ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --You couldn't sling a towel around the Broncos' locker room at Reliant Stadium after Sunday's 37-13 roasting of the Houston Texans without finding a player who credited Mike Adams' toe-tapping, just-inbounds interception early in the fourth quarter for being the turning point.
It's true that Adams' play -- which was set up by pressure from Shaun Phillips, Terrance Knighton and Nate Irving -- swung the game. Given good field position at the Houston 28-yard line, the offense, which had appeared a bit clogged up in the third quarter, suddenly flowed smoothly, marching to a touchdown in two plays, the first of three scores in a 13-play span.
But the play was set up by the back-to-back sacks on the previous possession, which in turn was set up by the attention given to Sylvester Williams, who enjoyed arguably his best day as a pro.
By this point in the game, Williams already had a sack and a tackle for a loss, and was successfully disrupting the Texans' blocking scheme. So when Matt Schaub and Houston had second-and-6 at the Denver 28, rising momentum and the chance to at least get a game-tying field goal, Williams' pass-rushing threat was going to be taken seriously.
So seriously, in fact, that when Williams rushed Schaub on the play from right defensive tackle, the entire left flank of Houston's offensive line engaged with Williams -- most importantly, left tackle Duane Brown. This left Robert Ayers, working at right defensive end, in a duel with rookie tight end Ryan Griffin. Brown responded slowly to Ayers' quick move inside of Griffin -- far too late to prevent Ayers from being the first man there.
At the same time, Knighton bulled his way past center Chris Myers, arriving just a fraction of a second after Ayers. Knighton was in a one-on-one duel with the 286-pound Myers, whose size is typical of centers in offenses run by Mike Shanahan or his former assistants. Myers is quick, but susceptible to power rushes, and Knighton had his way with him on this play, as he did most of the game.
Then, the Broncos shuffled the deck on third-and-12. Houston was still in Randy Bullock's field-goal range at the Denver 34, and the Broncos used seven defensive backs and just three defensive linemen -- ends Ayers and Phillips, with Malik Jackson at nose tackle and Danny Trevathan as the only linebacker.
On this play, the Broncos didn't show blitz, leaving safety Omar Bolden and Trevathan four yards back of the line of the scrimmage. But Bolden got a good jump at the snap an quickly went for the edge to Schaub's right. With Phillips and Jackson pushing to that side, Trevathan arrived on a slightly delayed blitz. Bolden's edge rush had forced Schaub to duck and step up -- which put him in Trevathan's crosshairs. At full speed, Trevathan engulfed Schaub before he could get reset.
The next time the Texans passed, Schaub clearly had the pass rush on his mind. Looking right the entire time, he began rolling in that direction when Phillips, working from Schaub's left side, was still five yards away. This played into Adams' hands -- as he said, "I read the quarterback's eyes" -- and he waited for his chance to pounce.
It was a big play. But it was set up by the pressure that had been building throughout the day.
This sequence offers the Broncos hope for what they hope is four games without Von Miller. You can expect more blitzes from safeties and slot cornerbacks; the Broncos supplemented their pass rush with blitzes on 45.9 percent of the pass plays after Miller departed, often disguising their intentions to keep Houston off-balance. You'll see the linebackers in the Broncos' sub packages -- usually Trevathan and Wesley Woodyard -- to be more involved in the pass rush. But if the Broncos get disruptive play from Knighton and Williams, life will be easier for Ayers, Phillips and Malik Jackson and others who work on the edges. That would help the Broncos get the outside mismatches they need to continue mounting consistent pressure.
There's reason to believe that the Broncos can succeed at this; their rate of quarterback hurries, per the numbers compiled by ProFootballFocus.com, was similar with and without Miller. The sources of pressure might be changing, but if the effect is the same, the Broncos' Super Bowl hopes can be sustained.