Broncos continue search for balance

March, 29, 2014
Mar 29
7:30
AM ET
Earlier this week, as the NFL's power brokers moved around a nicely-appointed Florida resort, Denver Broncos head John Fox referred more than once to "the dropoff" in the team's defensive performance from 2012 to what it became in 2013.

[+] EnlargeJohn Fox
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsJohn Fox is hoping his defense can regain the top form it had in 2012.
Certainly, linebacker Von Miller's six-game suspension to open the season didn't help matters last season, nor did his ACL injury to close the regular season. And when all was said and done the Broncos had six players they had called starters at some point on defense finish the year on injured reserve. That is a total that was hard to overcome even before free agency changed the face of team-building, let alone before a third of the roster turned over each year.

The Broncos also played with the lead for much of the year, with their offense scoring a season record 606 points as opposing teams felt compelled by the scoreboard to throw 613 passes just to try to keep up. Those 613 pass attempts would have been the eighth-highest total in the league last season if they had been attempted by one team.

"That gets your attention," Fox said. "... And all of those things probably affected what we did, we're not making excuses, it's just fact. We didn't play as well as we could have, either, whether it was personnel, coaching, game-planning whatever, it wasn't what we want it to be. That was a significant dropoff from where we were -- we played some pretty good defense [in 2012], and we'd like to get back to that. We feel better about where we are, but we'll see how it plays out. But we want to have that balanced look."

It's why the 2012 season will always be the One That Got Away, or was ripped away, however folks want to look at it. But with Peyton Manning another year older for the coming season and another year down the road from his fourth neck surgery.

Because the "balanced" team, with Manning at quarterback, has always been a difficult, well, balance to find when it comes to the construction of the roster.

In terms of the Broncos' franchise history, it's why 2012 was even more of a remember-when affair, at least in some ways, than last season's offensive explosion. Because '12 was just the second time in the franchise's history the Broncos had a top 10 defense and a 4,000-yard passer on offense in the same year.

The first was 2004 when Jake Plummer finished with 4,089 yards passing and the Broncos were fourth overall in defense. In '12 Manning threw for 4,659 yards as the team finished No. 2 in fewest yards allowed per game (290.8) and No. 4 in fewest points allowed per game (18.1).

That's the kind of balance the Broncos want this time around, why they've put the money where they want the defense to be. It's why, even as they did write a significant check to give Manning another target in the offense in Emmanuel Sanders, they leaned so hard on defense in free agency and will continue to lean hard as they watch the draft unfold in May.

It's a difficult line to walk, however, with the lure always there to surround the franchise quarterback with as much talent as possible. But it's one the Broncos will need to walk if they are to secure the brightest trophy during Manning's time in Denver.

"You want to eliminate as many holes in the roster as you can and have the depth to overcome things," Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said. "We want to create a situation where we can win a lot of different ways. That's always our challenge and we'd like to think we're getting closer to that ability."

The defense-Manning combination has always been difficult to keep consistently strong over his career. In all of his time in Indianapolis, Manning had a top 10 defense with a 4,000-yard passing season just four times -- the 2002, 2007, 2008 and 2009 seasons. The Colts went a combined 49-13 in those years, eventually losing in the wild-card round twice, the divisional round once and in Super Bowl XLIV (to New Orleans).

The year the Colts won the Super Bowl in Manning's time with the team -- the 2006 season -- their defense was ranked 21st overall, 23rd in scoring defense.

But it certainly doesn't happen without the commitment to put resources into the defense or special teams, to the parts of the depth chart that handle the business when Manning doesn't have the ball. The Broncos have already shown the commitment, with the draft still to come, but they'll just have to wait to see if they reap the benefits.

Jeff Legwold

ESPN Denver Broncos reporter

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