DENVER -- A week after a performance that left several players disappointed in the rushing success Seattle enjoyed at the Broncos' expense, Denver's starting front seven turned in a dominant effort Sunday afternoon against San Francisco.
Linebacker Von Miller set the tone immediately by dropping San Francisco running back Frank Gore for a 5-yard loss on the defense's first play of the game. Miller said the defense entered the game confident after a good week of practice.
"(Defensive Coordinator Jack) Del Rio, he's really been emphasizing you practice how you play," Miller said. "I felt like we had some really good practices this week, and hopefully we can have two weeks of good practices going into the Pittsburgh game."
Two plays after Miller's stop in the backfield, a sack by defensive end Elvis Dumervil forced a three-and-out, and the Broncos' D was on its way. The 49ers' second series ended when linebacker Wesley Woodyard pounced on an Alex Smith fumble at the 49ers 25-yard line, one play after linebacker Joe Mays laid a big hit on the quarterback.
The turnover put the offense in prime scoring position, and quarterback Peyton Manning needed just four plays to put together a short touchdown drive that made it 17-0.
"I thought one thing that was nice is that the defense got a turnover, and then the offense went out there and got a touchdown, as opposed to having to settle for three," Manning said. "That is always big when you can feed off one another, offense and defense."
The fast start kicked off a strong half of football for the Broncos' front seven, which helped the defense give up just three first downs and allow only 14 yards rushing on nine carries in the first half.
Rookie defensive lineman Derek Wolfe said the defensive intensity on the field Sunday afternoon matched the way the unit practiced throughout the week.
"The whole week of practice was different," Wolfe said. "There was more purpose in practice this week. I think guys were taking it more serious and we had to bounce back from what just happened."
Despite the slow start, San Francisco finished the game with 139 yards rushing, 125 coming after halftime once the starters were on the sideline. Wolfe said it's vital that the defense plays at a high level for 60 minutes.
"Anytime you can stop the run like we did in the first half it feels good," Wolfe said. "But ultimately, we didn't finish in the second half, so we have to come out and start fast and finish fast."
STARTERS FEELING PREPARED
Only one more preseason game remains, and with starters historically spending the preseason finale on the sideline, the Broncos' first-stringers left Sports Authority Field at Mile High knowing they've likely completed their final tune-up before the 2012 regular season.
A 17-point first quarter and 24-10 lead at halftime left the Broncos confident in where they stand at this point in the preseason.
"I think we were happy with what we put on the field in the first half," said wide receiver Eric Decker, who caught two touchdowns. "We executed what we wanted to do and we moved the football. We scored in the red zone, we didn't turn the ball over too much and that is something you have to do consistently. You have to do that more than one time. That's something we're working on, to build off that and have a couple weeks like that."
With the start of the regular season looming larger every day, it's important that the Broncos round into regular-season form in a hurry. While neither the offense nor the defense is quite where it wants to be, tight end Joel Dreessen said his team is well on its way.
"Definitely feeling better," Dreessen said. "We know we still have a lot of work to do. Pittsburgh is going to be on top of us real fast and we're going to be playing on Sunday Night Football and they're going to be live bullets and everything is going to count. The season is upon us and then it starts going fast every single week. Every single week is a playoff game, really. We're feeling good about things, but we have a lot of work to do."
Rookie running back Ronnie Hillman spent the first few weeks of the preseason fighting through hamstring injuries. He got his long-awaited first taste of game action Sunday against San Francisco and said it felt great to finally get on the field.
"I felt real good, just to get out there and get the jitters out," Hillman said. "Now it's back to ball and just playing."
Hillman carried the ball twice in the first half on his way to a team-leading 10 rushes on the night. While he said he's not yet at full speed, a 14-yard run, the longest rush of the night for the Broncos, showcased Hillman's burst, which he hopes to put on display again Thursday against Arizona.
"That's what I do and that's what I'm going to continue to do," Hillman said. "I'm just going to build on top of that next week and do a lot better."
"I want to play Thursday night," Hillman added. "I only have one game, so I want to get out there. It was fun. I want to get out there and play again, play some more, just make myself better."