ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- After six games the Denver Broncos defense leads the league in sacks (26), pass defense (192.2 passing yards allowed per game) as well as takeaways (17) and is No. 2 in points allowed per game (17.0).
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has consistently lauded the team’s speed on that side of the depth chart, the ability of outside linebackers Von Miller as well as DeMarcus Ware in the pass rush and has called the cornerback tandem of Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib the “best I’ve ever had."
All of those players were with the Broncos in 2014, so why has this Broncos defense performed better so far than previous editions? The top five reasons why:
Faster is better. Over the last handful of seasons the Broncos defenders have expressed their desire to play faster and that the team had the personnel to be its best “when we just go play fast," as Harris has put it. Phillips has turned the group loose with an attacking style because he has the cover corners in Harris, Talib and Bradley Roby to lock things down on the back end. Talib has said that “we don’t have to hesitate, we’re always attacking, we play faster than we have." Miller has said Phillips has simplified things, that the Broncos are well-prepared, but “Coach Wade wants us to go get the ball. We don’t have to work through a bunch of things. We’re in the right place to go get the ball."
The additions have worked out. Shaquil Barrett spent much of the 2014 season on the practice squad but has been a revelation this season. He’s tied for second on the team with 3.5 sacks and has consistently forced the issue when he’s been in the game. Vance Walker has been a versatile player up front and safety Darian Stewart has been an every down player, contributing an interception and a forced fumble. Toss in linebacker Danny Trevathan, who missed most of 2014 with three separate left leg injuries. He is second on the team in tackles with 39.
They go for it. When the game is on the line, the Broncos have forced the issue. Coach Gary Kubiak has described it as “sell the farm." While the Broncos have rushed four much of the time against opposing quarterbacks, Phillips has varied the personnel in the four -- 11 different players have at least one sack -- and when the Broncos have rushed five or six, they have made impact plays. They rushed six against the Ravens once, and the result was a Talib interception return for a touchdown. They rushed six one time against the Chiefs, also a Talib interception. They rushed six four times against the Raiders, and among those plays was Harris' 74-yard touchdown return. And they rushed six four times against the Browns and had a sack to go with an interception in those snaps.
They handle first down. There is an old adage on defense that you earn the right to rush the passer, meaning a defense won’t be in position to go after opposing quarterbacks unless it handles its business on first down. And the Broncos are the toughest defense to move the ball against on first down as opponents have averaged just 3.6 yards per first-down play. That puts the Broncos well in front of everyone else and they are the only team allowing fewer than 4 yards per first-down play.
They seize the moment. Often defensive players get their hands on the ball and can’t reel it in. So a pass is batted down instead of being an interception, or a loose ball on the ground is kicked around and the offense regains possession. But the Broncos close the deal when it comes to turnovers and lead the league with 17 takeaways in six games. They’ve scored four touchdowns, or two more than the running backs combined. “When they get their hands on the ball, they’re turning it over, turning it into scoring opportunities," Kubiak said.