Why T.J. Ward’s boast has some merit, the unsung heroes of the defensive line, why Gary Kubiak doesn’t need a great quarterback, and why the Broncos might have found two big-time upgrades at offensive tackle
1. Safety T.J. Ward was correct in saying Denver’s defense has “no ceiling” and “can be the best of all time.” OK, yes, Ward runs his mouth every now and then. And it’s a little too soon to be talking about all time. In fact, the Seahawks still have the NFL’s best defense over the aggregate last five years. But sometimes hyperbole is necessary to get the discussion rolling in the right direction. Discussing this Broncos D in “all time” terms is the right direction. Going off yards per play, this was the NFL’s No. 1 run defense and pass defense last year. And it was the best playmaking defense, as well, ranking eighth in takeaways and first in sacks. A huge portion of those plays were game-swingers. In the playoffs, the Broncos faced three top-five quarterbacks from 2015 (Roethlisberger, Brady, Newton) and allowed 14.6 points a game.
2. Speaking of Ward, it’s hard to understate his value to his defense. Besides being an aggressive hitter, Ward can play solo man coverage against running backs and tight ends—including, as he showed in the postseason, top-shelf ones like Rob Gronkowski and Greg Olsen. He’s also a terrific blitzer. The Broncos do a great job deploying their safeties in a variety of ways. Ward headlines that.
3. Having three lockdown corners in Aqib Talib, Chris Harris and Bradley Roby is Denver’s greatest asset because it allows imaginative defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to do whatever he wants with his front seven. In the Super Bowl, Phillips played these three corners along with just one safety, leaving all of his base front seven defenders on the field, even when the Panthers were in three-receiver sets. The heavier box destroyed Carolina’s ground game. (By the way, the other time Denver did this three-corner package was its Week 8 demolition of the Packers.) You can only play this way if you trust your corners to win one-on-one. Many NFL teams don’t even have one corner who can be trusted to this degree. Even more impressive is that, while Talib, Harris and Roby are superb man defenders, they’re also proficient in zone. Talib can be sloppy here at times, but he’s so dangerous breaking on balls from off-coverage that QBs still have to think twice about him. Harris’s spatial awareness is second to none. And Roby is fast evolving into a second coming of Harris.
4. For all the talk about Denver’s corners, its defensive line is just as important. Derek Wolfe is an elite point-of-attack run defender. And to think: The Broncos extended his contract by four years for just a little over half the market price in guarantees ($17.5 million). At nose tackle, Sylvester Williams has excellent feet for a big man. The question with this front is: How much will departed free agent Malik Jackson be missed? He was the playmaker. It will likely take second-round rookie Adam Gotsis a little time to become that, if he becomes that at all.
5. Jackson will be missed, but not linebacker Danny Trevathan. That’s not to say Trevathan isn’t a fine player. But on passing downs the Broncos are a dime defense; they play one ’backer and three safeties. Brandon Marshall is that one backer. That’s why he’s the one John Elway re-signed.
6. We forget about Denver’s depth at outside linebacker. Yes, Von Miller’s otherworldly mixture of body control and explosiveness make him a once-in-a-generation force. And DeMarcus Ware, when healthy, was still a dominant player last year. But behind those guys are Shane Ray, who as a rookie in 2015 showed flashes of why he was a first-rounder, and Shaquil Barrett, who was undrafted in 2014 but has the motor and low center of gravity to be even more dynamic than Ray. The two youngsters help keep the 34-year-old Ware fresh.
7. It matters who starts at quarterback for Denver, but not as much as it would in a scheme other than Gary Kubiak’s. We haven’t yet seen Kubiak’s scheme in full bloom here (Peyton Manning factor), but suffice to say it’s predicated on outside zone runs, moving pocket play-action and either/or half-field reads involving crossing patterns. All these tactics can help hide a quarterback.
8. Running backs C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman are both important to this scheme. Anderson, with his lateral movement ability and cutback vision, won over the hearts of Mile High fans down the stretch last season. But Hillman shouldn’t be forgotten. His wheels give the Broncos a true perimeter threat, which can really boost an outside zone rushing attack.
9. Given the quarterback situation, a lot of pressure will be on Denver’s wide receivers—particularly Demaryius Thomas, who has to be the only player in NFL history to record 100-plus catches and 1,300-plus yards and be coming off what most (including him) would agree was a down year. Indeed, Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders will have to perform in an offense that asks them to win on inside breaking routes and screens. But really, the passing game discussion should be pointed at the tight end position. It is vital in Kubiak’s scheme; ideally the head coach would like to have two on the field most of the time. But the Broncos are simply too thin here. Virgil Green, who has all of 35 catches over his first five seasons, is the No. 1. The No. 2 tight end is either ho-hum ex-Texan Garrett Graham or 2015 third-rounder Jeff Heuerman, who missed his rookie season with a torn ACL.
10. Denver’s O-line, revamped at every spot except center, is worse inside than it was a year ago but potentially much, much better outside. Seahawks free agent Russell Okung is only 27. If he stays healthy, he’s a Pro Bowl-caliber left tackle. At right tackle, Donald Stephenson is long-armed and physically well-balanced (when he’s playing correctly). He was wildly up and down playing for his hometown Kansas City Chiefs. Some in K.C. believe a move to a new state will help Stephenson be more focused professionally.
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