ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — The Denver Broncos turned around a rotten defense with a series of changes that have made their Miami meltdown a distant memory.
Cornerbacks Damarri Mathis and Essang Bassey were benched for Fabian Moreau and Ja'Quan McMillian, respectively. Pass rushers Randy Gregory and Frank Clark were sent packing. And four key players returned from injury: Justin Simmons, Josey Jewell, Baron Browning and P.J. Locke.
They still rank last in the league in yards allowed (405) and points surrendered (28.3), but they've held their last three opponents to 19, 17 and 9 points — and two of those were against the reigning Super Bowl champion Chiefs, whom they defeated for the first time in eight years.
The unit that allowed a whopping 10 touchdowns to the Dolphins in Week 2 held Patrick Mahomes out of the end zone entirely in their 24-9 win on Oct. 29 and the Chiefs were just 1 for 8 in the red zone in the two meetings.
The Broncos (3-5) are seeking a similar about-face on offense, but with a big difference: They're sticking with the same cast that averaged 21.5 points and 302 yards per game over the first half of the season.
The Broncos returned from their bye week Monday without any new faces after Sean Payton and GM George Paton declined to part with players for 2024 draft picks at last week's tradeline.
Wide receiver Jerry Jeudy drew some interest, but nobody offered the Broncos enough for them to part with their 2020 first-round pick who hasn't lived up to his billing and often gets into spats on social media with his critics, especially former players critical of his play.
Still, Payton is a big fan of Jeudy's and praised him after his first touchdown catch of the season helped the Broncos beat Kansas City 24-9 last time out.
“He’s an important part and an important piece of what we’re doing," Payton said Monday. "Shoot, he’s a guy that we think is dynamic. ... He played extremely well last week, and we think he is going to be very important for us going forward.”
It would help if Jeudy has a stretch like he did at the end of last season when he caught 37 passes for 523 yards and three touchdowns over the final six weeks while serving as Russell Wilson's primary target.
That led to the expectation he'd have a breakout year in 2023. But after missing two games with a hamstring injury he suffered in a joint practice with the Rams during camp, Jeudy has averaged 48 yards and 3.9 catches per game. His TD last week snapped a string of 10 scoreless performances.
Veteran Courtland Sutton has picked up with slack with six touchdown grabs, but rookie Marvin Mims Jr. is getting a paucity of snaps and second-year speedster Brandon Johnson is sidelined with a pulled hamstring.
The Broncos' trio of running backs — Javonte Williams, Samaje Perine and Jaleel McLaughlin — all have touchdown receptions, as well.
And Wilson, who has 16 touchdown passes and four interceptions, is playing a lot better than he did last year, although he often draws Payton’s wrath for dubious decisions and has become more of a game manager than ever before.
Two of Wilson's five career games with fewer than 120 yards passing have come in the last three weeks, both against Kansas City. He had 95 yards and two interceptions in a 19-8 loss at Arrowhead and 114 yards, three touchdowns and on interceptions in the rematch when Denver's 15-point margin of victory ended Kansas City's NFL-record streak of 40 consecutive games without losing by more than four points.
Wilson also is on pace to be sacked 55 times, which would tie last year's total in 14 games, which were a career high. His sacks figure to decrease over the final two months if the Broncos stay committed to the run as they were against the Chiefs last week when they ran 40 times and threw just 19 passes.
Denver’s rejuvenated defense has surrendered an average of 15 points over their last three games after allowing an average of 36.2 over the first five weeks. Browning's return from knee surgery has been huge. S Kareem Jackson will serve one more game for his suspension after a series of illegal hits.
WHAT NEEDS WORK
The passing game. Jeudy needs to take some pressure off Sutton.
Williams is rounding into shape just over a year since tearing multiple ligaments in his left knee. He has rushed for 82 and 87 yards in his last two games while running with the physicality that he displayed pre-injury.
TE Greg Dulcich has played in parts of two games this season because of repeated hamstring pulls. He missed training camp and seven games last year as a rookie for the same reasons.
The Broncos are as healthy as they've been all season, but they still miss Dulcich and his ability to stretch defenses and open up the field for everyone else.
6 — Consecutive losing seasons for the Broncos.
7 — Consecutive years without a playoff berth, second-longest active drought (Jets, 12) in the NFL.
The Broncos visit the Bills next Monday night.
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