Joe Mahoney/Associated Press file photo
Joe Mahoney/Associated Press file photo
Peyton Manning wasn’t the only free agent who had a spectacular Denver debut. So did the man who denied him a second Super Bowl trophy and now is trying to help him hoist another.
Tracy Porter earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors Wednesday for breaking up five passes, collecting eight solo tackles and returning an interception for the touchdown that sealed the Broncos’ 31-19 win over Pittsburgh.
It was Porter’s NFL-leading third career game-sealing interception since 2009, including his 74-yard pick-six in the Super Bowl three years ago that salted New Orleans’ 24-17 win over Indianapolis.
“I’ve spent a lot of years locking receivers up,” Porter said. “I just had to make the best of my opportunity.”
Porter’s five pass breakups marked the most by a Denver cornerback since Deltha O’Neal had six Oct. 7, 2001, against Kansas City. And it was half the total he had all of last season, when Porter returned from microfracture surgery on his left knee to play in 14 games.
Porter nearly picked off Ben Roethlisberger twice before he stepped in front of Emmanuel Sanders and took the interception 43 yards for the touchdown with 1:58 left in the fourth quarter Sunday night.
“It always feels great when a defensive back gets his hands on the ball,” Porter said. “I didn’t securely catch it, but I made the play.”
“He could have had about three of them it seemed like,” nickel back Chris Harris said. “Tracy’s a guy who’s playing opposite of Champ Bailey; you know he’s going to get tested more.”
Bailey figures that in Porter, he finally might have a cornerback comrade who can funnel more passes his way, like the late Darrent Williams did in 2005-06, when Bailey intercepted 18 passes.
Watching Porter streaking down the sideline with the game-sealing interception was a terrific sight for Bailey, who only had passes thrown his way while the Broncos were lined up in zone coverages.
“It’s a great feeling, because you try so hard on one side to shut down your side,” Bailey said. “It’s good to have a guy over there that can hold his own.”
When Porter became a free agent, the Broncos signed him to a one-year, $4-million deal to replace three-year starter Andre Goodman.
“He was a good cover guy,” coach John Fox said. “He was available. We felt strong about trying to get him, and fortunately it worked out.”
Now, it’s no longer a “pick on the other cornerback” approach when facing the Broncos as much as it’s a “pick your poison” proposition again.
“Both guys have been around and made a lot of plays,” safety Jim Leonhard said. “And I think for a lot of years, it was Champ and a couple young corners to where obviously they’re not going to test Champ. The defense where it is now, Tracy’s been around a long time. He’s made plays; he’s been to Super Bowls; he’s been in the playoffs. That experience, it means a lot to a corner. And I don’t think you’re just going to be able to say, ‘We’re going to avoid Champ and go to the other side all day,’ like maybe in certain years you were able to do that.”
In addition to signing Porter, the Broncos also added free agent safety Mike Adams to a star-studded secondary that’s better equipped to handle big tight ends and spread offenses like the one they’ll face Monday night in Atlanta, where Matt Ryan boasts wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White.
“There has to be a mix of great pass rush and then also having guys on the outside that can cover. And we’ve got both sides covered,” Leonhard said. “We’ve got the guys who can get to the quarterback, and we do have great depth in our secondary with our corners and our safeties and having safeties especially like Mike and Raheem (Moore) who are athletic enough to cover receivers, especially tight ends.”
Then, there’s Denver’s new pass-rushing trio of Pro Bowlers Elvis Dumervil, Von Miller and second-round draft pick Derek Wolfe. The Broncos dumped Roethlisberger five times.
“So, that’s the new NFL,” Leonhard said. “Teams are going to spread you out and make you make plays in space, and you have to have the athletes to do that, and you’ve still got to be able to get to that quarterback and hit the quarterback and not let him get comfortable.”