ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In a season when they have largely kept the pedal to the metal and largely overwhelmed those in front of them with the league’s highest scoring offense, things were a little more difficult than some expected this past Sunday.
Champ Bailey returned to the lineup in a game that mattered for the first time since the Broncos’ playoff loss to the Ravens last January. And in his first game action since injuring his left foot in an Aug. 17 preseason loss to Seattle, Bailey played 70 of the Broncos’ 72 plays on defense, leaving the field briefly after a bloody nose following a first half tackle. Bailey said his conditioning was fine -- “if I’m out there I feel like I’m ready to go" -- but several pro personnel executives around the league who viewed the game video said they believed Bailey showed some slight rust. They offered Bailey’s positioning and technique were good much of the time, but that he did find himself having surrendered a bigger cushion to the Jaguars receivers than he may have had he played over the first six weeks. The Jaguars did certainly try to test him. Bailey was targeted plenty and he finished with a team-high three passes defensed in the game. “I felt good, I can be better, I know that," Bailey said. “I look to be better."
Play as much man coverage as the Broncos do in this era of pass-happy offenses and a rules book that severely limits the ability of defensive backs to play with a physical edge in close quarters, eventually somebody is going to test you with the slant. Especially if the defensive backs give any room at all to the inside of the field -- some quarterbacks will call it “beating the outside shade." The Jaguars repeatedly worked the ball to the wide receivers, even after one of the Jaguars’ best receivers running the route -- Cecil Shorts -- left the game with a shoulder injury, with the slant route. It takes an accurate quarterback to make it work and the Jaguars’ quarterback Chad Henne is an experienced hand and he repeatedly got the ball to the right place, largely muting the Broncos’ pass rush along the way. If the Broncos are going to single up in coverage that often, their defensive backs may have to close up the gap a bit and force the issue more at the line of scrimmage. There are far more adept quarterbacks left on the schedule, like Andrew Luck, Tom Brady and Philip Rivers (twice), it’s something the Broncos will need to address. Especially if Von Miller’s return doesn’t pump up the pass rush as much as the Broncos hope.
In the rush to go faster that seems to have invaded every offensive huddle in the league, it’s slightly intriguing to have watched opposing offenses try to work that way in Denver thus far. The Broncos believe it is an advantage for their own offense to go at warp speed at 5,280 feet worth of elevation. That gameday life in the thin air will eventually catch up the defenses trying to stop them. But it has also caught up to opposing offenses trying to push the pace as well. The Jaguars shifted into high gear on several occasions, but had instances when they had to dial it down in the same series and it was evident some of the players in the huddle were affected by the altitude in those bursts. It is a small sample size after just four home games, but it may prevent the Broncos defense, at least at home anyway, from having to consistently play at the pace offenses would go elsewhere.
The learning curve can be a difficult one at times for rookies in the NFL. And though many other positions are in the life-as-a-rookie discussions far more, rookies in the interior of the defensive line often find some tough sledding in their first seasons. NFL linemen are stronger, smarter and far more versed in the art of close-quarters mayhem than the linemen they faced in college. And once a defensive tackle gets pushed off the spot he finds it far more difficult to use his athleticism to get back in the play as easily as he did at this time the year before. Case in point for Broncos rookie defensive tackle Sylvester Williams came in the third quarter on a 5-yard touchdown run by Maurice Jones-Drew. Williams, lined up in between the Jaguars’ right guard Uche Nwaneri and rookie right tackle Austin Pasztor, came off the ball and didn’t hold his ground. Williams got folded down inside, turned by Pasztor toward the middle of the field and Jones-Drew took the ball right in behind crossing the goal line before safety Duke Ihenacho, who hit Jones-Drew too high to stop the sturdy back’s momentum, could make the tackle.
As the third quarter drew to a close, Broncos defensive tackle/end Malik Jackson lived the more-you-can-do mantra that always increases a player’s value on a 53-man roster. Jackson has earned increasingly more playing time because he can function at end if he has to and still has the strength and athleticism to make plays on the interior as well. In a three-play span Sunday, Jackson had two sacks and tackled Jones-Drew for a 1-yard loss on a running play. But it was his second sack that showcased the skillset defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio talks about when asked why Jackson has played more. In a three-man front on a third-and-18 for the Jaguars, Jackson lined up directly over center Brad Meester. But at the snap Jackson came out of his stance a looped behind left end Shaun Phillips. Phillips took a double team with him and Jackson came free on the outside to sack Henne for a 5-yard loss.
In a season when the Broncos special teams units already had returned a kickoff, a punt and a blocked punt for touchdowns, the group made another momentum-changing play Sunday. And since special teams are a cross-section of the roster, the play worked because two defensive players handled their business when called upon to play with an offensive flair. Safety David Bruton, one of the fastest players on the team, took a direct snap 35 yards for a first down and he was sprung free on the play because linebacker Nate Irving sealed off the left side with a quality, no-nonsense block to give Bruton the room he needed. Earlier in the game the group also showed quality discipline when they quickly sniffed out, and stopped a Jaguars fake punt in the first quarter. “We has studied and prepared, we were alert right there, even though it was early in the game,’’ Bruton said.