Broncos still covet No. 1 defense ranking after a season of struggle

After Sunday's shutout of the Jets, the Broncos defense moved up to No. 1 in the NFL. Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Denver Broncos defense doesn't like the pile of touchdowns it has surrendered this season -- 26 passing touchdowns alone -- but the group has still scrapped its way to the top of the league's official rankings.

"We have some times when we haven't held people to field goals after turnovers or whatever, we give up big plays for touchdowns instead," cornerback Aqib Talib said. "But I don't see a lot of defenses who can do what we do, who do what we did against [the Jets]."

The Broncos' 23-0 win against the New York Jets last Sunday gave them their first shutout since 2005. The Broncos held the Jets to 100 net yards of offense, which moved them back to No. 1 in the league's defensive rankings; the NFL uses yards allowed per game as its official measuring stick.

The Broncos lead the way, allowing 280.5 yards per game, and are No. 2 against the pass (191.1 yards) and tied for No. 3 against the run (89.5). And in the overwhelming disappointment of this 4-9 season, staying at the top matters to the Broncos, who have finished among the league's top four in total defense in four of the previous five seasons, including No. 1 in 2015.

"Missing the playoffs always hurts, but we want to play it out," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said.

And with that in mind, here are some things to watch for in Thursday's Broncos-Colts game (8:25 p.m. ET, NBC/NFL Network):

Where it hurts: Two of the Colts' top four pass-catchers play the positions that have vexed the Broncos in pass coverage for much of the season. Tight end Jack Doyle leads the Colts in catches with 64 and running back Frank Gore is fourth on the team with 21 receptions. Repeatedly this season, opponents have isolated the Broncos' linebackers and safeties in coverage to convert third downs or to close things out in the scoring zone. Safety Justin Simmons did not practice Monday or Tuesday because of a high ankle sprain and is not expected to play against the Colts. It means if the Broncos go to their dime package, safety Will Parks and rookie safety Jamal Carter will both be in the formation as well as in the Colts' crosshairs.

Get to Brissett: If the league were to hand out some kind of on-field valor award, Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett would have to get heavy consideration. No starting quarterback has been sacked more this season than the 48 times Brissett has been taken down -- that's nine more than the next quarterbacks (Matthew Stafford and Josh McCown, each with 39 sacks). Brissett wasn't sacked during limited duty in the opener, but he was sacked 10 times by the Jacksonville Jaguars and eight times by the Tennessee Titans. The Broncos' chances of creating turnovers and manufacturing the kind of tempo they had in their win over the Jets greatly increase if they keep the heat on Brissett.

Find more in the run game: The Broncos had a season-high nine rushing attempts for no gain or negative yardage against the Jets -- four of Devontae Booker's nine carries went for no gain or for a loss. And while they were still able to create the tempo on offense they needed against the Jets with their commitment to pounding the ball -- 35 carries -- they need to carve out a little more room in Indianapolis. Offenses have had particular success on the edges in the run game against the Colts, who surrender 7.5 yards per carry on runs around the offense's left end and 4.6 yards per carry on runs around the right end. That has not been the strength of the Broncos, given they have averaged just 2.5 yards per carry around right end and 3.8 yards per carry around left end. They've been more effective working the middle of the formation, but whatever they choose to do the rushing numbers will have a lot to say about how it goes for them.

Two in a row: OK, it has been quite some time since the Broncos had two consecutive wins. As in, since they defeated the Los Angeles Chargers in the season opener and then followed that with a win against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 2. And while the Broncos have vexed most folks around them with their inability to bounce back from mistakes, their inability to handle whatever slivers of prosperity to come their way has been equally puzzling. They handled their business against a struggling team last Sunday, and if they're serious about building some momentum to close out a difficult season, they have to show the same kind of attention to detail. Look for turnovers as your indicator. The Broncos didn't have a turnover against the Jets, and it was the first time they had played without one since Oct. 1 -- which, before Sunday, had been their last win.