Overhaul of Broncos defense shows shades of Super Bowl counterparts
RENTON, Wash. -- One month and one week after they were keelhauled by the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, the Denver Broncos announced three signings in one very busy day for the franchise. All were defensive players, and all were expected to make an immediate difference: Pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward. Ware was seen as a declining player in Dallas, and the Cowboys cut him loose in a cap-related move. Talib was at loose ends after one full season with the Patriots as Bill Belichick looked to sign Darrelle Revis, and Ward was simply a very underrated player who had hit free agency after four years in the Browns' defense.
The trail of new players to the franchise's Dove Valley, Colo., headquarters was so heavy, Ware and Talib were on the same plane out there. Clearly, team general manager/executive vice president John Elway, head coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio sought change that was total -- and immediate.
"Their mentality is a ‘now’ mentality," Ware said at his opening presser on March 12. "A mentality of, 'I’m not looking forward to the next season or the season after that -- the time is now.' So when I looked back there in that back seat and I see Talib, I’m like, 'You know what? They’re trying to get the job done.' When I see them signing a guy like Ward, they’re trying to get the job done. They’re trying to get these lockdown corners so the pass rush up front can really create havoc out there. Seeing what they’re doing, now I feel even more comfortable even being here -- doing that with where they’re trying to be and where they’re trying to have their defense and what they’re trying to mold."
Talib, who had suffered a knee injury in the AFC Championship Game when Wes Welker ran a pick on him, held no ill will. Instead, he was excited about the opportunity to face every opposing team's No. 1 receiver for the Broncos.
"That’s playing cornerback," he said in March. "I want to go out there and play against the best receiver on the other team every play. I don’t want to just stay on the left side, sometimes go against number threes like some guys do. I won’t say names but some guys just stay on one side of the field. I relish the opportunity that my coach has enough confidence in me that he allows me to guard the other team’s best player for the full game. I just love that my coach has enough confidence in me to do that."
Ward was under the radar as the Browns cycled through front offices, head coaches and defensive philosophies, but he was well-known in the league as an enforcer -- the kind of player who made slot receivers regret going over the middle and could play the back half of the field as well as he could come up and work in run support.
“I pride myself on that part of my game," he said during that same mega-presser. "You definitely have to have that tenacity, I feel, at the safety position. The Seahawks, they have two good safeties that bring that type of energy. Offensive energy is great --touchdowns and getting the fans up. But there’s something different about imposing your will on the other team and having that attitude when they know that when they come out and play you, they better get ready because it’s going to be a long day. I think that’s something I can bring to this team.”
Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas are the Seahawks safeties Ward was referring to, and it's Chancellor whose game more closely resembles Ward's. Though backup linebacker Malcolm Smith won the Super Bowl MVP award, many will tell you that Chancellor should have taken that prize because he alternated so well between intermediate coverage and sheer enforcement when Denver receivers came over the middle. It was an intimidation game the Broncos were ill-prepared to match, and it was clear that the team's offseason moves were designed to change that.
A shutdown cornerback, a bruising safety and a historically great pass-rusher? Sure sounds like the Broncos did their level best to mirror the defense that vexed them so in February. Ware didn't hide the intent back then.
"So [the Broncos] turned around and said, ‘You know what? We’re fixing to beef up our defense. We’ve got our offense, now let’s go and get our defense right. Because we know we’re a contender.'"
Now, with the Broncos traveling up to Seattle for a Super Bowl rematch on Sunday, this new defense will be tested in different ways.
So far, things have worked well, and it hasn't just been the three new stars. The Broncos selected Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby in the first round of the 2014 draft, and it's Roby who's replaced Chris Harris as Denver's primary slot cornerback. Harris is now on the outside as Talib's bookend, and Denver's starting cornerbacks have given up a total of 10 receptions for 112 yards and no touchdowns in the first two games of the regular season. Roby has been a bit more vulnerable to more experienced route-runners, but that lines up with his college tape -- perhaps the most physically gifted cornerback of his draft class, Roby is prone to lapses in concentration. Still, he came up with a key deflection in Denver's season-opening win over the Colts.
"His overall athleticism," Fox told me this week of Roby's specific appeal. "When you look at a guy who’s a first round pick and has those types of skills and athleticism and it’s impressive. It’s a little bit of a jump going from college to the NFL. The skill was pretty incredible. So the minor details, and it’s something you have to work from, and I’ve seen the kid improve every week."
Ware, who many thought was on the wrong side of done, leads all 4-3 defensive ends in quarterback pressures with 12, and he's playing on the opposite side of a line that features a healthier Von Miller. Add in nose tackle Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton, who played in Jacksonville with defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and had a solid first season in Denver last year, and the front four is just fine.
The linebacker group is perhaps the most interesting. Brandon Marshall and Nate Irving can each alternate between weak-side and middle linebacker (Miller is technically the strong-side backer), and both are playing at a very high level despite little starting experience. Irving started five games last season, including the Super Bowl, while Marshall -- another expatriate from Del Rio's Jaguars teams -- had never started an NFL game before this season.
When the Broncos want to stack the box against the run, it's Ward who frequently comes up to the strong side; from there, he can act as a force defender, drop into curl-flat coverage, or act as a luck defender, divining the options of opposing receivers. It's a role similar to the one Chancellor played against Denver's offense in the Super Bowl.
Pete Carroll, who built the defense Denver wanted to model, told me on Wednesday that he definitely sees the similarities.
"Just that neither one of us pressure a whole lot," he said. "We’re not coming after you every snap. They believe in base defense. Jack [Del Rio] has always done a great job of coaching base defense. How they’re doing it now, utilizing their people, it fits really well and it makes it hard on us."
And when it comes to Denver's upgraded cornerback duo -- trading out Champ Bailey and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie for Talib and Harris -- Carroll is well aware that Denver has upgraded in serious fashion.
"They’re really good," Carroll said. "They're playing with a lot of confidence. They break on the football really well. They’re really disciplined about the way that they play. They don’t give you anything. I think the whole team is really structured really well. They know they have this potent offense going and they’re doing a really good job of playing base defense in a way that we admire because we kind of think the same about that. They’re doing a great job back there so far, and we expect it to be hard."
But when I asked Fox this week if the similarities were intentional, he downplayed the notion. To Fox, a longtime defensive coach, Denver's offseason moves and promotions (which have led to 10 of 12 new defensive starters if you include Roby) were simply about improving a unit that needed it. There's no way for the Broncos to top off an offense that set the NFL record for scoring in 2013 -- it was time to put some shine on a defense that finished 15th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics and 21st against the pass. It's seen as a near-inevitability that any defense tied to a Peyton Manning offense will face more than its share of passing attempts in an opponent's desperate attempt to play catch-up, but if this unit can stem the tide, there may be no stopping the Broncos.
"We lost the Super Bowl," Fox recalled. "We lost [Von] Miller for three quarters of the season. Before we signed anybody new, we had to replace him and we did that, hopefully with DeMarcus and then we get Von Miller back. We were without some pretty important players; Chris Harris, as I mentioned Von throughout the season. We missed them for a large portion of the season -- Rahim Moore, who’s a starter at free safety. We can lose some guys like everybody does and we gain some guys, it’s the sport we are in and there’s always change."
Yes, but this is about more than losing some guys and gaining others. The Broncos have undergone a sea change on the defensive side of the ball, and whether they choose to admit the Seattle-based origins of the new paradigm doesn't matter. The point is, it's paying off -- and could do so even more as the season goes on.
The next test is to find a measure of revenge against the team that beat them badly -- and showed them a different way to win -- in February.