- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- For most of the season the Denver Broncos have played high-quality defense a lot of the time.
And that’s just it, they’d like to iron out the wrinkles that remain and string together the kind of end-to-end efforts they’ve shown against San Francisco and Kansas City. In Sunday’s win they harassed Bills quarterback Kyle Orton for much of the day and sacked him four times.
They held their ninth opponent to fewer than 80 yards rushing and held their sixth opponent to 17 or fewer points.
“We can’t have things like that last drive, the fourth quarter,’’ defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. “We have to close things out. They had a chance with an onside kick, to play for another score.’’
The Bills scored both of their touchdowns in the fourth quarter on two long drives -- 13 plays for 80 yards and 17 plays for 90 yards. Because of penalties, Orton threw for 171 of his 355 passing yards on those two drives.
And after a long look at the game video, some thoughts on the Broncos' defense and special teams:
Orton and the Bills made a concerted effort to go after Broncos rookie cornerback Bradley Roby plenty on Sunday, but especially in the second half. And whether it was simply targeting Roby in man coverage or getting a receiver into a catch-and-run play into his area, they sent plenty of plays Roby’s way with a variety of receivers. Eight completions went Roby’s direction to Marcus Thigpen, Chris Hogan and Sammy Watkins at various points. The Broncos were in a six-defensive back package much of the time on those plays, which puts Chris Harris Jr. in the slot and Roby in one of the outside positions where the Bills often tried to isolate him. Roby has been playing at a level worthy of at least some consideration for Defensive Rookie of the Year and Sunday was part of the growing process. He battled through the attention, made nine tackles, including one for loss, and forced a fumble. But this time of year he should prepare himself for more of the same moving forward.
The Bills were intent on using a variety of screen plays to slow the Broncos rush down, especially when the Broncos were in some of their specialty packages. On one, a 7-yard play from Orton to Bills running back Fred Jackson, Jackson chipped Broncos linebacker Von Miller as Jackson then leaked out into the open space for the catch. In all, with an obvious nod to the Broncos’ pass rush, Orton completed 12 passes to the Bills’ running backs, 10 of those to Jackson. Jackson also led the Bills having been targeted on 14 of Orton’s 57 pass attempts. It’s a good bet the San Diego Chargers will, as head coach Mike McCoy has done in the past, work a steady diet of those plays this Sunday as well. In last season’s first meeting with the Chargers, Philip Rivers completed five of his 19 passes to running back and in the playoff game between the two teams last January, Rivers had seven of his 18 completions go to running backs.
The Broncos have had at least some difficulty on third down this season, especially in some of the longer-yardage situations when they should hold the play-calling advantage. The Chiefs converted seven third-down plays of third-and-6 or longer earlier this season, the Patriots converted four while the Jets, 49ers and Chargers each converted three of third-and-6 or longer. And Sunday, against primarily their six-defensive back look, Orton was 12-of-13 passing on third down for 132 yards and seven of those plays resulted in a first down. That doesn’t include two additional Orton completions to convert a fourth-and-16 as well as a fourth-and-1. In all on third and fourth down, Orton threw for 156 yards. The Broncos also had just one sack on those third-down, or fourth-down plays.
With Quinton Carter as a game day inactive because of a knee issue, special-teams captain David Bruton Jr. played 59 snaps at safety in the team’s six-defensive back look -- more than he played on defense in all of the 2012 season, and more, by 40 snaps, than he played on defense in any game last season. He was credited with nine tackles and forced a fumble. As a result he will likely get some more work in the defense. Head coach John Fox said it “might be the best game of safety I’ve seen him play, since I’ve been here.’’ Bruton converted a fake punt against the Chiefs last week after he made the audible to the play.
Sunday’s game was the first for the Broncos since making Brandon McManus the team’s third kicking specialist on the game day roster and it certainly helped their field-position cause. With McManus handling kickoffs, the Bills’ average drive start was their own 19-yard line as McManus had four touchbacks in his five kickoffs. By comparison the Chiefs’ average drive start a week before, with Connor Barth handling kickoffs, was at the Kansas City 31-yard line. Granted it was a frigid night in Kansas City and McManus kicked on a clear afternoon at altitude. But the Broncos need similar days from McManus moving forward and road games the next two weeks in San Diego and in Cincinnati may be a better gauge of the roster move. Field position is precious in the postseason and he’s now a big part of that equation.