Denver is 3-0 despite a shaky defense

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

DENVER -- The Broncos, expected to be too hampered by youth to make a real playoff push, are one of the big stories of the early NFL season at 3-0.

Their offense is dynamic, having scored 114 points. Denver's 34 points Sunday was its lowest output so far. There is plenty to be excited about in Denver.

Yet, in the winning locker room, the focus wasn't on the unbeaten record nor was it on Denver's spectacular offense. It was all on the defense.

That's what happens when you follow up a 39-38 win with a 34-32 survival. As they did last week against visiting San Diego, the Broncos' defense squandered a 21-3 lead. New Orleans never led in this game but the Broncos seemed like the team playing from behind in the second half.

Should a winning defense allow 502 yards of offense? Nothing can put a damper on a 3-0 start like a defense that has allowed almost 1,000 yards and 70 points in the past two weeks.

"It doesn't feel like we won this game," Broncos cornerback and captain Champ Bailey said. "They should have never been in this football game. We have to play better ... We need to be winning games by a lot more with the offense we have."

Like last week against San Diego, Denver was fortunate to win at all. Saints kicker Martin Gramatica missed a 43-yard field goal with 1:55 to go in the game and the Saints trailing by two points. Last week, Denver won with a two-point conversion with 24 seconds to go three plays after a controversial official's call in which San Diego should have gotten the ball on a Jay Cutler fumble.

"Sometimes, it's good to be a little lucky," Bailey said.

What is happening on offense in Denver, however, is not luck. Not even close. The Denver offense is a scoring machine. This team can make a real run if the defense doesn't implode.

The Denver defense knows where the onus falls.

"We have just start making more plays, it's as simple as that," Denver weakside linebacker D.J. Williams said. "We know how good this team can be if we start doing a better job."

After a disastrous 2007 on defense, the focus by new defensive coordinator Bob Slowik was to stop the run. Denver was 30th against the run last season.

Denver, which ran a 3-4 defense at times Sunday, is doing a better job against the run. But it is being sliced up in the passing game. Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw for 421 yards. Last week, San Diego's Philip Rivers tossed for 377 easy yards. Giving up 798 yards in the air in two games is not a recipe for NFL success. Trading stopping the run for being an air-attack sieve is a Band-Aid that is not going to last.

As silly as it sounds, though, the Denver defense did come up big in a few situations Sunday. There is reason to believe the Broncos, who are swarming to the ball better than they did last year, can turn it around.

Middle linebacker Nate Webster scored on a 34-yard fumble return. Denver had a goal-line stand at the end of the second half and on third down and 1 on Denver's 24, on the play before Gramatica's miss. Williams hammered Pierre Thomas for a one-yard loss, forcing the field-goal attempt.

"Our defense made a play when they had to," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said.

Still, New Orleans had way too many big plays -- five of more than 20 yards.

"That's what we have to cut down, the big plays," Williams said. "We have to do that."

Should Denver give up a ton of big plays next week, it should worry. The Broncos travel to Kansas City to play the Chiefs, who have scored 32 points in three games. Kansas City's 14 points in a 38-14 loss at Atlanta on Sunday was its highest point total of the season.

There is little chance Kansas City can hang with Denver's offense. But in every Denver game, the question is: Can the Broncos' defense start taking pressure off the offense?