As well as quarterback Peyton Manning played on Monday night, the Denver Broncos' defense deserves equal credit for their stunning comeback against the San Diego Chargers.
Denver's pass rush forced Chargers' quarterback Philip Rivers into five second half turnovers, keeping San Diego scoreless after 24 first half points. The key to Denver's second half shutout was how they attacked the pocket.
Rivers is a classic pocket-passer and lacks the mobility and athleticism to escape swarming pressure. After Manning got them closer on the scoreboard, the Broncos were able to turn speedy edge-rushers Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller loose.
Their quickness and power was too much for San Diego's offensive tackles to handle. Rivers had less and less time in the pocket and was forced into making quick decisions and turnovers inevitably followed.
Miller and Dumervil mixed speed moves with power-based bull rushes and eventually forced the Chargers into maximum protection fronts. That limited the number of receivers Rivers had to aim for, causing him to pause in the pocket.
That hesitation left him at the mercy of Dumervil and Miller. The duo accounted for three of Denver's four sacks, with Dumervil forcing two costly fumbles from Rivers, including one the Broncos returned for a key touchdown in the third quarter.
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio intensified his attack once the Broncos took the lead. He lined up defensive end Robert Ayers over the center and even used tackle Derek Wolfe at end.
But it was Del Rio's use of the blitz to supplement Miller and Dumervil, that really destroyed Rivers and the Chargers' passing game. Because Rivers is a stationary target, Del Rio blitzed the middle.
He regularly sent linebacker Wesley Woodyard through the A-gaps, often in tandem with one of defensive backs Mike Adams and Rahim Moore. Sometimes the blitzers crossed and other times one acted as a decoy, while the other blitzed off his back, attacking a free gap.
This meant Rivers always had someone in his face and his line of vision was disrupted. More importantly, it mean he couldn't step up in the pocket to deliver passes and escape the pressure on the outside.
Denied a clean throwing motion or avenue of escape, Rivers was forced into some ill-advised, quick throws and eventually hurled three interceptions in the fourth quarter. Safety Chris Harris snared two, returning one for the clinching score.
Rivers has been mistake-prone for the last few seasons and the Broncos have the weapons to make any quarterback look foolish, especially when they have a lead.
The combination of Manning piling up the points, creating leads to let Dumervil and Miller rush the passer, is how the Broncos are supposed to function this season. It is a potent mix that should take them far in the AFC race.