Expect a heavy dose of Adrian Peterson...again.

Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Lost in the shuffle of the media’s obsession with Peyton Manning is the fact that Manning himself isn’t the one winning games for the Denver Broncos. Gone are the days of Manning-led teams riding their quarterback’s arm to the playoffs. Those 40,50-touchdown seasons? A thing of the past, a feat left to quarterbacks who can deliver a deep ball without a grimace.

For a player who struggles to remove his own shoes after games, it’d be unrealistic to expect Manning to lead his Denver Broncos to yet another Super Bowl. The sun began to set on Manning’s game near the end of the 2014 season, and now, we’re witnessing a player’s unglamorous descent into the twilight of his 18-year career.

Fortunately for Peyton, the Broncos have a defense that’s doing all it can to hold off the imminent sunset. According to the Denver Post, Wade Phillips’s unit is leading or near the top of every major statistical category, and they’re the first team since the 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers to record at least 10 sacks and 10 takeaways through the first three games of the season:

  • Takeaways: 10 (2)
  • Sacks: 11 (3)
  • Yards allowed per game: 259 (1)
  • Passing yards allowed per game: 176.3 (1)
  • Rushing yards. allowed per game: 82.7 (7)
  • Pts. allowed: 49 (4-T)
  • TDs allowed: 6 (4-T)
  • Defensive TDs: 2 (1-T)
  • Opponents third-down pct.: 19 percent (1)

On the opposite side of ball, the Minnesota Vikings and Adrian Peterson will need to play their best game of the season to leave Denver with a victory this week. This Sunday’s game is Mike Zimmer’s first chance at a “statement” win, and gashing this Broncos defense would be a step in the right direction — a playoff direction — for the second-year head coach.

Trying to find a weakness — from the defensive line to the secondary — is nearly impossible when looking at the Broncos’ tape from Week 3. Wade Phillips has his defense playing at an extraordinarily high level in all aspects of the game, from creating turnovers to stopping teams on third down. Much like Mike Zimmer’s mantra of toughness and physicality, the Broncos are adopting their own label; bully.

“We’re going to challenge all throws. We’re not going to hide what we’re doing,” said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. on the Denver Broncos’ official website. “We’re going to play the bully. That’s our motto: ‘Be the bully.'”

Given the Vikings’ offensive struggles this season, especially in the passing game, the Broncos may bully Teddy Bridgewater and Co. around on Sunday afternoon. Below, a look at each positional group and what makes the Broncos such a dangerous team.

Pass Rush

DeMarcus Ware was supposed to be a savvy veteran signing, a player who’d contribute on third downs and give the Broncos a much needed spark in passing situations. The 33-year-old has done more than that in less than two years with Denver; he’s become their best pass rusher.

Ware already has 3.5 sacks this season and shows no signs of slowing down. The dip, bull rush, and bevy of pass rush moves are still a major part of his arsenal, and they were on full display against the Lions last week.

Image courtesy of Vikings.com
Image courtesy of NFL Game Pass

Here, Ware is “mush rushing” Stafford, holding outside contain without rushing too far upfield. Doing so would result in a free scramble by Stafford, and Ware’s main responsibility is to funnel Stafford into the pressure created by the rest of the defensive line. The Lions, who field one of the league’s worst defensive lines, do an admirable job in blocking Stafford’s play side, but lose the battle almost instantaneously to the left.

Fellow defensive lineman Malik Jackson rips through the double team, forcing Stafford to step up into the pocket. It’s Stafford’s only play in the situation, and while you’d expect him to release the ball, Denver’s secondary has shut down every receiving option. Seeing this, Ware plants his foot and takes the proper angle on Stafford, combining with Jackson for the easy sack.

As just one of many examples, this play demonstrates the beauty of Denver’s defense — elite pass rushers, stout defensive linemen, and a secondary that can cover any receiving corps. The elements work in tandem, creating mismatches at every level of the defense. Our number one receiver is blanketed? Throw to the flat, right? No, the linebacker’s taken away that option. And by the time the quarterback decides to tuck and run, the pressure is in his face, likely resulting in a sack. 

Pass Coverage

In scouting circles, Chris Harris Jr. is one of the league’s top-ranked cornerbacks, The Broncos’ shutdown corner was Pro Football Focus’s fourth-ranked player in 2014, and he’s continued his strong play to start 2015.Next to Harris, Aqib Talib is the Broncos’ most impactful defensive player — through three games, he’s hauled in two interceptions, returned one for a back-breaking touchdown against the Ravens, and defended five passes.

At safety, T.J. Ward is the secondary’s intimidator, a constant presence in the running game and across the middle in the intermediate passing game. Darian Stewart, Bradley Robey, and David Bruton Jr. round out one of the league’s most talented, aggressive defensive backfields.

Image courtesy of NFL Game Pass
Image courtesy of NFL Game Pass

Here, the secondary forces a coverage sack, which led to a Matthew Stafford fumble and turnover. At the top of the screen, Aqib Talb is playing Cover-3, backing out of the curl/flat zone to play the deep third of the field. Underneath, the linebackers are responsible for any crossing routes, taking away the Detroit Lions receiver coming across the formation.

At the bottom of the screen grab, Golden Tate is working upfield, and Chris Harris carries him into the  deep third, taking away the potential deep shot along the left sideline. Eric Ebron nearly comes open, but the safety at the top of the screen is in perfect position to take away the throw up the seam. The defense’s positioning, and understanding of the scheme, negates the matchups potentially created by the Lions’ offense.

Calvin Johnson becomes open as soon as he crosses the linebacker’s face, but the pressure by the defensive line forces Stafford to roll to his right and leave the pocket. He is sacked from behind by Shaquil Barrett and loses the ball, giving the momentum right back the Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense. Again, the defense works through a symbiotic relationship, feeding off one another to create problems for an offense. If the coverage is tight, the pass rush almost always hits home. If the pass rush is stuffed, the secondary and linebackers often stay in position and force the quarterback to throw the ball away.

Peyton Manning is still the star, but his eternal flame is burning quickly. The quarterback on the opposite sideline, a certain Teddy Bridgewater, may need his best game as a starter to pull of the victory in Denver. In what could be a statement game for Mike Zimmer’s team — and a “changing of the guard” for Teddy Bridgewater — the Vikings have a chance to prove they’re more than just a “sleeper” in the NFC. They have a chance to prove they can play with the very best  the NFL has to offer.