams the Broncos face will have better offensive tackles than San Diego, since starting left tackle Jared Gaither has been hindered by injuries and right tackle Jeromey Clary has been inconsistent and prone to getting beat by speed rushes.
But the fact that Denver was able to turn its season around by playing high-pressure defense with a deficit shows the value of working to attack the quarterback no matter what the score is, rather than when risk is minimized, as was the case when the Broncos turned Von Miller loose late in the Week 1 win over Pittsburgh.
“We’re not waiting for things to happen; we’re just going out there and making our own destiny,” said defensive lineman Derek Wolfe.
Of course, the Broncos have built leads, which put them in better position to pad their sack totals. Nevertheless, since halftime at San Diego, the Broncos have been more likely to sack the opposing quarterback when they are behind or tied (once every 7.5 pass plays) than with a lead (once every 10.1 pass plays).
Further, aggression leads to …
The Broncos haven’t curbed their own turnover issues — although they have improved; they’ve lost three fumbles and had two interceptions since halftime at San Diego, and their offensive turnover rate has gone from one every 26.1 plays to one every 44.0 (although in the last two games, it’s one every 30.5 snaps).
But because they have generated more consistent pressure, the takeaway rate has skyrocketed from one every 75.2 plays before halftime at San Diego to one every 26.1 plays since then — meaning the defense has been as good at procuring the football since that halftime as the offense was bad at giving it away prior to the comeback from the 24-0 deficit.
This is how the defense was designed to work all along — although the intention was for the Broncos to be playing from ahead because the presence of Manning would allow them to generally build leads. This has been the case in the last three weeks, when the Broncos have trailed for just 7:37 of the 180 minutes plays, but it took an all-out attack on Rivers with a 24-7 deficit in the third quarter at San Diego to get this going.
Some quarterbacks will eat the football, take the sack and avoid a plethora of big mistakes like Rivers made; that’s what Andy Dalton did in Cincinnati. But even the typically cautious Dalton got careless one time too many, and the Broncos turned that into a Champ Bailey interception that set up the game-clinching touchdown.
3. PERSISTENCE WITH THE GAME PLAN.
Denver’s insistence on running the football might drive some fans bonkers, but it’s done with the long term in mind — both for the game and the weeks beyond. An offense that runs 39.4 percent of the time, as the Broncos did in Weeks 1-5 — and confines many of those runs to situations where it has the lead and is trying to protect it — isn’t going to fool anyone.
An offense that runs 46.1 percent of the time and spreads it around, as the Broncos have in the last three games, is eventually going to catch a defense off-guard and has a better chance of setting up the play-action, which has been particularly lethal recently.
“We’ve just been sticking to our guns, not giving up on certain things,” said running back Willis McGahee, who is on pace to become just the fifth player 31 years or older in NFL history to have over 280 carries and 40 receptions in the same season, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.
“We’ve been playing some great defenses that have been stuffing the run, but we still come out running the ball, because that’s part of our game plan. But we stick with it, we don’t give up, and it shows on the football field.”
By maintaining fidelity to the run game while attacking on defense, the Broncos are keeping their offseason promises to be more than just Manning firing away. Further tests will come later when the opposition toughens against Tampa Bay and Baltimore in Weeks 13 and 15, but the Broncos at least now have a reliable formula they can replicate from week to week for success, which is more than could be said for them at any point since the middle of the 2006 season.