Denver defense answers bell

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

DENVER -- The Denver Broncos learned something valuable about themselves Sunday and it is sure to make them sleep much better.

The defense, which had given up at least 32 points in each of the past three games, can win a game for the Broncos. If the Broncos' offense falters or encounters a tough defense, which occurred Sunday, the defense is capable of carrying the day and leading the team to the win.

The Broncos would have lost their second straight game had it not been for a strong defensive performance. Tampa Bay's stellar defense held the Broncos' big-play offense in check, but the Denver defense shut down Tampa Bay's offense as the Broncos won 16-13 to improve to 4-1.

The Denver defense dictated the game.

"I think it came down to our defense just believing in itself," said Broncos cornerback and defensive captain Champ Bailey. "Really it was as simple as that. We got tired of making stupid little mistakes. Last Monday, and especially on Wednesday when we got back to practicing full go, we just said it was time to stop being late to plays. We're always making dumb little mistakes. We all decided there was too much talent here to keep allowing that to happen."

Say what you want about the Buccaneers' challenged offense, this was an important step made by the Denver defense. It was one of desperation. Essentially, Denver had given up on this defense. And no one could be blamed for tossing the unit aside after another unacceptable performance last week.

After a strong opening-season performance in Oakland, in which Denver gave up 14 points, the Broncos were savaged the past three games, giving up 113 points. The unit bottomed out last week when it gave up 33 points to the Kansas City Chiefs in a stunning defeat. The Chiefs have scored 32 points in their other four games combined.

Sunday, Denver was very aggressive and they blitzed more than in recent games. The Broncos had three sacks against Tampa Bay after having six in their previous four games. The Denver pressure was constant. Bailey knocked Bucs quarterback Brian Griese out of the game after he smoked him on a double cornerback blitz.

"We came after them," said Denver defensive end Elvis Dumervil, who registered his first sack of the season. "That's something we have to keep doing."

If the Denver defense has, indeed, found something to build upon, perhaps this Broncos' resurgence will last.

Here are several other key elements for Denver I noticed during the game:

The Denver offense may have taken a big injury hit: Two of Jay Cutler's most dangerous weapons may be facing daunting injuries.

Rookie receiver Eddie Royal left the game with a sprained left ankle in the third quarter after returning a punt. Royal downplayed the seriousness of the injury after the game. He said the injury is a low ankle sprain (less serious than a high ankle sprain) and X-rays showed no broken bones. However, Royal was on crutches and coach Mike Shanahan acknowledged the injury could be serious.

Royal said he is a fast healer and hopes to play next Sunday against visiting Jacksonville. He was replaced by No. 3 receiver Brandon Stokley, who caught the Broncos' only touchdown after replacing Royal.

If Royal misses some time, it will have an impact on the Broncos' offense. Royal, who has 30 catches, has quickly become one of Cutler's favorite targets.

The team could also be without pass-catching tight end Tony Scheffler. He has a left groin injury. He said he will find out Monday morning how serious it is. He did not seem overly confident after the game.

Losing Scheffler would be a blow. He had four catches for 65 yards and he had Denver's longest play of the game a nifty 33-yard catch. Cutler often looks for Scheffler in crucial situations and his loss would take an element away from Denver's offense.

The Broncos have regained the Mile High magic: The Broncos are 3-0 at home and look as if they have gotten out of their home doldrums.

For years Denver was one of the most difficult places in the NFL to play. However, that changed in recent years. After going 8-0 at home in 2005, Denver was beaten hard by Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game in January 2006. That started a tumble.

In 2006, the Broncos were 4-4 at home including a loss to San Francisco on the final day of the season that knocked Denver out of the playoffs. Last season, Denver was 5-3 at home including three straight losses. The lowlight of the streak was a 38-point loss to San Diego.

However, Denver has now won six straight games at home. It plays Jacksonville next week, which beat the Broncos in Denver last season.

Running the hard way: There has been much talk about the Denver running game being uncharacteristically down this season. It entered the game ranked 10th in the NFL in rushing.
Still, there were whispers that no one was afraid of the Denver running game. Sunday's performance probably didn't change that, though the Broncos scratched and clawed for their yardage on the ground.

While Cutler threw for 227 yards, Denver gained 106 yards on 26 carries. Shanahan wants to average five yards a carry; the Broncos averaged 4.1. Michael Pittman had 39 yards and Selvin Young had 38.

The Broncos are going to need a bigger rushing threat or their lack of balance will hurt the team. There is possible help in the form of rookie Ryan Torain. He is expected to start practicing soon. He broke his elbow in early August. Before he injury, the fifth-round pick from Arizona State was making a push to be the starter.

He is a big, powerful back who fits into Denver's zone-blocking schemes. The addition of Torain certainly will not hurt Denver's rushing attack.