Change in the NFL is generally born from a lack of success but in the case of the Denver Broncos’ third-ranked defense, a modification was going to be a necessity.
Some of the moves made by John Elway and the Broncos this offseason seemed like overreactions spawned from the disappointment of an early playoff exit after the 2014 season, the team’s second divisional-round playoff implosion in three years.
It was just the latest postseason failure for perhaps the greatest regular-season quarterback of all-time in Peyton Manning and there was at least some talk of tearing the whole thing down in Denver and rebuilding from scratch, a scenario which was pushed down the road a bit when Manning agreed to return for another year at a reduced price tag.
Elway, however, had seen enough of the men in charge of his football team and waived goodbye to veteran head coach John Fox. And that move virtually guaranteed that both of Fox’s coordinators, offensive chief and Manning
confidante Adam Gase, and defensive head Jack Del Rio, would also be moving on.
Of course, even if the Broncos had made a run to the Super Bowl and decided to keep things copacetic with Fox, now the Chicago Bears head coach, the smart money was on Del Rio returning to the head-coaching ranks.
And sure enough the Oakland Raiders pulled the trigger on Del Rio, the ex-middle linebacker, who had a solid, if unspectacular previous head-coaching stint in Jacksonville before turning Denver’s stop unit into one of the best
in all of football.
Elway blew out Fox for his former backup and long-time friend Gary Kubiak, who in turn brought in veteran defensive mind Wade Phillips to keep Denver at the top of the defensive table.
Phillips has spent the last quarter century as either an NFL head coach or defensive coordinator, including a previous stint in the Rockies where he coached the Broncos defense from 1989-92 before being elevated to head coach for the next two seasons.
He was back leading the Denver D for the first time in over a decade as the team kicked off OTAs last week.
“We don’t have the pads on yet. We’ve got a long ways to go. We’ve gone one week, three practices, and those aren’t even live. But I like the way they’re working,” Phillips said after watching his talented unit.
“I look at their movement skills,” he continued. “We’re going to get them to give their great effort. That’s a mark hopefully of our defense always, is we’re going to have a lot of guys flying to the football. And those guys have bought in to that. They’re really doing a good job. As big as they are you don’t expect them to be down all over the field. We do. We expect that.”
Phillips also expects that his 3-4 mentality won’t change the success Del Rio’s preferred 4-3 philosophy had a season ago.
“It’s not just going to the 3-4, it’s really the personnel involved in the 3-4 and what you want to do with them,” Phillips said of the impending change. “We’re still in progress with those things, but we knew we wanted some outside rushers, and when you go to the 3-4, the two guys who are outside are exceptional. So that’s a big start for us.”
The two guys Phillips was speaking of are DeMarcus Ware, who starred for Phillips in Dallas, as well as Von Miller, a tailor-made fit as a stand-up edge rusher.
“We’re going to let him rush, Phillips said when discussing Miller, perhaps Denver’s best defensive player. “I’ve had some guys over the years that have played the Will (weak-side) linebacker, and I have had a lot of good players
play there, and, yeah, they made a lot of sacks, but I have had some Sam (strong-side linebackers) — Ricky Jackson for one, was a Sam linebacker for us. Bryce Paup was AFC Defensive Player of the Year, had 17 sacks, Shawne
Merriman had 17 sacks in 12 games.
“It’s a position that if a guy can rush, you can match up well. That’s why we’ve kept (Miller) there. You’d think he’d be a Will linebacker who rushes almost every play, but you can rush the Sam linebacker, too, so that’s what we’ll do.”
Phillips was also up front about his plans for all three levels outside of Miller. On the line, mission No.1 is finding a nose tackle who can tie up multiple blockers.
“‘Sly’ (Sylvester Williams) has been at the nose, but we’ve alternated some guys in, Phillips said. ” Malik (Jackson) is an end, obviously, size-wise. (Vance) Walker has come in and played some nose. We’ve alternated most of the other guys if they can play nose or three-technique, and some of them can play five-technique, we’ve alternated those guys. They’re working hard.”
At linebacker Phillips has a lot of athleticism to work with, including rookie first-round hybrid edge player Shane Ray.
“I’m pleased with the two guys who are out (LBs Brandon Marshall, who is recovering from foot surgery, and Danny Trevathan) and [OLB] Shane Ray also,” Phillips said. “The two guys who are out, as far as learning the defense, they’re really studying, they’re helping the other guys. That’s important for our team overall, and they know that, but they’ve played before.
“Shane Ray hasn’t played before, so he’s getting real good at on-the-board stuff and that kind of stuff, but he’s going to have to get out on the field and do some of those things. But the inside backers I think are doing a good job for us. There’s a lot of competition in there, which is good. I think we’ve got some talented young guys that have a pretty good feel. We’ve still got a ways to go.”
In the defensive backfield Phillips’ main cause for concern is at free safety where ex-Raven Darian Stewart has been running with the first-team.
“We brought Darian in, and he’s been playing the free safety with our first group, and I think he’s done a good job, Phillips said. “We have other guys certainly. I think Omar (Bolden) has done well at safety. We’ve got some other guys that look pretty good. Obviously T.J. (Ward) and “Bru” (David Bruton), those guys have been here and are good players, too. We’ll look at all of them and see how it shakes out. I think Darian probably said it, but it’s probably his job to lose. He’s there right now as the first-team guy, so he’s got to prove he can play.”
A wild card could be last year’s first-round pick Bradley Roby, a cornerback who could project to the back end.
“He’s pretty proficient at cornerback, so I’m pleased with that,” Phillips said of Roby. “And that’s what we wanted, to make sure he could play that position and be really good at that, and then if we play three corners coming in where he’ll play some safety, and we’ll work that in probably in the next couple weeks. We’ve got three corners that can play, and if we need to move him into a certain package, we will, and we’ll do that later on.”
Roby and the plan for his progression in this defense probably defines Phillips’ strength. It’s not about labels like 3-4 or 4-3, it’s about tweaking the scheme to fit the strengths of the talent you have.
“(You look) at each guy’s capabilities — what they can do — you try to meld that into the defense,” Phillips said. “That’s part of our learning process. It’s not just the players; it’s the coaches learning what the players can do. I can think of a lot of defenses but it’s what our players do best, and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”