What a difference a year makes _ Pryce drawing praise from the coach

Updated: October 3, 2003, 3:25 PM ET

DENVER -- Late last season, Broncos coach Mike Shanahan criticized Trevor Pryce, his Pro Bowl defensive end.

Shanahan is talking about Pryce again this season -- in a much different tone.

"I'd say the last three games Trevor has played are probably as well as I've seen a defensive lineman play since I've been in the National Football League," Shanahan said. "His hustle, his pursuit, just his consistency in his play has been very impressive."

Slimmed down and with a new commitment to playing hard every down, Pryce has disrupted countless plays Denver's opponents have tried to run this season. He's too fast for bigger tackles and too big -- 6-foot-5, 284 pounds -- for tight ends to handle.

Opponents either have to double-team Pryce or watch their quarterback get knocked down.

"I think he's playing very well," said Kansas City coach Dick Vermeil, whose team plays the Broncos on Sunday. "You know when they move him around and do different things with him, he's playing very well."

The moving around has had something to do with it.

Pryce lined up almost exclusively on the left side last season, his first at defensive end after three Pro Bowl seasons as a tackle.

New defensive coordinator Larry Coyer has changed Denver's alignment this season, with Pryce typically lining up on the strong side of the defense or inside on passing situations.

With teams having to worry about where Pryce is lined up, the rest of Denver's line has had plenty of free runs at the quarterback. Bert Berry and Reggie Hayward, who play opposite Pryce, have combined for eight sacks, and the Broncos have 10 in four games after getting just 24 all last season.

"All the sacks we have on this team belong to Trevor, really," said Berry, who has 4{ sacks. "That was the case last year, too."

Maybe, but not in the eyes of Shanahan.

Even when the Broncos struggled late last season, Pryce said they easily had the best talent in the league. Shanahan responded by saying that Pryce should stick to playing and let the experts do the scouting, which led to more jabs between the two in the media.

Pryce took exception to his coach's comments at the time, but appears to have taken the criticism to heart.

He reported to training camp 11 pounds lighter and has stuck to a new training regimen that includes massages, stretching, hot and cold tubs, and better nutrition. Pryce also has been playing about 20 percent fewer snaps, which helps keep him fresh.

"For the first time, I'm giving myself a chance to recuperate," Pryce said. "I think I've realized that pain doesn't have to be part of football."

But the biggest difference has been on the mental side.

Since he came into the league in 1997, Pryce has been one of the NFL's most talented defensive linemen. He also tended to get caught up in what people were saying about him.

Believing that his talent was enough to carry him, there were times when Pryce didn't work as hard as he should. He was even accused of coasting during games.

That hasn't been the case this year.

Pryce has approached every play with the same tenacity and has even worked with some of the younger linemen, something he's rarely done in the past. And he's planning to do it for the whole season.

"If I don't watch it, I'll fall into that mind-set of 'I'm great," Pryce said. "I've got to keep my edge."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index