Denver Broncos coach Vic Fangio has been a defensive playcaller in the NFL for more than two decades. And in those previous 324 regular-season games or so, he had never called the blitz that he called on the Broncos' final defensive snap Sunday, the one that preserved an 18-12 victory over the New England Patriots.
As in not once, not ever.
"We just knew this is it, this is the play," said Broncos rookie cornerback Michael Ojemudia of the double-safety blitz. "All-out blitz, we've got to cover for 1-2-3 seconds. Thanks to Vic for having the trust for us to cover our guys ... that definitely takes some guts."
Or as Broncos safety Justin Simmons put it: "That’s very Vic-esque."
The Broncos, having now crept back to 2-3 after their 0-3 start to the season, left Foxborough, Massachusetts, Sunday night with plenty to feel good about. Quarterback Drew Lock was back in the lineup and brought some big-play swagger with him, running back Phillip Lindsay returned to the lineup with a 100-yard rushing game and Tim Patrick had his second consecutive 100-yard receiving game.
But it was the Broncos' defense that shined brightest, forcing three turnovers with four sacks and closing the door on the victory. The exclamation point at the end was Fangio's double-safety blitz on the Patriots' final offensive play, a fourth-and-10 at the Broncos’ 24-yard line with 1 minute, 3 seconds to play in the game.
If the Patriots, who had already scored nine points in the quarter, had converted, they would have had the ball at the Broncos’ 10-yard line with just under a minute left in the game and a timeout still in hand. Instead, Cam Newton’s pass bounced behind wide receiver N'Keal Harry with Broncos cornerback De'Vante Bausby trying to close the gap.
"Well, we didn’t execute the way we're supposed to and that was contingent upon me," Newton said following the game. "I knew I was going to get hit; I just tried to find a spot to give him -- so he could make a play on it -- it was a defender in the interior part still on the field. So I tried to give him an opportunity."
Fangio, who has steadily cranked up the blitzes in the weeks since pass-rushers Von Miller and Jurrell Casey both went to injured reserve, used more five- and six-man pressures in the Oct. 1 win over the New York Jets than he had in the Broncos' previous three games combined. Sunday, Fangio cranked up the heat again, including the seven-man pressure to close out the game that included both Simmons and fellow safety Kareem Jackson.
The blitz-or-bust play left just four players in coverage.
"I've pronounced to you and everybody else that at one time I was the leading blitz guy in the NFL, but I have been calling defense now for 20-something years, so the last few years with the teams I have had in San Francisco and Chicago we didn't need to," Fangio said. "But it's there when it needs to be had; obviously, we needed it [Sunday]. The final one [Sunday] that we put in for this game, we hadn't run before -- I had never run before in my career. We put it in and I called it."
"He just has a great feel for the game," Simmons said. "... He just felt it was the right time ... that's a lot of trust in the players to execute it."
The Broncos had their first three-takeaway game of the year on defense -- they had entered the game tied for last in the league with just two takeaways through the season's first four weeks -- to go with four sacks.
With a smattering of additional blitzes, the Broncos now have 10 sacks combined in the past two games. Fangio said after the game he was "thoroughly impressed" with the group's efforts.
"The way that game turned out in the fourth quarter, it could've got away from us; it did get away from us [some], but it could've been fatal," Fangio said. "I think it speaks volumes to the type of players we have here, the type of team we have, the conviction they have. Those guys went out there and fought, fought, fought. They did a great job -- that's a good offense that we faced. They average 30 points a game with Cam Newton as the quarterback."
The turn-it-up philosophy will be put to the ultimate test next Sunday when the Broncos face the Kansas City Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes for the first time this season. In two meetings against Denver last year, Mahomes completed 82% of his passes with three touchdowns and an interception -- Mahomes left the first meeting of the season against the Broncos with a right knee injury when he was 10-of-11 in the game.
But for two weeks, at least, the Broncos have begun to discover how they can make plays without Miller as their ultimate eraser.
"We just kept harping -- do what we do, do what we do, attack," Simmons said. "You could tell guys were a little fatigued ... [but] I was proud of us. I was really proud of the way we finished on defense."