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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