There is a chance, in fact it’s a very good chance, the Broncos will open the season Sept. 5 against the Baltimore Ravens with 29.5 sacks missing from the lineup.
Elvis Dumervil will be on the other sideline in that national primetime affair having signed with the Ravens after his messy departure from the Broncos and Von Miller is facing a suspension of at least six games – the NFL Players Association is trying to get it reduced to four games – for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. The last time the Broncos faced the Ravens in Denver -- that little January affair that still sends the die-hards on the front range into convulsions -- the Broncos had both Miller and Dumervil in the game and still sacked Joe Flacco just once.
And from a football perspective that means defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio will have to conjure up something to keep his defensive backs from getting hung out like clean sheets in the summer breeze. And while Del Rio and coach John Fox have repeatedly shown creativity on defense, that will be no small task. Especially, when in these pass-happy times, most defensive coordinators believe you can't be truly good on defense if you have to junk it up to often to get to opposing quarterbacks.
That blitzes are fine, well designed rush packages great, but that the best defenses consistently get there with four rushers. Pick any four in the formation, but that the best ones get there over and over again with four guys doing the heavy lifting. But it will all certainly affect how the Broncos go about their business in the secondary and how aggressive they are overall.
Consider how Champ Bailey breaks down the relationship between rush and coverage.
“They go hand in hand. They always go hand in hand. We have to hold it together long enough so those guys can get there and they have to get there to give us a chance. If you don’t rattle the quarterbacks in this league, they’ll pick you apart. It used to be a few guys were really accurate, but now everybody’s accurate because they don’t let you play back there any more if you’re not.’’
While Peyton Manning’s arrival certainly played an enormous role in the Broncos' rejuvenation from a four-win season in 2010 and an eight-win year in 2012 when the won a wobbly AFC West, Del Rio’s ability to crank things up on defense was a significant piece of the puzzle as well.
The Broncos tied for the league lead in sacks last season, with 52, led by Miller’s 18.5 and Dumervil’s 11. Take those two out of the equation and defense that used a variety of fronts and personnel groupings to generate indecision by opposing quarterbacks last season is suddenly faced with the prospect of quarterbacks having the time to stand and pick away at the Denver secondary.
Especially if players like Shaun Phillips and Robert Ayers, a first-round pick in 2009 who has just 6.5 career sacks as he has ridden the carousel of defensive coordinators until Del Rio arrived -- Del Rio is the first coordinator to work back-to-back seasons in Denver since Larry Coyer did it in 2005 and 2006.
Which brings us all back to accuracy. In Bailey’s rookie year, before touching a receiver down the field was an annual point of emphasis, seven quarterbacks finished the year with at least a 60 percent completion rate. Last season, with offenses having tossed it around at record rates, 16 quarterbacks with at least 265 attempts finished with at least 60 percent completion rate.
Or, as Bailey put it early in training camp; “If you don’t get there, make them uncomfortable, you can’t stop them. These guys will carve you up. No matter who is in there, we have to find a way to get there. If we don't, it's going to be hard to be the defense we need to be.’’