When Mike Shanahan was fired by the Broncos, he left behind a team that was a shell of its former self. The players who had been stallions during the Super Bowl years were long gone. The defensive players who remained were, they said publicly, treated as second-class citizens.
The roster was depleted in multiple areas and then a young former offensive coordinator tried to move the team to a reflection of the 3-4 system that he’d just left, but without the kind of players who made that system work. The offense wasn’t exactly loaded, either. A lot of things were missing on defense during that transition - stronger players, workable draft picks, a middle linebacker who keeps his helmet on, common sense - but one vacancy stood out as the roster was changed over:
It means linebackers with the legs to catch a returner in the open field, or to give cornerbacks a shot at covering the multiple players they are matched up against in passing situations. It means backside pursuit and pass rushers who can reach the quarterback before he can carve up the secondary. It’s essential to the new concept of Broncos defense that John Fox and Jack Del Rio will be implementing this season - which, whatever else is true, will require a faster pocket pressure with quicker linebackers and better defensive backfield speed.
The good news is that things have changed for the better.
2012 Defensive Speed
As training camp unfolds, a number of camp battles are front and center. Linebacker is one of them, and the transition to the smaller, speedier LBs is in full swing with the addition of Danny Trevathan and the development of both Von Miller and Joe Mays, who has impressed some onlookers with his newfound quickness. Cecil Lammey was one of several onlookers who noted Mays's progress:
LB Joe Mays continues to impress me in coverage. He didn’t show this ability last year and has clearly worked on being lighter/quicker in the open field.
I’ll still wait to see what he produces on the field, but the three-year contract Mays received suggests that Denver sees him as a player who can be developed. After all, last year was his first at middle linebacker, and he had little help up the middle from the DTs. If he has spent equal time in the film room - and he mentioned over the offseason that he had - he could step up in a big way. Denver brought in Keith Brooking as an additional option should they need it. Steven Johnson got some press early, but I haven't read much on him this week - the game Thursday will be interesting on that front.
Danny Trevathan had a perspective that he shared on July 30:
With this defense we have right now, it’s all about speed and running to the ball. That’s going to be the emphasis this year—running to the ball.
This season, Von Miller has dedicated himself to limiting mental errors and becoming more effective both in coverage and against the run. His innate speed will be a major factor in making coverage improvement possible. He’s also built up his upper body to play better against the run.
Wesley Woodyard has toiled behind D.J. Williams for much of his career in Denver, and he’s also become the team’s leader on special teams. With D.J.'s suspension making him a question mark, it’s a good time to put Wesley's speed to effective use - he ran a 4.51-second forty at Combine, and he’s got some quicks, too.
That should be a bigger factor this year than in the past: with Williams out for at least six games, Woodyard could be playing himself into a bigger role for the team. Woodyard has played more nickel up until now, a role where his innate speed lets him be an effective LB in coverage. D.J. himself isn’t slow - he had a 4.54 40-yard dash when he came out in 2005. It’s helped him lead the team in tackles over the past few seasons, despite other struggles on both his and the team’s part.
Rookie Danny Trevathan has also shown the speed that draws comments from the more informed writers, playing well in coverage and rushing the QB as well as moving well laterally.
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio wants big, ugly, mean defensive tackles, but he also wants all of the players on his DL to show that they have the quickness to be able get to the QB - players other than OLB Von Miller and DE Elvis Dumervil. Both were highly effective last year, and Miller’s speed was at times jaw-dropping, especially in a short area. Elvis Dumervil only has 4.75 speed in the forty, but when you can lift a 325-lb. tackle onto his toes and drive him straight back into the quarterback, it cuts down on the time it takes you to create havoc..
JDR’s belief in bigger, quick players showed in the draft, with both Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson chosen: two bigger guys with the quickness to attack the quarterback. Both have taken snaps at DE and DT.
Since ‘big and powerful’ is the new ‘character and intellect’ at defensive tackle, Mitch Unrein has added a few pounds and taken some reps with the first string next to the new Ty Warren, while offseason sensation Sealver Siliga has moved to the back of the line. Warren is, from multiple camp reports, big, quick and powerful, a ‘man among boys’, as Cecil Lammey noted. 2012 second-round draft pick Derek Wolfe exhibited the quickness that Denver drafted him for from the defensive end position.
Wolfe has taken snaps at DL with the first-team nickel unit. Wolfe was also one of the second-team defensive ends after playing defensive tackle in college. Said Derek after the first day of camp:
It’s not really that much different. Defensive line is defensive line. It’s all the same. It’s all technique. You’re all in the same gap.
Kevin Vickerson’s weight is reportedly back up around 320 lb, and it’s not flab - his body fat is down from 37%+ to 20%. Vickerson was a very quick, very athletic DT at 325 lb a few years back, and I look forward to seeing his quickness on the line again.
At cornerback, Champ Bailey is probably not as fast as he once was, and it just doesn’t matter. When you’ve been in 11 Pro Bowls, you know the game so well that it slows down for you. He also started out with 4.28 speed at Combine in 1999, so speed hasn’t been an issue in his career.
The addition of Tracy Porter has infused speed into the other side of the field, though. Porter came out in 2008 and scored a 4.37 - speed isn’t Porter’s weakness either, and the pair of them give Denver as fast a pair of starting corners as you could ask. It’s been awhile since Drayton Florence came out in 2003, but he posted a 4.39-second average prior to the draft. Chris Harris, nickel corner, clocked at 4.48 on his pro day. Denver has speed to burn with their corners.
The Broncos have fast players at safety, too, although you don’t expect the same degree of speed from safeties. Rahim Moore didn’t have a good Combine, but he still averaged 4.58 seconds; Quinton Carter averaged 4.57, and both have skills in coverage. Every safety needs to have that now - the days of the powerful, run-only strong safety are done. Coverage skills are necessary for both safeties, and veteran Mike Adams has also shown that he can handle that duty as well. His swiftness has made him a valuable player on special teams as well as at safety.
There’s a lot more to the game than speed, as Oakland has found out to their dismay. Power, aggression, preparation, leverage, and explosion are all just as important as being fast, and the usual concept of speed - as measured by the 40-yard dash - doesn’t take the essential quality of short area quickness into account. You can’t isolate a single factor and suggest that ‘this’ is the Holy Grail. It’s a mistake to try. But the John Fox/Jack Del Rio defensive approach using faster but stronger players is settling into place.
They have the legs on both sides of the ball now, and the DTs are bigger and (hopefully) stronger. They have a good stable for nickel and dime coverage - those two packages combined are probably going to make up over half of Denver’s snaps. All in all, they’ve added a lot of rapidity to their game. This is also a team that has good depth and ability as well as fleetness. They’re becoming what the fans have been waiting to see for nearly a decade.
It’s just one more thing that will make this training camp more exciting. Bring on the battles!