SEATTLE --That the Seahawks closed out Sunday's 26-20 overtime victory with a 13-play, 80-yard touchdown drive shouldn't take away from what was a timely and gutty performance from the Broncos' defense.
"I guess that answers people's questions about our toughness," Terrance Knighton said after the game. "We basically came out there and lined up the way we lined up and said, 'You're going to have to beat us.'"
The Seahawks' offense struggled to do that for the vast majority of the game, moving the ball well only on two series late in the first half and on the overtime drive. After a three-and-out to start the game, Seattle recovered a fumble at the Broncos' 23 but couldn't muster more than a field goal.
In seven second-half drives (excluding a kneeldown), Russell Wilson and Co. went punt, punt, missed field goal, safety, interception, punt and field goal -- the last of which coming after a Kam Chancellor interception set the offense up well into Denver territory.
Despite a stagnant Broncos offense that punted on eight consecutive drives beginning in the second quarter (excluding a kneeldown), Denver's defense didn't lose hope or focus, keeping its intensity amped.
"We could have easily laid down and went away and just let them run away with the game," Chris Harris Jr. said, "but we took their punches and we punched them right back."
"Our defense did a tremendous job." Julius Thomas said. "They played their butts off to keep us in the game."
With Peyton Manning and the Broncos' offense struggling to score, DeMarcus Ware practically took the task in his own hands, sacking Wilson on the Seahawks' 1-yard line, appearing to force a fumble that Wilson managed to get back.
Then, a defensive unit that had already managed a pair of goal-line stands in 2014 pulled off the same sort of feat on the opposite goal line. Seattle tried to run out of its end zone, but Ware set the edge and hit Marshawn Lynch a few yards deep, allowing teammates Derek Wolfe and Brandon Marshall to swarm for the safety.
Even after the offense was forced to punt on the ensuing possession, Denver's defense kept the heat on in a big way. On Seattle's next snap Aqib Talib leapt and just missed snagging Wilson's pass, but Harris collected the deflection on its way down. The Kansas teammates' tag-team interception set up the Broncos at the Seahawks' 19-yard line, a turnover that Manning said "kind of springboarded us."
Julius Thomas finished the drive on a shovel pass five plays later to cut Seattle's lead to five, and the comeback was on.
For a team that often found its high-scoring offense carrying the load in 2013, the other side of the ball showed the crucial ability to do the same when the Broncos most needed it.
"When our offense was down and couldn't score, we held our ground on defense," Knighton said. "We got our offense an opportunity to score, and we did enough to force overtime."
"I'm proud of all of our guys on defense," Von Miller added. "I feel like we took steps in a direction that we want to be."
Certainly, the Seahawks' game-winning drive will leave a bad taste, as struggles to get off the field on third down resurfaced. Likewise, Seattle's two touchdowns in the first half's final minutes, which Knighton said "hurt us the most," can't be tossed out the window.
But there are still plenty of reasons for optimism.
For one thing, the Seahawks' first touchdown drive nearly turned into a Denver touchdown on the second play. Wilson threw late toward Ricardo Lockette near the sideline, a pass that Talib saw coming the entire way. But as Talib broke to intercept the ball, Lockette smartly collared him and pulled him to the ground as the pass arrived, turning an almost certain interception (and likely touchdown) into a 10-yard penalty for offensive pass interference. Seattle overcame the penalty with a well-designed screen to Lynch that picked up 21 yards before ironically capping the drive with a deep touchdown to Lockette, who hauled in the pass with Talib right on his tail.
Being on the wrong end of that 14-point swing was unfortunate for Denver, but it showed how close the Broncos were to having an even greater impact on defense. It was also encouraging how effective they were against Percy Harvin, who was limited to 42 yards on seven catches and one 13-yard kickoff return.
With Ware's explosive sequence that forced the safety, Talib's near pick-six and assist on Harris' interception, and T.J. Ward getting home for a sack of Wilson, Sunday's game also brought the most tangible results thus far of the Broncos' offseason spending spree. The addition of those defenders' playmaking ability and the return of players who were injured last year have allowed Jack Del Rio to draw up fewer complicated schemes, leaving defenders to react quicker with less thinking.
"That's why we can play straight man against them like we did," Harris said. "If we see them again, we're going to play straight man again, because with me and Aqib, we can play man-on-man."
Not to be forgotten of course is perhaps the unit's most talented player, Miller, whose explosiveness in just his third game since last year's knee surgery was encouraging. Miller started off strong, stunting with Ware to sack Wilson and end Seattle's first series. The linebacker also set a powerful edge in the run game and reacted quickly to Wilson's read-option handoffs.
Even when Miller didn't make the play, he showed off his unique athleticism, at one point throwing a rapid spin move that left tackle Justin Britt grasping at air.
"My whole gameplan is just to get better every week," Miller said. "I feel like I took a small step in a direction where I wanted to be at."
If those small steps continue, the defense as a whole should continue making headway as it has through three games this season. Holding a Seattle offense with myriad weapons to 5.1 yards per play is an excellent sign. Facing less mobile quarterbacks moving forward should help as well. And if Danny Trevathan returns after the bye week to add another speedy linebacker to the mix? Well, the unit might just be starting to blossom.
"I think this is a set-the-tone type defense," Ward said. "We've got a defense full of fighters, and I'll go to war with these guys any day. We responded every time, amid adversity, and that's what you want out of a defense.
"With your back against the wall, who's going to fight back?"