During Jack Del Rio's first training camp as the Broncos' defensive coordinator, the players laughingly called him ‘The 12th Man’ because of how often he bounded onto the field to demonstrate where he wanted people and what he wanted them to do; his enthusiasm for the game is endless.
Wesley Woodyard said that anyone on the defense would run through a wall for the man.
A year and a half later, JDR is stepping into John Fox’s job on an interim basis while Fox recovers from surgery to replace a defective heart valve. Most of the simple, day-to-day things such as practices will almost certainly continue to be run pretty much the same way.
Considering his rapport with the players and the quality of the position coaches - especially Peyton Manning and Adam Gase - I think the Broncos' offense and playcalling will be minimally impacted. It’s still going to be Gase/Manning (or Manning/Gase). The offensive changes they’ve made for the 2013 season are already in place, which should make the offensive coordination issues rare. That will make Del Rio’s job easier, although he’ll still be heavily involved in creating the game plan.
The identity of many of Del Rio's defenses has been having big, physical defensive tackles like Terrance Knighton (who was supposed to be at times lackadaisical when Del Rio wasn’t his coach, but who hasn’t shown it in Denver), Kevin Vickerson, and Sylvester Williams. Del Rio believes a defensive tackle's impact on a defense cannot be overvalued.
"And, typically guys who play that position have flourished in our system," Del Rio said. "We've leaned on them to play well for us over the years, and they've typically blossomed and had big years."
That’s easy to believe. Watching Mitch Unrein against Washington reminded me of how far that young man has come under Del Rio. Kevin Vickerson’s play may argue for decaf (anything that affects the liver, including alcohol or too much caffeine, can negatively affect holding one's temper) but he’s unquestionably disruptive, and Derek Wolfe, after eight games and 427 snaps already has 24 total QB pressures. As a rookie last year, he had 26 among over 1,000 snaps.
Malik Jackson is only 293 lb - small for a DT, which is where he often plays - but he’s gone from 123 snaps last season and only three total QB pressures to 269 snaps and 23 total pressures through half a season, and has shown a nose for the quarterback. JDR likes bigger DEs who can roll to undertackle positions - Jackson, Robert Ayers, and Wolfe are in the 275-295 range and can play either role.
Von Miller has returned, as has Wesley Woodyard. Danny Trevathan has stepped up nicely for a second-year player, and Nate Irving has shown more skills than a lot of fans expected. He’s not quick in coverage as are the other three, but his physical style of play makes him a valuable rotational player. The linebacker position is in good shape.
Del Rio has always employed both zone and man coverages, but he’s often shown a preference for zone. With Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on the outside, Champ Bailey returning later in the season (his foot willing) to handle the other outside slot, and Chris Harris proving that he’s one of the most versatile cornerbacks in the league, Denver's defensive secondary is equally comfortable attacking the quarterback or driving underneath a route for a quick pick-six. They also have the impressive play of rookie Kayvon Webster and journeyman corner Tony Carter offering excellent depth.
Denver has provided coverage sacks as well as pass rush sacks; the number of them will probably increase quickly with Von Miller back. Del Rio has his defensive weapons in place, he’ll get help on the sideline from his fellow coaches, and Gase/Manning will have the offense ready to go. He’s taking on a big challenge, but he’s in good shape to do so.
As a former linebacker for USC, a Rose Bowl MVP, NFL starter, and Pro Bowl player, who has coached strength and conditioning, has been a linebackers coach, defensive coordinator, and head coach, Del Rio is well-suited to handle this situation. He wasn’t very successful in Jacksonville, but in every such situation, the head coach is at the mercy of the general manager and the personnel side: Jacksonville hasn’t shown much there.
I heard that Terrance Knighton didn’t like playing there without Del Rio and had an ‘attitude problem’. I think it may have been more of an altitude problem - the guy he wanted to play for was at Mile High.
Some coaches make better coordinators, some better head coaches. I have no idea which Jack Del Rio will end up being, although I think that it’s likely that he’ll get a few chances to find out. In this case, it’s his job to keep things as close to what Fox does as is reasonable, but to adapt to and overcome the specifics of the coming games. The next four will be particularly important - and tough. Del Rio’s mettle and skills will be tested quickly.
John Fox has talked about retiring after his stint in Denver - this incident may speed things up, since the 100-hour weeks that head coaches live are hard on the heart. That’s for down the road, though. We’ll find out soon where JDR’s strengths and weaknesses are right now.