ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There is a theory that John Elway the NFL executive has tried to construct a team for which John Elway the quarterback would have found it difficult to face.
The roster Elway and his staff have constructed has the Denver Broncos at 3-1 behind its stout defense. The team doesn’t have to look far -- its trophy case -- to see how far a dominant defense can take them.
The team’s Super Bowl 50 run was powered by a defense that finished that season near the top of every major defensive category.
"It’s early, it’s only been one month into the season," said linebacker Von Miller. "There have been a lot of seasons where teams go into their bye week undefeated and they don’t win the game after that. You’ve got to constantly fight for success. You’ve got to be desperate every single week for wins or they’ll evade you."
So consider many of the Broncos' veteran players, the guys who earned Super Bowl rings the last time around, cautiously optimistic. After four games the Broncos are No. 1 in total defense, No. 1 in run defense, tied for No. 6 in scoring defense and No. 10 in pass defense.
What that says is the Broncos took their biggest deficiency on defense last season -- they finished 28th in run defense at 130.3 rushing yards allowed per game -- and made a significant effort to repair it. They’re surrendering 50.8 yards rushing per game -- a pace that would be exceptionally difficult to maintain -- but it is evidence of the potential the group has considering the Broncos have largely the same secondary that has finished No. 1 in pass defense in each of the previous two seasons.
They’re trending in the right direction with the attention-grabber in all of that being the Broncos held Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott, LeSean McCoy and Marshawn Lynch to a combined 95 yards rushing. But all the Broncos really want to talk about is what the defense could be.
The Broncos have given up a big play or two in the passing game, allowing seven touchdown passes in four games. By comparison, they allowed 13 touchdown passes all of last season. They haven’t been as effective as they would like to be defending in the red zone and they have yet to force a fumble.
"So we can do some things," said cornerback Aqib Talib. "We’ve got to put the work in. We’ve given up too many plays, the way we look at it. It’s all about getting those game plans and making the plays. You want to be the top defense at the end of the season, that’s always a goal."
Asked this past week what he believed the ceiling could be for the defense, Broncos coach Vance Joseph said, "I think it’s high. It’s only two or three plays per game. It’s really on us. It’s about focus and details. It’s a high ceiling for that entire group. Stopping the run the way we have, that forces teams to be one-dimensional. Now our pass-rushers can take over the game along with our cover guys. If we stop the run that way for the entire year and play solid pass defense, we’re going to be hard to beat."
The emphasis is on "the entire year." When the Broncos return from their bye, they will have 11 consecutive weeks worth of games to close out the regular season and the three teams currently ranked Nos. 1-3 in total offense (the Patriots, the Chiefs and the Eagles) are all on the schedule in the first five weeks after the bye.
The Broncos will also face five quarterbacks currently ranked among the league’s top 10 in passing yards in the five games immediately following the bye. In order, that’s Eli Manning (fifth in passing yards), Philip Rivers (seventh), Alex Smith (ninth), Carson Wentz (10th) and Tom Brady (first) over their next five weeks.
“I think we should feel good about that but have understanding that it’s not good enough," Joseph said. “We have to continue to work and we have some issues that we need to clean up. They should feel good about that. It’s a hard league and to win three out of four in the first quarter is good for this team."