DENVER -- Last March, when John Elway introduced his prized free agent DeMarcus Ware, which followed by only a few minutes the introduction of his other prized free agent Aqib Talib, which came not long after the introduction of the very first prized free agent T.J. Ward, the Broncos were sending a message. It was time to get tough and it was time to get a defense that could share the burden with Peyton Manning. The Super Bowl humiliation had laid that desperate need bare to the public, but the defensive shortcomings were obvious internally long before that.
What began as a fairly typical Manning clinic -- the Broncos had a 24-0 lead late in the second quarter -- instead morphed into the first glimpse of a new identity, a more balanced team that can pick up the offense on the rare occasions that it falters. If the Broncos make a deep run toward another Super Bowl, they may look at two consecutive Colts drives in the third quarter as the moment when it became possible to imagine a championship that is not wholly reliant on Manning's dominance.
Those two drives were goal-line stands, the first stopped when first Hakeem Nicks and then Andrew Luck were stood up just short of the end zone. The second ended on the 7-yard line, when Ware sacked Luck, forcing the Colts to settle for a field goal. Then, on the Colts' final possession, with just under 2 minutes remaining, rookie cornerback Bradley Roby, the Broncos' first-round draft pick, broke up a fourth-down pass intended for Reggie Wayne. Those plays decided the game but also made a statement.
That idea would have been laughable last season, but no longer. Ware sleeps during the day before night games -- he did not watch his old team, the Dallas Cowboys, get humiliated by the 49ers, he said -- and he had good reason to be calm about his Broncos debut. He was encouraged by the way the Broncos stopped the Colts on their first drive, which ended at the Broncos' 36-yard line, but his confidence actually started in training camp.
"There aren't any holes," Ware said. "Some defenses you might have some corners, maybe safeties. There aren't any missing pieces. And a lot of the guys are studiers. They are smart. Guys are really wanting to get the job done."
The Broncos were able to pressure Luck (he was sacked three times), but when the Colts began to play very fast in the second half, the Broncos nearly gave up all of the lead. John Fox wondered if perhaps the Broncos were tired from facing the hurry-up. On the goal-line stands and then on the Colts' final drive, though, the talk was of slowing down.
"You're telling guys just to calm down," Ware said. "Sometimes you get drive after drive. First of all, stop the run, get them in passing situations, let me and Von Miller rush the passer. Going back to fundamentals when things are going fast.
"It's all about building that confidence. The first game, we feel like we played good enough. It started that first drive and it carried over to the end, building that identity. It builds that character."
Luck finished with 370 yards on 35 completions, but also two interceptions, including one at Denver's 11-yard line late in the fourth quarter by Rahim Moore.
"We've got to get that turnover ratio right," Ware said. "Making those big plays, interceptions, fourth-down conversions stopping them. That builds the identity of the defense."
The Broncos' defense didn't have much of an identity last year, except for an injury-riddled one, and it cost the Broncos a better chance to beat the Seahawks. The Broncos will have an early opportunity to gauge their progress in just two weeks, when they play at Seattle. They are likely the only measuring stick the Broncos care about right now. It is hard to imagine the Broncos not making the playoffs, and from the looks of the AFC field on the first Sunday, they remain the class of it. That leaves the NFC -- and the possibly-improved Seahawks -- as the target. And perhaps also as the identity the Broncos are striving for.
"At the end of the day, defense wins championships," Ware said. "The offense scores points and puts us in position to put a hurt on offenses and giving the offense a short field. When you look at all the teams that usually make it to the end, they have great defenses and offense that don't mistakes."
The Broncos offense didn't make many mistakes last year. If this was just an early preview, they may have the pieces to craft the other half of the elusive championship equation.