The lesson wasn’t that difficult to see: Defense still matters. And you can win a Super Bowl without great play from the quarterback -- as long as you’re elite on one side of the ball.
The tough part for the Washington Redskins and anyone else paying attention to Denver’s Super Bowl team is trying to build such a defense.
One side note: Yes, the Redskins interviewed and could have had defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. I know the word the Redskins kept using with their new staff was energy and when asked why they bypassed someone, they usually swung the answer back to why they hired Joe Barry. Energy.
You can be upset about the Redskins not hiring Phillips, but do not kid yourself: The Redskins would not have suddenly become a top-10 defense just because of him. Phillips did a terrific job with Denver, but he started with a defense that was already top-five and had terrific players at every position group. That’s how you make arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, Tom Brady, and the league MVP, Cam Newton, look ordinary in consecutive games.
The pass rush was fantastic, but as we saw Sunday, they often were given an extra half-second to arrive because of the coverage. with Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, the Broncos have two standout corners; heck, their secondary overall is excellent. That’s how the Broncos could rush six defenders, have the outside guys stunt inside, and still not give up a completion (as happened on one particular play Sunday). No one was open.
The Redskins have a start on some of what they need to reach that level. They have a good pass-rusher in Ryan Kerrigan and a young guy in Preston Smith who finished strong. The question for Smith will be whether he stays at outside linebacker or shifts inside (after adding about 20 pounds -- my guess is that either he or Trent Murphy will make this switch). There are some tempting free agents who could help, but both will be expensive: Muhammad Wilkerson and Malik Jackson. With Murphy and Smith, the Redskins have options (each would face an adjustment if they ended up making the move) if they remain in-house. The draft also will provide options at multiple spots defensively.
The Redskins and Junior Galette want their relationship to continue. Assuming he’s back, and fully recovered from his Achilles’ tear, it gives the Redskins a chance at an improved rush. He’s not Von Miller but Galette can provide some of what Miller does in terms of speed.
But the Redskins still need consistent push inside to make their defense special and that’s among the things they’ll be looking to add this offseason, whether in free agency or the draft. There’s also no doubt they want to add help in the secondary, even at corner. They have Bashaud Breeland and Chris Culliver as starters, but Culliver is coming off a torn ACL and might not be ready for training camp. Even if he is, he might not return to the desired level of play for another year.
Three things you can never have enough of defensively: pass-rushers, corners and speed. Denver plays fast, even at inside linebacker. There’s a reason the Broncos are the rare defense that ranks first in both sacks per pass attempt (9.1) and yards per carry allowed (3.28). The Redskins ranked 16th and 31st, respectively.
The Redskins’ shopping list is long and it doesn’t need to be finished in one offseason. There’s too much work -- very tough to become a top-five unit. Denver, for example, has been top four in yards in three of the past four seasons and top four in points in two of the last four. This wasn’t new.
Defense will be, and should be, the Redskins' priority this offseason. They haven’t had a top-10 defense in either points or yards since 2009. They haven’t had one in both areas since 2008. The best they’ve done in the past six years is 13th in yards and 17th in points. The Redskins have a lot of work ahead, but they know where they must begin.