Super Bowl 50 is packed with star power, but don’t be surprised if Denver Broncos’ hidden defensive gems Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson take the day, writes Doug Farrar.
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Broncos end Malik Jackson has pressured opposing quarterbacks 69 times in the 2015 season—including the postseason—ranking fifth in the NFL among players at his position. But there’s no question about which of those pressures was the most important; it was a big part of why Jackson’s team is here for Super Bowl 50.
With 4:15 left in the first half of the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots, Tom Brady's team was down 14–9, but they were driving, Brady dropped back from his own 46-yard line and started to throw a deep route to running back James White. But before he could complete the act, Jackson barreled through the Patriots’ line, casted left guard Josh Kline aside as if he was a rag doll and took Brady to the ground, forcing a throw so errant that two of Denver’s defenders—linebacker Brandon Marshall and safety Darian Stewart—were in line to catch it. Stewart got there first, securing the Broncos’ second interception, and Denver went on to win the game, 20–18.
“Everyone wants sacks,” Jackson told me Monday. “That’s how you get the big name and everything. But if you can get close to the quarterback, get around him and let him know you’re there, put offensive linemen in his face, that works a lot more than just getting sacks. Now, they’re looking for you—now, they’re worried about you. Those quarterback hurries and pressures and hits after he throws the ball... they take their toll. I’m sure [Brady] got up and thought about it, and I know in San Diego, I caused an interception. You get around the quarterback, and you do whatever you've got to do.”
Jackson has 5.5 sacks this year in a system that leaves most of the quarterback takedowns to the edge-rushing stars, and the Broncos have two of the best in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. But without Jackson and fellow end Derek Wolfe, this league-leading defense would not look like it does. They are the stalwarts; the men in the middle who set the tone for everything else. Brady was hit an incredible 20 times in that game, and Wolfe and Jackson were responsible for five of those disruptions.
Both players came to Denver in 2012, during John Elway’s second draft as executive vice president. Wolfe was taken at the top of the second round out of Cincinnati, while Jackson had to wait a while to hear his name called—the Tennessee alum joined the team in the fifth round of that draft. Before 2015, each player had put together highlights of above-average play, but it’s been the addition of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips that’s helped both players live up to their estimable potential. Both men credit Phillips for implementing more player-friendly scheme that incorporates their ideas, and the flexibility to throw out what doesn’t work. There is no ego in this defense—it’s all about production.
“It's a whole ’nother side of defense,” Jackson said. “A side of defense that fits our players a lot better. If we don’t like something, he’ll take it out, but if it helps us, he’ll keep it in, no matter how much we run it. He’s really player-friendly. We’re in the 3–4, playing man, playing zone, rush four, rush five, and he lets us do our thing.”
Wolfe had six quarterback takedowns during his rookie campaign, and those numbers dropped in subsequent years: four in 2013, 1.5 in ’14 and 5.5 this season (matching Jackson). But Wolfe is a great case study in the value of total pressures—he has 56 total pressures in 2015, and only J.J. Watt has more total stops among 3–4 ends than Wolfe’s 36.
Both Wolfe and Jackson were playing for contracts this season, and while many would think that would foster a sense of competition and distraction between the two, Wolfe maintained that it didn’t affect their relationship. And it paid off for both players: just a few weeks ago, Wolfe got his big second contract—a four-year, $36.7 million extension for a player who put up those numbers despite a four-game suspension to start the season due to a violation of the league’s policies on performance-enhancing substances. And Jackson will get his big deal after the season, whether it’s the Broncos paying him or not.
“We get along very well. We hang out on and off the field. We practice things that most guys wouldn’t practice and we encourage each other to do well,” Wolfe said. “Both of us going into our contract year, you think there’d be a little rivalry but it wasn’t anything like that. We both want to succeed and we all want to win and that’s what makes this team so great—that everybody cares about each other and we all want each other to do well. Nobody’s a little bit jealous when somebody else makes a play, and you see that a lot, especially in the NFL. It wasn’t like that so much in college but in the NFL, you see that some guys get worried about the money, this and that, but all season it’s been nothing but Super Bowl and that’s all we’ve been worried about.”
In Super Bowl 50, Jackson and Wolfe will face an impressive Panthers interior offensive line that's really come together. Between center Ryan Kalil and guards Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell, the Panthers’ inside men have allowed a grand total of no sacks, no hits and eight quarterback hurries in two playoff games. Still, Cam Newton’s protectors understand exactly what kind of challenge they’re facing.
“They're really good guys and they have a really good front,” Turner told me. “Phenomenal team, period, and a great defense. We just have to play our game and everything will take care of itself.”
So what makes Jackson and Wolfe so good? I thought it was appropriate to ask each man about the other, and get the unvarnished scouting report.
“[Wolfe is] an animal, man,” Jackson said. “The name ‘Wolfe’ is a great fit for him, because he’s relentless—on the field, he doesn’t like anybody, and he’s definitely someone you can feed off with his energy. He embodies the whole mental attitude of a defensive lineman.”
“I think that [Jackson is] just a gifted athlete, especially in the pass rush game,” Wolfe said. “He’s just good at getting his hips flipped and using his hands. He does things that a lot of guys aren’t able to do.”
Yes, we’ll all watch to see how Denver’s edge-rushers do against Carolina’s offensive tackles—Miller and Ware would seem to have a distinct advantage over Michael Oher and Mike Remmers. But don’t be surprised if the most impactful trench matchup is the one waged between a group of underrated players on both sides of the ball, and be even less surprised if Wolfe and Jackson take the day.