The 2011 Denver Broncos will not be remembered for their defense.
Let’s face it, the lasting memory, regardless of how this unexpected Rocky Mountain joy ride ends, will be of quarterback Tim Tebow. The six-game winning streak, the four overtime wins, the incredible and the abrupt ending to the wild-card win over Pittsburgh on Sunday will all turn back to Tebow. He is the cover boy for these Broncos.
Yet, there is no way this upstart franchise would still be playing if it wasn’t for an improved, tough-minded defense. Tebow may be the face of the 2011 Denver Broncos, but the defense is the heart.
If the Broncos have any chance of beating the New England Patriots in the AFC divisional playoff round Saturday, their defense will have to continue to show its growth. New England coach Bill Belichick knows a thing about defense and he knows Denver’s unit is capable of being a factor against his high-powered offense.
“Defensively, they’re fast. They have an excellent pass rush,” Belichick said this week. “They’re athletic inside, their linebackers blitz … They cover well. They have a good defensive team.”
Four months ago, just as it was unexpected that Denver would be one of the final eight teams alive in the playoffs, it was as unexpected that the Denver defense would inspire such words from one of the most renowned defensive minds in the game.
In 2010, Denver was ranked last in nearly every statistical defensive category and it was a major reason why the Broncos went 4-12 and earned the No. 2 pick in the draft. Since he took over as Denver’s football leader, Broncos’ legendary quarterback John Elway immediately focused on the other side of the ball to begin his reclamation project.
Ending a 16-year streak, Elway hired a defensive-minded head coach in highly-respected John Fox after the Broncos were led by offensive minds Mike Shanahan and Josh McDaniels. Piggybacking on the Fox hire, Elway’s first draft pick was outside linebacker Von Miller, a player Elway hoped would become similar to Miller’s idol, Derrick Thomas, the man who sacked Elway more than any other defensive player ever.
The immense commitment to defense has worked out for Elway. Seventeen games into Fox’s tenure, the Broncos’ defense is considered above average. There is no doubt Fox and first-year defensive coordinator Dennis Allen have influenced this unit, and it's being recognized around the league.
The Denver defense was on display in a big way in the 29-23 upset win over Pittsburgh in the wild-card round. The Broncos dominated the game and harassed Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with five sacks. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Roethlisberger completed just 6 of 13 passes for 74 yards and was intercepted when Denver blitzed five or more defenders. Led by the dynamic pass-rushing combination of Miller and veteran Elvis Dumervil, the Broncos had 41 sacks in the regular season, the most it has had since 2000.
“We saw some things we felt like we could do well,” said Denver defensive end Robert Ayers, who was extremely active against the Steelers. “It’s the playoffs. There is no time for holding back.”
Denver’s defense has been consistent throughout the season. When the Broncos entered the playoffs on a three-game losing streak, it was Denver's offense that was most culpable. In a 40-14 loss at Buffalo in Week 16, the Bills had two defensive touchdowns and a special teams score. The Denver defense allowed one touchdown in the game. In a 7-3 Week 17 loss to Kansas City, the Denver defense allowed just one big play.
In a 41-23 loss to visiting New England in Week 15, Denver's defense had some moments. But the Broncos didn’t lose the game on defense. It lost because the offense blew a 16-7 lead with three fumbles in its territory in the second quarter that resulted in 13 direct points for New England. The defense simply couldn’t overcome the turnovers.
Still, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Denver may not have the same success blitzing against Tom Brady as it did against Roethlisberger if last month’s game is any indication. Brady was 10-of-12, gaining with an average of 14.3 yards per play, against a five or more-man blitz. Against four or fewer pass-rushers, Brady was just 13 of 22 with an average of 6.8 yards per play.
Regardless of the pass-rush packages, Ayers said the key is containing tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The pair has torched defenses all season, and Hernandez was particularly dangerous against Denver last month. Hernandez had nine catches for 129 yards and a touchdown against Denver, while Gronkowski added four catches for 53 yards. That’s massive production from tight end.
“Up front, we have to be able to get some pass rush and not let [our secondary] sit back there for long,” Ayers said. “I think Brady... he got a little bit comfortable a couple of times. We don’t want to let that happen. We don’t want to leave those guys on an island too long. … It’s going to take a complete team effort -- offense, defense, special teams -- and we know that.”
If the defense's effort all season has been any indication, the Broncos should feel comfortable their unit will come to play and continue to show it is no longer the weak link.