2014 Broncos Preview: Defense

Happy Wednesday, friends. Yesterday, we covered the offense in detail. Anybody who has been a Broncos fan the last couple of years knows that the offense has been the primary reason for us to be so optimistic.

Honestly, it will continue to be so in 2014. Any team that has Peyton Manning will always be offense-dominant.

However, this Broncos team has a chance to sport both a top-five offense and defense.

The 2012 Broncos were that, but their secondary failed them at key times, like in the playoff loss to the Ravens. There was always something that didn’t feel dominant about that 2012 defense, and I view this 2014 edition as being one that’s staffed to win a lot of battles convincingly.

Let's go through the position groups, and look at why the Broncos have a chance to be so good.

Defensive Line

Everybody says that the Rams have the best and deepest defensive line in the NFL, but I think the Broncos can give them a run for their money. In all my life as a Broncos fan, going back more than 25 years, I’ve never seen them have this much talent on the defensive front.

If you ask Pro Football Focus, Derek Wolfe is a replacement-level player. If you ask Jeff Legwold, who I suspect resents being clowned for never having heard of Wolfe when he was drafted 36th in 2012, he’s utterly downplayable, and not worthy of much mention.

When the Broncos had a top-five defense in 2012, though, the main reason was that their ability to play eight gaps with seven men allowed them to be very sound in pass coverage even when they started out playing the run. To accomplish that, at least one defender needs to two-gap, and the one who did it the most and the best was Wolfe.

Wolfe is unique among the Broncos’ defensive linemen in that he has the size and power to play that role. When he couldn’t play last season, Malik Jackson replaced him, and the Broncos’ whole approach had to change.

Suddenly, there were eight-man boxes and more vulnerability against the pass. I'm not suggesting that Wolfe was a bigger loss than Von Miller, but Wolfe's loss forced the Broncos to change their scheme to something less sound; Miller's didn't.

Wolfe is also a good interior pass rusher, although I thought he tried to do too much speed-rushing from the edge last season. That may have been because he lost so much weight, but whatever the case, it’s not Wolfe’s strong suit.

Terrance Knighton had an excellent first season in Denver, and he seemed to respond very well to being in a winning environment for the first time since high school. Knighton plays the nose sometimes, and other times, he’ll play opposite a guard. For a 330-pound guy, you can see the quick feet that allowed him to play wide receiver in high school.

Sylvester Williams did a good job toward the end of his rookie season in 2013. He was one of the 10 or 12 best talents in his draft class, but his age (24 at draft time) and a run on offensive linemen made him available to the lucky Broncos at #28. Williams has excellent power and a quick first step.

I expect him to make a major step in 2014, after having a full NFL offseason program behind him. Like Knighton, Williams is position-indifferent between the nose and undertackle positions.

DeMarcus Ware was the premier name in the free agent class for the Broncos, and he says he’s healthy and ready to play like he’s been accustomed to. Ware is 32, and he’s had an excellent career.

In his limited preseason action, he looked like he’s ready to play well. Expect the Broncos to vary him between standing up and playing with his hand on the ground, but I’m pretty sure they’ll have him going forward 90-95% of the time.

Malik Jackson is a very good player; Legwold isn’t wrong about that. He’s best used as an interior pass rusher for 20 or 25 snaps. Jackson had a disjointed college career, split between USC and Tennessee, and he’s come into his own after joining the Broncos.

He’s tall like Wolfe, but leaner in the lower body, and he plays with less leverage. He’s extremely quick for an interior rusher, though, and he has a good feel for countering the body leverage of blockers.

Marvin Austin finally showed the talent that TJ and I expected to see when he was a draft prospect. We were both rooting for the Broncos to grab him instead of Rahim Moore and Orlando Franklin.

Now, after three injury-plagued seasons (for three teams) where he accomplished little, Austin looks like he’s ready to kick some ass. I expect him to be the first DT off the bench, and to play a lot in rotation. He’s more of an undertackle than a nose.

Mitch Unrein is a solid pro as a DT, and he’s played some significant snaps for the Broncos. He’s an example of a guy who has gotten better each year, and he’s a credit to the organization as a player who came up from the practice squad after going undrafted.

He’s played a total of about 1,000 snaps in three seasons. He did get some work as a closed-side DE in the preseason this year, and he’s also played some fullback. I suspect that his versatility is what got him the nod over Kevin Vickerson.

Quanterus Smith is a second-year player who spent his rookie year on IR. The Broncos bought low on him as a fifth-round pick, because he was coming off a late season torn ACL as a college senior.

This is still the guy who beat Alabama for three sacks, and he flashed some good natural quickness and pass rush instincts in the preseason. I expect him to have a fairly narrow role as Ware’s backup, but I think the future is bright for him.

Linebacker

It all starts with Von Miller, who I believe to be the best defensive player in the NFL when he’s healthy. Nobody can match the quickness of his first step, or his ability to dip and rip, and get after the QB from a body position inches off the ground.

What makes him the best all-around defender, though, is his ability to control the edge in the running game. His instincts are outstanding, and his ability to convert speed to power is without equal in the NFL. With Ware around to mentor Miller, I expect him to have his best season yet in 2014.

In the middle will be Nate Irving. A lot of people seem spooked by that, but I am not one of them. Irving hasn’t ever gotten a full shot to play the Mike, which is his natural position, because the team has felt a strong need to have him as the backup Sam. (For some inexplicable reason.)

Irving is a downhill thumper who is longer on power than range, but he has good instincts that help him find the football. Coverage isn’t really Irving’s best area, but he’s not an automatic loss in that area like Joe Mays was.

The weakside linebacker, once he gets back from his injury, will be Danny Trevathan. He was a good special teamer has a rookie, and grew into being a good starting Will as a sophomore. I expect that he’ll provide more strong play once he gets healthy.

I was a fan of the signing of Lerentee McCray after the 2013 Draft, and he has showed well in two preseasons now. The Broncos did well to stash him on IR for his rookie season.

Now, he’ll play the role of backup Sam linebacker, which the Broncos seem to view as “all-important.” (Sportswriter cliché alert.) McCray is fast and strong, and he can be a good contributor on special teams right now.

Rookie Lamin Barrow may end up being the backup Mike, to the extent that one is needed, and he will probably have to win his snaps on special teams as a rookie. I liked his instincts in the preseason, and I can see him being a faster but less powerful facsimile of Irving in 2015.

Winning teams need to replace guys coming off their rookie contracts with other guys on rookie contracts, and the drafting of Barrow seemed to be to that end.

Brandon Marshall did a good job replacing Trevathan for the starter snaps against Houston. TJ and I were both impressed with his instincts and his quickness to the ball.

Of course, it was a small sample size, but I don’t think that the Broncos need to be too worried about how Marshall will hold up for the first few games of the season.

I was surprised to see Corey Nelson make the 53-man roster, because I didn’t see a whole lot out of him in the preseason. He played 112 snaps on defense, and never really distinguished himself much. I wonder if keeping Nelson isn’t a play at doubling up on replacing Irving in 2015.

Steven Johnson is an overachiever type (alert the football writing police – I called a black dude an overachiever!). I think that he’s competing to be a gameday active with Barrow and Nelson based on what he can do in the kicking game.

You don’t really need to bring three MLBs to gameday, you know? The Mike only plays about 50% of the defensive snaps anyway.

Cornerbacks

Aqib Talib signed for fairly big dollars as a replacement for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Talib is slightly less adept as a natural cover man than DRC was, but he’s much more active and tough in the run game.

What I like best about Talib is that, unlike DRC, he’s equally skilled at both man and zone coverage. That makes him a Jack Del Rio kind of guy, because it enables the full range of schematic options.

Chris Harris will be the other primary cornerback in what will probably be his last season in Denver. (The only way I can see him being back is if the Broncos choose him over Talib.) Harris is at his best in the slot, which is the most difficult job in the secondary, since receivers tend to have a two-way go.

Reports are that Harris is recovering well from his late-season ACL tear, but his first regular season snap will be his first since the tear. He may be rusty early.

Bradley Roby was almost certainly drafted to replace Harris, and he really impressed me in the preseason. He shows every ability to be a big-time corner in the NFL, from size, to speed, to strength, to fluidity, to mental toughness. I saw Roby at his worst in college, getting worked by Wisconsin’s Jared Abbrederis, but the Broncos might have a future star if they can harness his full range of talents.

Kayvon Webster looks greatly improved from his rookie year, when he did a pretty solid job. He has good size and he moves well, and I think he can hold up very well as a fourth cornerback. He came from more of a zone scheme at South Florida, and seemed to take better and better to man coverage as his rookie season progressed.

Omar Bolden showed a lot of improvement in the preseason too. I like the fact that he mainly worked as a safety last season, because it provides position versatility in a pinch. He is also a pretty good kickoff returner, for what that’s worth playing half your games in Denver.

Tony Carter is pretty up-and-down, and I think he belongs in a glass case marked “break only in case of emergency.” He’s better than most teams’ sixth cornerbacks, if most teams even keep six of them.

Safeties

Rahim Moore is one of the big keys to this defense. He played well in his second and third seasons, but he’s never quite put it together to be the ballhawk that the Broncos could really use in centerfield. I think Moore is the most talented deep middle guy the team has had since Steve Atwater, and I hope he’s ready to put it all together in his contract year.

I said a bunch of nice stuff about T.J. Ward recently, so obviously I think he’s going to play a big role this season. The Broncos only used him a little bit as a nickel linebacker in the preseason, but he only played 67 snaps, so I don’t read too much into that.

David Bruton is a special teams ace, and he was recently named the captain of those units for the second year in a row. He has excellent size and speed, but he’s a very linear mover, and if you need to play him much on defense, it’s not a great thing.

Quinton Carter is a bit of an unknown to me. I didn’t see a great deal out of him in the preseason, over the course of 93 snaps, but I think that his experience as a free safety as a rookie probably got him the job over Duke Ihenacho.

This has been so much fun, I might do something short about special teams tomorrow, to go along with my AFC preview. We’ll see how it goes after my trip to Salinas and other parts of California, and how I feel after four takeoffs and landings in a little nine-seat private plane.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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