Chris Harris

Elway rebuilt the Broncos following Seattle shellacking


ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Two years ago, the Denver Broncos touted the highest-scoring offense the league had ever seen, a record-breaking bunch that piled up 606 points in steamrolling to the Super Bowl.

It all imploded during a stunning 43-8 loss to the Seattle Seahawks and their “Legion of Boom” secondary.

As he slogged through the rubble of yet another Super Bowl landslide, general manager John Elway, who lost three of them by a combined 96 points before capping his Hall of Fame career with back-to-back rings, embarked on an extreme makeover.

He transformed his offensive juggernaut into a defensive powerhouse like Seattle’s, maybe better.

The defense that will line up for Denver on Feb. 7 against Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers includes just three starters from the Broncos’ last Super Bowl appearance: linebacker Danny Trevathan and linemen Malik Jackson and Sylvester Williams.

Two months after that 35-point whooping, Elway signed thumpers DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib to free agent contracts worth $109.5 million combined.

Von Miller and Chris Harris Jr. each visited Dr. James Andrews for ACL surgeries, then rehabbed together, pushing each other back into All-Pro form. And Derek Wolfe recovered from a seizure disorder that also rendered him a helpless sideline spectator during that nightmare in New Jersey.

Then, Elway got lucky. Twice.

All Big-Ten cornerback Bradley Roby of Ohio State was expected to go to a rebuilder as a consensus top-15 talent in the 2014 draft. But he found himself in Denver at No. 31 after a couple of run-ins with the law that hurt his draft stock but didn’t scare away Elway.

Roby, suspended for the Buckeyes’ first game his senior season after being accused of getting in a bar fight, resolved a citation for operating a vehicle while under the influence just before draft weekend by pleading guilty to a reduced charge.

Roby began his NFL career by declaring “I’m not a bad guy.”

He said the bouncer was the aggressor in the bar brouhaha, and that he was asleep behind the wheel, not driving drunk. “I can honestly say in those situations I have never committed a crime. I’m going to rest my case on that,” he said. “I’m not a bad guy, not a guy you have to worry about off the field.”

He’s a guy opponents have had to worry about aplenty on the field.

Teaming with Talib and Harris, Roby gives the Broncos the best cornerback combo in the league.

Last year, lightning struck again.

When a state trooper found weed in his car after stopping him for speeding just four days before the NFL draft, Shane Ray knew he hadn’t helped himself.

His misdemeanor citation certainly wound up costing him financially after he fell from a projected top-10 pick all the way to No. 23. The Broncos traded up to grab the SEC defensive player of the year.

And like Roby a year earlier, Ray suddenly found himself in an ideal situation.

“If you’re going to fall,” said his mother, Sabrina Johnson, “who better to catch you than John Elway?”

And who better to learn from than Miller and Ware?

Instead of serving as a cornerstone for a rebuilding franchise, Ray is playing for a Super Bowl-bound team alongside a pair of top pass rushers he’s long admired.

Recreational pot shops are almost as common as 7-Elevens in Denver. While that might have seemed like a problem waiting to happen, Elway dismissed any such notion, stressing that while cannabis is cool in Colorado, “it’s still illegal in the NFL.”

Ray, subjected to random drug testing from the get-go, insisted he was no pothead and vowed to put his marijuana mistake behind him. Like Roby, Ray has been a model citizen and teammate. He teamed with Shaq Barrett, an undrafted free agent who transformed himself from a practice squad player last year into a pass-rushing menace. The two combined for 9 1-2 sacks.

When the Broncos inquired about Browns left tackle Joe Thomas at the trade deadline, any chance of bolstering Denver’s O-line was scuttled when Cleveland asked for Barrett.

Together, Ray and Barrett provided a second wave of pass-rushing pressure that kept Miller and Ware fresh for the kinds of performances Denver’s defense provided Sunday, when the Broncos hit Tom Brady 23 times.

Roby made the game-saving interception of Brady’s 2-point conversion attempt to tie it with 12 seconds left, sending Denver back to the Super Bowl – this time with the defense Elway so desperately desired.

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Broncos accustomed to pulling out wins in tight situations


ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As confetti cannons showered the Denver Broncos with a blizzard of orange and blue, Methodist minister Don Bird of Aurora, Colorado, expressed the feelings of so many sweat-drenched, fingernail-nibbling fans.

“I am convinced that Broncos fans are the most well-conditioned fans in the NFL,” Bird wrote on Facebook after Peyton Manning bested Tom Brady in the AFC championship. “Our hearts got a workout with every game but one this season. Who needs the gym?”

The Broncos (14-4) are heading to Super Bowl 50 on the strength of a dizzying defense and opportunistic offense that led Denver to an NFL-record 11 wins by seven points or less, including Sunday’s 20-18 classic against the New England Patriots.

“We never waiver on our faith,” linebacker Brandon Marshall said after Denver denied Brady’s 2-point attempt to tie it with 12 seconds remaining. “We stay strong. We believe. Everybody plays hard. We play fast. We play physical. Four quarters.

“What blowout did we have this year? Maybe the Packers game, that’s it. So, we are used to playing in close games. That’s what we do. We’re used to playing in games that come down to the wire. And we prevail.”

The Broncos’ only breather all season came when Green Bay brought a 6-0 record to Denver in November and left with a 29-10 defeat, the worst outing of Aaron Rodgers‘ brilliant career.

Denver is 11-3 in games decided by seven points or less, and a 12-point win at Detroit was close until David Bruton Jr.’s interception led to a last-minute TD.

The Broncos’ best hope to bring home another Lombardi Trophy to go with the two GM John Elway won during his Hall of Fame playing career might very well be to keep it close against Carolina in Super Bowl 50.

“That kind of has become a theme for us,” coach Gary Kubiak said after Denver’s 23-17 win over Pittsburgh in the divisional round, “to grind and work and just keep ourselves in position to be successful.”

The Broncos just don’t get tight when the games get that way.

Denver’s wins have come by an average of just 6.92 points. Carolina’s average margin of victory is nearly twice that – 13.41 points.

In the 2012 season, the Broncos rolled into the playoffs on an 11-game winning streak in which their average margin of victory was 16.45 points. They promptly lost in double-overtime to Baltimore 38-35 in what was their first close game in three months.

They piled up a record 606 points in 2013 and got shellacked by Seattle in the Super Bowl.

Elway would rather bring the league’s No. 1 defense to the Super Bowl like he’s doing this year than the NFL’s No. 1 offense like he did two years ago.

After that last landslide, Elway signed free agents DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib. The last two drafts, he also selected defenders who slipped down the board in first-round picks Bradley Roby and Shane Ray.

He replaced John Fox with Kubiak, who brought more balance to the offense with a greater emphasis on the ground game as Manning’s passing skills began to diminish at age 39.

The Broncos benefited from the offensive balance, defensive dominance and abundance of tight games.

“I think it helps playing a lot of close games during the course of the season, starting with the very first one against Baltimore,” Manning said. “That was a dog fight, grinder and went down to the last drive. If you can be in a lot of those games and win those games, it certainly gives you confidence and, hey, it’s playoff football.”

When Elway switched coaches last year, he said he wanted to build a team that would go down “kicking and screaming,” after Fox’s teams lost their last game by a cumulative 150-66.

That toughness has been on display all season as they made a habit of winning close games.

“I mean, defense wins championships,” cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “We’ve had so many games that we’ve had to win in the fourth quarter or 2-point conversion or things like that all season.”

Denver’s model is no longer lighting up scoreboards but grinding it out, hanging around and making big plays at the end.

“The mindset to me is that you know we play for 60 minutes – even though we haven’t consistently played well for 60 minutes – you know our mindset has been there,” Elway said. “And that’s why this team is a tougher team because it’s a mentally tough one.”

This time, it’s Cam Newton and the Panthers bringing the high-octane offense to the Super Bowl and the Broncos sporting the star-studded secondary and ferocious front-seven.

They also bring a bravado borne from having played so many close games.

“Guys really don’t panic,” Harris said. “We’ve been in these situations all season. It’s really prepared us for this time. I think in the past we’ve had a lot of blowouts, we were beating teams by a lot of points and we didn’t ever get in those situations like this. But we’ve been in these situations all year, so it’s normal for us now.

“It doesn’t faze us with the game on the line.”

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Peyton’s place? Nah — Denver’s defense is Broncos’ best bet

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The Denver Broncos’ offense has struggled early in the season. Gary Kubiak’s schematic and personnel mismatch with what Peyton Manning has traditionally done on offense have clashed, producing an offense that has spent much of the season sputtering. A leaky offensive line has made the problem even worse.

Yet Denver is 2-0 despite opening the season against the Ravens, who gave the Patriots a stiff test last postseason, and the Chiefs at Arrowhead, where Kansas City went 6-2 last year with wins against both Super Bowl participants. How have they managed this? The offense helped come back against Kansas City, but the real key has been the defense, and specifically the pass defense.

Through two weeks, the Broncos have the best defense and pass defense in the league by Football Outsiders’ VOA metric, which adjusts for down, distance, and situation. The pass defense is especially impressive, ranking at 82.4 percent better than league average.

To put this in perspective, by VOA, the best performance by a pass defense in Week 1 was Denver’s -89.4 percent against the Ravens, and the best performance by a pass defense in Week 2 was Denver’s -75.1 percent against the Chiefs.

This early in the season, there are no opponent adjustments to VOA because we are still waiting to see just how good teams are. But last year, Baltimore was a very efficient pass offense and Kansas City a bit above average. Both teams also performed well in their other games, putting up a top ten performance by VOA. Opponent adjustments do not seem likely to dim the luster of Denver’s sterling performances that much.

Enter Wade Phillips

The man reaping much of the credit for these great defensive games is new coordinator Wade Phillips. When John Fox was fired as head coach, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio followed him out the door. Phillips arrived with Kubiak, resurrecting a partnership that immediately produced the first two playoff seasons in Houston Texans history.

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Phillips the coordinator had a strong history of being associated with defensive improvement his first year. That’s partly for obvious reasons: defensive coordinators tend to get fired after unlucky seasons, so their defenses are likely to improve the next year anyway. One area that seems to be partly that kind of luck and partly Phillips is improved turnover work, especially on interceptions.

Interceptions are a big reason why the Broncos defense has done so well early. Their four interceptions, two each of Joe Flacco and Alex Smith, are tied for the league lead. The Broncos have done that in fewer attempts than their co-leaders Jets and Patriots. An interception rate of 7.0 percent is unsustainable in today’s NFL. Last year’s leader was the 49ers at just 4.2 percent, and only one other team had a rate even half Denver’s. Still, harassing Smith into two interceptions was noteworthy, since he’d thrown just three in his past sixteen starts (including postseason).

Denver’s recent history of strong pass defense

Phillips has helped turn around some mediocre units. That was not his task with these Broncos. They had a superb pass defense in 2014, ranking fifth in the league by DVOA. The 2013 unit looks less impressive, but the overall ranking of 21st conceals an important split: with Von Miller in the lineup, they were sixth. In 2012, they were fifth once again. Their excellence through two games should have come as no surprise.

Excellent defensive personnel is the key to those rankings. The 2013 split hints at Miller’s importance. With no suspension or torn ACL to limit him, he had an excellent 2014 and has started off playing very well in 2014. A lifelong linebacker, the transition from Del Rio’s 4-3 to Phillips’ version of the 3-4 has been basically seamless. Pretty much the same is true on the other side of DeMarcus Ware, who rose to prominence in Dallas when Phillips was his head coach. Both seem poised to post double-digit sack seasons again, with a combined 3.0 in the first two games after 23.5 last year.

The secondary is also vital, and the Broncos have a trio of cornerbacks as good as or better than any in the league. Starters Chris Harris and Aqib Talib both ranked in the top six among all corners in adjusted yards per pass last year per Football Outsiders charting. Harris’s ability to play both outside and in the slot makes him especially valuable. The nickel corner is last year’s first-round pick Bradley Roby. He had the expected rookie ups-and-downs, but has already made two game-changing plays, breaking up what would have been the winning touchdown pass against the Ravens and scoring the winning touchdown on a fumble recovery against the Chiefs.

What it means

Phillips’ acumen and the personnel quality means Denver’s pass defense excellence is likely to continue. The Lions, who have been just average through the first two weeks and have a banged up offensive line, do not seem like the team to challenge that. Not until the Packers travel to Denver in Week 8 will the Broncos face a high quality passing offense. That will give them plenty of winnable games and plenty of time for Kubiak and Manning to fix the offense while continuing their winning ways.