Denver Broncos  

 

New-look 'No Fly Zone' could pave way for Broncos' resurgence

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby wanted to talk about the changes to his team's secondary. He ultimately kept defending himself from teammates eager to harass him after Sunday's practice. Outside linebacker Von Miller teased him about a taller receiver outjumping Roby for a reception during a scrimmage. A couple linebackers joked that Roby was enjoying the attention coming his way as a new starter a little too much. When second-year offensive tackle Garett Bolles threw his own bit of shade before ducking into the locker room, Roby decided he'd had enough.

"There's so much hating around here that we must be doing something right (in the secondary) this year," he said.

Roby and his fellow defensive backs want to make one thing abundantly clear about this year's squad: Everything's going to be alright. As much as people may focus on the dismantling of the group known as the "No Fly Zone" -- a unit that helped the Broncos win Super Bowl 50 and field a dominant defense for most of the last three seasons -- that doesn't mean this bunch is going to disappoint. Yes, strong safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib have long since left the building. What remains is a talented array of defenders eager to make its own collective mark on the NFL.

As the Broncos are quick to tell you, change is part of life in this league. The good teams find a way to make it look as seamless as possible.

"We're getting younger, and the good thing about us is that our core players have played in some big games," Roby said. "It's going to be a new look, but the standard will be the same. No Fly. You're not getting anything. If you come to Denver, your best receivers are going to get taken away."

The optimism on the back end stems mainly from the talent at cornerback. Chris Harris Jr. is the unquestioned leader of the pack, an eighth-year veteran who has made three Pro Bowls and expects to be used primarily as a shutdown corner this fall. Roby moves from No. 3 cornerback into the starting job opened up by the trade that sent Talib to the Los Angeles Rams in March. The safeties remain solid -- Darian Stewart has been a starter for Denver the last three seasons, while Justin Simmons moved into the starting lineup after the team released Ward before the 2017 season began -- and the team added ninth-year veteran cornerback Tramaine Brock to help in nickel- and dime-package situations. As Roby noted, there is plenty of experience in the right places.

There also are major questions for the unit to answer this year, the biggest being whether it can produce the type of excellence that has long been its trademark. The Broncos had the league's top pass defense in both 2015 and 2016. They've ranked in the top four in total defense in each of the past four years. Last season offered a different story. The numbers were still strong in certain areas -- Denver finished third in the league in yards allowed and fourth in passing yards -- but the pass defense was far too susceptible to big plays.

The Broncos surrendered 11 passing touchdowns of 20 yards or more, which was seven more than they allowed in 2016. They gave up 29 total touchdown passes (which ranked 28th in the NFL) on a unit that ranked 22nd overall in scoring defense (allowing 23.9 points a game). Those numbers are a big reason why the secondary talks like it has a lot to prove. They believe this current bunch should be much better than that.

"I expect us to be the No. 1 defense," Harris said. "We were third in the league last year, and we didn't have anything close to the pass rushers we have now. We're also putting in more new stuff. We used to just play Cover 1 most of the time, stick with man coverage and win with our talent. Now we have more complexity where we can trick some teams and let our rushers get loose. It's going to be a problem for teams."

"We have some things," said defensive coordinator Joe Woods. "I want to activate guys who can make plays. We can move Chris around if we want, and he'll be in the slot when we go to our dime look. Right now, he's so valuable because he's so smart. He gives us flexibility. But if I need to match up with somebody, I might just slide him out (to shadow a No. 1 receiver)."

The Broncos are well aware that they have plenty of doubters after missing the playoffs the last two seasons. They aren't even surprised that one of those is Talib, who made four Pro Bowls during his four seasons in Denver and bashed the organization in a recent Sports Illustrated article. Talib claimed Denver was ridding itself of its most fiery voices by "firing all the dogs" and criticized Woods for being less imaginative in his defensive scheming than former Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who was with the team from 2015 to 2016 before joining the Los Angeles Rams last season. The Broncos dismissed the jabs, but that doesn't mean they aren't trying to establish a new tone.

Harris admitted that he was "pissed about not making the Pro Bowl last year" and said, "I know if I play like a Pro Bowler, we usually win games. I'm putting that onus on me to be All-Pro." Roby added that he's learned plenty from watching stars like Harris, Talib, Miller and even former quarterback Peyton Manning in previous years.

"They've taught me how to take my craft seriously and be a pro," Roby said. "How to study. How to practice hard every day and hold yourself to the standard that you're the best. I realize that you're going to have good plays and bad plays, but the key is to be consistent."

Woods believes Roby's maturation will be especially crucial. The Broncos don't have great depth at cornerback -- rookie Isaac Yiadom and second-year veteran Brendan Langley are vying for playing time after Brock -- and Roby is taking over Talib's spot on the left side.

"I just want to see Bradley play to his ability level and dominate," said Woods, who coached the defensive backs for two seasons before succeeding Phillips last year. "The biggest problem he's always had is that he never saw himself as a starter. I always told him that if we were in sub-packages 60 to 65 percent of the time, then he was a starter. But he didn't view himself that way. Now you can see the difference. This is the best I've seen him play in terms of being consistent and making plays."

Of course, the potential of this secondary will be greatly aided by the rest of the defense. The Broncos have the league's best edge rusher in Miller, and there already is a significant buzz about fellow outside linebacker Bradley Chubb, the fifth overall selection in this year's draft. Denver also has impressive depth at OLB with Shaquil Barrett and Shane Ray as options for Woods to unleash on opposing passers. Woods even has hinted at the possibility of all four players being on the field at the same time in certain packages.

These are the kind of scenarios that give the Broncos so much confidence right now. They realize the last two seasons have been filled with frustrations, especially since the defense wasn't strong enough to overcome an offense that frequently fizzled at the worst possible times.

"We're all hungry," Harris said. "And we're trying to get back (on top). Except for the past two years, we've won the division every year (the Broncos won five straight AFC West titles between 2011-15) so we want to get back there. That's our main goal -- to win the AFC West and get that mind control over everybody like we've had it before."

Those are lofty ambitions in a division that has belonged to the Kansas City Chiefs the last two seasons. It's also apparent that the Los Angeles Chargers are the most complete squad in the AFC West right now. But it also wasn't that long ago that Denver dominated with a fierce pass rush and a ballhawking back end. If the Broncos' secondary can return to top form once again -- and that offense can find stability under the leadership of new quarterback Case Keenum -- then it just might have the last laugh on the rest of the division this year.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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