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Denver Broncos fueled by new edge after Super Bowl hangover

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was published before the Broncos announced Shane Ray may miss up to eight weeks with a torn ligament in his left wrist.

ENGLEWOOD, Co. -- When Aqib Talib thinks back to the 2016 offseason, the Denver Broncos' ruthless and brutally honest cornerback breaks into a pained grimace, shaking his clean-shaven head as he revisits the unpleasant memory.

"We had a Super Bowl hangover," Talib admitted Thursday afternoon as the two of us stood in a corridor outside the Broncos' locker room, a couple of hours after the team's first training camp practice. "My mom says that sayings are sayings for a reason, and we fell right into that trap.

"We won a 'ship, and we came back and had a lackadaisical offseason. It was a lot of laid-back, cool kids-playing around in the weight room, quick weight sessions, lots of recovery and taking it super chill. In this sport, you get out what you put in, and the offseason is the time to put in. We didn't put in the work, and we definitely learned our lesson."

Coming off a Super Bowl 50 thrashing of the Carolina Panthers that capped a postseason driven by defensive dominance, the Broncos didn't exactly get schooled in 2016, but their 9-7 record left them out of the playoffs. Now heading into Year 2 of the post-Peyton Manning Era, Talib believes he and his teammates have been galvanized by that disappointment and energized by the presence of rookie head coach Vance Joseph.

"VJ's like a fresh start -- he comes in here with that young mentality and treats us like men, but he makes us want to work and gets the best out of us," Talib said. "He's got us racing to the ball and really getting after it, and that's what I feel like we need. Everybody came back and made weight and hit their conditioning run (target time) and is ready to roll. This year we're ahead of the 8-ball, because we put the work in."

The Broncos still have most of the star defenders who fueled that championship run two seasons ago, including Talib, fellow No Fly Zone stalwarts Chris Harris and T.J. Ward, and All-Pro pass rusher Von Miller. Yet there is still uncertainty at the quarterback position, with surprise 2016 starter Trevor Siemian locked in a competition with last year's first-round draft pick, Paxton Lynch, that may extend through training camp.

However it comes out, Talib insists there will be a "new age" edge to the Broncos on both sides of the ball, something he attributes to the unexpected coaching change that occurred last January. When head coach Gary Kubiak retired, general manager John Elway decided to make a clean break, parting ways with veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips before hiring the 45-year-old Joseph as Kubiak's replacement.

Joseph, who was the Miami Dolphins' defensive coordinator in 2016, is considered a potential star in NFL circles. He has told Broncos players to expect more physically taxing practices than in recent years and fired up both units with his choice of coordinators, tabbing former San Diego Chargers coach Mike McCoy to run the offense (returning to the role he fulfilled for the Broncos from 2009 to '12) and promoting fiery defensive backs coach Joe Woods to succeed Phillips.

"Joe did a great job of keeping all the stuff we were successful with under Wade and, along with VJ, adding things that put a new-school print on Wade's defense," Talib said. "And the offense will definitely do more. Kubiak had a nice offense, but it was predicated off that run game, and we needed to get that going to set up play action. Mike McCoy can move the chains just by himself. You see a lot of Peyton Manning in him, really -- there's a lot of formation identification and motion and different formations in and of themselves. They'll have some fun out there."

Defensively, the Broncos believe they can compensate for the retirement of sublime pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, a potential Hall of Famer, with the expected emergence of third-year linebacker Shane Ray.

"I think Shane Ray's gonna blow up," Ward said. "He's gonna wake people up for sure."

Miller, coming off another stellar season (13.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, runnerup for NFL Defensive Player of the Year), agrees -- and also embraces the possibility of taking his already otherworldly game to an even higher level.

"I think I can," Miller told me Wednesday, "and I think that starts with staying on the football field more often and exposing myself to more plays. You don't see J.J. Watt or Aaron Donald ever coming off the field, and that's what I want to do as well: play 80 plays instead of 60. If I'm on the field more, maybe I can make more plays."

Of course, Miller and his defensive teammates made plenty of game-turning plays in 2016, but the offense sputtered throughout the season. This was especially true during a pivotal three-game losing streak in December, during which Denver managed just 23 total points.

After the second of those setbacks, a 16-3 home defeat to the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots on Dec. 18, frustrations boiled over, as Talib reacted angrily to offensive tackle Russell Okung's attempt at a postgame address.

"We had some ups and downs last year, and we did point some fingers," Ward said. "There can't be any division, or you're defeated before you star -- -but you definitely have to go against human nature when (there's an imbalance). When you don't see that same type of effort you're putting in toward winning games from some people -- I'm not saying the whole offense, just some guys here and there -- it bothers you, and people speak out."

Yet the conflict that one Broncos player described following Talib's locker-room blow up as "pretty much your classic offense vs. defense divide" appears to have healed amid a focused and upbeat offseason.

"We've got a better esprit de corps than we had last year," Miller said. "I don't think it'll be an issue."

He'll get no argument from Talib.

"It's tough when one unit isn't stepping up," the All-Pro corner said, "but at the same time we feel like we as a defense could have done more. Against the Chiefs (in late November), the offense came out and crushed it, but we didn't hold our end of the bargain and let them drive down the field at the end to beat us. That could have been the thing that kept us out of the playoffs, and as a defense we talk about that all the time."

This year, Talib foresees a potentially seismic shift in the balance of power.

"With C.J. Anderson and (former Chiefs star) Jamaal Charles in the backfield, if they're healthy, and two great receivers (Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders) our offense is gonna be a problem for teams," he said. "And with a coordinator like McCoy, they could outshine the defense, and we could do some big things."

One thing is certain: If the Broncos win another championship, Talib will do everything he can to avoid another Super Bowl Hangover.

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