ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos sifted through the season’s first half they saw an offense that was operating at a breakneck, historical pace.
They saw special-teams unit that has been efficient and opportunistic. It's a group that has blocked two punts and scored three touchdowns.
And then there’s the defense.
“I don’t think how we approach it has changed for us since Week 1," said linebacker Wesley Woodyard. “... We have a target on our back. We've got to give it our best and we haven’t been doing that so far .... I think we’ve played hard, but we haven’t played our best. We have to do both, we have to play hard and make plays both, we have to get back to how we know we can play."
The Broncos were at, or near, the top of every major defensive category last season and have had very little of that kind of performance this season. Not matter what the cause -- gratuitous yardage piled up by opponents chasing the Broncos' record-setting offense, injuries all over the depth chart, missed tackles, ill-timed penalties or a missed assignment or two -- they find themselves in the bottom third of the league rankings in points allowed per game, yards allowed per game and passing yards per game.
They were No. 3 in run defense and tied for the league lead in interceptions with 13 after eight games. And they haven’t looked, or been, nearly as disruptive down in, down out, as they were throughout the 2012 regular season.
“I don’t think we’ve played our best, for sure, that's no lie," said cornerback Chris Harris. “I think everybody in here knows what we’re capable of, it’s just a matter of going out there and playing that way. I think we feel like there’s a lot of room for improvement, but a lot of reasons to feel good about it, too. We have too much talent to be one of the bottom defenses against the pass, we don’t think that’s us, for sure.’’
The Broncos' defenders all believe the win over the Washington Redskins just before the bye offered at least a glimpse of what the group can do. They surrendered just 266 yards while limiting Robert Griffin III to 7 yards rushing and 132 yards passing as the Broncos finished with four interceptions.
“That’s closer,’’ Woodyard said. "Closer, but we need that all the time and more."
“We’ve had these performances, we just didn’t finish strong," said safety Rahim Moore. “ ... Comprehensively, as a group, we made plays. Turnovers, sacks, forced fumbles, just everything."
Cornerback Champ Bailey’s foot injury -- he’s played in just two games -- and Von Miller’s six-game suspension to open the season haven’t helped matters. Woodyard has also missed two games with a neck injury while Robert Ayers missed one with a shoulder injury. As a result the Broncos have yet to play in any game with the 11 starters they expected to have when they filled out the depth chart in training camp. And while the Broncos constantly preach "next man up'' on the injury front, it only works if the next men up are up to the task.
Or as coach John Fox put it last week: “I think we haven’t really been whole the whole season defensively. I think our guys have hung in there, continue to work hard … I felt we were much more capable than what we had put on tape up to that point.’’
“That’s true,’’ Woodyard said. “I think you see flashes. But with our offense, we just need to get stops and keep giving the ball back to our offense and that’s a formula for success.’’
The Broncos believe Miller will continue to round into form after having played in just two games before the break because of a suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. Overall, the Broncos will not face an offense that entered the weekend in the league’s top 10 in scoring in the final eight games of the regular season. The Chiefs and Chargers, tied at No. 13 to open the weekend (24.0 points per game) were the closest with a caveat of Tom Brady’s presence in the Patriots’ offense always a threat despite their struggles thus far.
But no matter how many lines in the record book Manning and the Broncos’ offense write in the regular season, the simple truth remains that at some point something else will be needed if the Broncos want to play in February. The highest-scoring offenses in the league’s modern era have rarely won the Super Bowl.
Of the 16 teams that scored at least 500 points in a season since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, only four went on to win the Super Bowl. And the list of teams that didn’t win the title game includes the offense that holds the single-season scoring record the Broncos are currently chasing -- the 2007 Patriots, who finished the regular season 16-0.
There is also the matter of those last two postseason losses for the Broncos that closed out the 2011 and 2012 seasons. In those two games the Broncos surrendered 694 passing yards and nine passing touchdowns. They also came away with just one sack in the two games while having surrendered 301 yards rushing along the way.
“You have be there in the playoffs,’’ Woodyard said. “That’s why you keep working, to be the kind of defense we need to be .... It's not going to just happen, we have to keep working it, pushing for it and playing that way week in, week out.’’