With Ware rejuvenated, defense is no longer an afterthought in Denver
Ware, the centerpiece of Denver’s aggressive defensive upgrade this offseason, stole whatever sliver was left over from the spotlight Peyton Manning commanded last Sunday night at home against San Francisco, dropping that ridiculous fake spin-move on 49ers Pro Bowl offensive tackle Joe Staley to record an instant-classic sack of Colin Kaepernick.
For the record, Ware, the former Cowboys’ pass-rushing star, hasn’t named or trademarked his gone-viral half-spin, spin-back maneuver. But it has quickly spawned imitators, with fellow Broncos sack specialist Von Miller trying it this week in practice. Ware’s take? Like almost everything else having to do with Denver’s new-look defense this season, it’s a great addition.
“Von started doing it the other day, that was funny,’’ Ware said Tuesday, by phone. “I said, ‘Oh, no. Now somebody’s really in trouble.’’’
You get the feeling the league concurs. Led by Ware’s three-sack night against San Francisco, the Broncos defense had itself a coming-out party in the 42-17 blowout of the visiting 49ers, sacking Kaepernick six times and limiting San Francisco to just 10 points over the course of the three quarters played by Denver’s starters. Manning’s record-breaking 509th touchdown pass got the well-deserved headlines and the adulation, but make no mistake, the Broncos defense is no longer an afterthought in Denver.
Don’t go pinning the “Dream Team’’ label on these 5-1 Broncos, but when was the last time a big free agency spending spree worked as seamlessly and as early as it has in Denver? The Broncos targeted and spent on name players like Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and strong safety T.J. Ward to dramatically boost their defensive playmaking, and it’s all going as planned through six games. And with the vitally important Miller and cornerback Chris Harris Jr. returning to health, the revamped Broncos have limited four of their six opponents to 20 points or fewer (it’s five if you count Seattle scoring 20 of its eventual 26 points in regulation, before winning in overtime), and only four teams in the NFL have allowed fewer than their 121 points. Super Bowl-bound Denver had just six games where it allowed 20 points or fewer for the entire 2013 regular season.
For a team that got gouged for 43 points in its embarrassing Super Bowl meltdown against Seattle eight-plus months ago, the difference on defense this season in Denver is both substantial and obvious. And it starts with the pass rush provided by Ware and Miller, who have generated a combined 15 sacks in just six games, outproducing 14 NFL teams all by themselves.
Ware has seven sacks, tying for second in the league, and already topping the career-low six sacks he recorded in his injury-plagued final season in Dallas last year. Miller leads the NFL with eight sacks -- including two against the 49ers -- despite coming off last December’s torn ACL. Miller has at least one sack in five consecutive games, being shut out only in the Broncos’ opener against the Colts, while Ware has four sacks in his past two games, going sack-less only against Kansas City in Week 2.
“The pieces are in place here, and when I got here I saw how hard Von works and how he has gotten back to where he needs to be physically,’’ said Ware, who played in just 13 games last season in Dallas, the first time in his nine-year career he had failed to play in every game. “Then with me, I feel like my body being whole again, being able to play all out and not being hurt and injured, has been the key. It’s like, ‘OK, now we have what people think they have with both of us.’ You don’t have a beat-up DeMarcus, or a Von coming back and still not being right from his injury.
“It was great just knowing we’re in the catbird seat here, and you know what, we’re ready for action and we’re going to prove everybody wrong.’’
Ware, who turned 32 in July, informed Miller in the Broncos’ OTAs that the duo was setting a goal of combining for 32 sacks this season, and they’re almost halfway there, with 10 games remaining. According to the New York Times, Ware and Miller are just the third pair of teammates to post at least seven sacks each in their team’s first six games. Asked if they had set their sights too low, given that their current pace of 2.5 sacks per game projects to 40, Ware referenced the Minnesota pass-rush pairing of defensive linemen Chris Doleman and Keith Millard, whose 39 combined sacks in 1989 is the record since the sack became an official NFL statistic in '82.
“The sky’s the limit for us,’’ Ware said. “I’m not even going to throw that number  out there again. From now on I’m going to say when you talk about Chris Doleman and Keith Millard, that tandem they had in Minnesota, that’s what you want. That’s what you’re going after, to be the best tandem ever in the league.’’
Ware’s rejuvenation as a sack artist was on big-stage display with his unique double-spin move against Staley, one of the league’s most reliable pass blockers. Working Staley with an inside spin move toward the guard, he abruptly changed and spun in the opposite direction, toward the outside, finding nothing but an unimpeded path to Kaepernick for the sack. Staley was left blocking air, yards away from the action. It was one part instinct and two parts improvisation for Ware.
“It’s just a feeling thing for me, and it really doesn’t have a name just yet,’’ Ware said of his move. “I did it twice this season, once in the Kansas City game and again against San Francisco. It’s just a matter of setting guys up and seeing if the spin move works, and if it’s not there, you just spin back the other way. Some guys don’t do it, but I don’t understand why not. If the spin move isn’t working, I just spin back and hopefully the tackle’s not there, and he wasn’t there that time.
“Staley is a great tackle, a Pro Bowl guy, so it seems like stuff like that doesn’t happen to him. But I feel like he just had the wrong read at the time, and it just looked worse than it really was.’’
Ware’s inspiration for the move? He pauses to give it thought, but no names come to mind. He is quite possibly the inventor.
“I haven’t seen anybody ever make that move before, just a half-spin,’’ he said. “Usually guys will get stuck in the spin move because if they start to spin back, the tackle will grab your shoulders so where you can’t spin back. But I’m going to spin back and keep rolling. Now I know it’s in my repertoire, and if it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. But I’ll keep trying it and eventually it will work.’’
There’s no time to celebrate his latest work because the task Ware and Denver’s defense face in the immediate future is daunting. The 5-2 Chargers visit Sports Authority Field on Thursday night, for a nationally televised battle for sole possession of first place in the AFC West. San Diego has been a pesky adversary since ex-Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy took over as head coach in 2013, with the Chargers being the only opponent to win in Denver last season, a feat they nearly duplicated in the AFC divisional playoffs, before falling 24-17.
San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers has an impressive 10-6 career record against the Broncos as a starter and has generated early season MVP chatter, even though the Chargers’ five-game winning streak was snapped last week at home against Kansas City. Rivers is adept at climbing the pocket and getting rid of the ball quickly, thereby negating some of Denver’s newfound pass rush.
“When you have guys that have played each other for so long and they know each other so well, and know what each other is going to do, it always come down to who wants it most,’’ said Ware, who’ll be getting his first taste of the Broncos-Chargers rivalry. “And especially with this short week, that’s what it’s going to come down to.’’
After Rivers, the Broncos must gear up for another challenge, a trip to Foxboro and a Week 9 date with Tom Brady and a Patriots offense that is starting to click. Rivers and Brady back-to-back will be the measuring stick that tells us if this Denver pass rush can be special, with both veterans capable of exploiting an over-aggressive front seven.
“With really smart quarterbacks like those guys, you’ve got to consistently keep them off their mark, and make plays when you get the chance to hit them,’’ Ware said. “That’s the only way to slow down guys who can get rid of the ball like they do.’’
In Denver this season, Ware is almost giddy about being on the same team as Manning, the quarterback who carved up the Cowboys defense in that memorable 51-48 shootout win in early October of last year. Ware likes the view better this time around, and found himself admiring No. 18’s historic work Sunday night against the 49ers.
“That was phenomenal, just to see a guy who has been consistently great throughout his whole career, and here he is in his 17th year still playing at that high a level,’’ Ware said. “It’s so much better being on his side, with an offense that can score points like that. It makes the other offense really one-dimensional and that’s when me and Von really woke up and were able to rush the passer and get pressure on the quarterback.’’
In Dallas, the Cowboys’ running game-led offense is making life easier for a surprising defense that is dramatically better than expected and thriving without the likes of Ware, defensive lineman Jason Hatcher and injured middle linebacker Sean Lee. The Cowboys’ run-first formula has worked to near perfection with DeMarco Murray in the lead role, but Ware said he’s finding it much easier to play defense this year now that he’s surrounded by playmakers, minus the burden of being the player opponents gameplan for on his side of the ball.
“It’s a lot better,’’ he said. “That’s what it boils down to. Here you take all these names and reputations and you stick them all in one barrel and what you get is guys who want to play for each other and play as a team. As you see with some other teams around the league, here it’s not just one star player that gets it done. It’s how guys come together and play, and get it done as one unit.’’
By any measurement, it has come together for Ware and the Broncos’ remodeled defense this season about as smoothly and quickly as anyone could have hoped or anticipated. In Denver so far, the improvement is readily apparent, and every move seems to be working.