With only 11 turnovers in 11 games, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been an NFL model of ball security.
Tampa Bay's careful ways are about to be tested as quarterback Josh Freeman leads the Bucs into Sunday's matchup against the surging Broncos at Sports Authority Field.
"They've got all that tradition, a great fan base and everyone I've talked to said it's a rocking stadium,'' Freeman said. "On top of that, they have a very good defense.''
The NFL's fourth-ranked defense is keyed by a relentless pass rush led by linebacker Von Miller and defensive end Elvis Dumervil, who have combined for 22 of Denver's league-leading 37 sacks with 14 and eight, respectively.
Miller was just named the AFC's defensive player of the month after posting eight sacks, 10 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles during Denver's 4-0 November.
"I think Miller is the best pass rusher in the league,'' Bucs right tackle Demar Dotson said. "Hand's down, nobody's better. He's a speed guy who knows how to cut that corner. He lines up on both sides and Dumervil brings it, too. Every game is big for our offensive line, but we've really got to focus on protecting Josh this week.''
The No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft behind Cam Newton, Miller wears No. 58 as a tribute to the late Derrick Thomas, Kansas City's Hall of Fame outside linebacker.
"Von Miller is an elite pass rusher and a complete football player,'' Bucs offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said. "This will be the best defense we've played all year.''
Freeman has been sacked only 10 times in the last eight games, but he faced constant heat two weeks ago at Carolina, where he was pressured into throwing a floater that was returned 74 yards for a touchdown.
With Pro Bowl guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph sidelined, Tampa Bay's patchwork line faces a major challenge keeping Freeman upright.
"They're very good – stats don't lie,'' Tampa Bay left tackle Donald Penn said. "The Broncos are a great pass rush team. Not good, great. Everyone knows about Miller, but you can't forget about Dumervil, either. That man's no slouch.''
Miller and Dumervil are masters of the sack-strip off the edge, forcing quarterback fumbles that stoke the crowd and give Peyton Manning a short field.
Denver has reeled off six consecutive wins to take command of the AFC West and the Bucs are determined to get rookie running back Doug Martin going Sunday, coming off a 50-yard effort against Atlanta.
"That running back, he's the real deal,'' Broncos defensive tackle Justin Bannan said. "They've done a great job against everyone in our division (3-0) and we're the last team.''
Staying in manageable down-and-distance situations will be critical for the Bucs in Denver, where the Broncos own the NFL's best home record since 1975 at 224-87.
Third-down back D.J. Ware, a reliable blocker, knows he could end up being all that separates Miller and Freeman.
"Von Miller has all the tools needed to be a great pass rusher,'' Ware said. "It's a big challenge, but I think we're all up for it. We know it's a noisy atmosphere where everyone will be against us. We kind of like it that way. I take a lot of pride in my blocking and not everyone can do it. It takes a commitment and a want-to.''
If the Bucs can remain poised in a hostile environment, Freeman has the weapons to challenge Denver's defense. While winning five of their last seven games, Tampa Bay has averaged 32.6 points to enter the NFC wild-card playoff picture.
Coach Greg Schiano has stressed ball security all season and the Bucs have lost the turnover battle only twice, but Miller and his partners in mayhem have other ideas.
"He's kind of a hybrid guy who plays bigger than he is,'' Schiano said of the 237-pound Miller. "I got to see him on film for the first time this summer and I said to myself, 'This guy's good.' Now that I've watched him game after game, change that … this guy's great.''