ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There are four words, used together in a sentence, that Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio would prefer not to hear:
"Bend but don't break."
It's better than one alternative, and a positive first step after a 2013 season in which the defense ranked 16th in yardage allowed per play and third-down conversion percentage, 17th in percentage of plays that resulted in first downs, and 18th in yardage allowed per pass play and sack rate, among other middling statistics. But it's not what he seeks: a defense that neither bends nor breaks, a defense that can be elite, as his unit was in 2012, when it was blessed by the good health that eluded it last season.
"I'm not looking for any 'bend.' We're not looking for 'bend,'" said Del Rio. "But at the end of the day, we want to make plays."
So far, it has: two goal-line stands in as many weeks, a pair of Rahim Moore interceptions in Week 1, game-saving pass deflections inside of the two-minute warning to preserve the wins, and a big play from DeMarcus Ware that looked as though it could have been a game-clinching sack before an instant-replay reversal changed the final ruling to incomplete late in the win over the Chiefs.
"That's what shows our character, but a point of not giving up at all," said Ware. "I think that's building to a great defense."
Added Del Rio, smiling: "I thought that was a great sack, and I don't know how many people are standing here right now (at his press conference), but I would venture to say that it would be a strong majority -- maybe 100 percent -- that would agree with that."
But those collection of crucial stops reveal the potential of the defense. If it can make plays like those in high-pressure situations, it should be able to apply that to every other down, to help avoid the need for the dramatic stop.
"Obviously, playing together over time, experience with each other, that will benefit us over time," Del Rio Said. "But at the same time, we expect it to be really good right now. So it's not like we're waiting. We're working hard, expect it to be really strong right now. And where it's not, we correct it and move on. Where it's good, we praise it and move on."
Better results at other moments and more overall consistency rests on the defense avoiding penalties and mental mistakes and better cohesion, all of which would allow Del Rio the freedom for a greater variety of calls and looks that the Broncos could throw at an opposing offense.
"I think each week we're growing more and more as a team," said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. "We improved in some areas, and we didn't improve in some areas. We've got to work some on third down. But having new guys in and feeling guys out and seeing how they play, you're going to have some lapses here and there, but ultimately we want to win and do what it takes to win."
And doing that will be built on a foundation of the pressure plays the defense has already made.
"The one thing I like about where we are and who we are as a unit is we don't blink," said Del Rio. "Our guys keep fighting, keep playing hard. Look, I'm proud of that. Being perfect and cleaning it up and being more impactful, more dominant, we will get there.
"But I like the resiliency, I like the toughness, I like the mentality of they're not in [the end zone] yet, they're not getting in, that type of thing. That's been good for us."