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Joseph goes from villain to victor as he oversees Denver's defensive turnaround after Miami meltdown

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — The Denver Broncos are trying to become just the fourth NFL team to recover from a 1-5 start to make the playoffs in the Super Bowl era and at 6-5, they’re taking a winning record into December for the first time since 2016.

The turnaround was fueled by an attacking defense that’s suddenly a takeaway machine, forcing 16 turnovers during their five-game winning streak, including 15 in the last four weeks.

So, what stoked up the defense?

— Safety Justin Simmons and edge rusher Baron Browning returned from injuries as did Mike Purcell, allowing athletic D-lineman D.J. Jones to go from nose tackle to the three-technique, where he plays in the gap between the guard and tackle, allowing him to attack and disrupt.

— Veteran pass rushers Frank Clark and Randy Gregory got their walking papers.

— Cornerbacks Essang Bassey and Damarri Mathis were replaced in the lineup by Ja’Quan McMillian and Fabian Moreau with Bassey getting released and signed by the Chargers.

— McMillian and another undrafted player who developed in Denver, safety P.J. Locke, have emerged as key starters. Locke is filling in during Kareem Jackson’s suspension and the Broncos have unearthed a gem in McMillian at nickel cornerback with a toughness and tackling prowess that stifles opponents’ third-down options and reminds many of a young Chris Harris Jr.

Another fuel rod in this equation is the Broncos’ meltdown in Miami in Week 3.

You’d think the Broncos (6-5), who face a crucial game Sunday at Houston (6-5), would want to burn or bury the tape of their 70-20 shellacking at the hands of the Dolphins in September.

Instead, they reference it all the time.

“I’ve watched it 10 times,” defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said Thursday.

Although his defensive players accepted the blame for surrendering 10 touchdowns in the blowout, Joseph put the Dolphins debacle squarely on his own shoulders.

He said losses to Las Vegas and Washington in Weeks 1 and 2 featured some defensive breakdowns that aren’t unexpected when installing a new scheme “but there was no panic because it wasn’t awful. We were still a work in progress.”

“But then we go to Miami and it really exposed our injuries and our lack of knowledge with the system” he was installing after joining Sean Payton’s staff and returning to Denver, where he went 11-21 as Broncos head coach in 2017-18.

Joseph was vilified during that time but nothing like the vitriol spewing his way after the loss in Miami.

“When you play a team like that which has so much speed, a really good scheme, and they’re being exact and you’re not, it looks like that,” Joseph said. “I’ve watched it 10 times. I watch it all the time because I want to go back and make sure I’m doing the right thing by the guys. And when you watch it, it’s a lack of knowledge, a lack of being exact. And when they pop one it’s going for 60 or 70 yards and that never happens in the NFL but it happened.”

The Broncos fell behind 28-7 at Chicago the next week but rallied to beat the Bears thanks in large part to Jonathon Cooper’s scoop-and-score in the fourth quarter, “and from that moment on it’s been better,” Joseph said. “The guys are buying in.”

The takeaways have become their trademark.

Now Joseph is starting to get accolades for his work in engineering Denver’s defensive about-face.

“I’m happy for V.J. for all the scrutiny he was facing before and we’ve just got to keep it going,” Locke said. “But I’m extremely, extremely happy for him. I love this man.”

That’s a widely held sentiment in the Broncos’ locker room, especially among veterans such as Simmons and Josey Jewell who were here during his time as head coach.

“We kept talking about getting better quickly and that’s what happened,” Joseph said. “Schematically, we figured out what our guys were good at. Early on, I was not attacking enough, allowing teams to attack us, you know, because I wasn’t sure how much we could do schematically or change with the guys that early in the season. But I think my personality and their personality is it’s an attack style.”

The Broncos are allowing just 16 points per game during their five-game winning streak and they’ve given up eight touchdowns total in those games, two fewer than they allowed that steamy afternoon in Miami.

So, Denver’s dreadful video from that 70-20 nightmare has become Joseph’s go-to when searching for little things that could improve the defense even more.

“We don’t duck that game,” Joseph said. “We talk about it all the time. About never going back to that. You can’t look past that because if you do you can’t get better moving forward.”

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl

Arnie Stapleton, The Associated Press