Denver Broncos  

 

Chris Harris, Von Miller lead stellar Denver Broncos defense

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OAKLAND, Calif. -- As Broncos and Raiders players, coaches and staff filed into the singular exit tunnel of the O.co Coliseum after Denver's 16-10 victory Sunday, an assistant coach made his way over to me.

"I don't know how we keep doing it, but we keep winning," he said.

Moments later, inside the Broncos locker room, another assistant coach approached: "All I know is we are 5-0," and he moved on without another word.

Every game, all season

It's as if those who know, really know that Denver is walking a fine line with its undefeated start. A perfect record doesn't mean this is a perfect team.

There is no secret to the Broncos' success, though. Their defense is spectacular. The line, linebackers and secondary are good, and they know they are good -- and they aren't settling for anything less than excellence.

"We have to be the best defense on the field," safety T.J. Ward said.

That's easy to say, but the mindset has translated into production. Against the Raiders, it was on full display.

The guys in silver and black are better than they've been in recent years. Don't doubt it. They are talented, hungry and nasty, and they are going to be problematic for any team they face. They just don't know how to win games like the one they played Sunday against the Broncos -- yet.

Against Denver, Oakland wasn't intimidated. Its defense didn't need much help in making Peyton Manning look old -- the QB handled that quite fine on his own despite putting up decent numbers (22 of 35, 266 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs). The Raiders roughed up a running game that hasn't been much of one all season and kept the Broncos' offense off the field for the most part. (Oakland held an eight-minute edge in time of possession.)

Safety Charles Woodson -- who, unlike Manning, is apparently 39 going on 27 -- picked off Peyton twice: the first came in the end zone at the end of the first half, the second, a momentum-changing interception on the sideline that led to the normally stoic Woodson celebrating like it was 1999.

They were the first interceptions Woodson had of Manning since they entered the NFL together in 1998.

Yet, for every play Oakland made, Denver trumped it. Broncos cornerback Chris Harris intercepted a Derek Carr pass and returned it for a 74-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to seal the game and let the Raiders know that, regardless of how hard they tried, W's aren't given for effort.

After the game, Harris -- the best player in the NFL a lot of fans and especially media continually fail to recognize -- said the Broncos know the defense has to carry this team. It wasn't so much a shot at the offense as it was him stating the obvious: The playmakers are on the defense.

From forcing the fumble by Kansas City's Jamaal Charles at the end of the game to claim a stunning victory in Week 2 to forcing three turnovers in defeating the Raiders despite not scoring an offensive touchdown, Denver's D is its calling card.

The Broncos had a good defense over the past few years under former defensive coordinator and current Raiders Coach Jack Del Rio. Of course, it was overshadowed by the Presence of Peyton.

Now, Manning is not the point of emphasis, at least as it pertains to why the team is winning.

Linebacker Von Miller, who had a spectacular strip-sack of Carr in which he hit the quarterback and just took the ball from him, said there has never been a discussion from coaches or players about the defense carrying the team. Nobody has said, "Just hold things down while the offense figures things out."

Miller said the defense is just playing hard and the smothering, turnover-stirring results are a result of that.

Miller is being a good teammate by saying as much publicly.

The defense is having to hold things down -- and maybe it will for a lot longer, as the offense figures things out.

Manning might not get his groove back. The banged-up offensive line might not create holes for the running backs. This can be counted on: Opposing defenses will continue to crowd the box, jam the wide receivers and dare Manning to beat them with the deep ball.

So the defense will have to keep things rolling, and there is nothing to suggest that it can't. Keep in mind, a lot of the damage Denver did against Oakland came without outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who sustained a back injury that is expected to sideline him a couple of weeks.

The front seven is so fast and tenacious. Plus, like a strong running back, those guys get better as the game goes along. Then there is the secondary. With apologies to the "Legion of Boom," Denver cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Harris are arguably the best tandem in the NFL and safeties Darian Stewart and Ward are strong. Very strong.

Much credit has been given to defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who once again is creating magic in his first season with a team. Keep in mind, Phillips was not Denver's top choice to take over as DC. Coach Gary Kubiak wanted Cincinnati secondary coach Vance Joseph for that role, but the Bengals refused to let Joseph out of his contract. Enter Phillips.

Interestingly, I asked Miller about Phillips' influence and his propensity to scheme favorable matchups for players to shine. Miller downplayed the X's and O's. Miller said the aggressiveness of what Denver does with him and Ware and other perimeter players almost always leads to teams using additional pass protection, having tight ends, receivers or running backs "chip" them before getting into those pass routes. That pretty much results in three receivers getting out on routes and, Miller said, that's easy pickings for the defensive backfield.

As for Denver's overall record, it should be pointed out that none of the teams it has defeated has a winning record. It should also be pointed out that part of the reason for that is because the Broncos put an "L" in those teams' record column.

The Broncos face Cleveland next before heading to their bye week. If they get to 6-0, they'll unapologetically take it. The wins they're stacking up now and the distance they're creating in the AFC West could play into them having home games in the playoffs.

Somewhere along the way, the law of averages suggests that the offense will have its Sunday. Maybe a few of them.

Harris, though, used an old cliché to state where this team is and hopes to be when it matters most.

"Defense wins championships," he said.

He might be getting ahead of himself, but it has won Denver five games to start the season.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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