On Sunday, the Denver Broncos fell behind the Washington Redskins 21-7 in the third quarter after a DeAngelo Hall pick-six. But the rest of the game, Denver outscored Washington 38-0 behind a suffocating defense, led by a ferocious pass rush and a much improved pass defense that shut down Robert Griffin III.
How good is Denver's defense now, with Von Miller back and an improved pass rush?
Before this game, Denver was considered to have a good run defense, but a porous pass defense (allowing nearly 320 yards per game, ranking 32nd in the league). And Washington actually a lot of success running the ball Sunday. Alfred Morris ran hard through some huge holes as the Broncos' run defense struggled quite a bit, surrendering 5.5 yards a carry. It's important to remember, though, that Denver's run defense has probably been a bit overrated, since the Broncos have been playing with the lead for most of the games this season and opposing offenses have had to throw to keep up with Manning and the Broncos' amazing offense. We also saw a lot more 3-4 looks from Denver's defense on Sunday, with Miller and Shaun Phillips at outside linebacker and Kevin Vickerson manning the nose. The logic behind this tactic was to take away the outside run by Griffin with Miller and Phillips playing outside contain. But again, it helped to allow for Morris' impressive afternoon.
While Pierre Garcon and Jordan Reed combined for 15 catches, with Reed racking up 90 yards (most of which came after the catch), the Redskins threw for only a paltry 154 yards in the game -- and 48 of those came from Kirk Cousins when the game was well out of reach. This was a dominant performance by Denver's pass defense, which was without Champ Bailey and Tony Carter for the entire game and lost Duke Ihenacho late in the first half. Bailey and Carter have had their struggles this season, but Ihenacho has been outstanding throughout the 2013 season. The Broncos like to play a lot of man coverage and stuck with that strategy, as well as bump-and-run on the outside. Rodgers-Cromartie played a great game, often eliminating Garcon from the equation. Garcon finished the game with just 46 receiving yards and no big plays, and Denver picked off Manning four times. In fact, Griffin was fortunate that he wasn't intercepted early in the second quarter when he made a simply awful decision with the ball while under pressure.
But the No. 1 key in this game was the constant pressure that the Broncos applied to Griffin, who finally departed late in the game with a knee injury. He was sacked only three times, but was under constant duress. The biggest reason for this was Miller. Miller made some plays in Indianapolis last weekend, but was not a dominant player. He is fantastic stunting or slanting to the inside, but few rush off the edge with Miller's combination of first-step quickness, pass-rush moves, agility, balance, leverage and closing burst when the quarterback is in sight. While he had a fantastic strip sack early in the fourth quarter, Miller's stat line wasn't overwhelming Sunday, but he is a truly great player -- and great players make the job of those around them easier, as well as eat up double-teams. He is even more valuable to this team now after the loss of Denver's other edge rusher, Elvis Dumervil, this offseason.
We saw that on full display Sunday, as the Redskins had to account for Miller in their pass protection schemes which made Phillips, Robert Ayers, Derek Wolfe and the up-and-coming Malik Jackson all the more lethal. Defensive ends by trade, Ayers, Wolfe and Jackson can all create pass-rush matchup problems on the interior with their quickness. Griffin rarely looked comfortable in this game, took many hits and flat-out missed open receivers at times while mixing in some poor decisions. The Broncos were allowing deep completions at a disconcerting rate before this game, but the longest completion of the day for Washington was 17 yards, most of which came after the catch. The reason for such a change? Denver's pass rush, which got consistent pressure without blitzing, allow the Broncos' secondary to not have to cover for as long.
Next week Denver has its bye, which should suit Manning's ailing ankle, Denver's reshuffled offensive line and the Broncos' other assorted injuries. This team could be at its best -- and will have to be -- as it returns in Week 10 in San Diego before hosting the Chiefs, traveling to New England and then to Kansas City in Week 13. With an improved pass rush, and Bailey eventually returning from injury, Denver has just widened the gap between itself and the rest of the AFC.