ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) The Denver Broncos are working to plug the rushing lanes and escape routes that have fans missing Malik Jackson or at least his replacement, Vance Walker, who blew out his right knee in training camp.
If the Broncos can keep running backs and quarterbacks from breaking free, they should have a shot at fulfilling safety T.J. Ward's vision of becoming the best defense ever.
No team since the Chicago Bears of the mid-1980s has followed up a transcendent season with such sustainability.
Flaws and all, Denver's defense remains the gold standard around the NFL these days.
The unit that corralled Cam Newton and the Lombardi Trophy has reached the point where it even draws high praise from opponents' star defenders, Tampa Bay tackle Gerald McCoy being the latest.
The Buccaneers (1-2) host the Broncos (3-0) Sunday and McCoy has his hands full cramming for Trevor Siemian, the AFC's Offensive Player of the Week after becoming the first QB in NFL history to throw for 300 yards and four TDs without an interception in his first road start.
Yet, when asked about his team's early defensive struggles, McCoy used the Broncos as the Buccaneers' barometer.
Inexperience and a lack of discipline have been the Bucs' bugaboos, and that results in too many players ''trying to compensate for the guy next to you. But this defense is one where you have to trust each other - how Denver plays defense,'' McCoy said Wednesday in a conference call with Denver media.
The Broncos, he said, never seem to get out of their lane or make silly mistakes.
''They all work together and that's why their defense is almost flawless, I mean with the guys they got rushing the passer and how they play the run and arguably the best secondary in football,'' McCoy said.
The Broncos began building a solid reputation on defense in 2014 when GM John Elway picked through the rubble of his team's Super Bowl blowout loss to Seattle and signed free agents Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware and Ward. That trio filled holes on the roster that were the result of poor draft decisions during the Josh McDaniels era.
Denver's defense blossomed last season when Gary Kubiak was hired as coach and brought aboard coordinator Wade Phillips. The Broncos staked their claim as one of the best units ever , right up there with the Steelers' Steel Curtain in the 1970s and the Bears of the mid-80s, with their shutdown of the high-scoring Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50.
''They hit elite status a while back,'' McCoy said. ''It's just a lot of great players, man.''
Then, he made the case like a seasoned lawyer working the courtroom in his closing argument:
-''Chris Harris ... I'm so happy for him because, man, I remember when he wasn't drafted and now look at him: one of the best DBs in football.''
-''Aqib Talib was here. So, I know Aqib well and he's always been a dominant corner, always been a shutdown guy.''
-''T.J. Ward, he's just an animal out there, man, and I love to watch him play.''
-''Von Miller is Von Miller. I've been a fan of his since he was at A&M.''
-''Derek Wolfe is a wolf out there.''
-''DeMarcus Ware, when he's healthy, is DeMarcus Ware. He's a first ballot Hall of Famer.''
-''Shane Ray, he's coming along. That performance he put on last week was very good.''
The Broncos, who love to point out they don't get the respect they deserve despite their diamond-encrusted rings and White House visit over the summer, really couldn't have said it better themselves.
''They've got a lot of pieces to that defense that make them who they are, but the best thing about them is they're very disciplined, they play as one heartbeat,'' McCoy said. ''And that's what we're working to get to.''
Harris wasn't surprised to hear of McCoy's compliments.
''Well, I feel like we're the standard in the league,'' Harris said. ''Everybody's trying to get to where we're at and he sees that.''
Notes: Harris was happy to hear former teammate Tim Tebow had homered on the first pitch he saw in his instructional league debut: ''I'm glad he found another career that he's good at,'' Harris said. When the crowd of reporters left his locker, Harris turned to his teammates and exclaimed, ''Man, Timmy hit a homer? They'll talk about that for the rest of the day.''
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