ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Lost in all the hoopla over Tim Tebow and his recent success is the performance of Denver's dominant defense over the last month.
The Broncos have been able to keep it close so that their unconventional quarterback can orchestrate all those comebacks.
Led by relentless rookie pass rusher Von Miller, the Broncos (5-5) stymied Mark Sanchez and the New York Jets in a 17-13 win Thursday to climb to within a half-game of the Oakland Raiders in the middling AFC West race.
The defense sacked Sanchez three times, held the Jets to 83 yards rushing and even provided some scoring help to a stagnant Broncos offense when cornerback Andre' Goodman picked off a Sanchez pass and darted 26 yards into the end zone.
Miller recorded a team-high 10 tackles, including nine solo and three for a loss. In addition to his 1½ sacks, he forced a fumble near his goal line. He and Elvis Dumervil are the first teammates in 11 years to split sacks in three consecutive games.
But all that was largely overshadowed by Tebow's late-game heroics as he led the Broncos on a 95-yard drive that culminated with his 20-yard TD run in the final minute.
That was the signature moment as Tebow improved to 4-1 since taking over for Kyle Orton.
Just keep it close for Tebow — that's become the defense's mantra.
"It's a good feeling, because I know if we're close, we've got a chance," Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey said. "He's going to keep grinding."
Not that long ago, the Broncos defense was as maligned as Tebow's mechanics.
And now, the squad is steadily starting to gain a measure of respect — just like Tebow.
They're hardly paying attention.
"People are going to say what they're going to say. They're going to doubt our quarterback, doubt our defense, doubt everybody," Bailey said. "It doesn't matter. Whether they pat us on the back or kick us, it doesn't matter."
These days, the team is receiving far more pats than put-downs.
Especially Tebow, who remains an enigma in an option offense that's been custom-fitted to take advantage of his skill set. He looked rather mundane for 55 minutes against New York, only to lead the team down the field for the winning drive that ended a string of eight straight punts by the Broncos.
He did the same thing against Miami, rallying the team from a 15-point deficit in the final 5 minutes of a game the Broncos won in overtime.
If not for the defense, though, neither comeback would have been possible.
"It's the same formula that we have been having — just keep on playing, keep on believing and having faith, and hopefully we have a chance," Miller said.
Dennis Allen, Denver's sixth defensive coordinator in as many seasons, figured his players might struggle early this season as they tried to acclimate to his style after the league's lockout wiped out offseason preparation.
The Broncos took their lumps early on, especially in a loss to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, who piled up 49 points and more than 500 yards on the Broncos.
Complicating matters were injuries to Bailey, Dumervil and linebacker D.J. Williams that sidelined them over much of the first month. Their return to health has helped Denver's defense improve.
"Guys are beginning to feel more comfortable in the system and what they're being asked to do," Allen said. "I think some of the play has shown that."
Never more so than on the front line.
With Dumervil full speed again after contending with nagging shoulder and ankle ailments, he and Miller are finally able to unleash a potent 1-2 punch that Miller has dubbed "Batman and Robin." The dynamic duo each had 1½ sacks against the Jets.
That gives Miller 9½ this season, two shy of the Broncos rookie record set by Rulon Jones in 1980.
"(Miller) is very explosive. He does have long arms, does have great change of direction," Fox said. "He's got a lot of the God-given abilities that it takes to do what he does."
The same can be said of Tebow, who relies on moxie even as he's bashed for flawed mechanics. Fox doesn't understand all the negativity toward his quirky quarterback.
"He's real. He walks the walk," Fox said. "A guy like that in today's society, in my mind, ought to be celebrated, not scrutinized to the level that he is. He's got our team from 1-4 back to 5-5."
He had a little assistance along the way, from a defense that is dominating games for the first time in several seasons.
"We just put our heads down and kept on trucking. That's what we've been doing," Miller said. "That's what's been working and I don't expect that to change. We're just going to keep pushing to be the team we want to be."Comment on this story
Notes: Broncos TE Daniel Fells (concussion) will go through tests next week in order to be cleared to play at San Diego a week from Sunday. ... Unwilling to risk a possible fine, Fox elected not to weigh in on safety Brian Dawkins' hit that drew a 15-yard flag Thursday night. Replays appeared to show Dawkins hitting Jets WR Plaxico Burress in the shoulder, not the head. "We have certain calls every week that we review. We look at the tape and we send them to the officiating department in New York," Fox said. Dawkins' hit, he said, "might be in our clump."