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Broncos' 24-12 win over Lions highlighted by big plays on defense AND offense

With its best showing yet, the Broncos' offense looked the most polished it has so far, despite continued struggles in the run game and plenty of imperfection. But even as the defense was continuing with its big playmaking ways, the offense was adding a few incredibly impressive highlights of its own.

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

It was finally the Denver offense's turn to put the game away, but it was still the Broncos' defense that ensured an easier time of it when safety David Bruton, Jr., snagged a pass mid-air with his own tip-drill on the Broncos' 37-yard-line with less than four minutes to play.

That interception kept the Broncos in the lead, 17-12, and gave Peyton Manning and Co. a little breathing room for its final drive that desperately needed a score to thwart a threatening Lions offense led by Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate.

And just as we have seen the last two games, Manning and the offense went to work when it counted most, scoring a well-timed touchdown just a minute and half later that for all practical purposes solidified the win at 24-12 and ultimately put the Broncos at 3-0.

Denver now stands alone at the top of the AFC West and is just one of seven undefeated teams in the NFL.

But it was the 34-yard deep ball to Emmanuel Sanders for a first down that made that final touchdown drive so darn special.

Manning had been taking a lot of grief in the press for no longer having the deep throw.

Sanders had been defending his future Hall-of-Fame quarterback every chance he got.

Both got a little vindication from the critics - as well as Lions' cornerback Darius Slay who had been spouting off about getting Manning's autograph when he picked him off - on Sunday night in prime time.

Thanks to a lot of magic from a little receiver (by height standards only), Sanders "Randy Mossed" Slay by flat out jumping higher and pulling harder to get the catch.

Manning himself called the catch "huge."

We needed to make a couple of big plays and none bigger than the play 10 made.  -Gary Kubiak on Emmanuel Sanders' 34-yard first down.

Broncos fans might have once called it unbelievable, but we've come to expect this from our clutch 5-foot-11 wide receiver whose smile is about as wide as the Texas native is tall.

Gary Kubiak just called it one of the biggest plays of the game.

"We just keep battling, and we battled for 60 minutes," the head coach said of the offense's performance. "We needed to make a couple of big plays and none bigger than the play 10 made."

That first down set up an 11-yard touchdown pass to Owen Daniels a few plays later, Manning's 535th of his career.

But perhaps the best - if not quiet -  success of Manning's on the night was completing some razor sharp passes and not just one, but a pair, of deep balls - including a 45-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas on a 4th-and-1 just before the half.

Yes. A 45-yard touchdown pass on 4th and 1. You don't call that play unless you have a lot of confidence in your QB.

"I think he played exceptional," Kubiak said of Manning, adding that continued improvement on protection will only add to his success. "We just need to keep battling, keep protecting him the way we protected him and he'll make his plays."

No. 18 was only sacked once, a huge improvement over the three- and four-sack games he's endured the last two weeks. And Manning was quite complimentary of his line for that.

"[The line] really did a good job all night, and we had good communication all night as well," Manning said. "Two games in a row dealing with the crowd noise, five guys playing together for the first time, thought we were on the same page from a communication standpoint. Those are two real positives."

But the quarterback certainly didn't forget about a defense that made it a lot easier on him - as has been the case every game so far.

"Well, it's a part of being a team right? All three phases trying to do their part," Manning said, adding that Brandon McManus, Britton Colquitt are just as much a part of the wins. " And then we know defensively they're going to put a lot of pressure on the other team's offense and force them to make plays and create some plays. So we certainly want to do our part."

With its best showing in a game so far, the Broncos offense did its part to stay on the field and score points.

Although the run game continued to sputter, with just 41 yards total, Manning completed 31 of 42 passes, threw two touchdowns and had one unfortunate but well-played interception from Lions' defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.

Operating out of the pistol formation much of the game, Manning and Kubiak thought the hybrid shotgun/one-back offense - which was used successfully by the Packers against the Lions - could be effective for the Broncos. It certainly helped.

"Obviously, I want to get Peyton as comfortable as I possibly can in what we're trying to do. ... I know he was very comfortable tonight, I could tell," Kubiak said, adding that better protection was a key to that as much as formation. "Obviously, we didn't run the ball very good. That's a battle right now. We're going to keep battling, ... we made some progress offensively, but we need to continue to make some more."

And as has been the case since the beginning of preseason, the Broncos defense is proving again and again that it can not only stop an advancing offense, but it can also make huge plays to change the course of a game.

From sacks to interceptions to blocked kicks and forced fumbles, this defense is "like a pack of wild dogs," says Bruton.

"That's just our mentality," said No. 30, who made one of the two ball-hawking plays of the game and earned a game ball from Kubiak. "Guys who are hungry, guys who want to hunt...who want that ball and want to make a big play. Nobody shies away from making that big play in this defense."

Like the rest of the team, Kubiak loves this mentality.

"They've been exceptional," Kubiak said, while also acknowledging a need to eliminate costly penalties. "We have to do that. Some of the drives given up were penalty-aided, but we continue to play hard defensively and we find a way to get our hands on the ball. We've been special at that."

Special is a bit of an understatement, as the Broncos have 10 takeaways and 10 sacks through the first three games of the season - tops in the league.

DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller put pressure on Stafford all night, who escaped a potential sack nine times while still suffering four of them. But Ware and Miller both noted that the pressure is where the aggression starts. Despite no sacks on his stat sheet, Miller believes he helped in rattling the Lions' QB.

It doesn't matter who's out there. Everybody is playing aggressive, doing their technique, making big plays.   -DeMarcus Ware on the defense as a whole.

"That's always on the board, get pressure on the quarterback, so I think we accomplished that," Miller said, adding that the effectiveness of the defense is a combination of scheme, coaches and players. "I think it starts with the personalities we have around the facility from the coaching staff to our players. I would be lying if I said it was this or that, but I feel good about where we are."

Ware added that first or second string doesn't really make a difference either - every player on the defense is ready to bring it.

"It doesn't matter who's out there," Ware said. "Everybody's out there playing aggressive, they're doing their technique and making those big plays. They've come at the right time in these last two weeks. I'm just proud of the guys for just playing that way."