This week, the Broncos defense puts its burgeoning reputation on the line at Cleveland (1-4), in a game that has obvious special meaning for Patterson and five of his Denver defensive linemen. You remember the "Browncos,'' that collection of largely disappointing ex-Browns who have followed Patterson to Denver, finding success in the Rockies and writing new chapters to their NFL stories?
While cornerback Champ Bailey, safety John Lynch and linebackers AlWilson and Ian Gold get the lion's share of the credit and attention in Denver's defense, the Broncos' dominance wouldn't be possible without the strong and steady contributions of the ex-Browns contingent up front: Ends Kenard Lang and Ebenezer Ekuban, and tackles Gerard Warren and Michael Myers. All but Lang joined Denver last year, along with injured defensive end Courtney Brown, who is out for the season due to the lingering effects of his recent knee surgery.
Patterson stuck his neck out for his ex-Browns shortly after arriving in Denver, lobbying Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan to look past their underachievement in Cleveland and take a chance on their potential. The rewards have been obvious, and today all those snickers that Warren and Co. elicited upon joining Denver have long since been silenced.
That the "Browncos'' are returning to Cleveland as part of a defense on a record-setting pace only adds to the misery of the last-place Browns, whose touch on the personnel front has been a study in failure since they returned to the league in 1999.
"It makes me feel good that these guys have come in and played the way they've played so far,'' said Patterson, who served as ButchDavis' defensive line coach in 2003-2004. "I knew they could play, and that's why I recommended them to Mike. I'm glad they got in a situation where people could see what kind of football players they are, and what kind of workers they are. It's great to see them all experience what I feel they deserved in Cleveland.
"They all want to go back and play well there, but not to rub dirt in Cleveland's face or say 'I told you so.' They're not those type of guys. They want to go back and play well and help the Broncos win the game. That's it.''
There's an irony inherent in Denver's defensive excellence this season, and it's that for the first time in memory, the Broncos offense is an absolute bottom-feeder. Denver has scored just 62 points in its five games, or 12.4 per game. Only 0-5 Oakland has been less productive, with 50 points scored, which makes the Broncos' feat of winning 80 percent of their games thus far even more impressive. Denver has yet to score more than 17 points in any game, and is one of just two teams (joining 1-4 Miami) with that dubious distinction. Even the winless Raiders have a pair of 20-plus-point outings.
The Broncos have scored just five touchdowns themselves, winning by three at home against Kansas City in a 9-6 battle of field goals, and posting three consecutive 10-point wins the past three games, at New England (17-7), and home against Baltimore and Oakland (both 13-3). The lone touchdown allowed by Denver came in the fourth quarter against the Patriots, in a game the Broncos were in complete command of at 17-0. That lead was the biggest margin the Denver defense had to work with all season, with every game remaining relatively tight throughout.
Given the Broncos' history of offensive prowess, the fans and media in the Mile High City have by far focused more on what Denver isn't doing -- i.e., quarterback Jake Plummer's continued struggles to move the ball -- than the defensive half of the story. But that hasn't yet caused the type of locker room tension that so often arises when a team is heavily imbalanced.
"I don't think they'll go there,'' Patterson said of Denver's defenders. "I don't think they really care about it. Guys like Al Wilson and John Lynch have both said it: 'It's not about the offense. It's about us taking care of our job.' I've been places where the offense has struggled, in Dallas and Cleveland. And you get that chirping on the sideline about how the offense is playing. But I haven't heard that here. There's no complaining.''
But there is a serious shortage of love for the Broncos' D, which ranks only 10th in the league in yards allowed (293.4 per game).
"Oh, it's still an offensive place around here,'' Patterson said. "We're still kind of playing in the shadow of the offense. They haven't all the way embraced us. Even after the Oakland game, there's still two articles in the paper on what the offense isn't doing, and one on the defense playing so well. But that goes with the territory here.''
In catching the likes of Baltimore, Oakland and Kansas City without starting quarterback Trent Green, the Broncos defense has probably already faced some of the weaker offenses it will draw all season. That trend should hold at least through this week's trip to Cleveland. But over the course of the rest of the season, Denver will be sorely tested to maintain its historic pace on defense.
Starting in Week 8, the Broncos close out their schedule with a challenging 10-game span that includes games against Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, San Diego (two), Kansas City with Green expected back, Seattle and Cincinnati. If Denver is still giving up just more than a touchdown per game at that point, it'll be time to place the 2006 Broncos alongside the greatest defensive units of all time. Even in Denver, where offense rules and the famed Orange Crush defense had its day nearly 30 years back, the D will get its due.
"We're aware of the history, but it's not really talked about,'' Patterson said. "The only time we might talk about it is after the game, when the PR guy comes in and tells us we set a record that had stood for 40 years or something. But you know the guys feel good about it and want to keep it going. They want to get it done.''
They're getting it done so far on defense in Denver. This season, it's been that way right from the start.