The Broncos' defense was hyped as potentially the best in the league heading into the the 2021 season, thanks to major upgrades in the secondary and the addition of several playmakers during the offseason. But while they have shined in some matchups this season, Denver's defense struggled in others.
But Sunday's game vs. the Chargers showcased everything the group is capable of. Denver stymied the run, allowing only 72 total rushing yards and preventing Chargers' QB Justin Herbert from scrambling for too many big gains.
Denver's defense kept consistent pressure on Herbert, racking up three sacks and 10 QB hits as a unit. They also created big plays in key moments, as CB Pat Surtain II hauled in two interceptions — one in Denver's end zone to halt a Chargers drive and another that he returned 70 yards to the house for a Broncos touchdown.
"The Chargers finished with 357 yards worth of offense and a 303-yard passing day from quarterback Justin Herbert, but peel that statistical onion and the Broncos thoroughly harassed Herbert for much of the day," ESPN's Jeff Legwold wrote. "They sacked him three times and rookie cornerback Pat Surtain II intercepted him twice, once in the endzone to prevent a touchdown and the other a pick-six to seal the game."
Surtain may be a rookie, but he isn't new to bright lights or big moments — the University of Alabama product is used to being a playmaker.
"You've got to expect every game to make big-time plays in big-time games like this," Surtain said. "Especially when it's necessary. I just felt like going into the game, those plays were necessary."
Surtain's performance on Sunday was dazzling. Historic, even, as he became the first Broncos rookie to record a pick-six in a multi-interception game. But for S Justin Simmons and the rest of Denver's secondary, Surtain's stellar play was no surprise.
"That's what we expect from him week in, week out," Simmons said.
The Broncos' entire defense played lights out on Sunday, and the performance was all the more impressive considering how many defensive starters were sidelined vs. the Chargers.
While Denver did get OLB Bradley Chubb back from injured reserve vs. Los Angeles, they were without starting ILBs Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell, S Kareem Jackson and DE Shelby Harris.
"The end result was Broncos had four rookies, including Surtain, in the formation much of the time and still, they got the job done," Legwold wrote.
Despite a slate of injured starters, the Broncos defense was consistently good vs. the Chargers. And that's the way they need to play for the remainder of the season if Denver wants to make a triumphant return to the postseason.
"That's the type of defense we need to be playing for the rest of the season," Simmons said. "Not the roller coaster that's kind of been the first half of the year before the bye."
According to Simmons, something shifted in the Broncos' locker room and sparked Sunday's explosive performance.
"[It's] the defensive culture that's kind of being built," Simmons said. "... It mattered to guys out there [Sunday] ... no one cares what it looks like, all anyone cares about is that win and loss column."
Below the Fold
In Sunday's matchup with the Chargers, the Broncos had several players step up in the wake of injuries. One of those was T Quinn Bailey, who stepped in for T Calvin Anderson after Anderson suffered an injury in the first quarter.
"Bailey was elevated from Denver's practice squad the day before and has spent most of the past three seasons on that unit," The Denver Post's Kyle Newman wrote. "He took over for Anderson and played 63% of the offensive snaps. He was responsible for no bad runs along with zero errors in pass-protection."
After the game, Bailey earned high praise from Chubb, who has often faced off with the practice squad tackle in practice.
"I told the guys when (Anderson) went down, 'Honestly I've had more trouble with Quinn sometimes (during practice) than the starters,' so I'm glad to see him in there getting his shot, getting his chance,'" Chubb said. "That was fun to see because he's always out here making (the Broncos' first-team defense) better each and every day."
Following the victory over the Chargers, Bailey was awarded a game ball for stepping up from the practice squad to contribute a near-flawless performance against Los Angeles.
"Bailey was mobbed by his teammates in the home locker room at Empower Field after Fangio awarded him the ball, receiving by far the most rousing reaction of the four players receiving a game ball," Newman wrote.
In addition to the game ball, Bailey also received a glowing review from Head Coach Vic Fangio after the win.
"He went to the right guys," Fangio said. "I don't think he made any mental mistakes. He did a good job blocking and I really feel happy for him. This is a guy who's been here now for three years (waiting). He's a real quiet guy but takes his job seriously."