Can Denver's defense take next step?

Sure, the Broncos have Peyton Manning, but their success may rest on Von Miller and the defense. Ron Chenoy/US Presswire

Barring a setback from the neck injury that cost him the entire 2011 season, Peyton Manning has the Denver Broncos’ offense covered. That side of the ball will be fine and will be in playoff form.

But what about the defense?

That side of the ball will be a key to Denver's season. If the 2012 Denver defense can make the strides it did in 2011, the Broncos have a chance to be a serious contender.

Bill Polian, who knows Manning well, has said he thinks the potential of the Broncos' defense is one of the reasons Manning chose to play in Denver. Polian, the Colts’ former general manager who brought Manning to Indianapolis and who is now an ESPN analyst, said last week he thinks the Denver defense could be a spark for the Manning-led offense.

“John Fox is going to coach up that defense and it has a chance to play great defense,” Polian said. “That will only help Peyton.”

However, I believe the Broncos have work to do before they can start playing great defense.

This unit is a work in progress. It went from No. 32 in 2010 prior to Fox’s arrival to No. 20 in 2011 under the guidance of Fox and coordinator Dennis Allen, who is now the head coach in Oakland. The 2011 Denver Broncos will be remembered for the wild days of Tim Tebow, but it was the defense that rose up and solidified the team. With Manning running the offense and former Jacksonville head coach Jack Del Rio running the defense, the team has a chance to go to the next level.

The defense in Denver starts with pass-rushers Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. The pair combined for 21 sacks last season and they should be one of the most dynamic pass-rush duos in the NFL for years to come. Polian called the pair special and an anchor for the defense.

Denver upgraded at cornerback by signing Tracy Porter of New Orleans. He is a solid No. 2 cornerback and will make a strong pairing with the aging, but still dominant Champ Bailey. Porter, who has had challenges staying healthy, is an upgrade from Andre Goodman. Underrated safety Mike Adams was signed from Cleveland. He will pair with second-year player Quinton Carter, who made strides as the season went on. The team will give 2011 No. 2 pick Rahim Moore a chance to rebound from a rookie season in which he regressed. But Adams and Carter should be a serviceable pairing.

There are some problems, though. Outside linebacker D.J. Williams, one of the better defenders on the team, is facing a six-game NFL suspension for using a banned substance. He is fighting it in the form of a lawsuit. Defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley signed with New Orleans. Bunkley was a tone-setter, and even though he played only 43 percent of the snaps, he will be missed.

Denver has a major void at defensive tackle and it probably will take advantage of a strong draft class at the position and use the No. 25 pick on a player such as Mississippi State’s Fletcher Cox, Penn State’s Devon Still or LSU’s Michael Brockers. They also want to re-sign Marcus Thomas and hope 2011 free-agent signee Ty Warren is healthy after missing the past two seasons.

There is no doubt this is still a building project and that concerns Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc.

“I was very worried about this defense, but now I feel a little better about it after it signed Porter, who is a very solid No. 2 behind Bailey,” Williamson said. “But I still have my worries about the defense up the middle. Losing Bunkley hurts quite a bit, but maybe Ty Warren can help out this year. The safety position worries me. But they can sure rush the passer. The question is will be they be able to handle a physical offense.”

After being the bright spot of a surprise team in 2011, the Denver defense must take the next step in a year when, suddenly, much is expected from this team.