DENVER – Three observations from the Broncos’ 24-22 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday:
1. AGGRESSIVE DEFENSE IS BACK.
It’s one thing to say you’re going to call blitzes at times beyond the safe and obvious. It’s another to execute them. It’s still another to have the boldness to call the blitz with four starters sidelined to injury, including two recent Pro Bowlers. It’s something else entirely to make that call with 57 seconds remaining, a two-point lead and the opponent just 13 yards away from reasonable field-goal range for an accurate kicker.
Oh, and when it came time to call that blitz in the clutch, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen tuned to cornerback Jonathan Wilhite, a backup pressed into nickelback service who had only been with the team for 13 days since signing after being waived by the New England Patriots.
“We’re not going to be a passive defense in crunch time,” said safety Brian Dawkins. “That’s just not going to be us. Obviously we’re going to be smart about it, but we’re going to continue to pressure.”
Wilhite wasn’t the only Bronco to attack Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton on that play; linebacker Von Miller also headed for the rookie passer, looking for his second sack of the quarter.
“They’ve got to pick one of us (to block),” Miller said. “Most of the time they pick me.”
For the Bengals, it was pick your poison. For the Broncos, it was a sign that the Gandhi defense of most of the last four seasons (i.e. passive resistance) has been replaced by something a little more fierce.
“We already knew what Coach ‘A’ (Allen) was going to call. He’s a wizard out there,” Miller said. “And we weren’t just going to sit back and take what the offense gives us.”
Broncos fans have been waiting six years, since the salad days of defensive coordinator Larry Coyer, to hear those words.
2. STICKING WITH THE RUN.
The flow of the game meant the Broncos didn’t have to abandon the run; the only possession they didn’t run with a lead was their first one. a tone-setting 15-play, 80-yard march that included seven Willis McGahee runs for 29 yards and two Lance Ball carries for eight more.
McGahee ran decisively and steadily. He didn’t dart; he ran for the holes before they closed. While his breakaway speed isn’t what it was five to seven years ago, he generated enough power and snaked through enough seams to finish with 101 yards, even though his longest carry was just 12 yards in length.
“We stayed on our blocks. That’s what killed us Monday night,” McGahee said. “We weren’t staying on our blocks like we were supposed to and the thing about it is we worked on it Saturday, we worked on it, we stayed out extra and made sure we got everything right.”
The extra practice helped on a day where McGahee had more carries than any game since December 2007.
“If something’s not working out well with me, I tell Coach, ‘We need to walk through this; I don’t care if we have to practice 10, 15 minutes, that’s all we needed,’” McGahee said. “And I think that actually helped us.”
The Broncos carried the football 36 times, one of just seven times in the last four seasons that they’ve rushed more than 35 teams. They’re now 6-1 in those games.
3. OVERCOMING MISTAKES.
Not only did the Broncos have to work through the absence of six starters and injuries to wide receiver Eddie Royal and tight end Julius Thomas, but they had to overcome a damaging hat trick of mistakes in the final six minutes: Chris Harris’s penalty for not coming back in bounds fast enough, a Ryan Clady hold that nullified a 9-yard Willis McGahee run and finally McGahee’s third-and-14 scamper to the sideline and out of bounds with 2:39 left.
Harris’s penalty nullified an 82-yard Britton Colquitt punt and cost the Broncos 45 yards of field position, since the Bengals returned the punt on the replayed down to the Denver 45-yard-line. Clady’s hold kept the Broncos from a second-and-1 from which they might have been able to clinch the game; McGahee’s miscue gave the Bengals an extra 39 seconds with which to attempt a game-winning drive.
Each mistake could have cost the Broncos the game on its own. The combination of the three seemed destined to hand the game to the Bengals, just as other mistakes over the last four years turned Broncos victories into humbling defeats. The aggressive defense wouldn’t allow it, and the Broncos won the kind of game that for years they’d lost.