ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Just because a team is undefeated doesn't make it content. And no Broncos are more frustrated with their recent performance than those on the defensive side of the locker room.
Forty-eight points. Five-hundred and six gross passing yards yielded to Dallas quarterback Tony Romo. At least 20 points allowed in each of the first five games, something that hasn't happened to the Broncos in 28 years. The Broncos flew home from Texas 5-0, but only half of the team was soaring.
"I understand it was a 'W,' but at the same time, it felt like a loss because of the points and the mental mistakes and stuff like that," said defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson.
The Broncos defense knew that life without the suspended Von Miller and the injured Champ Bailey wouldn't be the same. But they didn't know it would be quite like this, with a pass defense ranked last in the league, and where the unit's baseline goal each week -- to hold an opponent below 17 points -- has been elusive. By last Sunday at AT&T Stadium, that benchmark, which the Broncos matched or hit nine times last year -- appeared miles away and far out of sight.
"Forty-eight, that's about three games worth of points that we want to give up," said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton.
Against the Raiders and Eagles in Weeks 3 and 4, the 17-point standard was within reach before the Broncos allowed late touchdowns. That letdown rankled the defense, even though it had done enough to ensure that no one came within 16 points of the Broncos in the first four games.
However, it was better than last week, when the points poured in from the game's start to near its conclusion -- but never more than in the second half, when the Cowboys sprinted to four consecutive touchdowns.
"It's a pride thing, man," said Vickerson. "As a defense, you never want that many points given up. As a defense, you want to get some stops on third down; you want to get off the field on third down, and I don't think we did that at all."
Until last Sunday, the defense had held up reasonably well; it ranked as the league leader against the run and had a knack for timely sacks and takeaways. That changed when it emerged from the locker room without a concussed Chris Harris and with Robert Ayers and Wesley Woodyard watching from the sideline with shoulder and neck injuries, respectively.
Eventually, the Broncos had to twice use seven defensive backs to cope with Romo's relentless second-half air assault; because of Harris' injury and the deactivation of Quentin Jammer, the Broncos were one defensive backfield injury away from having to abandon that tactic. That would have been quite a shame, considering that was the personnel grouping on the field when Danny Trevathan made his crucial, lunging interception at the two-minute warning.
From a distance, injuries are a reason for the defense's struggles, not an excuse. But that's a rationalization the defense refused to accept.
"No. Because it's next man up, and everybody prepares each week to be able to play fast and physical," said Vickerson. "At the end of the day, man, that's no excuse."
The defense muddled through last week, and now hopes to have Bailey in the lineup Sunday for the first time in this regular season. He fully participated in Wednesday's practice. The return of the suspended Miller is expected next week; multiple teammates marveled at the physical condition into which he's worked himself in recent weeks.
"We've got different guys on the defense that are still trying to gel. We'll get Champ back, we'll get Von back," said Knighton. "We're just waiting for that one game where the defense goes out there and dominates and gets the goose egg.
"I think once we get that taste in our mouth, things will start rolling."
At that point, the 17-point goal appears certain to fall multiple times. But as much as the defenders are distressed by their performance, they're as much about the bottom line as anyone at Dove Valley.
"It's a goal; that's what we set. But at the end of the day, it's all about winning. Let's not get it mixed up," said safety Rahim Moore. "Because it can be the opposite way: we can be 0-5 and No. 1 in offense, No. 1 in defense. When you look at the record, nobody sees all that."
"You do have to get better," said Moore. "You do have to keep working. We're not complacent at all. We know what areas we've got to improve in. I've got a lot of improvement to do. That's all you can do."