SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Several Broncos good guys were on the sideline, cheating as close to the end zone as possible.
On Levi's Stadium field, fighting to preserve a 34-0 shutout, were a bunch of third-string Broncos defenders, some who might well have been in their final week as NFL players.
Players whom the good guys might never see again.
The San Francisco 49ers had done little all day against the Denver defense, but a lucky pass deflection off safety John Boyett's hands had given them first-and-goal at the 7-yard line with 50 seconds remaining. Shutout pride was at stake.
The good guys moved down to the right side of their sideline - some went well past the box, but the refs didn't care — to get a better look. T.J. Ward, Rahim Moore, Chris Harris (in shorts and a T-shirt), Aqib Talib, Nate Irving, Malik Jackson, Julius Thomas, Demaryius Thomas. Whether they played defense or offense, they all watched intently.
It became third-and-goal from the 2 with 36 seconds remaining. Niners running back Jewell Hampton ran off left guard, was about to go in when he was met by Broncos' cornerback Jerome Murphy.
The good guys on the sideline cheered. High-fived, made some silly comments, laughed. Fourth-and-goal from the 1.
The 49ers, who stink at play-calling late in the game from the red zone, seemingly sent in the same play. This time Murphy and linebacker L.J. Fort stopped Hampton before he could reach the line of scrimmage.
The good guys on the sidelines went nuts. They hopped, danced, yelled, ran a couple steps onto the field to give their defense pad punches and helmet slaps.
A four-down, goal-line stand by the Broncos' No. 3 defense.
"I've been talking about us playing as a team and really being there for each other," said Julius Thomas, a tight end who had caught the first touchdown in the game. "Offense supporting defense, defense supporting offense and special teams. I think you saw a little of that today. Those last drives with the threes, you saw guys still cheering for them and getting excited for them. That's being together and close as a team. That's what's going to make us a great team this year.
"Everybody knows we have talented players. We have systems that work. But how well are we going to gel? How much are we going to rely upon each other in tough times? I think that's what's going to make a huge difference."
Face it. For the Broncos to come together, it won't be about the offense and defense meeting halfway. If the Broncos are to make that mighty leap from Super Bowl whipping boys to Super Bowl champions, their defense has to stop dragging so far behind the offense.
The Broncos broke NFL records on offense last year, the most significant being 606 points. The defense ranked 21st in 2013 by allowing 24.6 points per game.
Halfway through the 2014 preseason, there are encouraging signs the defense has a chance to keep up. There has been a little too much bend by the first-team unit. Russell Wilson led Seattle on a long, touchdown drive in the preseason opener. And in two drives against San Francisco,49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the offense picked up five first downs and drove to Broncos territory each time.
But there was no break in the defense. One drive ended with a long missed field goal, and the other with a punt.
Not bad considering Denver's defense was playing without Von Miller, Kevin Vickerson, Danny Trevathan, Kayvon Webster and Harris.
"We're deep," Vickerson said. "A lot of depth. Young talent. It's always good."
The biggest play came on third-and-4 from the Broncos' 37. Kaepernick had former Broncos receiver Brandon Lloyd flying down the field, a step or two past the cornerback, Talib. But Ward blitzed from his strong safety position and hit Kaepernick, just as the quarterback released the ball.
The pass was slightly overthrown. Fourth down. The 55-yard field-goal attempt by San Francisco kicker Phil Dawson had no chance.
"I got him," Ward said. "Caused the incompletion, maybe. It comes from all the hard work we put in during training camp, practice. We go at it hard every day. It carries over to Sunday."
The Broncos' second- and third-string defense had no problem stopping 49ers backup quarterbacks, Blaine Gabbert and Josh Johnson. The 49ers' No. 4 quarterback, McLeod Bethel-Thompson, would have been easily stopped, too, had Boyett not whiffed on his interception attempt.
Still, the shutout was preserved. Peyton Manning, by the way, smiled from the center of the sideline while so many of his good-guy teammates went berserk. Amid the mayhem, Manning's eyes fixated across the field. Ever observant, he seemed curious at how 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh reacted.
"You can always learn from those situations, so a lot of young guys out there playing with a lot of energy, that was good to see," Manning said.
The ultimate good guy showing support for the third-string guys.