It wasn’t just bad because they had lost.
The 269 rushing yards the Broncos had given up to the Jaguars was more than just a key part in producing the end result, a two-point loss at home. It was also an “add insult to injury” performance — a reputation-sullying kind of blemish. There had been a lot of talk of returning the Broncos’ defense to its previous heights, and this halted it in its tracks.
Todd Davis, the man in the center of the defense on the field, knew he’d have to play a leading role in picking up the pieces. If they were to find success as a team, they’d have to avoid giving up any similar performances, and the defense would have to regain their formidability in the process.
“We’ve got to find a way to make some plays as linebackers,” Davis recalls thinking after the loss. “I felt like he [Head Coach Vic Fangio] put it on our shoulders. Like, If we need to find a way to get a stop, we need to find a way to get a stop in the run game. … Put it on our shoulders and we’ll do that.”
Playing alongside a new starter in Alexander Johnson, Davis and the linebacking corps took on the challenge the following week and delivered on it by helping hold the Chargers’ talented duo of Austin Ekeler and Melvin Gordon to just 38 rushing yards in Week 5 and Titans running back Derrick Henry to 28 yards in Week 6 as the Broncos stacked two straight wins.
“I feel like that was our mentality going forward, and that’s why we’ve been successful this far,” Davis said. “We really took it upon ourselves to be dominant in the run game.”
The first change for Johnson before his first start was getting practice reps with the first-team defense. He didn’t approach it any differently — he still watched the same amount of film to prepare, still got his body ready the same way — but he had to learn some more calls to prepare himself for the starting role.
Playing next to a longtime veteran like Davis, Johnson had someone who could offer guidance when needed.
“[I was] just telling him what I see and communicating and talking before every play,” Davis said of how he was able to help Johnson during his first week with the first-team defense. “I think communication is key for any linebackers, but especially young linebackers.”
When Sunday arrived, Johnson didn’t play perfectly. Expecting that may have been a little unreasonable, but the kind of show he did put on may have been even more unreasonable to imagine.
Facing Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, Johnson picked off one pass to rob Los Angeles of a touchdown and nearly pulled down another, in addition to helping shore up the run defense with Davis. Earlier, Johnson had also done his part to keep Los Angeles out of the end zone near the end of the first half when he stood up Ekeler just shy of the goal line on a short reception.
It was a starting debut to remember, and not just because of what he did on the field. After the game, when Fangio received the game ball for his first victory as a head coach, he gave the ball to Johnson and then added some praise when he spoke to the media later that afternoon.
“I think he has the ability to be an NFL linebacker,” Fangio said. “I thought he played well today, at times. I know he had some flash plays, because even I noticed them from my vantage point. Obviously, the big pick in the end zone, saved three points minimum, maybe seven. … I’m not surprised he played well. He just has to be a guy that limits the negative plays, too. I’m very happy for him.”
In their second start together, the two Broncos inside linebackers felt even more comfortable on the field — even as the more experienced of the two was still finding his footing in a new defense after missing the first two games and almost the entirety of training camp.
“I think we were definitely more comfortable even the next game after the Chargers game, and it’s just continued to progress,” Davis said. “It feels good being out there, because I’m also at a new position. So getting my new position down and being good in that position is something I have to focus on as well. Now we’re both getting comfortable and feeling good.”
Davis and Johnson followed up that Chargers game with a solid performance against Tennessee’s Henry, who ran for 28 yards on 15 carries and caught one pass for 5 yards as the Broncos defense shut-out Tennessee.
In the process, the tandem has been able to grasp how their skills mesh on the field.
“[Johnson]’s very good in the run, very good as an inside run-stopping linebacker, and this year I’ve been able to show a little bit more of my coverage skills and do a little more one-on-one with the running backs and things like that,” Davis said. “I think it’s worked out for us both to play to our strengths.”
It’s also worked to the team’s advantage with Davis and Johnson roaming the middle of the field. Opponents have averaged more than 3.1 yards per carry just once since Week 5 against Los Angeles.
Amid all the change, the Broncos’ defensive reputation has begun to heal, especially when it comes to defending the run.
“If I had to game-plan, I [wouldn’t] necessarily try to run on us, but that’s just me,” Davis said with a smile.
And if opponents have to think twice when they prepare to go into the trenches, Davis and Johnson know they’re doing their jobs.
“We’re out there jacking up offensive linemen and hitting running backs hard,” Johnson said. “Then looking at the film, the other team is like, Well, we’ve got to watch out for these two; they’re huntin’. That right there, just from your play on the field, shows that if you’re playing hard, hitting people, other teams are gonna notice and they’re gonna be like, All right, you better be on your P’s and Q’s when you’re going their way.”
That’s the kind of mentality that’s baked into the linebacker position, and there’s no other way they’d rather have it.
“I believe it’s in the DNA [of the position],” Johnson said. “Shoot, I’m gonna come after you regardless. If you’re scared of me or not, it don’t matter to me, I’m gonna still come after you.”