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.
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."