ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — It’s a big boost and a back-breaker all rolled into one, the touchdown that comes while the offense is catching its collective breath on the sideline.
Nobody’s been better at that lately than the Chicago Bears and the Denver Broncos.
“Touchdowns can come from anywhere," linebacker Von Miller said after the Broncos got TDs on a punt return and an interception last week, making things a whole lot easier for Peyton Manning and a Denver offense that was off its game in a 36-14 blowout win at Carolina.
Trindon Holliday’s 76-yard punt return for a score — which came a week after his 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown at Cincinnati — and Tony Carter’s 40-yard interception return marked the 10th and 11th TDs from Denver’s defense or special teams since 2011.
“I can’t tell you what that does for the entire team, especially an offense," Manning said. “It can be deflating for the other side."
While Denver’s 11 non-traditional TDs over the past season and a half lead the AFC, they pale in comparison to the Bears’ 18 such scores over the past two seasons, including eight so far this year.
Those electrifying scores have propelled the Bears (7-2) to the top of the NFC North, a game behind Atlanta for the best record in the conference.
“I think with any team, you have a pick-6 or momentum changes on your kickoff return, it’s just huge for your team in general," Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker said. “And the offense, it takes some pressure off you."
Unless they come in bunches like with the Bears, where it actually puts pressure on the offense to keep pace.
Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler said recently that the team needed to get off to better starts but added that with the way his defense is dominating, “I think we’re going to be OK."
“At the end of the day, it’s not the Bears defense making it to the playoffs and the offense not," added wide receiver Brandon Marshall. “You know, we’re a team, so whether it’s the special teams getting it done that week, or the offense or the defense, we’re a team.
“But you have to give respect where it’s due: Our defense is playing lights out. They’re making it a lot easier for everyone in this building."
Although a TD on a punt or kickoff return or a fumble recovery, blocked punt or interception can fire up a team, NFL players tend to downplay the source of the score.
“Sometimes the media will divide a team into three different teams," Manning said. “Broncos offense, Broncos defense, Broncos special teams. And you write about them as if they are three separate teams, but it’s actually the same team. So, the BRONCOS scored those touchdowns."
And he’ll take them from anyone.
“Anytime anybody on the team wants to score a touchdown, I’m for it," Manning cracked.
Five of the six defensive/return TDs this season by the Broncos (6-3) have come during their four-game winning streak that began with a comeback from a 24-point halftime deficit at San Diego last month.
After the Bears and Broncos, the Jets with 10 and the Ravens, Bills and Packers, all with nine, have had the most return/defensive touchdowns since 2011, although Buffalo and Green Bay have had just two this season after scoring seven non-traditional TDs a year ago.
So far this year, there have been 76 return/defensive touchdowns, according to STATS LLC, putting the league on pace for 106, just shy of the 114 TDs the NFL has averaged over the past three full seasons.
Interestingly, the total TDs on kick returns haven’t changed much, although most are coming on punts and not kickoffs anymore, a direct result of a rule change. In an attempt to reduce injuries caused by players sprinting the full length of the field on special teams, the NFL moved kickoffs up five yards at the start of 2011.
There were just nine kickoff returns for TDs last season — but eight already this season — after there were 23 in 2010. The punt returns for TDs jumped from 13 in 2010 to 20 last year and there have been nine so far this season, according to STATS.
Those numbers would be down a bit had replay officials seen what Denver’s dynamic returner did at the goal line the past two weeks, when Holliday casually let the ball flip from his hands and out of bounds rather than spiking it or holding onto it for a keepsake.
The NFL said this week that Holliday’s 76-yard punt return against the Panthers should have been ruled a touchback and not a touchdown. TV replays showed the ball coming out of his right hand just before he reached the goal line and then bouncing out of the end zone.
“Actually it happened last week, too, and I thought I was actually in the end zone this time, but they told me I wasn’t," Holliday said this week of his first two career touchdowns.
So, the Broncos have implemented a new rule with Holliday, a former track star at LSU.
“He’s got full instructions from Jeff Rodgers, our special teams coach, to bring the ball all the way back to him," Denver coach John Fox said. “Bring it to the sideline, hand it to your coach."
It’s a nice problem for some teams to have.