FILE - In this Sept. 13, 2015, file photo, Denver Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib scores against the Baltimore Ravens during the second half of an NFL football game in Denver. The Steelers at 8-5 need to keep winning to keep a playoff hope alive while a win
Jack Dempsey, File
December 18, 2015

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) The Denver Broncos have managed to cut down on their penalties, particularly personal fouls, while maintaining an aggression that's allowed them to strengthen their standing as the league's top defense.

It's just because of friendlier officials, suggested cornerback Chris Harris Jr.

Not so, retorted linebacker Brandon Marshall, who credits a shift in attitude.

The Broncos averaged 7.7 flags per game over the first 10 games of the season but just 4.2 over the last three games.

That includes just six whistles on the defense for 40 yards, and one of those was a phantom hold on Harris that negated a pick-6 against San Diego. It was among the most questionable calls in a 2015 season filled with so many officiating blunders that the league is changing its protocol for the playoffs.

The Broncos (10-3), who visit the Steelers (8-5) on Sunday, committed two dozen major penalties over their first nine games - 20 of them on defense - but have had just two 15-yarders over the last month and zero in the last two weeks.

''I think we're just having more friendly refs, I guess,'' Harris said. ''We're still playing the exact same way. There's nothing that we've changed. It's just they're calling it more on our side.''

Actually, while they are continuing to play the same stout defense, they're playing it much smarter.

''We're just trying to make a conscious effort of not trying to hurt the team,'' Marshall said. ''I think most of our penalties were personal fouls, after-the-play stuff, things we could fix. So, we just make a conscious effort to not hurt the team.''

Coaches ''hammered it in our heads and us as a defense, said let's not hurt the team and let's not hurt ourselves. Let's not keep extending these drives for no reason,'' Marshall added.

''We just kept hounding,'' defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. ''I said it before, I thought that we were going to cut down on them and we have. We're still going to be aggressive and there are going to be some penalties, obviously, but we're trying not to have any post-play or pre-play penalties and we've done better in that area.

''It's just making guys aware that these things hurt the defense, they hurt the team. You can't have those things. I think the message has been sent and acknowledged.''

Cornerback Aqib Talib's eye-gouge of a tight end in a loss at Indianapolis quashed hopes of a late comeback and led to his one-game suspension and safety T.J. Ward was ejected against Kansas City last month for punching a player above the neck as he was getting taken out on a touchdown.

Most of the penalties kept drives alive for grateful opponents.

''Sometimes it would just be in the heat of the moment, it's not even the aggression of the defense, stupid stuff like at the end of the play,'' linebacker Shaq Barrett said. ''You just feel like somebody pushes you at the end and you just feel like you want to go and push them back. So, I mean, we're still between the whistles keeping it going.''

Now, when that whistles stops, so have Denver's defenders.

''When you're one of the most penalized teams in the NFL and it starts costing you games, you've got to make a change,'' rookie linebacker Shane Ray said. ''Everybody on this defense decided to step up and just stop getting penalties and it works.''

Many times, Denver's defense was so good that the only blemishes were the over-the-line fouls that gave offenses new life.

''Oh yeah, and I still feel that way to this day: the only team that can beat us is us,'' Marshall said.

Notes: Steelers coach Mike Tomlin on facing Brock Osweiler instead of Peyton Manning: ''I just know he's a talented guy. He's shown that he's capable of making all the throws. He's done a great job. We respect him, their weapons and what they're capable of doing within their system of offense. I think it's unfair to compare anybody to Peyton Manning.'' ... Manning is out for Sunday along with Ward (concussion) and fellow safety Omar Bolden (hamstring) and OLB Lerentee McCray (hamstring).

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