ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Before a game had been played this season, Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said this year's defense needed to be closer, in deed, to the 2012 edition rather than last season's.
With two regular-season games remaining, that has come to pass. This year the Broncos are currently No. 4 in total defense (309.4 yards allowed per game), No. 16 in scoring defense (21.6 points per game allowed) and tied for sixth in sacks (38).
Last season they were 19th in total defense to go with 22nd in scoring defense and tied for 13th in sacks as compared to No. 2 in total defense, No. 4 in scoring defense and tied for the league lead in sacks in 2012. Sunday's win in San Diego was the seventh time this season the Broncos have held their opponent to 17 or fewer points, including the last three consecutive games.
Last year the Broncos held just three opponents to 17 or fewer points. In 2012 they held eight opponents to 17 or fewer points before the Baltimore Ravens piled on 38 points in Baltimore's double overtime win in the divisional round of the playoffs.
And after a long look at the video from Sundays win, here are some thoughts on the team's defense and special teams:
Last season Malik Jackson was perhaps the team's most efficient player when he played 521 snaps on defense (52.3 percent of the team's total) and still finished second on the team in sacks (six), led the team in tackles for loss (11) as well as hits on the quarterback (15) all while he led the Broncos' defensive linemen in tackles (42). Sunday Jackson was at his efficient best as in 32 snaps on defense Jackson was consistently disruptive. In the first quarter he pushed Chargers guard Chad Rinehart back into quarterback Philip Rivers nearly causing a fumble -- the play was ruled an incomplete pass after a replay review -- then threw Chargers running back Donald Brown for a 5-yard loss in the third quarter just before batting down a Rivers pass on the next play. There are personnel groupings when Jackson is often the only defensive linemen in a three-point stance in the formation. The Broncos have kept his production up despite Jackson playing roughly the same percentage of snaps thus far, given he's at 51.9 percent of the defense's snaps for the season and has been credited with 35 tackles with two regular-season games to play.
The Broncos are an aggressive lot on defense so it's no surprise a coach who knows them well -- Chargers head coach Mike McCoy -- would try to take advantage of it. The Chargers had some success floating a running back into the pass pattern after the Broncos has begun to rush Rivers in earnest. Donald Brown got free in the first quarter for a 16-yard catch-and-run looping behind the Broncos rushers as they went upfield and in the third quarter. Branden Oliver, after initially blocking linebacker Lerentee McCray, looped in behind the rushers again for a 17-yard gain. Later in the quarter, however, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton recognized another attempt and stayed with Brown in the middle of the field to force an incompletion by Rivers. Defensive end Derek Wolfe also saw it coming in the second half and stayed with Brown to force an incompletion.
The Broncos may have to re-think things at punt returner or consider a more liberal use of the fair catch. Both Wes Welker and Emmanuel Sanders, regulars in the Broncos' three-wide receiver look on offense, took big hits in the return game in Sunday's game. After Welker, who has had multiple concussions over the last two seasons, took a huge hit in traffic in the first quarter, Sanders lined up as the punt returner for the remainder of the day, where he too took a big hit on his 11-yard return in the second quarter. Given Sanders is currently sixth in the league in receiving yards (1,261 yards), he may not be the best alternative in a high-impact job either.
Brandon McManus has given the Broncos exactly what they wanted when they re-signed him off the practice squad just before the team's win over the Buffalo Bills. After surrendering far too much field position against the Kansas City Chiefs after McManus' release in the week leading up to that game, McManus forced four touchbacks in five kickoffs against the Bills at altitude. He then forced five touchbacks in seven kickoffs in San Diego and the Chargers started their drives following those kickoffs five times on the 20-yards line to go with the 24-yard line and the 18-yard line. And on those seven drives following kickoffs, having to go the long way, the Chargers scored one touchdown to go with a missed field goal, three punts and two interceptions.