SAN FRANCISCO -- Great NFL defenses often have nicknames. But if championship rings aren't attached to those defenses, the nicknames are premature.
That's what the Denver Broncos face heading into Super Bowl 50 against the Carolina Panthers. Wade Phillips' defense has put up historic numbers. It was No. 1 in total defense (283.1 yards), No. 1 in pass defense (199.6), No. 1 in sacks (52), No. 3 against the run (83.6), No. 4 in scoring (18.5) and No. 3 in defensive touchdowns (5). Those numbers alone would put the Broncos in the top 10 of all-time defenses, but it can be argued they could be as high as No. 8 when you consider Denver's offense committed 31 turnovers and the turnover ratio was minus-4.
"I know for us, I wasn't here in 1977, but it compares to that 1977 Broncos defense," Broncos general manager and executive vice president of football operations John Elway said. "I'm not going to say it's better, but it's the best I've ever seen with the way they play and with the speed they play. They've given us a shot all year and we are here because of them."
After polling a few of the Broncos, they have some thoughts on a nickname. "The Orange Rush" might be the best nickname being spread around the team, making it the updated version of the 1977 "Orange Crush." Linebacker Von Miller offered "Kool and the Gang." Peyton Manning is "Kool." The defense is "The Gang." Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. has been pushing the "No Fly Zone" for the secondary.
"I don't know what our nickname is yet," linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. "We hadn't said anything about the nickname of our defense yet, we just know who we are. Ray Lewis asked me, 'Do you guys think you are great?' We don't think that we are great. We're good enough and played good enough each season. To be great, you have to end the season at No. 1, but you also have to be the winning defense in the Super Bowl. That's when you can give yourself a nickname."
Great defenses have their persona. The Steel Curtain dominated and destroyed teams. The 1985 Chicago Bears decked seven opposing quarterbacks and may have had the best swagger of any defense in NFL history. Peyton Manning met the 2013 Seattle Seahawks after a 55-touchdown season and was totally shut down by the "Legion of Boom."
Based on talent alone, the Orange Rush (or whatever ends up being the name of this defense) stacks up to some of the best ever.
"You've got to rate them pretty high," Phillips said. "It's up to everybody to determine that; it depends how we play, obviously. You don't hardly ever lead the league in almost every category. And even rushing, we were third but we gave up the least yards per carry in the league -- we were 3.3, so we almost literally led the league in every important category."
Reporters and analysts have been giving the Broncos' defense the necessary respect all week. Despite that, many are picking the Panthers to win because the Broncos' offense has scoring problems. Clearly Phillips can use those predictions as motivation, and if the Broncos can get a few early sacks and force an interception or two by getting Cam Newton out of his comfort zone, the Broncos could steal the Super Bowl.
"We always talk about turnovers," Ware said. "If a team gets three turnovers, there is probably a 94 percent chance you are going to win. If you get two, it's 87 percent and so on and so forth. We always predicate ourselves on getting turnovers because you get either a short field and score points or you are able to score points on a short field."
The Broncos' defense has it all. Denver has fast linebackers, three very good defensive linemen, great coverage cornerbacks, a hard-hitting safety (T.J. Ward) and two Hall of Fame-caliber pass-rushers.
"We've got a whole lot of stars on defense," Phillips said. "We play great defense but we have a lot of good players. That's a big part of it."
Phillips is particularly fond of Ware, whom he coached when he was with the Dallas Cowboys. Ware's pass rush is incredibly quick. He was so quick early in his career that officials were, incredibly, flagging him for going offside. Phillips would go back, watch the tape and see that Ware shouldn't have been penalized, so he would warn officials about being too quick with their flags because Ware is just quicker than his blockers.
"DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller race to the quarterback," cornerback Aqib Talib said. "There have been times we've seen the left tackle not touch either one of those guys. They just run hoops around them to get to the quarterback. As a defensive back, it definitely makes my job easier."