Mainly, the Broncos defense is downright scary.
Fans should be frightened for the Broncos offense and its running game (57 yards total with a 2.3 per carry average), or its efficiency in the red zone (two of six), but the scare-factor from the defense just got the Broncos another ‘W,’ keeping them at the top in the competitive AFC West.
"This was a playoff game for us," said Darian Stewart, who contributed one of the Broncos’ three interceptions. "To get where we have to go, we have to win these types of games and this was a big test for us. We had guys out and we needed other guys to step and they did. I’m happy we’re where we’re at and we’ll get ready for Oakland."
Sitting at 6-2 is certainly something to celebrate, but no one – especially the coach – is happy where the offense "is at."
"I’m proud of the fact that we mustered up a couple of big drives in the second half, but we turned the ball over in the red zone," Kubiak said. "We were 2-for-6 and still won the game. That usually doesn’t happen."
It doesn’t happen unless you have a defense that considers itself the offense.
"No one is waiting around for somebody else to make a play," Von Miller said of the defense. "We’re all out there trying to make plays from left corner to right corner and everybody in between."
And there were a slew of playmakers on the defensive side of the ball.
From T.J. Ward’s omnipresence during the game (team-leading 10 tackles, a sack, an interception and two QB hits) to third-string corner Lorenzo Doss’ absolutely critical knockdowns (including the touchdown-saving masterpiece on 4th-and-2 against Hunter Henry in the end zone late in the fourth quarter), the defense was on fire for four quarters.
Ward - known by his teammates as "Taz" for the Tasmanian Devil - jumpstarted it with his sack on Rivers during the Chargers third drive of the game, forcing their second punt. Miller, Ware (negated), Crick and Justin Simmons would add three more in the game eventually.
Two drives after Ward’s sack, as the offense continued to stall with its fourth drive ending in a punt, the Broncos’ defense broke open.
DeMarcus Ware – back in the game for the first time since breaking his arm Week 2 against the Colts – strip-sacked Rivers and Corey Nelson picked up the ball and ran in for what should have been a touchdown, but the refs called it back, saying the play was an incomplete pass.
No matter, the defense had fully announced itself.
"We feed off of those big plays," Ware said. "If it’s a sack, a batted ball down… those are the big plays that we needed to win the game."
A roughing the kicker penalty kept the Chargers’ offense on the field, but Bradley Roby would have none of it. Starting in place of an injured Aqib Talib, Roby made one of the most athletic interceptions of the year before turning and taking the ball 48 yards to the house.
"I saw out of the corner of my eye that the ball was kind of high, I anticipated the drop and when it flew in the air, I just kind of found it and took it to the house," Roby said.
As Roby was flying toward the end zone, defensive coordinator was flying to his back on the sidelines after taking a direct hit from Chargers’ running back Melvin Gordon. The celebration for Roby’s pick-six quickly turned to Phillips’ condition as the 69-year-old coach was loaded onto a stretcher and taken to a hospital (*editor’s note: Wade was released this morning and is reportedly fine).
As if the Broncos defense needed any more motivation, suddenly "playing for Wade" became a rallying point.
"We had to play for somebody and when that happened, I knew that he wanted to be out there," Stewart said. "The most important thing for us was just going out here and getting this win for him."
The next two possessions for the Chargers resulted in nothing, with a punt and a missed field goal. But a curious play call on 4th-and-6 from San Diego’s 46-yard line for a deep pass down the sidelines rather than at least trying a long field goal or punting, put the Broncos D back on the clock.
And it showed up once again as Jared Crick sacked Rivers on the final play to prevent the chance for an easy field goal attempt.
"We got good pressure today. That’s what we wanted to do," Crick said. "That’s what we prepared for all day and we executed. That was the biggest thing for us. We did our jobs and that’s what we’ve got to do week-to-week."
That may be, but the offense is going to have to get some consistency in its play-calling and production or this defense is going to wear down. Luckily, a bunch of backup defenders in for starters – Doss, Roby, Nelson, Justin Simmons and Shaquil Barrett, not to mention Reggie Herring in for Phillips as DC – stepped up big and rescued the offense.
The @Broncos have scored just 13 of a possible 28 points when they had the ball inside the San Diego 15-yard line today.— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) October 30, 2016
Quarterback Trevor Siemian acknowledged room for improvement.
"Obviously, I’m on a great team with a great defense so it helps that we’re still winning some games," said the starter who ended with slightlybetter stats (20/38, 1 INT and 0 TDs) than his counterpart on the Chargers (20/47, 3 INTs, 2 TDs) but who didn’t look anywhere close to Rivers’ league in terms of decision-making and making it tough on a defense.
Kubiak was equally dismissive about allowing blame on the quarterback for the lack of scoring, but he definitely voiced concern.
"The quarterback, fullback and halfback. They’re all first time players. It is what it is. We have to find a way to be consistent with that group," the coach said. "If we played good red zone football today, we’re going to look like a really good football team. That’s the thing that kept us from finishing up some plays. We needed to stay aggressive and make some plays."
Demaryius Thomas, who caught five of his 10 targets including a superb grab on an imperfect 40-yard pass, stated the obvious but nevertheless the truth.
"The group of 11 guys on the field have got to figure out how to get the ball into the end zone," he said. "Whatever the coaches call, we’ve got to execute it."
The offense wasn’t without several redeeming plays, particularly from Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas, both making huge catches to move the chains way down field.
And thanks to great field position following Stewart’s interception to start the second half, running back Devontae Booker rushed for two plays from the 10, with the second one to the end zone. Booker almost added a second touchdown after Ward picked off Rivers on the next drive and got the Broncos to San Diego’s seven, but a fumble as the rookie running back was reaching for the end zone added to the Broncos’ red zone woes.
But after the Chargers scored on their next drive, the Broncos answered with their own additional touchdown, courtesy of Juwan Thompson, who was just activated off the practice squad on Thursday following C.J. Anderson’s move to IR.
"I’m happy about it, but the win is most important," Thompson said of his score. "You can get as many touchdowns as you want, but if you don’t get the win, it’s pointless."
Thankfully the defense was on fire and ready for anything to keep that win in the game plan.
As he’s prone to do, Rivers had the Chargers still in the game with just over two minutes to play, down eight points and threatening at the Broncos’ two-yard line.
But a four-play goal-line stand proved the mettle of this defense. Four incomplete passes – including Doss’ massive save – gave the Broncos the ball on their own one with 2:31 to go.
STOPPED BY @Lorenzo_Doss! Denver's defense holds like only they can, stopping the Chargers 4 times in a row from Denver's 2 yard line!— MileHighReport (@MileHighReport) October 30, 2016
The offense could do nothing, but a 68-yard booming punt from Riley Dixon at least put Rivers on his own 33 for another shot to beat the Broncos and sweep the series with the AFC West foes.
Crick, Miller, Nelson and Derek Wolfe would not let it be, however, as they stiffened up following one first down on the drive by Gordon and then held Rivers to three incompletions.
Chargers’ coach Mike McCoy gave the Broncos defense the credit it deserved.
"I mean you look at the team and it feeds off of turnovers. It starts up front with their front getting after the quarterback," the former Broncos’ offensive coordinator said. "You look at the holes and things like that and it creates problems for you. They did a nice job."
The turnovers, the sacks, the big plays…that was the plan all along – whether Wade Phillips was on the sideline or not.
"We were just trying to go out there and get another turnover. We knew exactly what type of team that we were playing," said Miller, who added one sack on Rivers, bringing his lifetime total on No. 17 to 14.
It was a full defensive team effort from the Orange Rush to the No Fly Zone to the D-line, and it will take that all season while the offense tries to figure out balance with the running game and some improvements to its quarterback and offensive line play.
In the meantime, Ward has a solution.
"I told [Darian Stewart] on the sidelines, I said, ‘Stew, we both got picks and we both were on the cover (of the game program) today,’" Ward noted to his teammate. "We’ve got to be on the cover every week."
Not a bad move since next up is an Oakland Raiders team that for once is playing as scary as their fans.
Been nearly 14 years since a Broncos-Raiders game meant as much as next week's will. Prime time, two old rivals clashing. Just feels right.— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) October 31, 2016