ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Yes, the Denver Broncos' defense is better than last season’s version.
It’s a healthier group, at least to this point, has more impact players dispersed on the depth chart and has more speed across the board.
Just don’t try to sell it as a finished product to head coach John Fox.
"We’re not even to halftime right now," Fox said Friday. "We’re not even halfway through the regular season, there is a lot of football left to be played. I like what we’re doing, I like the way they’ve worked and gone about their business, but we’re not kicking back, there is plenty left to do."
With that in mind, and after a long look at the game video, here are some thoughts on the Broncos’ defense and special teams:
The Broncos limited the Chargers’ run game during Thursday night's 35-21 win, kept wide receiver Keenan Allen from doing too much damage and kept the San Diego offense off balance. But if there was one matchup the Chargers did win, it came when the Chargers consistently found tight end Antonio Gates matched up on the Broncos' safeties. Gates is certainly an impact player at the position, and has been a difficult matchup for any defense over the past 12 seasons. But Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers consistently went to Gates when Gates had either Quinton Carter or T.J. Ward in tow. On the Chargers’ first scoring drive of the game Gates forced a pass interference penalty on Carter to convert a third-and-6 situation to go with a 31-yard reception over Carter to convert a third-and-20. Gates later scored a fourth-quarter touchdown over Ward. The Broncos have succeeded plenty this season because their personnel allows them to play more man coverage than most defenses, but this was one time when an offense found the matchup and kept hammering away. The Broncos did limit Gates to just five receptions, but two of those were touchdowns -- Gates’ 31-yard catch set up another score from the 2-yard line as well -- and two resulted in third-down conversions.
Quality personnel work is always not seeing what a player is, but seeing what he could be. To find those that fit what you do and will grow into the job along the way. Exhibit A in the Broncos’ defense will always be cornerback Chris Harris Jr., as an undrafted player who has simply become one of the league’s best in coverage. On Thursday night, linebacker Brandon Marshall, who spent most of the 2013 season on the team’s practice squad, was another example. Marshall showed anticipation with closing speed to the ball in limiting the Chargers’ ability to get rookie running back Branden Oliver in space to use his quickness. Marshall was credited with 10 tackles, five coming on receptions by Oliver, who gained more than 3 yards on just one of the plays.
The Broncos consistently won the line of scrimmage in the game and in what may be one of the bigger differences between this year’s defense and last year’s is it won the line of scrimmage in both their bigger base personnel as well as in the lighter specialty packages in the nickel and dime. Of the Chargers' first 15 plays from scrimmage, six went for negative yardage. For the game the Broncos forced the Chargers into eight plays for negative yardage, including two sacks on Rivers. That total doesn’t include cornerback Aqib Talib's tackle on Oliver for a 5-yard loss in the third quarter, a play that was negated by an illegal use of the hands penalty on defensive tackle Marvin Austin.
Kicker Brandon McManus continues to show a power leg since the Broncos made the decision to keep him over Matt Prater. But the jury is still out as to how McManus will react to a kick with the game in the balance. But long before Prater showed his late-game consistency, nobody knew how Prater would react, either. Kickers don’t get to rehearse those, they have to go through them and earn their way. But McManus has dealt with a groin injury at least some since he was retained -- he was held out of one practice in each of the past two weeks. Both of his misses this season -- he's now 6-of-8 -- have come from 53 yards and both he hooked left, the second of which came Thursday night. That is often an indication of a too-aggressive leg swing on approach to the ball or a slight shift in the plant foot. It will bear watching in the coming weeks.
Much like they did in training camp the Broncos continue to battle some ball security issues in the return game as Isaiah Burse caught a punt Thursday night with his back toward the coverage unit and Andre Caldwell lost a fumble, though the official ruled after a replay review that he was down before the ball came out on a 30-yard kickoff return in the second quarter. Replays showed the ball moving before his forearm made contact with the ground. Overall the Broncos are currently 26th in the league in punt returns and ninth on kickoff returns.