ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — For the last six seasons, the Denver Broncos’ defensive coordinator job has been the hottest seat in the NFL.
Six men have filled the musical chair in the last six years: Larry Coyer (2006), Jim Bates (2007), Bob Slowik (2008), Mike Nolan (2009), Don Martindale (2010) and now, Dennis Allen.
When the Broncos turned to John Fox after more than a decade of Mike Shanahan or Josh McDaniels roaming the sideline, the defensive-minded head coach turned to a 39-year-old rising assistant to help him revive Denver’s defense.
Allen, who spent the previous five seasons with the New Orleans Saints after four years in Atlanta, spent his first six months on the job working on theories instead of on the football field.
He had no OTAs in which to learn his players’ tendencies or teach them his schemes.
And once the NFL lockout finally ended, he watched one star after another go down with injuries: Ty Warren, Marcus Thomas, D.J. Williams, Elvis Dumervil, Champ Bailey.
All but Warren have returned and Denver’s defense has gone from dismal to dominant. It’s the key ingredient in all those Tim Tebow-engineered comebacks and the biggest reason the Broncos (6-5) are relevant again in the AFC West.
Allen has integrated both the young and the old in turning things around a year after the Broncos ranked last in the league in total yards allowed (390.8), points per game (29.4) and next-to-last in run defense (154.6 yards).
He has rookie Quinton Carter and Raheem Moore playing alongside Brian Dawkins, who’s in his record-tying 16th NFL season at safety, star rookie pass-rusher Von Miller playing alongside Williams and Joe Mays and meeting Dumervil at the quarterback and undrafted cornerback Chris Harris learning tricks from Bailey, the 10-time Pro Bowler.
Allen has a knack for relating to today’s players, Bailey said.
“He’s intense, he’s detailed, he knows football, he’s a great teacher,” Bailey said. “I like the way he explains things because he makes it to where you can understand what he means. It’s not like you’re sitting there trying to figure out, ‘What is he talking about?’ He knows exactly how to talk to his players.”
Bailey said some guys are good coaches but bad communicators, “and I think half the battle is getting to know your players and I think over time, he’s going to get even better at it because he’s still getting to know us.”
“I think a lot of success from coaches depends on their personality. Because you’ve got to know what it takes to get guys to play hard. And it’s sad to say but sometimes at this level, you have to be a good motivator, and he’s good in all those areas.”
Fox’s philosophies are deeply rooted in a stingy defense and stout ground game, and those are the two areas he set about upgrading when he took over in January, hiring Allen as his coordinator and signing free agent Willis McGahee as his bruising running back.
With a ball-control offense guided by Tebow, who’s thrown just one interception in his six starts, the Broncos just completed a 4-0 November in which they allowed only 60 points, committed just one turnover and rushed for nearly 900 yards.
The only other team ever to have a stretch like that is the 1971 Miami Dolphins.
Fox coaches like a CEO; he manages his staff, giving input during the week and managing it all on game day, but he gives his assistants great leeway in concocting schemes and strategies.
He has a like-minded innovator and motivator in Allen.
“First of all, he’s a very sharp guy. He knows football. He’s been around good people; he has an aggressive style; he’s young; he relates to players well,” Fox said. “His background was more on the back end (in the secondary), but he had spent some time working with the D-line, so I think he understands the back to the front, which I think is important in a fine, young coach.”
That’s how Fox learned the game, first as a defensive back and then as a secondary coach before working his way up the coaching ladder.
In Allen, he’s found a kindred spirit.
“I’ve kind of liked guys that have a familiarity with the (secondary) because it ties into everything, having an understanding of that, because big plays do get you beat, and understanding how that works is key,” Fox said.
When Fox was hired, he knew his choice of defensive coordinator would be crucial. His long-standing relationship with members of the Saints staff led him to Allen, known in league circles as an up-and-coming young assistant.
Fox was heading back to Charlotte, N.C., to pack up some of his things, so he asked Allen to meet him there. Fox’s wife, Robin, rolled in a grease board and provided markers and munchies for their marathon interview session.
“Basically, she converted my bar into a little coaches’ office and it was neat,” Fox said. “It was neat for him, I think, to be somewhere other than somebody’s facility. He’s a very sharp, impressive coach and I think he’s a real good candidate as a head coach.”
First, he has to return Denver’s defense to respectability, and he’s taken a good first step.
“What’s happened is as we’ve grown, me as a defensive coordinator in my first year, the players in the new system, the coaches in the new system, we’re beginning to get a feel for each other, we’re beginning to get a feel for the system,” Allen said. “And as we begin to feel more comfortable, then we let our athleticism and our playmaking ability take over.”
Not that he’s ready to declare this fix-it job complete.
“We’ve still got a lot of getting better to do,” Allen said. “One minute they may be talking great about you and the next minute they may not be, so we understand that, and you know our guys are grounded and just focused on getting better every day.”
And while his defense is improving, Allen is picking Fox’s brain to become a better coach.
“We talk football all the time,” Allen said. “And we’re trying to blend his thoughts and my thoughts together and make it one and I think we’re beginning to see some of the fruits of that labor.”
By ARNIE STAPLETON, AP Pro Football Writer
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