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ENGLEWOOD — The Denver Broncos’ defense was the laughingstock of the league over the last few years, giving up a profusion of points and forcing precious few turnovers.

This is no longer that defense.

The Broncos are now actually relying on the defense to rescue them, like it did in a 17-10 win over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday that kept Denver unbeaten through the first month of the season. That defense thwarted a potential tying drive when Champ Bailey swatted away a pass in the end zone on a fourth-and-goal play with 1 second remaining.

“There are very few situations that can shake us,” cornerback Andre’ Goodman said.

In just one offseason, a once-maligned defense that ranked at or near the bottom in every major statistical category has been transformed into a trustworthy unit. Last year, the team surrendered 28 points a game. This season, it’s given up only 26 points in four games.

The Broncos also have forced 10 turnovers, three shy of what they produced all of last season. The porous defense ultimately led to the firing of Mike Shanahan as his squad missed the playoffs for a third straight season.

The reclamation project began shortly after rookie coach Josh McDaniels took over. One of his first hires was defensive mastermind Mike Nolan, who implemented a 3-4 scheme.

Then came the acquisitions. The Broncos revamped their secondary by adding perennial Pro Bowler Brian Dawkins, Goodman and Renaldo Hill; brought in veteran linebacker Andra Davis; and provided depth on the line with Ronald Fields, Le Kevin Smith and Vonnie Holliday.

“In this defense, I see pride, I see hunger, I see a battle for respect,” linebacker Mario Haggan said.

Still, respect has been hard to come by.

Most pundits remember the last few seasons when Denver was dismal on defense, burning through one coordinator after another trying to shore up numerous deficiencies.

And while Nolan has brought stability, the Broncos’ fast start on defense was dismissed by many a critic as nothing more than a product of a weak early schedule.

Then came the Dallas performance, where the defense bottled up one of the top rushing teams by holding the Cowboys to 74 yards on 25 carries. The Broncos are hoping that buys some credibility.

“To come out and do it against a great team shows we are a great team,” said linebacker D.J. Williams, whose club is surrendering a league-low 6.5 points a game. “We still have a long way to go.”

It sure beats the last few years.

“I was on the field a lot, giving up big plays, everybody running around on us,” Williams recounted. “Now we’re on a defense like this, everybody’s making plays and stopping people.”

Bailey made a big contribution Sunday, picking off Tony Romo’s pass deep in Denver territory and swatting away two more thrown his direction in the end zone on the final drive.

It’s not often that Bailey gets picked on. He rather enjoyed it.

“I welcome it. Please do,” Bailey said. “That’s the only way that I get a chance to make plays.”

Before Bailey’s late deflections in the end zone, Dawkins came up with a touchdown-saving tackle when he raced across the field to drag down Sam Hurd at the Denver 20 following a 53-yard catch-and-run on fourth down.

It was an impressive burst for a 14-year veteran who’s supposedly lost a step.

“He may be a 35-year-old in age, but he’s 22 in playing time,” Haggan said. “He’s that type of player — when you need big plays he delivers.”

Dawkins hasn’t needed long to win over teammates and become a leader. The longtime Philadelphia Eagles standout brings an intimidating presence to a Denver defense that has been lacking one over the years.

“We’re a disciplined group,” said Dawkins, who turns 36 on Oct. 13. “All of us are coachable and when (Nolan) says something about stopping a team, we all believe and buy into it.”

That’s because Nolan spreads the wealth, devising a game plan each week that entices the interest of players.

“Everyone wants the ball on offense, so you’ve got to spread it around,” said Nolan, who’s been a defensive coordinator for Baltimore, Washington, the Jets and the Giants. “On defense, it’s a little bit of the same way when you play the 3-4: guys want their number called, where they get to blitz and get to do some of the fun things.”

Elvis Dumervil has been thriving in Nolan’s system, using his long arms and low center of gravity off the edge of the line as a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker. Dumervil sacked Romo twice on Sunday, giving him eight this season and tying him for the league lead.

“I’ve been blessed to be in this situation,” Dumervil said. “The defensive scheme is excellent.”

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