ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Prior to Sunday, the Broncos went nearly 22 months without notching at least six sacks in a single game.
But the pass rush's performance was far more impressive in the 42-17 win over San Francisco than it was against the Browns in Week 16 of the 2012 season, given the quality of the opposition and the mobility of the quarterback on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
Sunday night, Broncos dismantled the 49ers' protection scheme, and were so quick to breach the pocket and so effective at bracketing Colin Kaepernick that he often had neither the time, nor the space, to scramble. His opportunities to operate in comfort were slim, and the 49ers' offense bogged down as a result.
When Executive Vice President and General Manager John Elway sought to rebuild the defense, he had a performance like this in mind. The offense grabbed an early lead, and freed the defense to be aggressive. With blitzes and creative pressures, that happened consistently in Week 7.
It helps to have an elite pair of bookend pass rushers like Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, who are now one-two in the league's sack rankings with eight and seven, respectively -- an accomplishment heightened by the fact that the Broncos have already had their bye week. But as an examination of their six sacks reveals, their success is a reflection of the entire pass rush.
SACK NO. 1: BRINGING THE BLITZ
**Ware finished with the first-possesion sack after getting 49ers left tackle Joe Staley turned around, creating separation that allowed him to await Kaepernick's step to his left, which put him in Ware's grasp. But this was made possible by the Broncos gaining a manpower advantage against the left side of San Francisco's line.
This began with Brandon Marshall blitz. To capitalize off the absence of All-Pro left guard Mike Iupati, who was lost to a concussion, Marshall lined up over Iupati's replacement, Joe Looney, who made his second career start, and attacked at the snap through the B-gap. Running back Frank Gore picked him up, but did not have enough leverage to contain him.
To Marshall's left, Derek Wolfe occupied center Dillon Farrell. With Gore blocking Marshall, Looney assisted Farrell against Wolfe. But all the while, Malik Jackson stunted around Wolfe, following Marshall through the B-gap. Jackson surged toward Kaepernick, cutting off the center of the field. Marshall closed from Kaepernick's right. When the harried quarterback moved to his left, Ware awaited.
The Broncos had a game-opening three-and-out, and the carnage was just beginning.
SACK NO. 2: MILLER FEEDS OFF "POT ROAST"
The vast majority of Miller's pass-rush work comes when the Broncos go into nickel and dime packages, and Miller transitions from strong-side linebacker to rush end. This dual role was how the Broncos could get every-down work out of Miller from the moment he arrived, even though many draft pundits saw him as a 3-4 defensive end who was not a natural fit in the 4-3.
But on the first play of the 49ers' fourth possession, the Broncos lined up in their base 4-3, with Jackson at right defensive end. Miller took up a position three yards back of the line of scrimmage, filling the gap between Jackson and Terrance Knighton, working at nose tackle. Ware got a breather; Quanterus Smith spelled him at left defensive end, working outside of tackle Sylvester Williams.
Jackson engaged with Staley, while Knighton drew the attention of Looney and Farrell. That opened the B-gap for Jackson and Miller. Jackson sprinted inside of Staley and then got low, avoiding the block from Gore, who attempted to take down Miller. As Jackson regained his balance, Miller avoided Gore, sprinted toward Kaepernick, who prepared to throw, then tried to break to the left side. Miller closed and got to him first, with Williams stunting behind Knighton and beating a late-turning Looney to arrive just after Miller.
This is the prototypical sack that Knighton creates: he draws attention and opens gaps for Miller and Ware.
"Sometimes he'll just say, 'Hey, you have a two-way go,'" explained Ware. "And it depends on if I get a slide technique -- meaning if the guard, the center and tackle slide to us --Terrance will sometimes crash down on the guard and he'll give you a two-way go on the tackle when the tackle's thinking, 'You know what, I'm going to have guard help,' but big Terrance will hold the guard for me."
SACK NO. 3: "THE OKEY-DOKE"
With a 21-3 lead and the 49ers looking downfield in a four-wide receiver set with an empty backfield, Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio used a nickel alignment and split Corey Nelson out into the seam. The linebackers were aligned five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Miller and Ware flanked Wolfe and Williams. But the Broncos rushed only Miller, Ware and Wolfe; Williams dropped back into a short zone.
Williams' quick step back led Looney to help Farrell with Wolfe, leaving Ware in a one-on-one duel with Staley. Once again, a tackle created an opening.
"It's sort of having really unselfish guys in the middle that can get good pocket presence," Ware said. "Quote unquote, they're not making the plays that they want to make, but their presence is felt from their teammates and what they bring to the game."
From there, Ware took over. He worked Staley's outside shoulder, and then moved inside to start to spin. Staley rotated, as well, and quickly had his back turned to Ware, which led to his momentum taking him inside. Ware waited the split-second for Staley to fall in, and then sprinted for Kaepernick. who got outside the hashmarks -- but not away from Ware, who had his second sack of the game and sixth of the season.
"I think he okey-doked himself," Ware said. "You know, just that spin move, sometimes you get a little feel. And I was thinking I hadn't done a spin move the whole game, so I'm going to try it and once I spun, he wasn't there. So I said, you know what, just use your instinct. When Kaepernick is rolling out, just spin back and I was able to make a big play."
SACK NO. 4: CREATING CONFUSION
It was Jackson's turn to get to Kaepernick to close the 49ers' second series of the second half, and this saw one of the Broncos' most unusual alignments, with six men at the line of scrimmage, including Wolfe lined up outside of Miller over Staley.
But instead of pressuring, Wolfe dropped into coverage, handling the short area near the line of scrimmage, which kept Kaepernick from sprinting up the middle and out of the collapsing pocket. Slot cornerback Bradley Roby provided the first pressure; Gore picked up his blitz, but that forced Kaepernick to step up. With Ware working against guard Alex Boone to Kaepernick's right, and Miller on the left, the quarterback had nowhere to go. He looked downfield, where strong coverage eliminated most of his options.
A pass to Stevie Johnson would have been Kaepernick's best choice; he ran a crossing route from right to left seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, with a two-yard cushion from Omar Bolden. But instead, Kaepernick tried to move to his left, where Miller was behind and Jackson was in front. He was just beginning to double back when Jackson engulfed him for a nine-yard loss.
Given the work Wolfe and Jackson did to set up Ware and Miller, it was nice to see one of them finish with a sack.
"f it wasn't for what Malik and Derek do, we wouldn't be able to do what we do on the outside. They really make it go. They're very unselfish," said Miller. "You tell them you want to run a game, and they're all for it.
"They're (not) like, 'Man, I wanted to get the sack,' or 'I wanted to make the play.' They always try to put us in the best position to make plays. And when you've got guys on the team you can work with like that, it really makes everything a whole lot easier for you."
SACK NO. 5: SPIN-O-RAMA
By the fourth quarter, Dillon Farrell has replaced the injured Kilgore at center. Kilgore moves to his right to help block Jackson, while Wolfe is in a one-on-one duel with Boone, at right guard. This leaves Miller against right tackle Anthony Davis, where he delivers a devastating spin move that left Davis flat-footed.
Even if Kaepernick had dodged Miller, Wolfe was right there, having stunted behind Miller and outside of Boone. It would have been a sack no matter what.
SACK NO. 6: CLOSING IT OUT
One of the two key plays that ensured the Broncos' goal-to-go stand in the fourth quarter was the 10-yard loss posted when Ware got to Kaepernick for his third sack of the game, forcing the 49ers into third-and-goal at the Denver 21.
The Broncos brought five pass rushers, with Marshall on a delayed blitz. Again, Wolfe occupies two blockers, while Jackson grapples with the left guard. Meanwhile, Lerentee McCray, spelling Miller at left rush end, beats Davis wide. Davis is able to guide McCray just behind Kaepernick, but the quarterback's decision to step up forces him into Ware, who has beaten Staley wide, and Jackson, who has penetrated the pocket and bears down on Kaepernick.
Six sacks. One man got the credit for each. But the truth was, every sack was a group effort.