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Wade Phillips wants to be flexible in how he uses Broncos' talents

6/19/2015
Shane Ray has impressed his coaches with how quickly he's picked up the defense. AP Photo/David Zalubowski

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Wade Phillips has been long known to dish out a quip or two when it comes to football matters.

So, when the Denver Broncos defensive coordinator said the depth chart "looked like the Pro Bowl roster" after he had accepted the job, it was not all that big of an exaggeration. Now, roughly six months have passed, the Broncos have worked through their offseason program and Phillips has continued to construct a scheme for a group that returns all five defensive players that played in the league's all-star game this past January.

And the one over-riding thought Phillips has come away with is, if the play fits, use it.

"I think we'll have a good defense," Phillips said. "I don't have a doubt about that. How good we can be depends on where we go from now through training camp and into the season. We have some good players. If your scheme doesn't fit a good player, then you've got to change your scheme. We've got some good players and we've got to fit them in there."

Phillips has promised an aggressive defense and his starting point is a secondary with three of the team's Pro Bowl selections last season -- safety T.J. Ward to go with cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. -- to go with two edge rushers in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware who also played in the Pro Bowl.

Toss in some quality team speed, first-round pick Shane Ray, the SEC's defensive player of the year last season, cornerback Bradley Roby, who the Broncos want to play more, and defensive linemen Malik Jackson, a breakout-player-in-waiting, and Phillips has plenty of options with this defense.

And while the unit is still a work in progress, the players involved say their offseason shows Phillips has simplified things in hopes that it will set them free to make more impact plays.

"It's like less defense, less complicated, it's not as intricate as it was with [Jack] Del Rio's defense," said linebacker Brandon Marshall. "It will be less to think about which I think will be good."

The Broncos did finish third in total defense last season (305.2 yards allowed per game), but the team didn't fare quite as well in scoring defense, tied for 16th in the league. And when all was said and done in 2014 the Broncos didn't sack Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck in the Broncos' playoff loss and the Broncos' decision to match-up Talib on wide receiver T.Y. Hilton instead of Harris still raises eyebrows.

"Like, of course, I still think it should have been me," Harris said.

But overall, with the offseason program now in the books, the Broncos defense has far fewer question marks dotting the roster than the offense does. Other than deciding who will play nose tackle in the new 3-4 -- Sylvester Williams got the most work there in recent weeks -- the biggest item on the to-do list may have been to find a way to get Ray on the field with both Miller and Ware.

Hindering that somewhat was Ray's return from a toe injury he suffered in his final game at the University of Missouri. He was not full speed in the Broncos' OTAs and minicamps, but said he expects to be ready to go once training camp begins.

"Shane Ray is coming along real well in the classroom, he needs to take it to the field," Phillips said. " … He's so sharp on the board and in watching film, and then on the sideline he's over there telling us -- we have a coach with him every play -- he tells the coach what he's supposed to do on that play … In college, he played one, basically the right side. But he played on the left some. We're letting him play both sides here. For a rookie, I think that's exceptional that he's learned a lot of things as quickly as he's learned them."

Ware, who played for Phillips with the Dallas Cowboys said the coach will put players in positions to succeed and that the Cowboys tinkered with schemes that included three edge players.

"He did, I think it was with me, Greg Ellis and [Anthony] Spencer. He would put all three of us out there and we would have just an array of rushes and we would sometimes just leave that package out there because some teams would try to do the hurry-up on us and try to run the ball but guys knew where they fit and how to stop the run and they didn't really know who to block. So it worked out really well.”

"I think when it's all in place and we're in the season, [Phillips] is going to be able to use whatever he wants to use," Harris said. "I think we can play coverage, we can rush the passer, we can stop the run, we have the potential to be able to do all that. But now we have to go out and do it, potential doesn't get us anything, but wherever [Phillips] puts us to make plays, we have guys who can make those plays."