- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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DENVER -- The rain poured. The wind blew. Broncos players kept shaking their heads, but the Washington Redskins, the little engine that could, just wouldn't go away.
Coach Mike Shanahan's squad built an 11-point lead in the third quarter. Normally, a good Broncos team -- and this is a good one -- would pressure the quarterback for sacks and surgically and methodically end their opponent's misery with the run game. Against the Redskins, they couldn't. Quarterback Mark Brunell kept dropping back, with everyone except Joe Gibbs and Sonny Jurgensen protecting him, and firing passes.
With 1:15 remaining in the game, Brunell rolled left and spotted David Patten open in the back of the end zone. But Broncos linebacker Ian Gold, in single coverage against tight end Chris Cooley, jumped up and deflected away what would have been the game-tying two-point conversion. The Broncos won Sunday's game 21-19, but the Redskins (3-1) gained ground for respect.
"They are for real," Broncos safety John Lynch said. "They are playing great defense. Offensively, they are playing great football. They are at the top of the league in third-down conversions. They got big-time, explosive players on offense. They are tough to deal with."
And a weird team to watch. Gibbs runs an offense that looks more like rugby than American football. Most of the time, Brunell calls plays out of two-tight-end sets. It's rare that more than two or three receivers venture out for pass routes. Because seven or eight players stay in to protect Brunell, he has time to move the ball downfield.
"Their scheme is one of those crazy things you have to see to believe," Broncos defensive end Trevor Pryce said. "They do so much max protecting. You try to rush one blocker, but he's not paying attention to you. He's worried about the guy coming outside of you. Coaches are yelling, 'Go get them,' but go get what? As a rusher a lot of times, you are null and void. It's like trying to penetrate Fort Knox with nine people standing there."
Brunell, at the age of 35, has found the fountain of youth in Gibbs' second season at the helm. Because the Redskins keep in so many blockers to protect him, he dropped back on 53 pass plays Sunday and wasn't sacked once. He completed 30 passes for 322 yards and two touchdowns, and overall, the Redskins ran 79 offensive plays to the Broncos' 54.
From one 20-yard line to the next, opposing defenses are having an impossible time stopping the Redskins. Gibbs has a goal to be balanced with the run and the pass, but Brunell was having better success moving the football through the air. Clinton Portis, the former Bronco, had a respectable day against a tough Broncos defense by rushing for 103 yards on 20 carries. Shanahan was willing to concede that. It was Brunell who was the untouchable one.
The Broncos tried everything. On downs in which the Redskins needed 10 or more yards for a first down, the Broncos tried variations of the old Chicago Bears 46 defense in which six players stacked the line with an extra rusher overloading one side. Brunell was untouched.
"They used so many two-man routes in which they had eight in protection," Pryce said. "You've got to be good to be able to do that, and they are. We probably should have rushed only three instead of four or more, because it didn't make any difference. It's frustrating to go against them."
But it's also frustrating to be a Redskins fan. Gibbs plays that offense so close to the vest that the Redskins won't be a high-scoring team. They've played well in four games, yet they've only scored 62 points. Coming into the game, the Redskins and the Broncos were tied as the third-worst team with seven red zone opportunities. For the season, the Redskins have scored only six offensive touchdowns in 43 possessions.
"From our standpoint, I'm proud of our players," Gibbs said. "They fought their guts out. I was proud of them fighting back like that. When you play on the road, you go up against a lot. We had some very critical plays tonight. You obviously never want it to end on one play. We made a number of mistakes that hurt us tonight."
In fact, there were two costly mistakes in the first quarter that contributed to Washington falling behind early. Brunell and Portis misjudged each other on a delayed handoff, resulting in a fumble during the first possession that the Broncos recovered at Washington's 43.
Four plays later, on fourth-and-1 from the 34, Jake Plummer audibled away from the strength of the Redskins' run blitz. Still, Gregg Williams' defense had two defenders in position to make the tackle. However, they missed Tatum Bell, who made a spectacular 34-yard run to give the Broncos a 7-0 lead.
After that, the Broncos' offense was stuck in neutral. Despite not having starting cornerback Walt Harris for the game and Shawn Springs for three quarters because of a shin injury, Williams devised a brilliant scheme in which his defensive backs protected against the pass in a four-man zone to prevent big plays. While doing that, his defensive front seven stuffed every gap, and at one point, limited the Broncos and Plummer to five consecutive three-and-outs.
"We tried to protect our young cornerbacks, and we did so many things well to take away a very good run game and a very good boot game, but we gave up two long runs because we missed tackles," Williams said. "We had guys in position to make tackles. Going into the game, we were No. 1 in the league in yards after contact and yards after the catch. Today we missed some tackles. Against these guys, we probably did as good as they've seen in stopping the run."
On two critical runs, though, there was no stopping Bell. The second-year back, who was acquired with the draft pick the Broncos got in the Portis-Champ Bailey trade in 2004, scored on a 55-yard run in the third quarter to give Denver the 21-10 lead.
"You can always find a running back in this league, but finding a shutdown cornerback like Champ is hard. They don't come around too often," said Bell, who finished with 127 yards on 12 carries. "Champ [who missed his second straight game because a hamstring injury] will be back when we need him. I think we got the better end of that deal."
Even more important, they got the benefit of a replay reversal earlier in the third
quarter. On Denver's second possession, Redskins defensive end Renaldo Wynn reached around right tackle George Foster and made Plummer lose the ball while in his throwing motion. Plummer recovered it in the end zone but was tackled by cornerback Ade Jimoh for a safety. Shanahan challenged the call, which was reversed because of the Tuck Rule. Instead of the Redskins trailing 14-12 and getting the ball, the Broncos retained possession.
"You could see right away that it was the Tuck Rule," Shanahan said. "I didn't think the official had a real good angle, because he wasn't looking at the quarterback, but the replay showed it right away."
Undeterred, Brunell kept dropping back in his Pentagon of protection and kept throwing. He drove the Redskins to a field goal midway through the fourth quarter, and started an amazing final drive from his 6 in the first five minutes.
The only time the Broncos got to Brunell was on a 9-yard sack on a fourth down at the Redskins 49, but that was negated when Broncos rookie corner Karl Paymah was called for defensive holding, giving Brunell second life. Three plays later, Paymah gave the Redskins another chance with a 15-yard penalty for spearing wide receiver Santana Moss along the sideline.
Eventually, though, the breaks came to an end for Washington.
"In situations like that, somebody has to make a play, and Ian Gold finally did," Lynch said. "At some point, somebody has to step up."
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Even in their defeat to the Broncos, the Redskins sent the message that their fast start this season is no fluke.