Short of a Super Bowl victory, there are few things that could at change the dominant story line of the 2015 Denver Broncos from being the transition at quarterback from Peyton Manning to Brock Osweiler.
Manning, the 39-year-old future Hall of Famer and holder of many NFL passing records, started his 18th pro season slowly. Then he admirably raised his play to typical Manning standards, but then he got hurt, and then he played kind of horribly. During a Week 10 loss to the Chiefs in which Manning threw four interceptions (versus just five completions), the living legend was benched for Osweiler, the 4th-year-pro who had been waiting in the wings as Denver’s presumed QB of the future. In Osweiler’s three starts since then he’s gone 3-0, including an overtime victory over the previously-undefeated defending Super Bowl champion Patriots.
And so the Broncos are 10-2, tied with the Patriots and Bengals for the best record in the AFC, and it seems all of the talk is about their QB situation — not just for this season but beyond, when Denver’s front office has to decide what to do with Osweiler, who is in the final year of his contract, and Manning, who has one year left on his.
Meanwhile, the Broncos’ defense has quietly led the NFL in sacks (41), total yards allowed per game (284.7) and passing yards allowed per game (195.6), while ranking second in points allowed (17.5 per game) and fifth in rushing yards allowed per game (89.1). Denver has allowed the fewest passing touchdowns (11), and opposing QBs have a 75.3 passer rating, second-lowest in the league.
The leader of the Broncos’ defensive backfield is, just like Osweiler, new to the job.
Free safety Darian Stewart came to Denver this season after four years as mostly a backup with the Rams and one year as a starter with the Ravens. And also like Osweiler, Stewart is seeing immediate success. From the Denver Post:
Broncos’ safety Darian Stewart arrived in Denver as a relative unknown. He was the lone defensive starter coming from outside of the Broncos’ already tight-knit defense.
Stewart had flashed talent during his five years in St. Louis and Baltimore, but when he arrived, he was just a guy to replace Rahim Moore.
Fast forward to December and Stewart has been the Broncos’ best offseason pickup. He’s an upgrade over Moore and a stabilizing force on a defense bitten by injuries and suspensions.
“He’s our quarterback in the secondary,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said.
That’s a lot of praise for a new face in a secondary with three Pro Bowl starters. It’s a testament to his intelligence and ability to think on the job. And of course, his play.
There was a time when T.J. Ward was the Broncos’ lone safety delivering bone-chilling hits. Stewart now shares that role because, as he puts it, “the man has to go down.”
Against New England, Stewart went low three times on Patriots’ tight end Rob Gronkowski. He dislodged the ball free on two of the hits and one of his legal hits caused a knee injury to Gronkowski.
Sunday against the Chargers at San Diego, Stewart again did what he does best. He says his job is to dislodge the ball from the receiver, which he did three times to Chargers’ receivers coming across the middle for seemingly easy catches. His production hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“D-Stew fits great,” Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib said. “Having two safeties that will come down and pop you like that puts a lot of fear in (receivers’) hearts. We kind of lacked that last year from the free safety. Stew definitely brought that to the table, and you can see how much it’s helped us.”
Through 12 games, Stewart has amassed 52 tackles (one shy of his 16-game total last season), eight pass breakups, one interception and one forced fumble. The 27-year-old out of South Carolina been on the field for over 90 percent of Denver’s defensive snaps, second to cornerback Chris Harris.
Stewart will lead the Broncos’ DBs into Sunday’s game against the Raiders, who have one of the league’s best passing offenses. But Oakland QB Derek Carr is coming off a three-interception performance last week against the Chiefs that was his worst of the season.
The media and public will focus on the matchup of young QBs, Carr and Osweiler, who likely represent the new faces of a longtime AFC rivalry. But the plays that decide the game may just as likely be made by Denver’s hard-hitting secondary and its overlooked leader.