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The Power of the Big Play

Posted Nov 14, 2005

All season long, other defensive backs have made game-turning plays. Sunday it was Darrent Williams' turn as Denver turned back Oakland 31-17.

 

Once Again, a Timely Interception Paves Way to Victory, This Time 31-17 Over Raiders

 

Darrent Williams
Darrent Williams was all smiles as he celebrated his 80-yard interception return with Jason Elam. PHOTO: ERIC LARS BAKKE
Darrent Williams
His first NFL touchdown gave him reason to celebrate. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS


OAKLAND -- Every smile has a backstory. Some just go deeper than others.

As Darrent Williams crossed the goal line with the game-clinching touchdown midway through the fourth quarter Sunday, he flashed a grin worthy of a wide-angle lens. But to say that it was merely the product of his 80-yard jaunt with an intercepted pass would be simplistic.

Was it a byproduct of the fact that he -- like Champ Bailey and Domonique Foxworth before him -- had made the play that turned a rising tide of opposing momentum back in the Broncos favor? Or was it that the runback sealed a resounding win in the lair of an arch-rival, one that allowed his team to forge a two-game lead in the division while keeping on pace for a playoff bye week?

It could have been both.

But for the origin of this smile -- and the play that preceded it -- one has to go back more than six months, to the offseason, when the Broncos made working on turnovers a high priority. Through offseason and into training camp, ball drills and one-on-one work in the red zone was a staple of the defensive backs' regimen.

So forgive Williams' teammates if they didn't universally turn giddy upon the 80-yard interception return. They'd seen it before.

"It's just like practice," defensive tackle Gerard Warren said. "It's so routine."

All of it was for one purpose -- increasing the number of turnovers that the Broncos procured. In recent years, a spate of near-interceptions plagued the Broncos. Footballs would occasionally fly into the grasp of Broncos defenders and then would slip to the ground in a frustrating pattern, or a penalty would intrude upon and preclude a game-altering turnover.

So when Williams stepped in front of a Kerry Collins pass for Jerry Porter and dashed untouched into the open field, linebacker Al Wilson was understandably conditioned to be cautious. He'd seen this before.

"The first thing I did was look back for a flag," he said. "For some reason, over the last few years, any time we make those plays, we seem to have a flag on the play."

From 2002 through 2004, the Broncos averaged 10 interceptions per season. No NFL team had fewer pickoffs than the Broncos' 30 over those three years.

That average has already been matched in 2005, nine games in, with Williams becoming the latest defensive back to offer a game-altering interception. The big plays that seemed to be absent from the Broncos' otherwise stellar defense in recent years have arrived in bunches during the past few weeks -- seven turnovers in the last three games, including six interceptions.

"It means a lot," Bailey said. "(We) worked all offseason on catching the ball, and we're able to get those picks."

And when Williams smiled and mimicked a layup over the crossbar in McAfee Stadium's south end zone, that work bore its richest fruit yet. It was the second turnover he'd caused in his rookie season -- he also forced a fumble against the New York Giants -- and it made him and Foxworth the only pair of rookie teammates to force multiple turnovers this year.

"We're making game-changing plays," Wilson said. "We've got a defense full of playmakers. We feel like if we play our game, we're always going to have somebody in the right spot."

SYMBIOSIS

Without pressure on the quarterback, it's nearly impossible to have turnovers. Without solid coverage in the secondary, the pressure can be rendered useless as an opposing passer capitalizes upon open spaces or single coverage. Denver learned that against the Philadelphia Eagles, when relentless pressure and various blitzes kept Donovan McNabb without a completion until the second quarter -- but also put Champ Bailey in a position where when he missed a tackle on Terrell Owens, the now-deposed wideout was able to sprint for the longest touchdown reception against the Broncos since their AFL days.

"If those guys (in the secondary) don't cover then whatever we do up front doesn't matter and if we don't rush they'll be covering all day," Warren said. "It goes hand in hand."

The two were intertwined Sunday. Pressure led to sacks -- four of them, the most since Week 2 -- and also hurried Collins into three interceptions and several other errant throws.

"We finally got a quarterback that didn't throw it away," Bailey said. "We got to him. That's what we've been doing all year but we just had quarterbacks that just run out of there and throw it away. We hadn't been fortunate enough to get those sacks, but we got them today."

Sacks, interceptions, incompletions -- it stemmed from the frequency and variety of Broncos blitzes that kept Collins off-balance throughout the game.

"All of it was due to the pressure, because he didn't know exactly where it was coming or when it was coming," safety Nick Ferguson said. "So he thinks it's one way, and it comes from another, or it doesn't come at all. You've just got to have him a little shaken in the backfield and not knowing where he was going to go with the ball, so it allows us in the secondary to run around and do different things."

VIVE LA DIFFERENCE

The discrepancy between the 7-2 Broncos and the now 3-6 Raiders was scant in many ways Sunday. Oakland actually outgained the Broncos by nine yards and notched two more first downs while the Broncos had a slight edge in time of possession, by a mere 94 seconds.

In the final quarter, the difference proved to be simple -- Williams' ability to snare and sprint to the end zone with an interception, and Oakland's failure to do so when it had the chance after a Jake Plummer pass sailed into the hands of rookie linebacker Kirk Morrison.

"It's one thing to get the ball thrown to you, it's another thing to catch it," Bailey said. "That's the hardest thing about getting picks -- you're going to probably drop more than you catch."

Had Morrison gathered in the errant throw, Oakland would have trailed by just six points with 10:31 to play. Instead, the Broncos punted, and Denver's defense forced a three-and-out. A Tatum Bell fumble followed, but Williams ensured that it would prove meaningless when he made his move.

"It was a dagger that put the game away for us," Wilson said.

"You could see -- at least from my perspective from where he was -- you could see it coming the whole way," Head Coach Mike Shanahan said. "That's when you've got to make those plays."

It was also just at the moment that tension was rising. The Raiders had scored 10 straight points and had penetrated Denver's red zone before a delay-of-game penalty pushed them back to the Denver 24-yard-line. Their chances of victory -- and the Broncos' chances of being able to clinch the game -- rested upon what happened as Collins lined up for a snap on third-and-13.

"Al, John (Lynch), those guys, the vocal leaders of our defense, they just (said), ''We've got to step up and make a play,'" Williams recalled.

In Week 2, Bailey did. Against the Eagles, Foxworth did. Williams' turn required a little more patience.

"He gets a little frustrated that he's not able to make those plays, but it's just one of those things You just keep playing, keep playing and keep doing everything you do well. It'll come to you."

Late Sunday afternoon, it did, to the Broncos' delight.

ALL SMILES

Williams was far from the only Bronco grinning as he crossed the goal line. His teammates, who had seen Williams post numerous interceptions on the practice field, couldn't have been more pleased for the rookie, who had seen an interception and a touchdown on a punt return against San Diego called back on account of an instant-replay challenge and a too-many-men-on-the field infraction, respectively.

"A smile was on my face," Ferguson said. "Finally. We all knew that he could make a play, the type of player he was. He made that play today. It was great to actually see him -- from the moment he broke on the ball, I knew he was going to get it, and (it was great) just to see him run down the field and hold the ball up."

It was truly a celebration months in the making -- one that was built upon the confluence of an eager rookie, the pressure posed by a rebuilt defensive line of veteran arrivals and the coaches' decision to implore and search for aggressiveness.

But in the NFL realm -- where "one game a time" is more than a cliché, it's an intractable theory -- all that matters is the moment, and Sunday's left the Broncos with smiles that stretched from Oakland all the way back to Denver.

Granted, the smiles may not last long in the ever-changing NFL. But the foundation behind them will be anything but brief.