DENVER — As thrilling as the late-game excitement from the Broncos has been in their first three games, the members of the defense can tell you being in those situations is something they'd rather avoid if they could.
To be able to stop opponents in the final moments has been a testament to their will and ability to step up in big situations, but many of them had looked forward to the moment where they would put everything together and combine for a complete performance.
Earlier in the week, DeMarcus Ware said the defense had been talking about reaching that full four-quarter effort. "Each game is always a challenge," he said. "So we are trying to go out there and put a full game together where offense, defense and special teams—get out there and we play a full four quarters because that is what this game is about. We don't want to just play a good first half or a good second half, we want to go out there and put a whole game together."
That they did, clamping down on defense to allow the previously undefeated Cardinals only 215 net yards. They had their hands full early in the game, facing a talented wide receiver corps of Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown that could gain ground in a hurry. A couple interceptions put them in tough field position, but Arizona only capitalized on one of them, with a touchdown on a short 5-yard drive.
But those would be just about all of the bright moments for the Cardinals offense. In the first quarter, Arizona had 100 yards on offense. In the other three quarters, they totaled 115 yards.
Such a performance comes as a result of a comprehensive effort. The pass coverage in the secondary was stellar, the linebackers were all over the place and the pass rush was ferocious, forcing Arizona's quarterbacks into claustrophobic collapsing pockets.
The only misstep was an error in communication on stunning 81-yard touchdown in the third quarter in which Cardinals quarterback Logan Thomas threaded the needle on a pass to Andre Ellington, who got past the secondary down the sideline. Outside of that play, the Broncos' defense was pretty much impeccable.
Terrance Knighton was certainly impressed by the effort and results the defense got, saying it was the best complete game they've had so far this season.
"I think this as close as we've been all year, besides that long pass," he said. "We were playing so well, we didn't let that one play ruin it. We knew we were going to have to go out there and play better defense. I just think guys are more comfortable right now. With Danny [Trevathan] back now, it makes us a little more exotic with our linebackers. Right now we're just worried about playing fast."
If you wanted to see how fast, there might not have been a better example than Von Miller on Sunday afternoon. Miller tormented the Cardinals' offensive line for 1.5 sacks, two tackles for loss and four hits on the quarterback.
"All of us felt like this game we really came together as a unit and rushed the passer really well and did what we did best," DeMarcus Ware said.
It certainly didn't help Arizona that they had to turn to their third-string quarterback Logan Thomas after Drew Stanton was knocked out of the game with a concussion. That long touchdown pass to Ellington was the only pass Thomas completed on the night. He felt the pressure all game, and was sacked twice for a loss of 11 yards.
The defense knew it could capitalize off the unexpected thrusting of a rookie quarterback into a bigger role and as Chris Harris Jr. said: "Especially going against us, that's not a good job to get your first playing in."
"You sort of got to throw the sink at him a little bit and see how much he's going to think, and not make it easy for him, especially with me and Von being able to rush the passer and get at the quarterback and Malik and Wolfe and also Knighton," Ware said, noting the defense's pass rushing success.
From the line to the secondary, the Broncos got just about that complete performance they had.
In particular, they addressed a key that Knighton said Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio discussed earlier in the week: trying to get opponents into long challenges in second and third downs. It paid off with Arizona averaging 8.5 yards to go on third downs, of which they converted just 3-of-16 attempts and zero in the second half.
"We just talked about during the bye week and all this week about playing our best football and starting to get on a roll on defense and starting to do the little things that make a great defense," Terrance Knighton said after the game. "We had a good simple plan this week and they got a lot of big targets at receiver and we know they're going to come out and try to establish the run and we knew if we took out the run, it would make the game a lot easier. We just wanted to make them one-dimensional."
Though it was a great game by the defense on the whole, they still see room for improvement. Von Miller and Chris Harris Jr. both emphasized that they're still on the road to recovery and are not yet at full strength, and Ware and Knighton said they were close, but still saw some room for improvement in spots.
Regardless, they got some help moving forward with the return of Danny Trevathan, the team's leading tackler in 2013, who missed the previous games with a tibia fracture.
"It's been awhile since I was out there, I was a little rusty but I got in the groove of things and my defense helped me," Trevathan said. "It's great to have a great group of guys behind you so you go out there and fly, not worried about making mistakes too much. Just being out there, being a leader and just making plays."
"You got a lot of depth at linebacker," Knighton said about Trevathan's return. "When you see all of those guys on the field at once, you don't know what to expect. It just brings in a veteran guy who's comfortable with the defense who knows it like the back of his hand. I think it makes everybody comfortable."
With improvements in the defense that they saw during the Week 3 game against Seattle, they knew having Trevathan come back would only help them get even better. And though he acknowledged that he can improve his conditioning after having to miss all that time, Trevathan said he was proud of the performance they had against Arizona.
"We can be great. I believe we've reached some peaks today, second half we reached a whole bunch of our peak of it but at the same time we have to put together four quarters," Trevathan said. "We keep saying that but we played our ball today and I'm glad with it. I'm going to take the 'W' and move forward."