"Defense wins championships."
During my time as a scout with the Carolina Panthers, I routinely heard John Fox recite this familiar adage in personnel meetings. He constantly stressed the importance of playing tough, physical defense.
Relying on that formula, Fox guided the Panthers to an appearance in Super Bowl XXXVIII. In Denver, Fox used a similar approach to steer the Broncos to an AFC West title during his first season at the helm -- with Tim Tebow at quarterback. However, the arrival of franchise quarterback Peyton Manning in 2012 seemingly shifted the Broncos' philosophical approach; a defensive-driven team was taken over by an explosive offense.
The change certainly produced nice results, with the Broncos posting consecutive 13-3 seasons and making an appearance in Super Bowl XLVIII. But in the wake of an embarrassing 43-8 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Super Sunday, Fox appears hell-bent on getting back to his core principles by building a dominant defense that's capable of guiding his team to the Lombardi Trophy next season. This explains three high-profile defensive acquisitions in the opening week of free agency: pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward.
Here are three key aspects of the Broncos' defensive makeover:
1) Denver's building a defense that perfectly matches its potent offense.
Make no mistake, Manning and the Broncos' offense will continue to power this team, due to the unit's remarkable ability to put the ball in the paint. Last season, the Broncos led the NFL in scoring offense (37.9 points per game), total offense (457.3 yards per game) and passing offense (340.2). It's unlikely the unit will drop off much, with the speedy Emmanuel Sanders replacing Eric Decker on the perimeter.
With an offense that potent, Fox must build a defense that's designed to play with a lead. Looking at the most recent Super Bowl winner to have been fueled by an explosive offense -- the 2010 Green Bay Packers -- I noticed that the team's defense finished second in sacks and sixth in takeaways. This makes sense, of course; opposing offenses were forced to adopt a one-dimensional, pass-heavy approach as they tried to keep up with Green Bay's high-octane attack. Consequently, defensive coordinator Dom Capers was allowed to ratchet up the pressure on opposing quarterbacks in an effort to create mistakes and turnovers. I believe this is exactly what Fox wants to do in Denver, judging by this offseason reconstruction.
It's important to understand what Fox believes in from a personnel standpoint. The wily coaching veteran wants to have a few dominant players at key spots to anchor his defense.
First of all, Fox prefers to field a lineup with multiple pass rushers capable of wreaking havoc off the edge. While many coaches would love for those rushers to align at the defensive end spots, Fox likes having a dynamic rusher on the second level to incorporate into the rush. The coach complements traditional four-man rushes with an assortment of five-man blitzes to create chaos in the pocket.
In coverage, Fox believes the best defenses in football are capable of blanketing passing games using a variety of coverage concepts. He will tweak his scheme to fit his personnel, but he prefers to have at least one cover corner on the field with the potential to lock up a No. 1 receiver. Additionally, Fox aims to have a menacing presence between the hashes to discourage quarterbacks from throwing down the middle of the field.
During his time in Carolina, Fox had many of those core components in place. He trotted out an explosive defensive line that featured three dynamic rushers (Julius Peppers, Kris Jenkins and Mike Rucker) and a secondary headed by a thumper in the middle (safety Mike Minter). Although Fox never had a truly elite No. 1 corner, clever utilization of Chris Gamble allowed those Panthers to slow down talented pass catchers.
With the free agency additions of Ware, Talib and Ward, Denver's unit has the core components in place to preserve a lead and play the physical brand of football that Fox prefers.
2) DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller are the NFL's top pass-rushing tandem.
There are several elite pass rushers in the NFL, but there isn't a team in the league with a 1-2 combo that can rival the newly formed pairing of Ware and Miller. Now, I'm well aware of the outstanding production of the St. Louis Rams' dynamic duo (Robert Quinn and Chris Long) and the Kansas City Chiefs' tandem (Justin Houston and Tamba Hali), but neither unit boasts a pair of consensus top-five players at their respective positions.
Watching Miller and Ware operate over the past few seasons, it is clear to me that both players are rare blue-chip talents in the NFL. Both guys are dominant pass rushers with the speed, quickness and burst to take over games off the edges. Additionally, they display the instincts and awareness to knock the ball loose when attacking quarterbacks in the pocket. Turnovers are the biggest deciding factor in NFL games, and Ware and Miller have the disruptive potential to make the Broncos' defense dominant.
In an effort to see how defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio might utilize both players, I pored over the All-22 Coaches Film. I believe Del Rio will continue to use Miller as his Sam (strong) linebacker in base sets, with Ware aligning at right defensive end. This will allow Del Rio to use an "under" front, creating a five-man line to effectively combat running games while also providing tremendous flexibility to incorporate five-man zone dogs and blitzes.
As much as I love the idea of attacking the offense with Ware and Miller out of base personnel, I believe the prospect of using the tandem in a variety of sub-packages makes the Broncos' defense downright scary. Each guy is adept at lining up with his hand in the ground or from an upright position, allowing the Broncos to present the offense with a variety of looks at the line of scrimmage. This not only creates pass-protection problems for the offensive line, it also makes it tough for the quarterback, running backs and pass catchers to identify which defenders are rushing on potential blitzes. As miscommunication routinely results in miscues and turnovers, the inability to gauge the Broncos' intentions could be problematic for opponents.
Here are some examples of exotic looks pulled from the 2013 campaign, with Shaun Phillips playing the role likely planned for Ware ...
Nickel 4-2 alignment with Miller standing up as an edge rusher:
Nickel 4-2 alignment with two stand-up rushers:
Nickel 3-3 alignment with three down linemen and two stand-up rushers:
Though the alignment changes appear subtle, instructing Miller and Ware to stand up at various spots will create huge issues for opponents, who won't know whether the defenders are going to rush or drop into coverage. Offensive coordinators and quarterbacks will have to take a number of things into account prior to each play, increasing the probability of mistakes being made in the pocket.
Of course, each player's talent is what will ultimately lead to the negative plays and turnovers Fox wants from his defense. Ware, a nine-year veteran, has notched 117 sacks in his career by utilizing an explosive combination of strength, speed and athleticism to overwhelm blockers. He excels at using a traditional speed rush to turn the corner and also displays a slippery inside move to work free against leaning offensive tackles. In addition, Ware shows the ability to turn speed into power on bull-rush maneuvers. In the video clip to the right, Ware overpowers a hapless blocker with a forklift move that results in a 9-yard sack.
Ware has a full arsenal of pitches to throw at a blocker, making him a dominant force with the potential to take over the game at any point.
Miller is recovering from a torn ACL, but he has been a sensational pass rusher during his brief career. He has tallied 35 sacks in 40 games, including 18.5 in 2012 alone. Miller is a dynamic speed rusher with exceptional first-step quickness. He explodes off the ball like he's been fired out of a cannon, yet still displays the balance and body control to turn the corner and get the quarterback. Miller complements his extraordinary speed-rush skills with outstanding hand skills, making him difficult to contain off the edge. In the video clip to the right, notice how Miller uses a two-hand swipe to knock down the blocker's hands on his way to the quarterback. Most importantly, check out how Miller attacks Tom Brady with a tomahawk chop, prying the ball loose for a critical turnover.
With a pair of dominant pass rushers on the edge capable of wreaking havoc, Del Rio and Fox can empty the playbook to create splash-play opportunities for the defense. That's a significant advantage for a team that already produces fireworks on the offensive side of the ball.
3) With Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward, coverage can get more aggressive.
The Broncos fielded one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL in 2013. The unit allowed the sixth-most passing yards per game (254.4) and surrendered 61 completions of at least 20 yards. Now, those stats are partially deceiving, as opponents were often forced to throw the ball extensively to overcome deficits, but the number of explosive plays allowed by the unit in key moments is unacceptable for a defense with championship aspirations.
During our time together in Carolina, Fox routinely pointed out that giving up big plays through the air is the quickest way to lose games in the NFL. He stressed the importance of keeping the ball in front of the defense and forcing opponents to drive the length of the field to score points. Last season, the Broncos lacked the speed and athleticism in the back end to keep opponents from throwing the ball over the top. Champ Bailey and Quentin Jammer were on the downsides of their respective careers, while Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was a wild card who blew some assignments on the perimeter.
Thus, the Broncos had to bring in a talented cover corner like Talib to employ some of the man-coverage schemes needed to slow down explosive offenses. Watching Talib thrive as the Patriots' top corner last season, I was impressed with his ball skills, instincts and toughness. He challenges receivers at the line with a sticky bump-and-run technique, yet also displays the athleticism and awareness to play in space with vision on the quarterback. Therefore, Talib can play any cornerback position in a multidimensional scheme that features man and zone concepts. Given Talib's versatility and skill level, Del Rio and Fox could stick him on the opponent's No. 1 receiver or position him at either corner, based on offensive tendencies. Regardless, he will impact the game as a lockdown defender.
Ward, who just made his first Pro Bowl in his fourth NFL season, will give the Broncos the kind of intimidating midfield presence they've missed since Brian Dawkins' retirement. Ward is a headhunter with a knack for doling out punishment to receivers who venture between the hashes. He delivers the kinds of teeth-rattling shots that make opponents think twice about going after balls thrown down the middle. Although league rules restricting physical contact on defenseless receivers have drastically reduced the big shots from safeties, the art of intimidation still works in today's NFL -- which is why Ward was such a coveted commodity on the open market.
Of course, heavy hitters also must exhibit enough athleticism to cover tight ends in space. Ward boasts better-than-average coverage skills while also flashing ball awareness and instincts as a center fielder. With just five interceptions in four seasons, he's certainly not a "ball hawk," but he can hold his own in the middle.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.