Unlike previous dream teams that failed, the Denver Broncos' defense was built by the right people, with the right people.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The view is from a GoPro-type camera, Chris Harris says; watching the film, he see the scene as if it was happening to him. The man is perched up high -- Harris thinks he’s on a horse -- when the tiger jumps up out of nowhere. From that angle, you can see the man’s arms getting ripped off. It’s gruesome. Harris laughs.
This is the weekly routine of the Broncos defense, which watches videos of what defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio calls "aggressive animals going after animals that are not so happy about being pursued" every Thursday as a source of motivation. Earlier in the year, it was sharks attacking seals, animal-on-animal violence, but the playoff edition gets particularly violent.
The Broncos say the videos are part of "Turnover Thursday," but to find a connection between limb-tearing and turnovers is a stretch -- apart from these creatures turning over their lives.
And that’s fine. It’s nature. Really, the videos seem to represent an overall mindset, a motivation, and over the course of the past two seasons the Broncos have gone from seals to sharks to tigers.
Last March, after Denver’s defense proved to be the weak link on its championship run, John Elway began to do John Elway things, signing DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib in free agency. With the best defensive end, safety and cornerback available that spring secured on their roster, the Broncos looked set -- except, of course, general managers who come out on top in the offseason aren’t usually the men hoisting trophies. (Anyone remember the 2012-13 Lakers who graced the cover of this very magazine? No? Lucky you.)
The beginning of the season in Denver brought questions. After holding Andrew Luck and the Colts -- their opponents again this weekend -- to seven points on 137 yards in the first half of their season-opener, the Broncos defense collapsed, allowing Indianapolis back into a game that should have been over.
It took a deflection by rookie cornerback Bradley Roby with fewer than two minutes remaining to seal Denver’s win, and its defenders remember.
"They probably should have beat us," safety Rahim Moore concedes.
Did they doubt their big-name, big-money additions then? Out here, on the other side, the consensus is no. They swear it. Harris says it never crossed his mind the rebuilt unit could fail; the core of players in place was too solid. And unlike those dream teams that failed, Moore says, this defense was built by the right people, with the right people.
"Those people who pick up those players and it fails, they pick up the wrong players, or those players can’t play underneath each other," he continues. "(We) picked the right players that fit our system. We have no narcissists on this team."
And it’s true: Nothing radically changed between Sept. 7 and now. The defense's success was a gradual ascent toward this point, where the unit is completely healthy (apart from linebacker Danny Trevathan, who never successfully returned from a leg injury he suffered in training camp) and playing to its potential. The reasons for the changes make sense: New players had to acclimate. Young players had to grow. Time, basically, had to pass.
"We’ve all had our friction with what we think is right, what we think is not right," Moore says. "But now we understand the system, what we want, what it takes."
It helps that Harris is back at full strength; against the Colts in Week 1, he played only 36 defensive snaps and was barely more than nine months removed from ACL surgery. Von Miller, too, is healed from the same injury, and the jagged scar down Moore’s leg is the only lingering reminder of the bout with compartment syndrome that threatened his life and ended his season in December. And with Brandon Marshall -- the surprise star of the defense in Trevathan’s absence -- and Ward slated to play after missing time at the end of the season, Sunday has a chance to be the best the Broncos’ defense has looked all year.
So now the focus is on what they didn’t do four months ago: finish. That applies to the season but also to each game, and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton swears his unit has mastered the concept.
"It’s something we’ve developed throughout the season, having that killer instinct to put teams away and not giving them any hope," he says. "If we’re up in the game, that’s something we’ll reiterate. And if we’re down in the game, it’ll also be something that we talk about as far as keep fighting and have that mentality to never stop playing. Regardless of what the scoreboard is, we’ll continue to play hard for four quarters."
That, more than anything, will be the key on Sunday. The Broncos proved in September they can stop Luck -- albeit without the improved running game his offense generated in Cincinnati -- but they’ll have to do it better and for longer. With Talib healthy, Harris back to playing nearly every defensive snap and Roby 16 games better acclimated to the NFL, the pass coverage necessary to stymie Luck’s arm should be there, but against one of the league’s best offenses, the Broncos can’t count on anything.
"Don’t think that you’re all that and a bag of chips," Moore says. Or, in animal-attack parlance: Don’t assume you’re the tiger, but aspire to be.
As several members of the defense discuss the video in the locker room Thursday, it takes a moment to come to a consensus as to the predator. It’s a lion, Harris says. No, it’s a liger, someone shouts, which leads to linebacker Steven Johnson correcting them all. It’s a tiger, obviously. They agree.
But the person on the horse – is it supposed to be an opposing player? Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has suggested it might be. Asked whether it might be Luck, Harris demurs. He says he doesn’t know. Maybe.
Because that’s where this defense draws the line, with talking about tigers eating opposing quarterbacks. It’s insane, but it seems to work.