By Rich Kurtzman
Back in the Broncos’ glory years–the late 90s, the focus was put on the offense with Mike “The Mastermind” Shanahan as head coach.
And really, the same can be said about every coach the last 30 years for Denver, save two lost seasons and the Broncos’ latest coach, John Fox. Fox built a reputation for fielding fierce defenses, ones that could attack the quarterback and force turnovers.
Still, even with Fox in charge, everyone realized the strength of the team would rest on the shoulder—and neck—of Peyton Manning. Manning’s been magnificent—arguably the best quarterback in the NFL—leading the league’s third-best offense. The offensive explosion was expected, what’s come as a surprise is the way Denver’s defense has stepped up, especially as of late.
That defense has held three of the higher scoring teams—San Diego, New Orleans and Cincinnati—to much lower scores than they’re used to. Combined, those teams average 24.7 points per game, but they could only muster 20.3 against the Broncos. And it wasn’t just that they allowed less points, it was how the unit did so. After the Chargers ran up 24 points in the first half, they were blanked in the second. The Saints only scored one touchdown when it mattered in the second quarter, putting another late score on the board in garbage time. And the Bengals only put up three points in the first half, and after running off 17 straight, were allowed only one more field goal.
Denver’s defense has been demonstrative, and part of the reason they’ve been able to limit opponents’ scoring is because the Broncos are forcing turnovers at an alarming rate. In those last three wins, the defense has forced eight turnovers and the huge plays have come at crucial times. When Elvis Dumervil sacked Philip Rivers and forced a fumble, Tony Carter picked it up and took it to the house to jump start Denver’s 24-point comeback. When the Saints were threatening to mount their own comeback, Wesley Woodyard picked off Drew Brees and the Broncos’ offense capitalized with a touchdown. And as the Bengals tried to re-take the lead last Sunday, Champ Bailey stepped in and stole an Andy Dalton pass that basically ended Cincinnati’s hopes of winning.
Indeed, a multitude of players have played at their highest level this entire season for the Denver D. Woodyard has become a leader for the squad, leading the team in total tackles with 72. Von Miller is a menace for opposing quarterbacks, racking up nine sacks, which is second-best in the NFL and his opposite end rusher Dumervil has been doing damage himself with six sacks. Bailey continues to be a top-tier cornerback, though second-year man Chris Harris leads the team with two interceptions and safeties Mike Adams and Rahim more are two and three on the team in tackles respectively.
Of course, much of the defense’s play has to do with the players themselves, but some of the credit must go to their coordinator, Jack Del Rio. Del Rio hasn’t been crazy with his schemes, he hasn’t blitzed an overwhelming amount of the time and he hasn’t brought in exotic zones—but he has coached up and brought together his unit. His defense is seemingly straight forward; rush four, sometimes five, and allow your world class secondary to lock-down the receivers. It’s worked well and there are sure signs the defense is continually improving.
These 2012 Broncos are legitimate contenders. Certainly, they have one of the best offenses in the NFL, and having Peyton Manning means knowing they can come back from any defecit. But this team is special because the defense is better than average, it’s kept them in some games, and won them others.
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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. Find more of Rich’s Denver Broncos pieces on Examiner.com.