HOUSTON -- Twice during a Thursday afternoon seven-on-seven drill, Houston Texans standout wide receiver Andre Johnson broke open cleanly in the middle of the secondary, creating separation from Denver Broncos defenders with nifty outside feints designed to set up sharp slant moves between the hashes.
And twice Johnson came away shaking his head as a Denver defender closed on the ball in the air and swatted it away.
"All three of those guys can run," Johnson acknowledged. "I mean really run."
There are a lot of potential remedies Denver head coach Mike Shanahan and defensive coordinator Larry Coyer might have conjured up after the wild-card defeats in which Manning toasted the Broncos for 835 yards, nine touchdown passes and 90 points. In a bit of a twist, they opted not to refurbish the biggest area of defensive deficiency, clearly the secondary, but to remake its one position of strength.
And so a linebacker corps already plenty quick enough in '04 now looks likely to function in 2005 at something approximating warp speed. In middle linebacker Al Wilson, weakside defender Ian Gold and strongside starter D.J. Williams, the Broncos feature three guys who not only can run to the ball but can flat-out run, period.
All three have been timed in the 4.5s. All three are faster than Denver starting safeties John Lynch and Nick Ferguson. All are certainly good enough, if desired, to be three-down players, capable of staying on the field in passing situations, and of roaming much deeper into the secondary than linebackers typically are supposed to venture. If it's true that speed kills, the Broncos' defense is going to counter opposition offenses in 2005 with a murderous set of linebackers whose strong suit is rare quickness.
"People thought we were fast before," said Wilson, a three-time Pro Bowl player whose speed has helped him compensate for less than prototypical size. "But now, with getting Ian back, yeah, it's like we've gone to the afterburners."
Indeed, a key for the Broncos is the return of Gold after a one-year detour to Tampa Bay, where he started 13 games and got to swap ideas with Bucs star Derrick Brooks, a future Hall of Fame player and arguably the premier weakside 'backer of his era. Gold signed with the Bucs last spring as an unrestricted free agent after the Broncos, wary of a 2003 knee injury, would not meet his asking price. But the perennially cap-strapped Bucs were forced to release Gold in early March and, two days later, he was back with the franchise that originally brought him into the league as a second-round pick in 2000.
Reacquiring the athletic Gold, who is built more like a safety, meant moving second-year veteran Williams from the weak side to the strong side. The team's first-round choice in 2004, and one of the NFL's top rookies last year, Williams never questioned the move. Like everyone else in the Denver organization, he knew it made the Broncos' defense that much, you got it, quicker. And the Broncos are convinced, even after finishing 2004 ranked as the league's fourth-best defense, that more speed was necessary.
"Let's face it, this is a speed game," said cornerback Champ Bailey, who will benefit from the deeper drops the Denver linebackers get in pass coverage. "You've got to be able to run. And our linebackers can run with the best of them."
None of the Broncos' starters is very big by recent linebacker standards. The trio averages just a shade over 6 feet and 235 pounds. And that might be, almost literally, stretching things, because Wilson, listed at 6 feet, appears shorter than that. But all three play bigger than their size, primarily because they are explosive athletes, players who generate power and hitting torque from the ground up.
Remember, this was supposed to be, for much of the season, a linebacker quartet, as the Denver brass flirted with the idea of transitioning to a 3-4 front. But even after the Broncos acquired so many defensive linemen, and decided that sticking with the 4-3 alignment was in their best interest, the focus remained on the linebackers. It is rare in this era, when the position has been somewhat diminished and the hot-commodity spots on defense are at end and cornerback, that a team looks to its linebackers to make such a major difference. The Broncos believe, though, that the upgrade at linebacker will have an ancillary effect on the other defensive units.
"Speed is always going to give you more flexibility," said Williams, who had 106 tackles and two sacks in his rookie season. "You force [the offense into] more mistakes because of speed. And speed allows you to make up for your own mistakes, too, to recover when you take a bad angle or a false step. You don't have to be fast to be good. But all things being equal, you always want the faster and more athletic player, right? It's a territorial game, and speed allows you to cover more real estate."
Ever the voice of reason, Wilson emphasized that, even with speed, players have to make plays. And he noted that a Denver defense that recorded just 20 takeaways in '04, the fourth fewest in the league, has to improve that anemic figure this season. Sometimes, he allowed, speed itself isn't enough.
"But I'd still rather have it than not," Wilson said.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.