DENVER — Brock Osweiler had already relieved Peyton Manning and the Broncos led 42-10 when Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers' offense entered the red zone for the third time, simply looking to create a glimmer of hope.
Kaepernick and Co. had taken around six minutes to move the ball from their own 13-yard line to the Broncos' 8. But even with a cushy 32-point lead and about five minutes remaining, the starting defense wasn't about to allow the Niners to score.
"Our mindset was just to have that killer instinct," Chris Harris Jr. said. "We wanted to put our foot on the team's throat, and not give them no life."
The unit certainly accomplished that goal, cementing an all-around excellent performance.
Two plays after an offensive pass interference penalty pushed the ball back 10 yards, DeMarcus Ware fired around three-time Pro Bowler Joe Staley and pounced on Kaepernick for his third sack and a 10-yard loss. The back seven kept the 49ers' weapons in front of them on the ensuing plays, ultimately forcing a Kaepernick scramble on fourth-and-goal from the 14, with the QB sliding after a 6-yard gain and accepting the turnover on downs.
"It just shows that we always just try to play a consistent game for four quarters," said Ware, who posted his first game with three or more sacks since October of 2011. "It goes all the way down to that fourth down."
"That's what we were trying to do, not letting them score on the starting defense."
San Francisco's second-team offense did post a 45-yard touchdown drive with about a minute remaining against Denver's backups, but the garbage-time score couldn't sully what was a dominant defensive showing.
Of the 49ers' nine possessions prior to the fourth-down stop, six went for fewer than 10 yards and and three of those went for negative yardage. Aqib Talib snagged an interception on one possession and on two others, the defense stiffened to force a field goal in the red zone and a deep field goal attempt that went wide from 51 yards.
The only blemish came late in the first half, when Kaepernick hit Stevie Johnson three times for 45 yards, including a four-yard touchdown to cap the 85-yard drive. That possession nearly ended after four plays, with the Broncos using a Ware sack to force a third-and-17, but San Francisco picked up a corner blitz and found former Bronco Brandon Lloyd wide open for a 37-yard gain to keep the drive alive.
"We had that one lapse at the end of the half," Knighton said. "That's one thing we're trying to get rid of: Just those small lapses that allow teams to feel like they can play with us."
All told, the Broncos' D allowed 310 total yards and just 4.4 yards per play, containing Kaepernick as a runner (three carries, 18 yards) and giving up just three third-down conversions on 13 attempts.
Shining through brightest in Denver's defensive dominance was the ever-dangerous duo of Ware and Von Miller.
"They're starting to find their groove, like a pick-and-roll offense," Knighton said of the pair. "They're feeding off each other. If DeMarcus gets a sack, you know Von's going to try to get one. When Von gets a sack, DeMarcus is going to try to get one. It's just making it easier for everyone."
"Me and Von always look at each other and say 'Hey, it's time to get at the quarterback,'" Ware said. "'Let's get pressure and do what we do best.'"
The two have been vocal about racing each other to the QB in weeks past, and it was clear they fed off that competition against the Niners. Miller had used a four-week sack streak to take a 6-to-4 lead through five weeks, but Ware noted he "came out on top" on Sunday. Though Miller's pace didn't wane against the 49ers — he put up his third consecutive two-sack game — Ware took it to another level. The seven-time Pro Bowler abused Staley for three sacks, and also planted the big left tackle on his back to force a quick throw from Kaepernick in the second half.
Perhaps most impressive was Ware's fake spin move, which he broke out for the first time since he forced a sack-fumble against the Chiefs that was overturned on replay. The move, in which Ware swung his shoulders back to the inside before bursting back in his initial direction, left Staley spinning in empty space and Kaepernick crumpled in Ware's grasp.
"I said, 'Why not try it again?' and it actually worked this time, against a quite good quarterback," Ware said. "So it's still in the repertoire. I won't bring it out next week but you got to just try to pull out all the hat tricks."
It certainly helped that the Broncos' offense put up plenty of points and created a number of obvious passing situations. Kaepernick tied a career-high with 39 attempts and Jim Harbaugh's club abandoned a run game that picked up just 62 yards on 18 carries (3.4 average). But even with the slippery QB's penchant for big plays with his feet, the defense wasn't tentative.
"We're going in aggressive," Miller said. "That's what we do best, whenever there is a moment when we can just pin our ears back."
"We talked about don't rush timid this week," Ware said. "The offense was able to really get points on the board and make them one-dimensional where they would have to pass the ball, and that's when me and Von and the other guys really open up and rush the passer, and we did really well."
With the D-line horseshoeing Kaepernick with properly spaced group rushes, the edge duo piled up five of the team's six sacks to increase their collective 2014 total to 15. That number is currently better than 14 NFL teams on the season, including four teams that have already played seven games.
The sack numbers weren't just a product of the rush however. Knighton reminded reporters of the team's talented secondary, which has plastered opposing receivers to force several coverage sacks the past three weeks.
"I've said it over and over: We have the best DBs in the NFL, the best secondary in the NFL," Knighton said. "If you've got to go through your progression, you'll probably get sacked and if you make a bad throw, you'll probably get picked off."
The unit's show in front of a raucous crowd Sunday night certainly gave off that feeling. Perhaps the only thing scarier would be Jack Del Rio's unit displaying that dominance on a week-to-week basis, a trend that has been steadily building since the regular season began. "I mean this is who we are," Harris said. "If we go out there and we bring our 'A' game, this is what can happen each week, regardless of who we play."