ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – It’s a simple equation: First eat the veggies then you get dessert.
And for the Denver Broncos to turn loose their pass rushers they first have to put opposing offenses in favorable down-and-distance situations where, as Broncos linebacker Von Miller put it, “We can just go.''
With Thursday night’s 35-21 victory over the San Diego Chargers, the Broncos sit among the league leaders in most of the major defensive categories, including No. 2 in sacks and No. 1, by a tenth of a yard on average, in run defense.
Things could change at least some when the remainder of the games get played this weekend, but since the Broncos have already had their bye , they are ranked, at the moment, with most of the other top 10 teams on defense that had played seven games before the Broncos played Thursday night’s affair.
“In order to keep a defense honest you have to be able to run the ball, and whenever they felt like they had an opportunity to run the ball we shut them down and that was our main focus this week as a front,’’ Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. “That’s something we improved on this year.”
The Chargers finished with 61 yards rushing Thursday night and that total included a meaningless 23-yard run by Branden Oliver on the last play of the game. The Chargers were the fourth consecutive opponent, and the fifth for the season, the Broncos have held to fewer than 63 yards rushing.
The Kansas City Chiefs put up 133 yards in Week 2, and the Seattle Seahawks had 129 in Week 3. In both of those games the Broncos allowed mobile quarterbacks to get free with 42 yards rushing by Kansas City’s Alex Smith and 40 by Seattle’s Russell Wilson, including 21 in the Seahawks’ game-winning drive in overtime.
The Broncos continue to make progress as a group. And the thing they have done far better this season than last is defend the run out of their specialty packages, such as the nickel and the dime, something opponents used to take advantage of as they pounded away at the smaller personnel groupings.
Though most teams haven't been able to get games into a grind-it-out mode to keep the ball away from the Broncos offense yet this season, especially if the Broncos get an early lead, the Broncos' defense sees its job as getting the ball back for Manning and Co. as many times as possible.
“It all starts when we stop people from running,’’ cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “It’s a passing league, but teams still want to run the ball to keep you from coming after the quarterback. If teams can’t run, we get to rush the passer and if we get to rush the passer we’re going to get off the field. And if we get off the field that just means Peyton and our offense get the ball more and that’s always good.’’
It is a trend, at least if the numbers are to be trusted, that should continue if the Broncos can hold up their end of the bargain. In their remaining nine games they face just two teams -- Kansas City (No. 10) and Miami (No. 11) -- that are ranked higher than 15th in rushing offense, and the Broncos have five games against teams currently ranked 23rd or lower.
That is plenty of road still to travel so, as Fox put it in so many words Friday, hold the confetti just yet.
“We’re a work in progress,’’ Fox said. “I’m not too big into statistics when you’re not even to halftime yet. It doesn’t really matter who is leading at halftime. The important thing is where you’re at at the end of it. That’s kind of where we are.’’
“We just want to get the ball and give it back to our offense,’’ Ward said. “If you give more and more possessions to Peyton and our offense, that’s a long day for you … and we want it to be a long day for you.’’