ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When it comes to vocabulary, Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio isn’t quite ready to surrender to all of the changes that have come his way in an increasingly chuck-it-around league.
But when it comes to the playbook and how a defense has to get lined up to play week in, week out in the league’s current environment, Del Rio is all-in.
And that means the nickel is in plenty of his thoughts, because what was once a situational use of five defensive backs is now the new base.
“I don’t consider the nickel the base, just because of the semantics of it," Del Rio said. “Base is base. Sub is sub. [The nickel] is the norm. It is the most frequently played defensive unit. I think last year, 66 percent of our snaps were in the sub package. You’re playing more and more three-wide receiver sets, or even two-tight end sets where the second tight end is really almost like a wide receiver. So you’re playing a lot of sub downs, so we’ve adjusted accordingly."
So much so, last season the Broncos had just two games -- wins over Washington and Tennessee -- in which they were in their base defense for more snaps than they were in their specialty looks (five, six or seven defensive backs). The Broncos had four regular-season games where they were in their base defense for 12 or fewer snaps, and three games in which they were in that base 4-3 for nine or fewer snaps.
But as they work their way through the first installation process of any tweaks that have been made to the defense – Del Rio said Tuesday the players have gotten about 75 percent of the playbook thus far – the Broncos are faced with a different proposition this time around than they did at this time last year.
Their schedule will dictate they may have to be a little more all-things-to-all-people in their approach this time around. They figure to get the expected bevy of three-wide receiver looks against them, but they also are going to have to be able to roll up their sleeves on defense since the annual rotation has them with the NFC West on the docket.
And after the way the Seattle Seahawks shoved the Broncos around on most fronts in the Super Bowl, that is no small item.
“[The league] has gone to more space and tempo," Del Rio said. “I think those are the two things that you’re seeing more and more prevalent. There are still examples of power football. We’re going to play in the NFC West this year. There’s a lot of power football going on in that division with Seattle, San Fran. Indy, who we open up with, they like to play some smashmouth with you. So there are some teams that are still traditionally power oriented. So it’s not like you can ignore that part of the game. But more and more you’re seeing teams that want to go with space and tempo."
It all means the Broncos need to get things squared away in the coming weeks with a third and fourth cornerback. Chris Harris Jr., who continues to be on track after ACL surgery to return halfway through training camp, and Aqib Talib are the starting corners.
Rookie Bradley Roby, because of his athleticism and ability in matchup situations, would come in as the third cornerback in the nickel. Harris would move inside to the slot, while Roby and Talib would give the Broncos some size, reach and plenty of speed on the outside.
“We can be one of the best groups in the league," Harris said. “ … I mean, two years ago we were a top-five defense in the league. I think we have the people to do that again and in secondary I think we have a chance to be one of the best."
But Roby is a rookie, and one whose mental approach was questioned by many teams before the draft. Harris is coming off ACL surgery and Talib has never played 16 games in a season. And that’s why of all the young players who are trying to make the Broncos’ roster, Kayvon Webster really has a bigger potential role to fill than many others.
Because the Broncos want Webster to be that fourth cornerback, the just-in-case guy who can play in some of the other six- and seven-defensive back looks Del Rio will play.
“I’d say the fourth corner becomes a little more important because you can never have enough," Del Rio said. “If somebody gets nicked, is tired, whatever, something happens, if you have another guy who can go in that’s a good position to be in. You don’t want to be forced not to get to that three. Three is a necessity nowadays, having a fourth who is capable is very important as well."
Webster, who was in the team’s 2013 draft class, was tossed into the lineup last season when Champ Bailey and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie dealt with injuries. And while some have pointed to struggles against San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers in a Thursday night loss last season -- a game Webster remained in despite fracturing his thumb -- overall Webster showed he can bounce back from mistakes and is willing to battle in man coverage.
Harris said Webster has shown the potential to be a starter. "He plays hard and he’s ready to do what needs to be done," Harris said.
While teams will say they try to be ready for everything, the Broncos defense will have to play the power against some of the league’s best teams in the coming months to go with the speed and tempo everybody else seems to want to use.
In his Broncos’ tenure, Del Rio has routinely used a wide variety of players in situational work to try to deal with some of the matchups the team faces. But at the root of it all is the idea that what happens in the nickel and the dime, both in the rush and who is dropping into coverage, are really the big money questions.