By Rich Kurtzman
Offense wins games, defense wins championships.
Any Denver Broncos fan who was watching in 2013 can tell you the old saying still rings true, even today. The NFL – and football on all levels – has become shifted to give the offense an advantage at every turn. Illegal contact, roughing the quarterback, pass interference, defensive holding; these all result in automatic first downs and can mean big gains for the offensive team. Without a doubt, playing defense in the NFL has gone from difficult to daunting in recent years, and yet, we’re witnessing a dominant defense in Denver.
Elway’s reforming of the unit this offseason has paid off wonderfully, and along with better luck in the injury department, the Broncos defense is ready to face any team in the postseason.
Let’s start up front. Denver’s defensive line is deep, and that ability to play a whole host of different men results in fresher legs, more energy to make big-time plays. Terrance Knighton has been a beast in the middle of the line, pushing through single blockers to make plays in the backfield. Malik Jackson is a freak of nature, strong enough to play inside and yet athletic enough to drop into coverage and bat away balls. Interchangeable pieces to the line’s puzzle include Derek Wolfe, Sylvester Williams and Mitch Unrein. Outside, there’s two extraordinary playmakers in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. Miller and Ware are nearly unstoppable as pass-rushers, speedy, strong and relentless in their pursuit of sacks. That pressure not only leads to sacks and sometimes fumbles, but hurries the opposing quarterback’s decision-making, which can also turn into interceptions.
That’s where the superb secondary steps in. Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib have rekindled the chemistry they once formed playing together at Kansas University, each one was voted to the Pro Bowl this year. Talib is a legitimate shutdown cornerback, leading the team with four interceptions and 17 passes defended while facing the best receiver the opponent has to offer every Sunday. Harris recorded three picks and tied teammate Talib with 17 knockdowns, while each also forced a fumble. Harris was proud of the fact he didn’t allow a single touchdown all season, tweeting it following the blowout of the Raiders, and Sports Illustrated’s Doug Farrar made the case that Harris is the best cornerback in the NFL. Don’t forget about rookie Bradley Roby, who’s stepped in to perform sensationally all season long when Denver knows they’re facing a passing down.
At safety, Rahim Moore has been playing the pass phenomenally, picking off four throws of his own. He’s worked hard on his craft and it’s shown on the field all year long. And T.J. Ward brings that hard-hitting, punisher the Broncos were missing last season. Ward plays a hybrid linebacker/safety position, allowing him to play the pass or drop down into the box against the run. His versatility is important and his intimidation is a new factor the “soft” 2013 Broncos didn’t have.
Finally, the middle of the defense is the weak point. Injuries, specifically the season-ending injuries to Danny Trevathan and Nate Irving, have brought the position down significantly. And when backup-turned-star Brandon Marshall missed the last two weeks, opponents ran the ball with greater success than usual. Luckily for the Broncos, Marshall – the team’s leading tackler – will be back in action for the team’s first playoff game on January 11.
Unquestionably, Denver’s defense has all the playmakers, all the speed they need, to win on that side of the ball. They’re the No. 2 unit against the run and No. 1 in net yards per pass attempt, and when Jack Del Rio sends blitzes, look out! The Broncos ability to get after the passer is important, as is their knack for covering receivers for long periods of time; both can and usually do result in turnovers.
While the teams under John Elway and John Fox have relied on the offense to blow out opponents, this iteration of the Broncos is different, more well-rounded and better built for the long haul.
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Rich Kurtzman is a Denver native, Colorado State University alumnus, sports nerd, athletics enthusiast, and competition junkie. Currently writing for a multitude of websites while working on books, one on the history of the Denver Broncos and Mile High Stadium. Rich is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. His work can be found on Examiner.com.