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How a Super Bowl loss helped Elway build NFL’s best defense in Denver

John Elway used the Broncos’ Super Bowl loss at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks two years ago as inspiration to build the league’s best defense, and that defense has his team headed to Super Bowl 50. 

DENVER — What the Broncos did to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game was one of the single most impressive examples of team defense you’ll ever see in a single game. In a 20–18 win that put the franchise in its eighth Super Bowl, Denver’s defense terrorized the man who may be the best quarterback in NFL history. Tom Brady completed 27 of 56 passes for 310 yards, one touchdown and two picks in the game, he was sacked four times, and Denver’s defense put 20 hits on him—the most any team had hit an opposing quarterback in a game in a decade. Brady was able to engineer a partial comeback in the fourth quarter, but the first-half numbers—9 of 20 for 87 yards and two picks—put the Pats in too big of a hole. New England’s frustrating day was very similar to the one the Broncos had suffered at the hands of the league’s best defense two years before, and the comparison is entirely instructive.

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During the 2013 season, Denver had the best offense in the league, and one of the better offenses in NFL history. The Broncos ranked first in points and yards, set the single-season mark for total points with 606, and shredded the league with a passing game led by Peyton Manning at his absolute apex. Manning’s incredible regular season (55 touchdowns and 10 interceptions) continued into the playoffs, and when the Patriots came calling in the AFC Championship Game, and Manning responded to his old nemesis Brady by completing 32 passes in 43 attempts for 400 yards and two touchdowns.

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Then in Super Bowl XLVIII, the Broncos learned what executive vice president John Elway already knew from his days as a future Hall of Fame quarterback: If you’re facing an all-time defense in football’s biggest game, the air can get pretty thin. It certainly did for Manning and his Broncos in the subsequent 43–8 shellacking delivered by the Seahawks. Manning completed 34 of 49 passes for just 280 yards, one garbage-time touchdown and two killer picks. Against the Seattle defense, Denver played the odds that its dynamic aerial attack would work against a furious pass rush, safeties who loved to decapitate receivers who went over the middle and cornerbacks for whom there’s no such thing as coverage that’s too tight. It didn’t. 

The day after the game, at the team’s end-of-season wrap-up presser, Elway said all the right things about how his team hadn’t been physically beaten, that the offense was great and might get better, and that there was a lot to look forward to. He said the generic statements you hear from most coaches and executives when it’s time to go home. In truth, Elway had already created a new mission for the team he took over as an executive of in early 2011: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Elway inherently knew from years of painful experiences on all sides of the ball that winning a Super Bowl without a quality defense is nearly impossible. 

By the time of the scouting combine a couple of weeks later, Elway revealed what he wanted and admired in a defense, and it was very much about the defense that had just humiliated his players.

“You have to give Seattle a ton of credit on the defensive side,” he said then. “They can rush the passer, they have tremendous speed at the linebacker positions and great length in the secondary and speed back there also. It really fed into what they did and their schemes on the defensive side. ... Two years ago [2012], we were in the top five in scoring and yards given up. We know it is there. We just will continue to try to stay healthy next year and find some players to help on that side of the ball.”

One thing Elway knew as soon as he started on the job: The defense he inherited had aged, and he needed reinforcements. He took Von Miller with the No. 2 pick in 2011 and added defensive linemen Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson in the 2012 draft. This was a decisive personification of his personal (and personnel) philosophy, which he outlined at the combine at the same time he was openly envious of what Seattle had built.

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“You want to be strong everywhere,” he said. “There is always a philosophy—some people say you build from the inside-out and others say you build from the outside-in. We were fortunate with the fact that with the corner position, we were pretty strong this year. We were good on the ends with Von Miller. So it’s important. The thing is you have to make a decision one way or the other. It’s hard to get everyone, and that’s why we have to be good in the draft. Hopefully we’re able to find those guys. Safety is becoming such a big position because of the spread offense, and everybody is spreading everybody out. You have to have those strong safeties that also have the ability to cover.”

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Two weeks later, Elway went all-in on defensive superstars in free agency by signing former Cowboys pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, veteran cornerback Aqib Talib and ex-Browns safety T.J. Ward in a dizzying shopping spree: three contracts totaling $110 million in a span of 24 hours. Adding them to a defense that had also been bolstered by lesser-acclaimed signings like Jaguars castoff linebacker Brandon Marshall and nose tackle Terrance Knighton (who signed with the Redskins last off-season) proved one thing: The Broncos were changing their competitive model as surely and obviously as they possibly could. If Elway failed, it wouldn’t be for lack of trying.

Ware saw Talib on his flight to Denver, and that’s when he knew something was up.

“Their mentality is a ‘now’ mentality,” Ware said during his first Broncos presser on March 12, 2014. “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, I feel even more comfortable being here with where they’re trying to be, and where they’re trying to have their defense, and what they’re trying to mold.”

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The most important move in molding what this Denver defense was to become in 2015 was unquestionably the off-season hiring of Wade Phillips, the former NFL head coach, ex-Broncos defensive coach and a Kubiak colleague from their days with the Texans. Out of work last year, Phillips accepted Kubiak’s sales pitch to be Jack Del Rio’s replacement in 2015. Phillips added his furious blitz and coverage concepts to a stacked roster, along with a one-gap, 3–4 base that has blown enemy offenses to bits wherever it has traveled. Phillips matched his scheme to Elway’s vision, and the results have been amazing. Now, almost exactly two years after they were bullied in the Super Bowl, it’s the Broncos carrying the bat and taking on all comers.

What else aligns Phillips’s concepts to the roster? Flexibility.

“I think it’s his heart, man,” Talib said of his defensive coordinator. “He studies the game, so he knows what you like to do. And in certain situations he’ll put us in, ‘Y’all gotta cover!’ He’ll make us cover. He’s not scared to call certain calls at certain times of the game, and that’s what makes him really good.”

What the Broncos did to the Patriots on Sunday afternoon was the culmination of that vision, as both Ware and Talib told me.

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“I think when he brought us here, he wanted to add some sort of toughness on the defense—he didn’t want it to just be Offense City,” Talib said of Elway. “Make them mesh together. And last night, we played so fast ... I watched the tape, and we played really fast, and got our hands on the football, and pressured the quarterback. That’s what we hang our hats on, and everything we wanted to get done [Sunday], we got it done.”

“It was me, Talib and T.J.—when you saw those guys come in, you knew,” Ware added. “With Peyton already here, the offense was already in place. And then you have those guys come in, and let’s just solidify the defense. Let’s bring the Orange Crush back, and that’s how I felt we played [Sunday]. We played over and beyond our standard, and that’s how we’ve played every single game. And it was like that in this game. Guys were able to get pressure and stops. That’s the kind of game that could carry over to the Super Bowl.”

• BENOIT: Can Panthers handle Broncos’ virtually unstoppable pass rush?

Indeed it could, but it should not be forgotten that Denver’s drastic move from the NFL's best offense to the NFL's best defense wouldn’t have happened without the right plan. And if the Broncos are to take Super Bowl 50 from the Panthers (who have now replaced Denver as the league’s highest-scoring offense), that may be Elway’s greatest achievement in a long history of them.