Defensive Coordinator Vance Joseph has led the Broncos' defense to a complete defensive turnaround over the past seven games — Denver hasn't allowed an opponent to score more than 22 points in the span — and he highlighted two of the Broncos' unheralded defensive backs that have been crucial to the unit's strides.
In their second and fourth seasons, respectively, cornerback Ja'Quan McMillian and safety P.J. Locke have played major roles in the Broncos' upticks in sacks and turnovers. Locke's interception against Green Bay and strip-sack against Cleveland sealed two of the Broncos' wins, and McMillian registered three straight games with a takeaway from Weeks 8-11. Both defensive backs also registered a sack against the Houston Texans in Week 13.
Joseph said the players' versatility and explosive play in the pass-rush has made Denver's defense even more dangerous.
"Gameplans change, but [P.J. has] been a good blitzer for us and so is [Ja'Quan at] nickel," Joseph said after practice on Thursday. "To have two defensive backs who can blitz cleanly and finish on quarterbacks and on running backs has been good for our defense."
Locke made his presence felt in the Houston backfield, recording a pair of tackles for a loss and reaching Houston quarterback C.J. Stroud in just 2.73 seconds on his sack — the fastest sack by any player in Week 13, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Joseph said speed and timing have been the biggest reasons behind Locke's success as a blitzer.
"[P.J. has] been an exceptional blitzer for us in the last couple weeks," Joseph said. "You never know if guys are going to be good blitzers until they do it live. The grass here [in practice] is kind of a controlled environment with cadences and those things. Some guys have a knack for timing and a knack for gaining speed quickly and making left and right turns quickly. He has that knack. He hits his target, and he doesn't miss too many opportunities when he blitzes clean. It's been fun to watch him do it. He wants to do more of it."
McMillian has carved out a role on the Broncos' defense as a playmaking nickel cornerback and has shown marked improvement in his second season. Entering Week 14, he is tied for third on Denver in tackles for a loss, tied for second in interceptions and tied for first in forced fumbles and fumble recoveries.
"Being a good nickel is a combination of being a good cover guy, a good tackler and having good instincts," Joseph said. "[Ja'Quan] has those things. He's a young player, and he's getting better every single day."
Joseph also underscored McMillian's willingness to make adjustments and learn from his coaches as a trait that has enabled his breakout on defense.
"He wants to be a great player, so it's easy to coach him," Joseph said. "He's one of those players where he's a one-time guy. You fix him one time on something, it's fixed from now until forever. That's his best trait thus far as a young player. He's not very big, but he can tackle, he gets the ball and he can cover his guy."
While the Broncos boast a pair of All-Pro selections in their secondary in cornerback Pat Surtain II and safety Justin Simmons, the breakout performances of Locke and McMillian — both undrafted free agents entering the league and reserve playerswhen the season started — have been welcome surprises for an opportunistic Denver defense.