AFC West: Jack Del Rio

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When you spend much of your on-field workday going against a quarterback like Peyton Manning operating in a fast-paced, no-huddle attack, you have a pretty good idea of what a big play looks like.

And as the Denver Broncos' defense has moved through its offseason work, taking a bite out of some of those big plays has been on the front burner.

“Too often last year we let people go over the top of us or run through us," Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said.

[+] EnlargeAqib Talib
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos bolstered their secondary this offseason, signing T.J. Ward (not pictured) and Aqib Talib.
The Broncos allowed 40 run plays of at least 10 yards last season, the 10th highest total in the league. Not bad, but as a guy with a don't-give-an-inch mindset, Del Rio wants that number to go down this season.

But the real trouble came through the air. Logically, it fits. If your offense is on the way to a single-season record of 606 points, if your quarterback is on the way to a single-season record of 55 touchdown passes, you’re playing with the lead much of the time. And usually the leads were big enough that there was plenty of chuck-it-around desperation on the other side.

No matter how it came about, however, the results were ugly. Opponents had 61 pass plays of at least 20 yards against the Broncos last season (27th in the league). By contrast, the Seattle Seahawks led the league in fewest big-play passes allowed with 30.

Eleven opponents in the regular season had at least three pass plays of 20 yards or more against the Broncos, and their three playoff opponents had three pass plays of at least 20 yards, including the Seahawks in their 35-point win in Super Bowl XLVIII.

“[It's] leveraging and tackling," Del Rio said this week. "The biggest thing is the back end. It typically comes from the back end and if you're leveraging properly and then tackling, you can minimize plays and make people go the hard way."

So it's no shock the Broncos devoted most of their free-agency capital to their defense, and the position group that saw the biggest expenditure was defensive back with the signings of cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward. The Broncos also used their first-round pick on cornerback Bradley Roby.

Talib and Ward are physical players who Del Rio said “will show up and tackle you." Roby, the Broncos believe, showed that same kind of potential during his time at Ohio State. Broncos executive vice president John Elway said he thought Roby was the best man-to-man cover cornerback on the board and was a "top-15 talent" that the team took at No. 31.

“We were a top-five defense two years ago," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “Last year, that wasn’t us, that wasn’t the kind of defense we think we have. When you have an offense like ours, we want to give them the ball back as many times as possible after we hold people to three-and-outs."

The early returns of these latest workouts say Ward will have a variety of roles, given his ability to play with a physical edge down near the line of scrimmage -- Del Rio has often lined a safety up at weakside linebacker in some of the team's specialty looks -- as well as his ability to work in coverage downfield. Talib and Harris can both play as matchup cornerbacks, playing receivers out of the slot and on the outside. They both have proven to be willing tacklers in the run game as well.

As Harris continues to rehab from ACL surgery, Roby has found himself inserted with the starters in workouts. Roby projects to play in the team's nickel package, which was on the field for almost 70 percent of the team's defensive snaps last season.

Del Rio will point out that even with five starters on injured reserve by the time the Broncos earned their way into the Super Bowl, the defense had found itself a bit at the end of the regular season. After four teams had topped the 400-yard mark in the first 12 games, the Broncos held three of their last four regular-season opponents to fewer than 300 yards.

"I would suggest if you go back and review last year, that we were very good down the stretch when it mattered," Del Rio said. "That didn’t help our rank for the regular season but we were effective in the home win against San Diego and we were effective in the home win against the Patriots. And we helped our football team get to the championship game. So we did things that we're very proud of. And we did them short-handed."

During the past few weeks, the Broncos have pushed each other on both sides of the ball as Del Rio and offensive coordinator Adam Gase have their daily battles in team drills, each offering up a little surprise here, something unexpected there, to try to gain an edge. During the team’s mandatory minicamp this week, both sides were emotional when plays were made.

“We look at it like you can’t go against anybody better than Peyton and our offense every day," linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “That can only help us, that can only make us better. Because we're not going to face anyone better, so if we put in the work, play the way we're supposed to, we want to see those results."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It might be time for Denver Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan to invest in alternative fuels.

Because to this point, for the most part, Trevathan has powered himself through the beginning stages of his NFL career by igniting the slights, doubts, criticisms and question marks people have put next to his name and turning them into desire and production.

"I always dream big. I’m not usually on people’s radar, you know, but I always dream big," Trevathan said. “People can’t control your dreams. Those are all yours, man, so I try to find a way to get myself in the mixture and find a way to get myself on top. That’s always my mentality with me, showcase things they said I couldn’t do."

[+] EnlargeDanny Trevathan
Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesDanny Trevathan showed last season that he can be an asset when dropping into pass coverage.
Still, after he finished as the leading tackler on a Super Bowl team last season, the list of things people think Trevathan can’t do is shrinking. He was, in his second season, the defense’s most consistent player in 2012, the kind of every-down linebacker that Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway wants in the mix.

That’s a long way from the undersized linebacker the Broncos grabbed in the sixth round of the 2013 draft with the idea that Trevathan had the instincts and ability in the high-powered Southeastern Conference to have a chance to play on special teams.

Ah, but that’s where the "dream big" part comes in for Trevathan. Let him get his foot in the door, and he wants to come inside to find a seat.

After playing in every game and finishing with 30 tackles as a rookie, Trevathan had designs on more. He latched onto a starting job at weakside linebacker last summer, and he didn’t let go.

"I think last year he just came here with a totally different mentality," Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “Got himself ready to be bigger, faster, better prepared, more focused and ready to have the kind of year he had. You saw the natural instinct right away when he was a rookie, but he needed to grow, he needed to get stronger. Last year he came back with the intention to keep his weight up, and he did. Once he does that part, we can take some of that great instinct that we see and develop it."

So when LB Von Miller was suspended for six games for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, when the Broncos couldn’t decide what to do at middle linebacker and eventually moved Wesley Woodyard into the spot, when injuries started to erode the plan the Broncos had on the defensive drawing board last season, Trevathan just kept churning.

There was the interception return for a near touchdown in the regular-season opener -- only a young-guy-loses-his-mind-for-a-moment dropped ball to celebrate too early kept it from being a score -- and the 12-tackle game against the New England Patriots and the 12-tackle game in the blowout loss in the Super Bowl.

When all was said and done, Trevathan led the team in tackles with 134 and, along with cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, was one of the team's best week-in, week-out performers on defense. Trevathan proved himself to be physical enough to work out of the base defense and athletic enough to drop into coverage when the Broncos go to their specialty looks.

Through the team's offseason workouts thus far, Trevathan has carried himself like a player who believes he is still ascending on the developmental curve.

And the Broncos, too, expect to see even more from Trevathan this time around.

"And that’s what is happening; his confidence now is soaring and I think he’s ready to have a big year for us," Del Rio said.

Pro Bowl? Team captain? More playoff wins? Trevathan doesn’t leave anything off the "dream big" list.

"I like going above and beyond the expectations people have for me," Trevathan said. “I’m never the type of person to let the other stuff get me big-headed, because as soon as you mess up, a lot of those people are going to go over to the other side of the fence with you. So just be sure of what you’re doing, be sure of yourself; you can’t let what other people say change how you carry yourself, how you handle yourself. Little kids watching you, be great, work hard, be accountable for yourself."
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."

[+] EnlargeKayvon Webster
John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty ImagesWith injuries and inexperience being potential issues for Denver's cornerbacks, reserve Kayvon Webster could play a key role in 2014.
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.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- On his trek from being a guy some folks in the league said was too short and then going undrafted, to one of the most important players on the field and in the locker room for the Denver Broncos, cornerback Chris Harris Jr. has always been about jumping life’s hurdles to get where he hopes to go.

So, it really is no surprise, as he heals from surgery to repair his left ACL, he plans on being on the field before this summer’s training camp is over and in the lineup when the Broncos open the regular season Sept. 7 against the Indianapolis Colts.

[+] EnlargeChris Harris
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports"I haven't had an offseason, I've been here," Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said on his return since ACL surgery.
"I’m ready, I’ve been working my ass off, excuse my language," Harris Jr. said with a smile. “I haven’t had an offseason, I’ve been here. I went to Dr. Andrews [for surgery], that was my little vacation and I’ve been here. Treatment every day and now I’m pretty much doing two-a-days, I’m here at 6:45, then coming back for the meetings and the lift. I’m feeling great, I'll be ready. I’m building my confidence because I wasn’t down too long. I’m able to test things, I just feel confident about what’s going to happen.’’

“I’m not doing everything until mid-training camp,’’ Harris Jr. continued. “I’ll probably be ready at the beginning of training camp, but I probably won’t do anything until mid-training camp. I’ll continue to do my workouts, watch and coach them up.’’

With Champ Bailey’s release, Harris Jr. is now one of the elder statesmen in the Broncos’ secondary, at least when it comes to the team’s playbook. As he enters his fourth season, he has gone from an undrafted rookie who caught Bailey’s eye in 2011’s training camp -- “that kid competes on every play, doesn’t get rattled,’’ Bailey said then -- to a key part in how the Broncos’ go about things on the field.

So much so, that the Broncos allowed a Total QBR of 43.6 in the 2013 regular season when Harris was on the field, according to ESPN Stats & Info. And in the 81 snaps that he wasn't on the field, opponents had a Total QBR of 93.

Ask defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio about Harris Jr. and the word “competes’’ will often be somewhere in the first sentence, as in “he just competes on every play, in practice, in games, he leaves nothing for granted.’’

He's just the do-it-all guy, who can line up outside against an opponent’s best receiver or move down inside to the slot and win those physical battles in the everything-happens-fast area of the of the field. And it was noticeable when Harris left the Broncos’ divisional round win over the San Diego Chargers in the third quarter this past January as the Broncos had a 17-0 lead when Harris Jr. was in the game and the Chargers scored 17 points in the fourth quarter when he was not.

It was a non-contact play, but an injury Harris Jr. believed was coming even before it happened.

“I was definitely surprised, at least a little bit, that it was a partially torn ACL.’’ Harris Jr. said. “But I wasn’t surprised there was something wrong because I had been having little nagging injuries in my left leg for about two years, then after the (Dec. 1) Chiefs game, I couldn’t walk after that game, I was just so sore. I just figured something in my left leg was just wearing down. After a while, that’s why it happened so easy, it was non-contact, I do those same movements every day. So, it was something that was bound to happen, because I just feeling those little pains before. I was probably playing with it before I really knew.’’

Harris Jr.’s scheduled return would certainly help a re-vamped Broncos’ secondary. The Broncos opened owner Pat Bowlen’s checkbook to sign cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward in free agency and then used a first-round pick earlier this month on cornerback Bradley Roby.

Talib and Harris Jr. started together on a Kansas defense that helped the team win an Orange Bowl -- “so we already have that chemistry together,’’ Harris Jr. said -- and thought the Broncos are still in the shorts-and-T-shirts phase of the offseason workouts, Ward continues to draw raves from teammates and coaches alike.

The Broncos hope the plan makes it from the drawing board to the field. Talib and Harris Jr. could be the starters with Roby and Kayvon Webster, a 2013 draft pick, fitting into the specialty packages. If that comes to fruition it would give them a three-cornerback look in the nickel (five defensive backs) and a four-cornerback look in the dime (six defensive backs) that would feature more speed and athleticism than they had last season to match up with three- and four-wide receiver sets.

“Two years ago we finished in the top of the league and last year, we didn’t,’’ Del Rio said. “We like being at the top. So we’ll work our way back. We’ve got good players, good design. We’re going to work hard. And we expect to be good.’’

“This is my third year with Jack now, I feel like I know the defense inside and out,’’ Harris Jr. said. “And we’ve got a lot of new guys, so I try to make it easier on them. But I’m on track to get back out there. I’ve got big plans, so much motivation for this year. This a good team, we expect great things. I'm going to be a part of it, that's for sure, I'm going to be part of it.’’
There are few players in the NFL who have out-performed their contracts over the past three years the way Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. has since he battled his way on to the Broncos’ roster as an undrafted rookie in 2011.

[+] EnlargeChris Harris
Michael Ciaglo/MCT/Icon SMIThe Broncos are keeping Chris Harris Jr., at least for one more season as the three-year veteran cornerback signed a one-year tender on Tuesday.
And over those three years, Harris Jr. has gone from a scrappy rookie with potential who was just looking for a spot to the do-it-all, competitive leader who is now officially one season away from his first trip into the open market as a player the Broncos will try, very hard, not to lose.

Harris Jr. signed his one-year tender Tuesday as the most important restricted free agent the Broncos have. The one-year deal is worth $2.187 million in the coming season. The Broncos had placed a second-round pick on Harris Jr. as compensation had he signed an offer sheet from another team.

But the Broncos had the right to match any offer Harris Jr. would have received from another team and would have quickly done so had anybody else tried to sign him.

“Chris is just so competitive, he battles on every play and he has the flexibility to go inside and or outside for us, plays in all of our sub packages, he’s just a good, good, focused player," is how Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has described him.

Now that Harris Jr. has signed the tender, he can also participate in any offseason workouts he is cleared for by the medical staff. The Broncos are set to open their offseason conditioning program on April 21.

And while Harris Jr.’s signing was expected by the Broncos' decision-makers, it is formally just another offseason loose end that has been tied up by the Broncos in recent weeks. He is currently recovering from ACL surgery -- an injury he suffered in the divisional round win against the San Diego Chargers this past January -- but still projects as a starter at corner alongside Aqib Talib.

Harris Jr. also has the skillset to move down inside in the nickel and dime packages to work the slot, which makes him one of the most valuable players on the defense.

Broncos’ executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said this past week at the NFL owners meetings that Harris Jr. was progressing quickly in his recovery from his knee surgery. Elway added that the timeframe for Harris Jr. to get back to full speed was not the same as other players who have had ACL surgery because he did not damage any other ligaments or cartilage and the ACL was not completely torn.

Harris Jr. has maintained in recent weeks he could have played in the AFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl, but team officials did not want to risk him playing on a structurally compromised knee. Harris Jr. fits into their long-term plan and if he plays as expected in the coming season he will be on a growing list of players the Broncos will have to work to re-sign in free agency next year.

Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Von Miller and Harris Jr. will all be poised to be unrestricted free agents next March if the Broncos aren’t able to get any of them on long-term deals before then. But in terms of Harris Jr., the Broncos have enjoyed his high-value work.

He counted $470,626 against the salary cap as a 12-game starter in 2012 and $555,668 against the salary cap as a 15-game starter in 2013 because he was still on the income schedule set when he opened his career as an undrafted rookie.

If Harris Jr. had not been coming off knee surgery and was unquestionably going to be ready for the entire 2014 seaso,n the Broncos would have likely had to consider using the highest tender on him -- a one-year deal worth $3.113 million that carried a first-round pick as compensation.

Harris Jr. has started 31 games over the past three seasons and has three playoff starts. He has played in 47 games overall to go with four total playoff games.
INDIANAPOLIS -- With the NFL's scouting combine now underway and free agency to follow on March 11, today marks the eighth installment of a series looking at where the Denver Broncos stand at each position group on the depth chart, the salary-cap commitments and where their needs are greatest.

Today: Defensive backs
Saturday: Specialists

There is no spot on the Broncos' depth chart that needs more attention or faces more potential turnover than the secondary.

The Broncos have six defensive backs who are in line for free agency, either as unrestricted or restricted free agents, and the team could be facing some kind of decision over Champ Bailey's future as well. So the Broncos may have to give the secondary a little more attention in the early part of the draft. And that's not something they've done that much over the past 25 years, especially in the first round.

[+] EnlargeDenver's Champ Bailey
Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesWith Champ Bailey set to turn 36 before the season, the Broncos need an infusion of youth at cornerback.
The Broncos selected cornerbacks in the first round in back-to-back drafts in 2000 and 2001 -- Deltha O'Neal and Willie Middlebrooks, respectively -- and have not taken a cornerback in the opening round since. In the three drafts under John Elway's watch, the Broncos selected cornerback Kayvon Webster in the third round of the 2013 draft and Omar Bolden in the fourth round in 2012 -- Bolden has since moved to safety. The last safety the Broncos selected in the first round of the draft was Steve Atwater in 1989.

In a passing-first league, the Broncos have plenty of questions to answer when it comes to slowing down opposing quarterbacks.

The Alpha: It has, for the last decade, been Bailey. But he played in just five games during the 2013 regular season due to a foot injury, and he's now approaching his 36th birthday. Bailey has a $10 million salary-cap figure for the coming season, something the Broncos are expected to try to address in the coming weeks. After Bailey, Chris Harris Jr. has steadily evolved from undrafted rookie in 2011 to a leader in the secondary due to the competitiveness and toughness in his game.

Salary cap: Bailey leads the way in what is the final year of his current contract. Webster is the only other cornerback who finished the past season on the 53-man roster and is under contract for 2014. He has a $641,950 cap figure. At safety David Bruton leads the way at $1.65 million with Rahim Moore at $1.415 million, Quinton Carter at $758,750 and Bolden at $688,607.

Pending free agents: The list is long and full of regulars. Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, safety Mike Adams, safety Michael Huff and cornerback Quentin Jammer are all unrestricted free agents while Harris and cornerback Tony Carter are restricted free agents. Safety Duke Ihenacho is an exclusive rights free agent who can only negotiate with the Broncos.

Who could stay: The Broncos could make Rodgers-Cromartie some kind of offer. The Broncos also got more out of him than he showed in his time in Philadelphia, so they have enhanced Rodgers-Cromartie's potential in the open market as well.

They are expected to tender Harris, who is working his way back from recent ACL surgery, with enough attached compensation to chase any potential suitors away. The Broncos believe he will return from his injury to his former place in the lineup and that's significant since he plays in both the Broncos' base defense and all of the specialty packages.

Who could go: They will have some competition for Rodgers-Cromartie that could affect their ability to bring him back. But they are expected to let Jammer, Adams and Huff test the market. Adams would be a consideration to return if he doesn't have a deal in place after the initial wave of free agency.

Adams started 23 regular-season games for the Broncos in the past two seasons, including seven in 2013. He's a quality player in the locker room and understands the team's scheme, but the team will look hard to add more speed and athleticism at the position.

What they like/want: Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio is always willing to mix-and-match several personnel groupings to address what's happening across the line of scrimmage from his defense.

And he will have some new faces in the secondary in the coming season. The Broncos will need to have enough speed and athleticism in coverage to deal with the three-wide-receiver sets they'll face, but they will need options to play the run as well.

The schedule rotation means they will make the lap through the NFC West next season. Though they defended the run with effectiveness in the Super Bowl loss to the Seattle Seahawks -- one of the few things that went right -- they will likely have to play more run looks in 2014 to be in position to play for the title again. In 2013, they had just two games in the regular season -– wins over Washington and Tennessee -- where they were in their base defense for more snaps than they were in their specialty looks (five, six or seven defensive backs).

But overall, Broncos head coach John Fox, a secondary coach when he broke into the league on Hall of Famer Chuck Noll's staff, prefers coverage players with enough reach and size to match up with the bigger receivers in the league and some of the bigger cornerbacks on this draft board will get a long look.

Need index (1 is low priority, 5 the highest): 5

It is the position of highest need on the roster. The Broncos have two cornerbacks under contract at the moment, one of those being Bailey, and four safeties.

Two of those safeties, Moore and Carter, were on injured reserve this past season. And Carter has played just three games over the past two seasons because of injuries.
With the NFL's scouting combine set to open Wednesday and free agency to follow on March 11, today marks the sixth installment of a position-a-day look at where the Denver Broncos stand at each spot on the depth chart, the salary-cap commitments and where their needs are greatest.

Today: Defensive line
Thursday: Linebackers

In the Broncos' defensive fronts there are certainly more questions than answers right now. Beyond Terrance Knighton, Malik Jackson and Sylvester Williams, the Broncos have plenty to cross their fingers about and plenty of medical reports and possible options to consider.

[+] EnlargeDerek Wolfe
AP Photo/ Eric BakkeThe Broncos can't be sure what they are going to get from their defensive linemen coming back from injuries, including Derek Wolfe.
If things work out, if the medical staff sees the recoveries the team expects and things go well, they will have a versatile, deep group that can adjust to almost any situation -- especially if Knighton, whose representatives have already asked for a new deal, picks up where he left off down the stretch in 2013 and into the postseason.

Jackson is an emerging player who has the ability to play with impact at both end and tackle. Williams was likely the team's most improved player from September to February and projects to be a starter in '14.

But the rub will be how Derek Wolfe (illness), Kevin Vickerson (hip) and Quanterus Smith (knee) emerge from their time on injured reserve. Because of Von Miller's knee surgery and Shaun Phillips' entry into free agency, Smith is going to have to be every bit of the pass-rush force the Broncos hope he can be.

If any of those three isn't up to full speed when the season opens, the Broncos will have a significant hole in their rotation.

The Alpha: At one time, Wolfe looked to be growing into this role, both on the field and off, but after he suffered seizure-like symptoms on a team bus ride to the airport in late November, he didn't play for the remainder of the season. So, it fell to Vickerson and Knighton to be at the front of the line at this position group. If Wolfe returns through the offseason workouts and into training camp at his former level of activity -- and that was the Broncos' expectation as this past season drew to a close -- he figures to step to the forefront again. But Wolfe was struggling at times even before he went on injured reserve after suffering a neck injury in the preseason, a scary incident when he was taken from the field by ambulance.

Salary cap: The Broncos have seven defensive linemen who finished the 2013 season on the team's 53-man roster or on injured reserve under contract for '14. Knighton's $2.75 million cap figure leads the way among the group with Vickerson's $2.266 million figure just behind. Williams, at $1.723 million and Wolfe, at $1.42 million, are followed by Sione Fua ($645,000), Jackson ($623,000) and Smith ($468,000).

Knighton had a $1 million roster bonus as well.

[+] EnlargeBryant McKinnie
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesRobert Ayers is slated to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time.
Pending free agents: Two of the Broncos' top three players in sacks this past season are unrestricted free agents: Phillips (10 sacks) and defensive end Robert Ayers (5.5 sacks, third on the team). Phillips signed a one-year deal on draft weekend last year and while the extra workload that came with all of the Broncos' injuries in the defensive front seemed to affect his play at times, he was one of best price/production signings in the league. Ayers has now finished his original rookie deal, signed when the Broncos made him the 18th pick of the 2009 draft -- the second draft pick of Josh McDaniels' tenure.

Who could stay: The Broncos have no significant cap issues to address at the position and while Knighton would like to cash in on his play over the last two months of the season, the Broncos are not expected to address his contract this year. Knighton and Vickerson are slated to be unrestricted free agents after the 2014 season.

Who could go: Ayers likely will have to look elsewhere to get his best deal. The Broncos would bring him back at their price because he is familiar with the defense. Phillips will be entering his 11th NFL season in '14 and while he helped the Broncos overcome plenty of injuries, they'll be looking to get a little younger up front. But if he's unsigned after the initial wave of free agency, the Broncos could look to sign him to a deal similar to the one he had this past season -- a $1 million base with some incentives at several sack totals.

What they like/want: Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio likes big guys in the middle such as Knighton, Vickerson and Williams to eat up blockers, but he also needs some versatile inside-outside types like Jackson to make it all work when the Broncos move from their base look to some of their specialty packages with five, six or seven defensive backs.

Denver likes Smith's potential -- take a look at his three-sack game against an Alabama offensive line loaded with NFL prospects as a senior at Western Kentucky to see what's there -- and he will be looked at hard as the team goes through its offseason paces. The Broncos have bigger needs at other places and with Miller recovering from ACL surgery, the to-do list for Smith as an edge player figures to be a healthy one.

Need index (1 is low priority, 5 the highest): 3

They need some attention up front given the number of players coming off injured reserve with heavy workloads in their rotation. If all of them return without incident to the form that is expected, the Broncos are fine.

But history has repeatedly shown that's not something the team should count on. As a result, they'll have to give defensive tackles and edge rushers some looks heading into the draft.

There's enough uncertainty here to warrant a move or two as insurance.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Teams that make the Super Bowl sit on an odd bridge between the present and the future.

Their coaches and players are concentrating on the moment, getting ready for the title game and all of the trappings that go with it. But the personnel departments are, by necessity of the compressed time frame playing into February creates, on to the draft and free agency.

The scouts make the rounds to the college all-star games -- Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway made an appearance at the Senior Bowl -- as things get pointed toward the draft. Elway usually refers to the change from the in-season business of trying to win games week to week to the offseason business of the draft and free agency as “shifting gears.’’ And the Broncos shifted their first significant gear this week.

They signed defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio to a new two-year deal and it was a good call on both sides. Del Rio is good for the Broncos' defense and the Broncos are good for Del Rio.

[+] EnlargeJack Del Rio
Dustin Bradford/Getty ImagesRe-signing Jack Del Rio means maintaining continuity on the Broncos defense.
And while there will be changes in the offing during the offseason after a dismal 35-point loss in the Super Bowl, Del Rio’s signing is an indication of a measured, objective approach to trying to be better in the 2014 season than they finished in the 2013 season’s final game. A Super Bowl loss routinely brings all sorts of crater-it hypotheses both near and far, to raze the fort as it were. But the bottom line is objectively, rationally, there isn’t some immense talent gap between the Seahawks and the Broncos. It’s just one team played with discipline, took advantage of opportunities and played to the moment while one team did none of the above.

No team puts up 606 points on offense in a season and needs to be scraped to the foundation. Overall, the Broncos need a little more physicality and more speed across the roster, especially on special teams.

And overall, because of injuries and the free-agency status of the players on the depth chart, the Broncos' defense will need more big-picture attention in the offseason than the offense. And one of the biggest impediments to the Broncos fielding any sort of consistent defense late in Mike Shanahan’s tenure, throughout most of Josh McDaniels’ brief tenure and even at the start of John Fox’s tenure, was the constant turnover at defensive coordinator.

When Fox hired Del Rio in early 2012, Del Rio was the seventh person in the job in a seven-season stretch. And over that span the Broncos changed the alignment of their base defense. They went big across the board, then went for speed across the board and often lived with inconsistent results because they had difficulty matching personnel to the constant changes in schemes each new defensive playcaller brought with him.

Del Rio’s new contract means the Broncos will have the same defensive coordinator in three consecutive seasons for the first time since the final three years of Larry Coyer’s time on the job in 2004-06. If the plan is good, if the right decisions are made on the depth chart, then that kind of continuity can mean something.

The Broncos, because of injuries throughout the year -- five defensive starters closed out the season on injured reserve -- as well as linebacker Von Miller's suspension for the first six games of the season, the Broncos were never able to find the level of play this past season they had for most of 2012.

But one mark of a defense's potential is being able to take away what an offense wants to do and make them do something else. And camouflaged somewhat by the amount of Super Bowl wreckage is the fact the Broncos did that. The Broncos held Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch to 39 yards rushing on 15 carries -- 2.6 yards per carry -- in the game and held Robert Turbin to 25 yards rushing on nine carries in the game.

No, they didn’t tackle particularly well in the game -- something that was an issue throughout the season -- and they didn’t consistently pressure Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. But they did make it difficult for the Seahawks to do what they most wanted to do offensively.

The Broncos will need to dive into the draft to fill in spots in the secondary and at linebacker. The return of Quanterus Smith, a fifth-round draft pick who spent the season on injured reserve because of a torn ACL he suffered in his senior year at Western Kentucky, should help the pass rush.

They found out Danny Trevathan could well be one of the build-around players on defense, and that Terrance Knighton was just what they hoped at defensive tackle, and a guy like Malik Jackson (fifth-round pick in ’12) is just the kind of homegrown contributor the Broncos need to add to the depth chart.

“[Knighton and Jackson], and I would say Danny Trevathan is the other one, that are young players, kind of below-the-radar kind of players, not considered stars by any means, but they played a very big role for us,’’ Del Rio said last week. “They played well all year. Malik in particular, he got his chance … and really blossomed. Terrance we brought over hoping we could resurrect his career and get him back on track, had him previously in Jacksonville. And Danny is a young player, he’s in his second year now with us and he’s really starting to blossom.’’

And with Del Rio back, the Broncos can push for progress in a system that’s in place instead of installing yet another playbook and hoping for the best.

Denver Broncos season wrap-up

February, 5, 2014
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video Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 2
Preseason Power Ranking: 3

Biggest surprise: It took 19 games, a pile of league records and a few slices of history along the way, but by far the biggest shock for an organization that believed it had the moxie to win a title was its Super Bowl meltdown. Broncos head coach John Fox had said his team was “calloused" by all it had to overcome this season, including linebacker Von Miller's six-game suspension, five defensive starters eventually landing on injured reserve and Fox's open-heart surgery. But on the biggest stage with the biggest prize on the line, the Broncos had a night when they didn't respond to any of the adversity they faced.

Biggest disappointment: Other than losing in the title game -- “I'm not sure you ever get over that," said quarterback Peyton Manning -- it would have to be the way Miller's season dissolved. After his 18.5-sack season in 2012, the Broncos expected even more this time around. Instead, he was out for the first six games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. He came back heavier after the suspension and often looked less explosive according to many personnel executives in the league. He then suffered a season-ending torn right ACL in December. He won't be ready for training camp and may not be full speed by the start of the regular season.

Biggest need: In their past three playoff losses, the Broncos have had a combined one sack against Tom Brady, Joe Flacco and Russell Wilson. Miller has played in two of those games, albeit with a cast on his surgically repaired thumb to close out the 2011 season against the New England Patriots. They have used their opening pick in each of John Elway's three drafts as the team's top football executive on a pass-rusher -- Miller, Derek Wolfe and Sylvester Williams. It still needs some attention, as does the team's secondary; the Broncos will need to address cornerback and safety as well.

Team MVP: Manning, with 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yards passing for an offense that set an NFL record with 606 points, was the league MVP and was the Broncos' as well. Manning's drive, preparation and no-nonsense approach pushed the team past every bump it faced during the regular season, and he powered the franchise into its seventh Super Bowl. But cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and linebacker Danny Trevathan deserve special mention for being the defense's most versatile and productive players outside the glare of the team's offensive fireworks in the regular season. Trevathan and Harris were consistently the guys asked to do more in Jack Del Rio's defense.

 

Rapid Reaction: Denver Broncos

February, 2, 2014
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Thoughts on the Denver Broncos' 43-8 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII:

What it means: The demolition of the Broncos' grand plan means that although Broncos may have come a long way since their 4-12 finish in 2010 with John Elway running the show, they still have plenty of ground to cover to get to where owner Pat Bowlen and Elway want the franchise to go. The Broncos did not show what Elway calls the “mentality to win a championship" right from the moment that center Manny Ramirez sailed the first snap past Peyton Manning's head.

Stock watch: Coaches coach and players play, to be sure, but the Broncos were supposed to have an advantage with a veteran head coach in John Fox and some veteran hands like Jack Del Rio, Dave Magazu and Richard Smith on staff. But the Broncos looked out of sorts from the start and showed plenty of bad body language throughout the first half as the game was ripped from their grasp.

More questions: Manning hates the questions, his teammates hate the questions and most people in and around the Broncos hate the questions. But after they quieted the what’s-the-deal-with-the-playoffs talk ever so slightly with wins over the San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots in this postseason run, it will be rekindled after the Super Bowl blowout. Manning, who is set to have a physical in the coming weeks, is expected to be back for the 2014 season if the doctors give him the thumbs-up, but this one will sting him and the team for quite some time.

The flip-flop: The narrative for much of the past two weeks had been how the Broncos’ chances for a Super Bowl victory depended on whether their defense could hold up. But in the end, the defense more than held up its end of the bargain, as most everything else around the Broncos unraveled. From the air-mailed snap to open the game to poor pass protection to Demaryius Thomas’ fumble to poor special-teams play, the Broncos' defense was the least of the team’s worries when the game was still in doubt.

What’s next: Elway has always said a team can’t be afraid to ask itself the tough questions, and the Broncos will have plenty to answer. They simply weren’t good enough, not tough enough, not resilient enough to recover when things went badly early Sunday. The Broncos will have to look hard at adding some defensive pop in the coming months, especially because linebacker Von Miller and cornerback Chris Harris Jr. are recovering from ACL injuries.

Broncos' D will need an A effort

January, 31, 2014
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Wesley Woodyard, Danny TrevathanDoug Pensinger/Getty ImagesHow will Wesley Woodyard, Danny Trevathan and the Denver defense impact Sunday's result?

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- The most prominent storyline of Super Bowl XLVIII, at least beyond what Richard Sherman said, what Marshawn Lynch didn't say and just how much wobble is in the average Peyton Manning touchdown pass, has been the Denver Broncos' No. 1 offense and the Seattle Seahawks' No. 1 defense.

It has been the classic matchup of league best on league best and the first of its kind since Super Bowl XXXVII, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with the league's No. 1 defense, defeated the Oakland Raiders (the No. 1 offense) to close out the 2002 season.

But how a Broncos defense battered by injuries throughout the season responds against Seattle's power offense with Lynch at running back, the mobile Russell Wilson at quarterback and wide receiver Percy Harvin playing in just his third game of the season, will have a lot to say about how things go for the Broncos. In fact, it may have everything to say about whether or not the Broncos get to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

"We feel like we need to be the defense we know we can be," linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. "We've been better as the season has gone on, we've adjusted some, overcome some and now we feel like we're ready to play our best football."

The Broncos have four defensive starters on injured reserve -- cornerback Chris Harris Jr., defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, defensive end Derek Wolfe and linebacker Von Miller -- and they have not always played with the consistency defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio would have liked because of it. But after holding opponents to fewer than 17 points only once in 14 games, the Broncos have held opponents to 17 points or fewer in four consecutive games. The total includes both of their playoff wins -- 24-17 against the San Diego Chargers and 26-16 over the New England Patriots.

"In spite of all the things that could have derailed us, we stayed on point, stayed on message, continued to grind, continued to believe," Del Rio said.

Del Rio has used a variety of lineup combinations until settling on the current one that includes Woodyard, an every-down player for much of the season, now playing in the specialty packages. Del Rio also has put Paris Lenon at middle linebacker in the base defense to go with Danny Trevathan and Nate Irving at the other two linebacker spots.

The combination gives the Broncos a little more bulk against opposing run games, especially one such as the Seahawks'.

The return of Champ Bailey, who played just five games in the regular season because of a left foot injury, has given Del Rio more options of late in the coverages the team can play and stabilized things, even with Harris Jr. having torn an ACL against the Chargers in the divisional round. After initially returning to the lineup, playing in the slot as part of the nickel defense (five defensive backs), Bailey will likely start on the outside against the Seahawks and then move inside to the slot if Seattle goes to a three-wide receiver look. In the nickel, Bailey would likely face Harvin or Doug Baldwin.

[+] EnlargeJack Del Rio
John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty Images"I don't want to hear a reason that we can't," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. "I want to talk about how we're going to get it done."
And the Broncos have gotten enough from Shaun Phillips, Robert Ayers, Malik Jackson and Terrance Knighton in the pass rush to at least try to work past Miller's injury, a torn ACL he suffered in Houston in Week 16.

"We think we can play the way we need to, we know we have to if we're going to win this game," Bailey said. "We don't think too much about the injuries. We would love to have those guys because you always want your best out there. But [Del Rio] isn't going to let you talk about that anyway and we wouldn't want to."

Said Del Rio: "I don't even want to hear it, I don't want to hear it from our staff, I don't want to hear a reason that we can't. I want to talk about how we're going to get it done. I don't spend a lot of time entertaining how we can't. I understand that we can and want to figure out exactly how we can get it done. It's a little bit of scheme, it's a little bit of technique, there's a little of mentality you've got to build. It can be pretty good if you put it all together and everybody buys in."

While the Broncos' record-setting offense and the Seahawks' bone-rattling defense have parked themselves in the headlines this week, Sunday's game may well be decided by what Seattle's offense does against Del Rio's defense.

"We feel underrated a little bit, but we've got to expect that," Broncos safety Mike Adams said. "I probably would say the same thing because we had a slow start as a defense early in the season. But one thing we did: We finished the season strong and we carried it on to the playoffs, and we're trying to continue that streak that we're on."
JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- For starters, Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio likes his current job.

His team is in the Super Bowl, and he believes "his guys" are ready to "play well, compete well and try to win a world championship." So he says he doesn’t have one eye on the horizon as he goes about his business each day.

[+] EnlargeJack Del Rio
AP Photo/ Eric BakkeJack Del Rio's defense hasn't allowed more than 17 points in each of Denver's past four games.
But Del Rio, who was the Broncos’ interim head coach during John Fox’s leave of absence this season, does believe he will be a head coach in the NFL again someday.

"At some point there will be a match," Del Rio said Wednesday. "It will be something where it will make sense for both of us and then we’ll do something. Until then I’m going to enjoy the heck out of helping this football team win a world championship -- 100 percent of my focus is on this team winning a world championship, having a great week of preparation and going out and playing our best."

Del Rio, who was the Jacksonville Jaguars' head coach for nine seasons, was interviewed by USC officials during the Broncos’ bye week this past season for that school’s head-coaching job. But with the Broncos -- and Del Rio -- poised for a deep playoff run, USC hired Steve Sarkisian.

Del Rio also drew at least some interest from the Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings before those teams conducted their interviews and closed out their coaching searches.

Before, after and in between, Del Rio has gone about his business of simply trying to find the right combination on defense down the stretch. A group that finished in the top five in every major category in 2012 has struggled at times to find its groove after a rash of injuries this season. Champ Bailey played in just five regular-season games, while Kevin Vickerson, Chris Harris Jr. and Von Miller were placed on injured reserve.

But with Bailey’s return for the final two games of the regular season to go with the Broncos' two playoff wins, Denver has held each of its past four opponents to 17 or fewer points. And that’s Del Rio’s focus.

"I feel like for me, I’m really blessed to be part of an organization that is playing for the world championship," Del Rio said. "There certainly are opportunities each and every year ... and I’m not going to spend a lot of time wondering if there was a lot of talk, a little talk or those types of things. ... I’m part of the Broncos, so I’m going to do the best that I can to help us win. Maybe at some point, down the road, something occurs where I’m involved with someone else. But right now, I’m involved, 100 percent, with Denver."

How the Broncos handle trash talking

January, 29, 2014
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It's a free country, sure. Free speech is certainly covered in the Constitution and all.

Robinson
Del Rio
But if the line is crossed and a player wanders into the too-much-free-speech, too-many-bad-decisions zone -- the kind that draws a penalty or negates a quality play -- there is a principal's office of sorts for the Denver Broncos. Most often a player's position coach is the first one on the scene, scowl at the ready, and that is the time when the bench becomes a powerful teaching tool.

Because the player is headed for it and likely won't find his way off it until there is some sort of mea culpa.

For defensive players, in particular, the hot zone is the few feet of gameday real estate next to defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. As linebacker Danny Trevathan said, "Coach Del Rio will let you know. He's not always out there, right up on you, but when he does you know, you probably need to listen."

Trevathan got his nationally televised earful from the former linebacker in the regular-season opener. It came in the seconds that followed Trevathan dropping the ball too early as he celebrated an interception he would have returned for a touchdown had he simply hung on to the ball. Instead, the Baltimore Ravens got the ball on the 20-yard line after a touchback.

For the Broncos, there may be no better example of their enforcement policy than a second-quarter play in the team's Nov. 17 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in Denver. With the Chiefs facing a second-and-8 play from the Broncos' 12-yard line, Denver forced an incomplete pass. But after Alex Smith's pass had sailed past Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles, Broncos safety Duke Ihenacho, with an official standing roughly two feet away, got right in Charles' face.

The trash talk quickly drew a taunting penalty that gave the Chiefs a first-and-goal at the Broncos' 6-yard line. The Chiefs scored a touchdown three plays later.

The penalty got Ihenacho on the express lane to the sideline, where Del Rio screamed "get him out of there" just seconds after the flag was thrown. Ihenacho was immediately taken out of the lineup and found himself in Del Rio's sphere of influence for a while instead of in the defensive huddle.

"I don't like seeing it," is how Del Rio described it. "... That's just silly. It's not necessary. Unsportsmanlike is what was called and it's unnecessary. He's a young player; we want to help him learn from that and hopefully we never have it ever again."

Added Broncos head coach John Fox: "Football is an emotional game, played by passionate people. But we also want our guys to understand the situation and that, at the end of the day, the object is winning and we need to do the things necessary to win. Winning is what's fun in this league and if something keeps you from winning, then that's not fun."
Denver Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty ImagesTerrance Knighton (94) and the run defense may dictate how often Peyton Manning has the ball.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In many ways his signing was simply caught in the vapor trail of the other work the Denver Broncos did in the opening hours of free agency last March.

After the Broncos jumped into the checkbook pond to give guard Louis Vasquez the longest deal they handed out this past offseason, after they tipped the balance of power in the AFC at least a bit by signing wide receiver Wes Welker, the Broncos made a two-year deal to an under-the-radar guy who might be the most important piece of the Broncos' defensive puzzle in Super Bowl XLVIII. That would be one Terrance Knighton, a 335-pound (or so) space-eating interior defender who is going to have to figure prominently in the Broncos' plan to deal with the Seattle Seahawks' punishing run game.

The Seattle Seahawks finished second in the league during the regular season in rushing attempts per game (31.8) and were fourth in rushing at 136.8 yards per game. Most folks who have faced the Broncos believe the best defense against Denver quarterback Peyton Manning is to not let him have the ball. So the Broncos figure to get a heavy dose of running back Marshawn Lynch as well as quarterback Russell Wilson working out of an option look in the title game.

[+] EnlargeDenver's Terrance Knighton
Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)Terrance Knighton gets one of the Broncos' two sacks on Tom Brady.
"We know people don't want to give Peyton the ball," Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. "We know that means they are going to come after us if they think they have a chance to make some yards. We always want to stop the run games because the more we get the ball back for Peyton and our offense, the better it will be."

The Broncos faced four teams during the regular season that finished in the league's top 10 in rushing. Denver was 4-1 in those games, including two wins over Kansas City (No. 10 in rushing). The Broncos also defeated Philadelphia (No. 1) and Washington (No. 5).

The Broncos lost to the New England Patriots (No. 9) during the regular season -- the Patriots rushed for 116 yards on a frigid November night -- but held New England to just 64 yards rushing in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday. Overall, the Chargers recorded the most rushing yards against the Broncos this season -- 177 yards in a Dec. 12 San Diego win -- in the same game that Ryan Mathews became the only running back this season to top 100 yards against the Broncos with 127 yards on 29 carries.

"But our guys up front take it kind of personally if you try to run," Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. "They don't like it."

Well then, there will be plenty not to like against the Seahawks. Lynch is a yards-after-contact hammer, and defensive coaches in the league who have charted the Seahawks see an offense that has had quality production running through gaps across the front.

Seattle has run the most often this season over left tackle and center, averaging more than 4 yards a carry in both spots, 4.8 yards per carry over the center. But the Seahawks get more than 5 yards a carry over the right tackle and around the right end.

This puts Knighton and the strongside defensive end, usually Malik Jackson, in the crosshairs when the Broncos are in their base defense. For his part, Knighton will battle Pro Bowl center Max Unger for much of Super Sunday. Knighton played three seasons for Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville when Del Rio was the Jaguars' head coach. And when the Broncos made their roster plans this past offseason, Del Rio had hoped to add more bulk in the middle of the formation.

"I went through the whole process and chose the best fit for myself and my career," Knighton said. "I mean, a fresh start is always good. Most players want to stay with one team, but it worked out better for me being here, and I hope that I'm here for a long time.”

Knighton had one of his best all-around games Sunday with a sack and two tackles for loss among his four tackles against the Pats. On his sack, Knighton beat Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins with a quality first step and some savvy work with his hands. Woodyard has joked that he knew things would be different for the Broncos' defense when he couldn't get around Knighton while lined up behind the massive defensive tackle.

"He can do it all," defensive end Robert Ayers said. "He can rush. He's a big guy. He can stop the run. He brings a lot to the table -- he brings leadership and he commands double-teams on the run."

Teams gained just 2.84 yards per carry on runs over the center this season -- lowest in the league -- and had most of their success against the Broncos taking plays wide around the left or right end, averaging more than 6 yards a carry in both spots. The Broncos tweaked the lineup in the base defense coming down the stretch. They moved veteran Paris Lenon into the middle linebacker spot, and during the past four games -- two regular-season and two playoff games -- the Broncos have surrendered only 87, 64, 65 and 64 yards rushing.

Against teams that have the read-option element, as the Seahawks do with Wilson, the Broncos have played more of a 3-4 look on defense, using three down linemen to go with Shaun Phillips and Ayers standing up at the outside linebacker spots. The Broncos used it for 20 snaps earlier in the season against Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin Jr.

Denver figures to show that once again against the Seahawks.

"I think it's a chip," Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan said. "I think as long as we step up to the challenge and accept that stuff, a lot of people are going to talk. But our key is just to play our game, stay within our scheme, and go out here and win games. Play 60 minutes. Like I said, a lot of people are talking, but you've got to come out here and you've got to perform. That's what it's about. ... A lot of people said [New England] could run the ball, all this and that. But you've got to be well-rounded. You've got to be a pro, handle that stuff as a challenge, take it upon yourself to go out there and perform and show them what's up."

Broncos defense has found a groove

January, 19, 2014
Jan 19
11:45
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DENVER -- The chip was there for all to see, the Denver Broncos simply picked it up and it put it on their defense's shoulders.

The one about being the weak link. The one at the root of the few losses the Broncos have had, the one about having to hold up against the New England Patriots' run game and quarterback Tom Brady.

"We expect Peyton [Manning] to play well all the time because he's one of the best players to ever play the game," Broncos defensive end Shaun Phillips said. "But we have to do what we do on our side of the ball to make sure we keep the ball in his hands and give him a chance to win. … We did that [Sunday], just like we wanted to do, just like we had to do."

When all was said and done in the Broncos' 26-16 victory in the AFC Championship Game the Broncos held New England to 64 yards on 16 carries. This was a week after the Patriots had skewered the Indianapolis Colts defense for 234 yards rushing,

LeGarrette Blount, who had trampled the Colts for 166 yards, finished with 6 yards on five carries. Blount's longest rush was 3 yards. And asked what the difference was in a tale of two weeks for New England, Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said:

"Well, they didn't play the Broncos last week. They are a good running team, but we've got some guys up front that don't like that they're going to do whatever it takes to stop that run and that's really what it's all about, the guys up front."

"It wasn't a shock," cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said.

The key, the Broncos -- almost to a player -- said was defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. When the Broncos went looking for bulk to add to the middle of their defensive line during the offseason, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio certainly agreed with acquiring Knighton.

Knighton played for Del Rio for three seasons in Jacksonville and was just the kind of space-eater Del Rio wanted in the defensive front. He finished with four tackles, including two tackles for loss and a sack.

"New England came back on us, San Diego beating us, injuries, that's what molded us into the team we are now," Knighton said. "No one had gotten this far without adversity, we just wanted to respond to it, and like I said, I'm just excited."

In year when the Broncos were forced to play mix-and-match on defense at times -- starting with Von Miller's suspension to open the season -- Denver tweaked some things down the stretch that have them dialed in at the moment. They put veteran linebacker Paris Lenon into the base defense to add a little more pop, they got Bailey back in the lineup, and rookie Sylvester Williams has raised his game since defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson went on injured reserve with a hip injury in late November.

The Patriots had just 16 yards rushing at halftime, 39 yards rushing after three quarters. New England couldn't keep drives alive and Brady could not use play-action in the passing game. New England had three three-and-outs in their five possessions in the first half. The Broncos led 13-3 at halftime and added another touchdown after three quarters.

"I think when you play good teams, the margin of error is pretty slim all day," Brady said. "We dug ourselves a pretty big hole there. … We just couldn't do enough."

The Broncos have had five games this season when they have surrendered 17 or fewer points and four have come over their past four games, including Sunday's win to go with the divisional round victory over the San Diego Chargers.

And while the Broncos defense had lapses -- such as the 160-yard, two-touchdown fourth quarter the Patriots put up Sunday -- Denver defenders believe they held up their end of the bargain to help put the team in the Super Bowl.

"We have one game left," Knighton said. "That's our goal. This wasn't our goal to make it there, our goal was to win it so we still have some business to handle."

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