Denver, in as much as a 6-0 team can collect a surprising win, dismantled Rodgers and the Packers, 29-10. Manning had his finest game of the season, but as the quarterback seemed to predict, it was Denver’s defense that made life mostly miserable Sunday night for Green Bay. And it is Denver’s defense, allowing a league-low 261.1 yards and 16 points per game in seven victories, that has (unlike Manning) been consistently good. And it is Denver’s defense that allowed the team to reintroduce itself Sunday as a legitimate Super Bowl contender, even as questions persist about Manning’s arm strength and accuracy.
“A statement game,” was how Von Miller saw the contest against the Packers, and Miller was part of a pass rush that sacked Rodgers three times Sunday. “One of the best quarterbacks in the game only threw for (77) yards. That’s the type of statement we wanted: to show everybody what kind of defense we are.”
In 2014, the Broncos had the league’s third-best defense and began this season with mostly the same personnel, including five returning players named to the 2015 Pro Bowl. Denver did acquire one important free agent, though, when longtime NFL defensive coordinator Wade Phillips joined new Coach Gary Kubiak’s staff.
Phillips, an old-school coach who’s strict on fundamentals and nimble as a play-caller, has milked the best out of a talented defense that showed no signs of fear against Rodgers. In fact, one of the NFL’s most accurate and elusive passers — defenses had only hit Rodgers 23 times entering Sunday night’s contest — was hit four times on Green Bay’s first possession alone. He had a long night, made more miserable by a three-sack second half, including a fumble Ware caused that the Broncos turned into a safety.
It was classic Phillips, or at least that’s how veteran NFL offensive coach Al Saunders viewed it. Saunders, a Miami Dolphins senior offensive assistant who has spent the last three decades constructing game plans to take advantage of defenses’ weaknesses, said Phillips is one of the most challenging defensive minds to face.
“You’ve got to get your quarterback in rhythm and your running back in rhythm, and Wade creates situations where that’s not always possible,” said Saunders, who has occupied almost every level of an NFL coaching staff since the early 1980s. “That, for an offensive coach, is extremely frustrating.”
With the Broncos, Saunders said, Phillips is taking advantage of his pass-rushers and one of the league’s best secondaries. If an offense uses motion or complexity before the snap, Phillips responds — often with tweaks he implements during the game — with simplicity. Phillips uses timely pressures, Saunders said, and prepares defenders to be patient and ready, even for a passer like Rodgers.
“[He] has experienced every style of offense; you’re not going to fool him,” said Saunders, who joined the Dolphins last month after Coach Joe Philbin was fired and who has faced Phillips many times.
Ware, who said he was healthy after suffering a back injury in mid-October, acknowledged Manning’s performance and a 14-0 Denver lead helped the defense by making Green Bay one-dimensional — something rarely said about a Rodgers-led offense. But facing constant pressure and perhaps the best coverage so far this season, Rodgers was inaccurate and rushed; by halftime Sunday he had completed only eight passes for 37 yards.
“We just couldn’t find a rhythm tonight offensively,” Packers guard T.J. Lang said following Sunday’s loss. “They outplayed us [on] pretty much every facet of the game.”
That was the plan, and Denver somehow executed it to perfection. It will face more tests, beginning Sunday in Indianapolis against Colts quarterback Andrew Luck — who, like Manning, has been inconsistent — and later this month against New England. Not that the Broncos seem intimidated.
Just as Manning asked Denver’s defense to do, it showed up — and somehow walked away with even more confidence.
“It wasn’t as big of a challenge,” safety T.J. Ward said, “as we thought it was going to be.”