Saturday, May 31, 2014
Del Rio: 'Great competition' in D-line
By Jeff Legwold
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos try to shed their finesse label many in the league have affixed to them -- a 35-point loss in the Super Bowl will do that -- they will look to a front they believe has the potential to fuel a defensive resurgence.
Now, the caveat of how rose-colored glasses of the offseason tints all conversations about what's to come certainly applies here. Players are healthy, checks have been written in free agency, draft picks secured and new faces abound on the depth chart.
But for a team that has tried to bulk up on defense -- tried to add more speed and get a little nastier edge along the way -- the interior of the defensive line could be a foundation for all of that.
"I thought Terrance [Knighton] stepped up and had a big year for us," said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. "[He] really played well down the stretch and he's now a real anchor for our front. Not only physically -- he's a very strong, talented guy -- but also the leadership ability he brings.
"There's great competition in there," Del Rio said. "You've got Malik [Jackson], who stepped in and played well. [Sylvester Williams], who stepped up when [Kevin Vickerson] was injured and played well. And now you've got Derek Wolfe back and Vickerson on the mend, and so you've got some talent in there and those guys will sort it out through competition."
Knighton and Vickerson are both the early-down, sun-blockers Del Rio wants on the interior. And this time last year the two were the unquestioned starters.
But as Vickerson continues to work back from a hip injury that landed him on injured reserve last November, Williams has worked with the starters in recent workouts. Williams was the Broncos' first-round pick and the Broncos believe he has the potential to be the kind of player who is strong enough to anchor in the run game as well as disrupt things behind the line of scrimmage.
Jackson can play both at tackle on passing downs as well as end in the pass rush. He one of the most efficient players in the league having finished among the team leaders in sacks, tackles for loss and quarterback hits despite playing just more than 50 percent of the defensive snaps. Wolfe, who finished the '13 season on injured reserve after showing big promise as a rookie in 2012, can also play at end and tackle.
Toss in a late free agent signing in Marvin Austin and the Broncos believe they can mix-and-match up front effectively enough to consistently free the outside rushers like DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller. Executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said the Broncos had a first-round grade on Austin three years before injuries derailed much of his first three seasons in the league.
"I think we can do some things," Knighton said. "But everybody has to get to work and just play. But we have the guys for the jobs."
Del Rio likes to vary the team's fronts, especially in their specialty packages. And the Broncos spent the majority of their defensive snaps in the nickel (five defensive backs) last season and figure to be forced to play as if it's the base defense much of the time again. However their schedule rotation does include the rugged NFC West this time around.
With preseason games against the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks as well, the Broncos will play six games in all against the four NFC West teams so the Broncos figure to get tested plenty in the power game as well.
"But I feel good about our group," Del Rio said.