If not for a late letdown, Sunday's 41-17 romp over the Oakland Raiders could have been the Broncos' best defensive performance in years.
The Raiders' last scoring drive, a 97-yard, eight-play march, accounted for 40 percent of the their first downs and 43.7 of their total yards. Until that drive, the Raiders earned first downs once every 10.8 plays; since 1997, the Broncos have never held an opponent below one first down every 7.6 plays (and that was against a Colts team that played backups for all but one series of the 2004 regular-season finale).
As it was, it was the first time in exactly 17 years that the Broncos held an opponent without a rushing first down, and the final rate of one first down allowed every 6.2 plays was the Broncos' second-best in the last six years, only surpassed in Week 5, when they limited the Cardinals to one first down every 6.22 plays.
All that was missing was sacks, but the Broncos succeeded at making Derek Carr uncomfortable. They forced him to attempt low-risk passes, which played right into the hands of the Broncos' big change: moving T.J. Ward from his traditional strong safety spot to a linebacker in the box when the Broncos went into their sub package, which was a dime in terms of personnel but a nickel in regards to how the players were used.
Ward essentially functions in the role that Nate Irving and Corey Nelson handled for much of the season: that of nickel linebacker next to Brandon Marshall. (Initially, Marshall was in line to be the No. 2 nickel linebacker next to Danny Trevathan prior to Trevathan's Aug. 12 leg injury.)
"With me playing the slot and T.J. at linebacker, we have to work together a lot now," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr.
An example of how well they can work is on receiver screen passes, like this one where Harris peeled off the slot receiver to hold up Jones. Ward, working from linebacker, sprints to Jones and Harris, finishing off the play.
The alignment allows both players to be more involved in more plays, and for each to use their aggression.
"Having me and him inside is going to be a nightmare for a lot of teams having to deal with us," said Harris.
And there are plenty of ways to use Ward. Here, he arrived on a blitz that sees Marshall drop back. A play later, Ward dropped into coverage and intercepted Carr, setting up the Broncos' final touchdown.
With Ward as a linebacker, it will be more difficult for an offense to know his intention. Blitz, man coverage of an inside receiver or tight end and short zone are all possibilities.
OFFENSIVE LINE PASSES ITS FIRST TEST
The new grouping anchored by Will Montgomery at center had some issues -- three pre-snap timing penalties, all in the red zone, and a flag on Montgomery for being an ineligible man downfield, also in the red zone. But the Broncos got what they needed out of the shuffled unit: more push in the run game and better protection that kept Khalil Mack from being too much of a disruptive factor.
It was particularly successful in opening holes for C.J. Anderson, and here are two examples:
With first-and-10 at the Denver 38 and 1:40 left in the first half, Anderson got his longest rush of the day out of a pistol formation, with Montgomery and left guard Orlando Franklin providing the initial blocks to spring Anderson.
Oakland played the run and brought five men to attack, leaving linebacker Miles Burris as the only man to prevent a play from getting to the second level. Manny Ramirez gets out in front and provides just enough of a block to impede Burris, who has a chance at Anderson but misses.
One play later, Anderson sprinted 12 yards up the middle out of the shotgun formation. This time, the Raiders kept their linebackers at home three yards behind the line of scrimmage. With Julius Thomas aiding by blocking Justin Tuck to the right of Peyton Manning and left tackle Ryan Clady working in one-on-one, the Broncos attack Oakland's defensive tackles with two blockers apiece, to create a hole wide enough for a dump truck.
But the key to the play is Ramirez and Montgomery, who are responsible for moving off the tackles to find the linebackers. That maintains the integrity of the hole, and Anderson sprints unimpeded until he's met by the deep safety 12 yards later.
Obviously, circumstances could change and opponents will adapt, but plays like these offer promise for the shuffled offensive line and its ability to galvanize the ground game.