ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --Another week -- and another playoff-caliber opponent.
The Broncos will dive back into work with the Cincinnati Bengals looming on Sunday and will make do without OLB DeMarcus Ware and RT Donald Stephenson, both of whom were injured Sunday.
What's next, and just where do the Broncos stand so far? Find out with what you should know from Monday.
- JUST LIKE LAST YEAR, BARRETT AND RAY READY**
But this year, Shaquil Barrett and Shane Ray have extensive experience on which they can lean, not only from their fill-in work for Ware in 2015, but an offseason spent as the first-team outside linebackers.
Barrett spelled Von Miller during offseason work while Miller's franchise tender went unsigned, and remained there until Miller was up to speed during training camp. Ray worked in place of Ware throughout OTAs and training camp until Ware returned in August.
That experience helped both. So will what looms in the next four to five weeks while Ware recuperates and gets back to full strength following his forearm surgery Tuesday.
"It's a good time to get those guys some great experience," said CB Chris Harris Jr. "The key is having 'D-Ware' in the end. We want 'D-Ware' in the playoffs coming 100 miles per hour off the edge and rolling at the end of the season."
Even when Ware was on the sideline watching practice, he wasn't shy about offering tips to his young teammates, which they have applied.
For Ray, Ware's most memorable counsel has been about his on-field mindset.
"Just relaxing, being loose, not thinking so much," Ray said. "Last year, I was thinking a lot, and not reacting. Now I'm more comfortable. I can make plays just off athleticism, and I'm not having to do as much thinking. Now it's just continuing to do that -- to just be me, have fun, play ball and do my job."
Barrett took Ware's technical advice to heart as he looks to expand his array of pass-rush moves.
"Just making everything look the same, so that guys don't know what's coming," Barrett said. "If you can do three moves with all of them looking the same, it's going to be a great day for you."
- IS THIS PEAK VON?**
To this point, yes, but it might not turn out to be his career apex.
Including the playoffs, Miller has 10 sacks in his last six games, which would extrapolate to 26.5 sacks over a 16-game season. He has 17 sacks over his last 16 games, and has notched at least one sack in 12 of his last 15 games.
"That's Von Miller, the most unblockable dude in the game," said running back C.J. Anderson. "99 on Madden, 99 swim move, 99 spin move, 99 across the board for that kid."
A look at the top 15 all-time sackers shows that their average single-season sack-total peak came in their seventh professional season (average experience of 6.57 seasons, to be precise), with Richard Dent (a career-high 17.5 sacks in 1984, his second season) and Rickey Jackson (13.5 sacks in 1992, his 12th season) at the extremes. Taking those extremes out drops the average experience of their top sack season to 6.5 years.
The experience level at which all-time elite pass-rushers' peak has risen since 2000. Six of the top 15 all-time sackers have played at least half of their careers since Y2K: Michael Strahan, Jason Taylor, Julius Peppers, DeMarcus Ware, Jared Allen and John Abraham. Their average sack peak came after 7.2 seasons; of that group, only Ware had his career high before his sixth season (20 sacks in 2008).
For Miller to set a new career standard in 2016 to surpass his 18.5-sack tally in 2012, he will have to maintain that level without Ware opposite him, but with Barrett and Ray, the Broncos appear to be in good shape.
"We're pretty balanced pass rush-wise with DeMarcus and even Shane and Shaq and the players they've become, it makes it difficult for people to load up on Von," Head Coach Gary Kubiak said. "Plus, [Defensive Coordinator] Wade [Phillips] does a good job moving him around on third down."
- PASS DEFENSE BEATING THE BEST**
It's not just that the Broncos' pass rush and coverage is shutting down its foes. It's who it's shutting down, particularly at quarterback.
Consider what the Broncos have done in their last 12 games -- seven in the 2015 regular season following a two-game November losing streak, three in the playoffs and the two to start the 2016 campaign.
The quarterbacks they've faced have posted an average passer rating that is 18.8 points below their rating against all other defenses since the start of 2015.
Against a sterling array of foes that includes elite passers and some, like Oakland's Derek Carr, who appear on their way, the Broncos have held their opposing quarterback to a rating below what he's amassed against other teams since the start of the 2015 season (although in the case of Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, just barely):
Jay Cutler, Chicago (vs. Denver on Nov. 22, 2015)
- Rating against Denver: 70.4
- Rating against everyone else since Week 1, 2015: 92.8
Tom Brady, New England (vs. Denver on Nov. 29, 2015 and Jan. 24, 2016)
- Rating against Denver: 74.8
- Rating against everyone else since Week 1, 2015: 102.5
Philip Rivers (vs. Denver on Dec. 6, 2015 and Jan. 3, 2016)
- Rating against Denver: 71.1
- Rating against everyone else since Week 1, 2015: 98.6
Derek Carr (vs. Denver on Dec. 13, 2015)
- Rating against Denver: 79.0
- Rating against everyone else since Week 1, 2015: 94.6
Ben Roethlisberger (vs. Denver on Dec. 20, 2015 and Jan. 17, 2016)
- Rating against Denver: 94.4
- Rating against everyone else since Week 1, 2015: 94.5
AJ McCarron (vs. Denver on Dec. 28, 2015)
- Rating against Denver: 87.8
- Rating against everyone else since Week 1, 2015: 90.2
Cam Newton (vs. Denver on Feb. 7 and Sep. 8, 2016)
- Rating against Denver: 61.7
- Rating against everyone else since Week 1, 2015: 101.4
Andrew Luck (vs. Denver on Sep. 18, 2016)
- Rating against Denver: 64.3
- Rating against everyone else since Week 1, 2015: 71.6
- RED HAS MEANT "STOP" IN OR NEAR THE RED ZONE ...**
... at least for the Broncos' offense, which has marched inside the opponent's 30-yard line 12 times this season but has just four touchdowns and four field goals to show for its efforts, giving them just 40 of a possible 84 points.
Giveaways haven't helped; all four Broncos turnovers so far this season have come inside the opponent's 30-yard line. Two of those came on interceptions of screen passes that saw terrific athletic plays from Carolina's Star Lotulelei (to set up Thomas Davis for the pick) and Indianapolis' Darius Butler.
"It's not like Trevor [Siemian] threw it into coverage. Darius Butler just made a hell of a play," Anderson said. "Star last week just tipped it [to] Thomas Davis, and those are great plays by two good players. Whether it's us, whether it's play-calling, we've just got to find a way to put that in the box."
Two failed third-and-1 plays in the red zone further hindered the Broncos.
"The biggest thing is when you're 0-for-2 on third-and-one and both of those are down there, that kills the drive right there," Kubiak said. "I think we had a play we should have made down there once before and we kicked a field goal.
"We're struggling in the red zone on both sides of the ball."
That is the one area in which the defense has had issues so far this season. Opponents have scored 31 of a possible 35 points when crossing into the Denver red zone (at its 20-yard line), while piling up 40 of a possible 56 points on drives that crossed the Denver 30.
"Our defense is at the bottom of the barrel in the league and offensively we're 2-for-6, which is not good," Kubiak said. "We need to improve as a team in the red zone."