ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos interim head coach Jack Del Rio has a contract with his defense.
Not an unspoken one, mind you. There’s no fuzziness at the bottom line; it’s all laid out, point by point, for all to see, in every meeting, in every practice.
“And Jack has let everybody know they’ll play if guys show him they’re ready," Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. “You do what you’re supposed to do, and you’ll play. Everybody knows it, there's a job you can do."
It hasn't always been that way for Del Rio. But times change, the game has changed, and while the defensive huddle used to be the realm of every-down starters -- that once in, they stayed in -- it's no longer the case. The salary cap and the continued expansion of the passing game dictated change had to come. Defenses have had to be able to play big, play small and everything in between, as offenses have flooded the field with receivers to go with a generation of 65 percent passers. And Del Rio believed, even after the Jacksonville Jaguars had fired him 11 games into the 2011 season, when he called defenses again, and if he had the personnel he needed on the depth chart, there was more to be done.
“You grow with the experiences that you have," Del Rio said. “The fact when you do that guys stay more in that, stay in the plan, understand that if they play well they’re going to play more."
Del Rio did it last season, his first in Denver. Over the course of the team’s 13-3 finish in the regular season, Del Rio used 13 defensive players for at least 30 percent of the defensive snaps for the season, most of those based on using players in specific roles in specific situations the defense faced, even if it was just a play here and a play there. The Broncos rotated up front in the defensive line, used an array of linebackers in a variety of down-and-distance situations, and often moved people in and out in the secondary.
While it changes week to week based on the opponent, Del Rio said with playing time always a legitimate possibility, players stay engaged through the workdays leading up to those games, because there is always a chance they can find a way into the lineup.
“You kind of avoid the it-doesn't-matter-what-I-do thought," Del Rio said. “It’s healthy for your team to remain competitive all the time for playing time. To reward guys who are doing well and find ways to utilize the talent you have available."
“No doubt," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “[Del Rio] is going to put you in there."
Take safety David Bruton. A special teams captain who is a reserve on defense, he played just 2.3 percent of the defensive snaps last season. But after re-signing and putting in a quality offseason worth of work, that total is up to 10.3 percent this season, even with largely the same personnel in place.
The Broncos have had nine defensive backs in uniform for games this season, and used them all in the defense at various times. Del Rio has moved linebackers -- other than middle linebacker Wesley Woodyard, who is the every-down stalwart in the front seven along with Danny Trevathan -- and defensive linemen into the games depending on the job at hand.
“You always want talent and character, good players who can be starters for you," Del Rio said. “But we just feel if there’s something you can do, something you can give us, we should make sure we’re using everyone to the best of their abilities."
“I think everybody feels that through the week and into the game," Woodyard said. “I tell the young guys all the time, show them what you have, what you can do and be ready all the time, don’t let it slip, and he’ll get you in there."