ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- No one in the Broncos' locker room will tell you that the defense is where it needs to be yet. But after allowing more total yardage per game than all but two other teams and more passing yardage than anyone else in the first five weeks, things have stabilized in the last three, and the Broncos are 12th-best in the league in both categories since Week 6.
It's not worthy of a parade; this defense was No. 2 in the league last year, and its members know excellence. But it's enough for the defense to believe it can soon resume pursuing its goals, especially with Von Miller and Wesley Woodyard back.
"I think it's about that time that we start putting up shutouts -- holding teams to under 17 points, which is our goal," said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. "We feel like if we hold teams under that, we'll win every game because our offense is going to score regardless."
Until accounting for just 14 points allowed Sunday against Washington, that goal had been unrealized for the defense. But there were some individual moments worthy of note that offered a glimpse of what the defense could still be.
5. Nate Irving stuffs Baltimore RB Ray Rice early in the third quarter; Week 1.
The offense had just marched 80 yards in six plays to a touchdown that put the Broncos in front, 21-17, but to this point, momentum in the season opener had swung back and forth. Worse, the defense had been burnt on first down toward the end of the first half; Baltimore had averaged 11.3 yards a snap on its last five first downs before intermission.
Irving got the stuff for a 2-yard loss with a simple reading of the opponent's call. Irving's read was flawless; the opposite was true for then-Ravens left tackle Bryant McKinnie and fullback Vonta Leach, both of whom engaged with other defenders and completely ignored Irving.
In the short term, the play helped steer Baltimore away from its core strength; they only ran four times after that after posting 16 carries in the first half. That was due as much to the offense finding its stride as anything the defense did, but this stop set the tone for a three-and-out that allowed Peyton Manning & Co. to sustain its momentum.
It also shows what Irving can do against a front line preoccupied with other defenders. Even with Miller back, the Broncos would be well-served to keep finding spots for Irving to contribute -- as they did last week, when he played 16 snaps.
4. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie's second-quarter interception of Giants QB Eli Manning; Week 2.
The interception itself wasn't spectacular; pressure forced an errant throw, and Rodgers-Cromartie was in the right place for the interception. But Rodgers-Cromartie demonstrated the essential cornerback trait: he forgot about the play before it. The significance of the play in the game was massive; it preserved the Broncos' halftime lead, and seemed to jolt the defense even after halftime; a blitz on the first snap of the second half led to a sack and a three-and-out.
Moments such as this -- where the defense turned the momentum of the game -- were rare in the first half of the season. This particular swing was crucial; after Rodgers-Cromartie's interception and the third-quarter three-and-out that followed, the Giants offense never ran another play where it had a chance to take the lead.
3 and 2. Malik Jackson's two sacks in three plays of Jaguars QB Chad Henne; Week 6.
Is it a cop-out to use two plays here? A bit, but they work so well together, and show Jackson's versatility. On the first, he lines up at left defensive end, doesn't follow the flow of the linemen, and instead focuses on the quarterback, allowing him to not avoid over-pursuit and be in perfect position for the sack. On the second sack, he stunts outside from working as a nose tackle. In between, he breaks free of Will Rackley to bring down Maurice Jones-Drew for a two-yard loss.
Unlike the other plays, this sequence wasn't so much a game-changer as it revealed Jackson's potential. Jackson has forced a hurried throw once every 2.33 pass rushes, according to ProFootballFocus.com, and their metrics rank Jackson as the Broncos' second-highest-rated defender behind Von Miller. How they work together in the coming weeks will be worth watching.
1. Von Miller's fourth-quarter sack of Washington QB Robert Griffin III; Week 8.
Perhaps the one true "highlight reel" play on my list, and the one that demonstrated what Miller's return does to the defense: when playing from ahead, it becomes a unit that is capable of as many big plays as the offense. With the potential to use a defensive front of Miller and Shaun Phillips outside and Jackson and Derek Wolfe at the tackles, the Broncos can attack with more speed than they have before, which should set up more errant or deflected passes, which leads to more takeaways, and, in the parlance of Marge Simpson, "happiness will follow."