“I don’t know,” the usually quick-to-answer Bailey said after a long delay. “I’m not one for predictions.”
Yeah, Champ, we didn’t think it would be this good, either. But after the first quarter of the NFL season, his crew is one of the top stories in the league.
Facing the first test in a tough 10-game stretch, Denver’s defense belted the Dallas Cowboys around for the final three quarters and survived a broken play in the final moments to secure a 17-10 win. Denver is one of a quartet of 4-0 teams in the NFL. Minnesota is 3-0 and it plays Green Bay on Monday night.
Under offensive-minded coach Josh McDaniels, the Broncos are winning on the strength of a 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. His Broncos are physical and unrelenting. (In fact, the former San Francisco head coach could be working his way back into head-coaching consideration with this masterful job.) The Broncos have allowed an NFL-low 26 points this season. In the final three games of the 14-year Mike Shanahan head coaching era, Denver allowed 112 points.
Denver’s defense was so bad the past two seasons, it was often referred to as the "Enver Broncos" because there was no “D” in the city. Denver is back and that’s no joke.
The Broncos are stopping the run. That was a huge problem in recent years. Dallas had 74 yards rushing. Denver is rushing the passer with vengeance. Linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who converted from end this year, has eight sacks in four games. The Broncos have claimed 10 turnovers.
“I think [the change] is that we are so prepared and so confident,” Bailey said. “We’re ready for anything.”
That was evident in the final minute of the game.
After Dallas jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, Denver’s defense shut down the Cowboys. Dallas quarterback Tony Romo was pressured in the final three quarters and harassed into making one errant throw after another. Dallas couldn’t establish any ground-game rhythm.
Then there was the broken play. On fourth down and three from its own 27 with 1:16 to go and Denver leading 17-10, Romo shot out of pressure and hit Sam Hurd about 20 yards down field. Hurd bolted 53 yards down to the Denver 20.
Did the old, porous Denver defense resurface at the worst possible time?
“It was just one play,” Dumervil said. “We had to strap it back on and get after it. There was still 20 yards to go.”
Dallas couldn’t complete the journey.
In the final nine seconds of the game, from the Denver 2, Romo went after Bailey. Yes, Bailey. The Broncos cornerback beautifully defended two straight passes intended for Hurd in the end zone to win the game.
Bailey is rarely challenged. But Dallas went after him all game. Bailey made a difficult interception at the Denver 3 in the third quarter.
“That’s Champ Bailey, one of the best cornerbacks of all time,” Denver linebacker D.J. Williams said. “I don’t know why they would throw at him.”
Asked if he was shocked that the ball came his way on the final two plays, all Bailey said was, “I’m glad they did.”
So are the Denver faithful.
But Denver’s defense is more that just 10 scrubs and a Hall of Fame cornerback.
This is a cohesive group that is playing well on all three layers of the unit. The defensive front three, one of the most inexperienced groups in the league, is setting the tone in the run game. Linebackers Andra Davis, Williams, Mario Haggan and Dumervil are creating chaos. The secondary has been spectacular. New safety Brian Dawkins plays like he is 30, not nine days away from celebrating his 36th birthday.
“Everyone here holds each other accountable,” said right cornerback André Goodman."On that last drive, no one gave up. We just got stronger. That’s been the way we’ve done it all season.”
Offensively, Denver has been very timely. Case in point: Brandon Marshall ’s jaw-dropping 51-yard catch and run from Kyle Orton to give Denver the lead with 1:46 remaining. Orton has not thrown an interception all season and the Broncos’ offense is doing just enough to help its defensive mates.
In the past, it was the Denver defense that couldn’t help out the offense. But a lot has changed in Denver.