Broncos Embattled Defense Beats Up on Bucs

Alex MarvezCorrespondent IOctober 5, 2008

DENVER - Bill Romanowski. Kyle Mecklenberg. Randy Gradishar.

It only felt like they were back in uniform Sunday for the Denver Broncos.

Having returned for an alumni weekend, those storied defenders were at Invesco Field for one of the NFL's biggest Sunday surprises. A 16-13 Broncos victory over Tampa Bay was spurred by — gasp! — Denver's downtrodden defense.

Call it a modern-day Orange Crush.

The Broncos knocked quarterback Brian Griese out of the game, allowed a long completion of just 17 yards and dominated a Bucs offense that had bullied the opposition en route to a 3-1 start. Denver also surrendered a season-low in points and average yards per play (5.0).

"We can't expect the offense to put up 30, 40 points every week," Broncos outside linebacker Boss Bailey said. "We know this is a team game. We've got to hold our end of the bargain. That's what we did."

It was about time.

The Broncos (4-1) entered with the AFC's highest-scoring offense, but one of the NFL's leakiest defenses. Just like last season, there was no "D" in "Denver" as the unit struggled to stop the run and generate a pass rush.

The Broncos were especially dreadful in last Sunday's 33-19 loss to previously winless Kansas City, getting gouged for 198 rushing yards by Larry Johnson and making Chiefs quarterback Damon Huard look like the second coming of Len Dawson.

The performance triggered a maelstrom of media criticism and infuriated Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, who was particularly upset with the play of his linebackers. Boss Bailey, D.J. Williams and Nate Webster responded by notching 31 of the team's 62 overall tackles to keep Tampa Bay's sound rushing attack in check.

"You get tired of (hearing) it, but a fact is a fact," said Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey (Boss' older brother). "We have been giving up yardage and points. We know we were better than what we've been doing. We just went out and proved it."

Champ Bailey made the game's biggest defensive play midway through the third quarter. Griese—returning to the city where his NFL career began in 1998—already had missed a touchdown pass to wide-open tight end Jerramy Stevens and gotten sacked three times on 22 passing attempts.

The abuse continued as Griese suffered a bruised elbow when clobbered by a blitzing Bailey deep inside Bucs territory.

Thrown out of sync by Denver's extensive use of zone schemes rather than man coverage, Griese never saw Bailey coming. He wasn't supposed to.

"Corners don't blitz a lot, especially us," Bailey said. "Any time you do it, you know they're probably not going to be ready for it."

A rusty Jeff Garcia wasn't ready to replace the sidelined Griese. The Bucs gained as many yards (10) on Garcia's first two series as they lost in false-start penalties. Denver scored twice in that span to take a 16-6 lead with 12:28 remaining.

"We struggled those first few drives" said Garcia, who lost his starting job to Griese after Tampa Bay's season-opener. "Those were not good."

Nor was Bucs coach Jon Gruden's ultra-conservative approach.

Yes, the Bucs began nine of 11 possessions from no better than their 20-yard line largely because of excellent kickoffs by Matt Prater (who also boomed a 55-yard field goal that Gruden said made it "by 25 yards"). But Gruden's play calls were closer to the vest than Jack Bauer's holster.

The most telling sequence: With one timeout and 18 seconds remaining in the first half, the Bucs didn't bother taking a shot at the end zone. Instead, Gruden willingly settled for a 31-yard Matt Bryant field goal to tie the score at 6-6 after calling a Warrick Dunn carry that gained four yards.

Tampa Bay also didn't attempt a single deep throw against a defense that had allowed an NFL-worst 276 passing yards a game.

"Gosh, I thought they would at least take a few shots," Champ Bailey said. "It was a little surprising, but we knew what they like to do is dink and dunk. We were prepared for it."

The biggest negative for Denver's defense came on a play that should have secured the victory. Garcia was intercepted at Tampa Bay's 31-yard line by Marcus Thomas, who temporarily forgot he was a defensive tackle and not Brandon Marshall. Thomas fumbled a wet football at the end of a 20-yard return, and the Bucs recovered.

The play would have proven devastating for the Broncos had Tampa Bay recovered an onsides kick after closing to 16-13 with 2:02 remaining.

"The coaches told us any time a D-lineman makes a play, you've got to get down," Thomas said. "I was trying to make something happen ... Most players told me I did a good job, but the coaches weren't giving me nothing."

Ultimately, all was forgiven. By not giving much to Tampa Bay's offense, Denver now has a two-game lead over San Diego (2-3) in the AFC West.

That's something Broncos players—former and current—can be proud of.

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