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Broncos at the bye: Despite record, standouts abound

At 3-6, the Broncos clearly are not where they want to be. Having the same record as they did at the same point of the 2017 season is hardly where they envisioned themselves. 

This does not mean they haven't shown progress in key areas. Their turnover margin, which was minus-14 at this time last year, is even. Their point differential was minus-73 through nine games last year; this year it is minus-8. They've scored 4.3 more points per game; they've allowed 2.9 fewer points per game.

With the addition of quarterback Case Keenum, their completion percentage, average yards per pass play and passer rating are up. Rookie running backs Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman have helped the Broncos increase their per-carry average by nearly a full yard per attempt.

The bottom line remains frustrating; just as they did last year, they lost six of seven games after a 2-0 start. But the defeats leading up to last year's 3-6 record drained all hope, as all of them came by at least 10 points, with an average margin of defeat of 17.8 points. This year, four of the six losses came by one score, with an average margin of 7.8 points.

It's not what the Broncos want. But there at least is the belief that they are close -- close enough to spawn hope of a post-bye turnaround.

 "I'm much more encouraged this year than I was last year, because I think that guys are still playing hard and we're in the games," President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway told Orange and Blue 760 this week. "We're just unfortunately in the frustrating part for everybody -- not only the football team, but the fans -- [in that] we haven't made the plays that we need to make to get over the hump.

"Every game in this league is always competitive, and the teams that win are the teams that make those plays, and are able to do it consistently, and we've just not been able to do it. I like the heartbeat of this team, the fact that they are competitors and they continue to work hard."

And another reason to like this team rests in the players themselves, some of whom have been among the league's best so far this season.

That list starts with the Broncos' pass rush, which has 28 sacks through nine games -- eight more than it had at this point last year, and matching its nine-game average from 2011-16.

BRADLEY CHUBB AND VON MILLER

The two outside linebackers are intertwined, giving the Broncos the most productive pair of pass-rushing bookends in the league this season.

Chubb's explosion changed the dynamic of the pass rush. With 6.5 sacks in the last four weeks, he ranks second in the league in that span, trailing only Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams. Chubb is also on pace for 14.2 sacks, which would put him close to the NFL rookie record of 14.5 set by Tennessee's Jevon Kearse in 1999.

 "I think with time on the job he’s getting more comfortable at doing his job, and now his natural abilities take over," Head Coach Vance Joseph said Wednesday. "He played his best game, in my opinion, last weekend. He’s definitely trending upward.”

Chubb's emergence has also helped propel Von Miller back to the sack-a-game form of earlier seasons. Miller's best seasons have come with complementary edge rushers who also posted double-digit sack totals.

In 2012, Miller had a franchise-record 18.5 sacks, with Elvis Dumervil contributing 11. Two years later, Miller had the second-highest sack total of his career, logging 14 sacks while DeMarcus Ware contributed 10. Miller is on pace for 16 sacks.

Together, they give the Broncos a chance at becoming the 16th team in the last 10 years to post 50 or more sacks. If the Broncos maintain their pace of 3.1 sacks per game, they would hit that milestone for the third time since 2012.

PHILLIP LINDSAY

While Royce Freeman got off to a promising start as a power runner before suffering a sprained ankle, Lindsay provided a massive jolt that electrified the ground game and the offense as a whole.

Lindsay is on pace to become the first Broncos rookie to rush for at least 1,000 yards since Clinton Portis in 2002. He must average 58.4 yards per game to hit that milestone, a pace he seems poised to maintain after averaging 65.7 rushing yards in Weeks 1-9.

EMMANUEL SANDERS

Sanders' renaissance has put him on pace for his most productive season since 2014, his first year with the Broncos. That year, he established career highs with 101 receptions and 1,404 rushing yards.

The timing Sanders and Keenum possess was evident in training camp, and the trust they built together bore itself out on the Broncos' final drive against Houston, when Keenum threw to Sanders three consecutive times. The first two passes fell incomplete, but then Sanders ran a perfect route and Keenum dropped the ball into his grasp for an 18-yard, fourth-and-7 gain that kept the drive alive, moving the Broncos into field-goal range.

CHRIS HARRIS JR.

According to Pro Football Focus, Harris has allowed a 60.8 passer rating on passes thrown in his direction -- the third-lowest in the league among cornerbacks with at least 150 snaps in coverage so far this season. He has also allowed just 8.2 yards per reception this year, the fifth-lowest rate in the NFL. 

Opponents have noticed and are adapting accordingly. In the last two games, opposing quarterbacks threw at Harris just four times. In the win at Arizona, rookie quarterback Josh Rosen threw at him nine times, and he pounced, recording his first pick-six since Oct. 15, 2015.

The Broncos could see at least two more rookie or first-year quarterbacks in San Francisco's Nick Mullens and Cleveland's Baker Mayfield, so Harris could find more chances down the stretch, but the veteran quarterbacks the Broncos see in the next three games -- Philip Rivers of the Chargers, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton -- might take a similar path and avoid throwing at Harris.

"Obviously, he’s one of our better players," Joseph said last Friday, "so if I’m playing against Chris, I would probably avoid him some also."

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