ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Broncos' defense will look to rebound from a tough outing against the Lions in Week 15, and Defensive Coordinator Vance Joseph knows exactly where Denver can take massive strides against the New England Patriots: the early downs.
After practice on Thursday, Joseph explained that the Broncos have played their best football when they stifle opposing offenses on first and second down and force them into long third-down attempts.
"Our defense plays very well when we can dictate, and on Saturday night [against the Lions] we could not," Joseph said. "We chased them. … We had no chance to dictate and get ahead of the sticks, and we don't play well when that happens — no one does."
Cornerback Pat Surtain II agreed, saying that forcing the Patriots to attempt difficult third-down opportunities will be a key to the Broncos' defensive success.
"When we hold them to third-and-longs, that's in our territory and that's where we'll be able to succeed defensively," Surtain said. "But it all starts on first and second down and holding them to short gains so third down will be much easier for us."
Joseph reiterated his confidence in the Broncos' unit, which has held opponents to 22 points or fewer in five of Denver's seven home games and has demonstrated marked improvement in generating turnovers and stopping the run. Third-down defense was also a major reason behind the Broncos' 24-7 win over the Chargers in Week 14, which included holding Los Angeles without a third-down conversion in 12 attempts.
With the Broncos' playoff hopes on the line, Joseph is looking for his unit to return to the winning formula it established in its run to playoff contention.
"Just getting back to dictating, winning first down, pressuring the quarterback, taking the ball away — that's our formula to win," Joseph said.
POTENTIAL FOR WINTRY WEATHER NOT FAZING BRONCOS' OFFENSE
The potential for inclement weather didn't impact the first portion of the Broncos' slate of December games; Denver played all three of its road games to start the month in indoor stadiums in Houston, Los Angeles and Detroit.
On Christmas Eve, the Broncos could be in for a snowy matchup to match their "Snowcapped" alternate helmets and white end zones. Offensive Coordinator Joe Lombardi is keeping track of the developments and forecasts, but he believes wind and excessive amounts of snow would be more impactful than the current prediction of mild precipitation.
"I think it depends on how much [snow falls]," Lombardi said. "I think the wind is probably a bigger factor than that. They usually keep the field in pretty good condition, so if it's a blizzard and the ground is covered with snow, obviously that's a big deal. If it's just cold and snowing and the field is clean, [it's] probably not as big of a deal."
On Wednesday, quarterback Russell Wilson said he pays attention to the weather but hopes for a bit of Christmas Eve snow at Empower Field at Mile High.
"Definitely, I think that you've got to be aware of [the weather]," Wilson said. "It depends on how severe it is, obviously. But snow is not really a factor, really. It's always wind, more than anything else. That's usually the hardest thing, when it's super windy. I kind of like playing in the snow. I played a couple games in Seattle in the snow. It was kind of snowing earlier this year at one game, [and] it kind of slowed down and stopped. We've practiced some in it. … Christmas Eve, hopefully it snows a little bit and we can go have some fun."
JACKSON GLAD TO BE BACK WITH DENVER'S SECONDARY
Safety Kareem Jackson is back in the mix in the Broncos' secondary, and while his status for Sunday's game is uncertain, he has enjoyed returning to Denver's locker room and practice fields.
"It feels good to be back with the guys," Jackson said. "A month [with] no football and obviously not being in the locker room, it definitely sucks,but it feels good to be back. First couple days back at practice, [I'm] just trying to get my feet back under me [and] knock some rust off."
Joseph said Jackson's return to the team provides a major boost for the defense, regardless of whether the veteran will play against New England.
"It's good having him back, first of all," Joseph said. "It's good having good players back, a guy with leadership who has played in big games — that's awesome for our defense. But it's his first week back, so it takes some time to get him back into football and football shape and meetings and making calls and playing football."
In his time away from the team, Jackson kept in football shape, which has made for a smooth transition back to the Broncos' practice fields. The Broncos split the four games in his absence, but Jackson said he is impressed by the progress he's seen from all levels of the defense and is eager to join Denver's late-season playoff push.
"Before this last [game], guys are definitely starting to take off and playing some great football on defense," Jackson said. "Offensively, [they are] playing good ball as well. It's been great all three phases, and every week the guys have been building on what they've done the previous week. It's been exciting to watch [and] I'm excited to be back to be a part of it."
Jackson currently has a roster exemption after serving a four-game suspension. The 12th year safety could be elevated to Denver's roster before Dec. 25, though Head Coach Sean Payton said no decision has been made on Jackson's availability for Sunday's game.