Publish date:

Steppin' Up Denver's rejuvenated defense rose to the occasion against the Steelers, but its biggest test is yet to come

Six days before the AFC Championship Game, Denver Broncos
cornerback Ray Crockett read the game plan and experienced a
moment of clarity. He then wrote in the dog-eared spiral
notebook he uses as a journal, Me against Yancey Thigpen. If I
win this battle, we win the game.

Thigpen, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Pro Bowl wide receiver, had
tortured the Broncos on Dec. 7, making three touchdown catches
in a 35-24 victory in which upstart Steelers quarterback Kordell
Stewart seemed to be asking his 37-year-old counterpart, John
Elway, Aren't you getting a little old for this? The loss
relegated Denver to wild-card status, making its road to the
Super Bowl vastly more difficult.

That road reached a critical juncture midway through the second
quarter of Sunday's AFC title game at Three Rivers Stadium. With
Pittsburgh on the move, threatening to take a 21-10 lead,
Stewart made the first of his several poor decisions in the
game, locking in on Thigpen--even though Thigpen was smothered
by Crockett and free safety Steve Atwater--and letting fly the
pass on which the game turned. "Yancey did a little stutter
step, and I didn't go for the stutter," recalled Crockett, who
made a leaping interception in the end zone. That play set up
the touchdown drive that gave the Broncos a 17-14 lead they
never surrendered en route to a 24-21 win.

Denver's return to the Super Bowl raises some important
questions: Will Elway retire after the game? Will Broncos left
tackle Gary Zimmerman actually speak at Media Day? Are the Green
Bay Packers really 12 1/2 points better than Denver, as
oddsmakers declared on Sunday night?

You will be reminded ad nauseam over the next week and a half
that the AFC has lost the Super Bowl 13 years running. You will
learn that this game constitutes a homecoming for Denver running
back and San Diego native Terrell Davis, who has suffered from
chronic migraines--as opposed to Elway, who suffers from a
chronic inability to win the NFL title game. The Broncos have
been outscored 136-40 (before long, you will have these numbers
memorized as well) in Elway's three Super Bowl losses. "I know
we'll be huge underdogs, but ask me if I care," said Denver
defensive end Neil Smith, who came to the Broncos as a free
agent in the off-season. "No one thought we'd come this far."

That lack of faith was understandable. Denver faltered down the
stretch, dropping three of its final six regular-season games
before rattling off three playoff wins. The biggest difference
for the Broncos in the postseason has been a dramatic
improvement in their defense, which has benefited greatly from
the return to health of Smith and fellow defensive end Alfred
Williams, both of whom were plagued by torn triceps this season.
Williams, in fact, tore both of his.

"Oh, is that why we beat them the first time?" asked Steelers
running back Jerome Bettis last Friday. "It's always something,
isn't it?"

"Ask him if he noticed any difference today," riposted Smith,
who bunny-hopped into the locker room after Sunday's game, so
overjoyed was he to be Super Bowl-bound for the first time in
his 10-year career. On Dec. 7 he was dominated by Pittsburgh
right tackle Justin Strzelczyk, but on Sunday, Smith had the
upper hand. For instance, with 1:43 left in the first half, he
beat Strzelczyk around the corner, drawing a holding penalty
that wiped out an 18-yard completion. As a result the Broncos
got the ball back in the last minute before intermission and
drove for the touchdown that put them up 24-14.

On the last play of the third quarter, Smith sacked Stewart and
forced a fumble that defensive tackle Mike Lodish recovered at
the Denver 41. It was Smith's third sack of the playoffs. He and
Williams had two apiece in Denver's 14-10 divisional playoff win
over the Kansas City Chiefs, with whom Smith spent his first
nine pro seasons.

Rather than having his players sit back on defense and allow
first-year starter Stewart to dissect them, as had happened a
month earlier, Denver defensive coordinator Greg Robinson this
time threw a far more exotic mix at the Steelers. Defensive
linemen did more slanting and stunting, the better to confuse
Bettis and to prevent Pittsburgh's hogs from teeing off on them.
Broncos backup linebacker Glenn Cadrez came in on passing downs
to "spy" Stewart, while the secondary showed a variety of looks.
Don't take this the wrong way, cornerback Darrien Gordon had
been told before the game, but Crockett's going to cover Yancey
this time. It was Gordon who was thrice burned for touchdowns by
Thigpen on Dec. 7.

"We wanted to make him beat us throwing the ball," Broncos
linebacker Bill Romanowski said of Stewart, who wasn't up to it.
Pittsburgh's first possession in the second half--an 11-play
drive--ended with Stewart's third interception: He tried to
muscle a pass to wideout Charles Johnson, who was surrounded by
three defenders, and linebacker Allen Aldridge made the
interception for another touchback. Romanowski immediately got
in the quarterback's face, calling him a "dumb s---."

Romo knows from dumb. This is the same guy whose most memorable
act of the season was spitting in the face of San Francisco
49ers wide receiver J.J. Stokes, revolting a national television
audience and forcing the league to ask the question: What price
loogie? (Romanowski was fined $7,500.)

In San Diego, Romanowski and friends will go up against a
quarterback, Brett Favre, unlikely to become flustered by a few
new schemes and some name-calling. Romanowski knows this: He was
at Lambeau Field on Dec. 8, 1996, when Green Bay trounced Denver
41-6. "For a half we kept it close," he says. The Broncos
defense had the most success, Romanowski recalls, when it stayed
basic and kept Favre in the pocket. "Where he's unbelievable,
where he just kills you, is when he gets out of the pocket and
starts playing street ball," says Romanowski. "What you want to
do is keep him contained, make him hold on to the ball and read
coverages. I don't think that's his strength."

A pair of Denver's aging defensive linemen conversed nervously
with two minutes left in Sunday's game. The Steelers had closed
to within three points; the Broncos' offense faced third-and-six
on its own 15. "Hell no, we're not going back out there,"
Williams said to Lodish. "Somebody's going to make a play."

The likelihood of that happening was lessened when Elway walked
into the huddle and called All Thunder, a play he had made up
and no one else had heard of. "So John just went down the line,
saying, 'You run a go route, you run this, you run that,
everybody just get open,'" said wideout Rod Smith, who led
Denver receivers against Pittsburgh with six catches--all for
first downs--for 87 yards.

As Shannon Sharpe broke the huddle, he asked Elway, "What should
I do?"

"Just get open," Elway said impatiently.

Just get open, Sharpe repeated to himself as he jogged to the
line. O.K. He ran an eight-yard hitch, gathered in Elway's
bullet, broke a tackle and got 10 more yards for a first down
that would enable Denver to kill the clock. The Broncos were
Super Bowl-bound.

Afterward, in a cordoned-off area of Three Rivers Stadium,
Denver players and coaches milled about, laughing and embracing.
A silver-haired man holding a panatela in one hand and a beer in
the other seemed unable to stop smiling. It was Robinson, the
defensive coordinator, whose unit ranked first in total defense
in the AFC this season. Imagine, then, how surprised he had been
upon opening The Rocky Mountain News on Christmas morning and
finding a story with the subhead, COORDINATOR'S JOB MIGHT BE IN

At that time the Broncos' chances of reaching the Super Bowl,
which had looked so good when Denver had been 9-1, appeared to
be slipping away. Broncos fans were angry. Someone had to pay
for that 3-3 finish. Three stout defensive performances and
three playoff victories later, Robinson's job security isn't an

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER Three for One Steelers Myron Bell (40) and Levon Kirkland kept Bronco Shannon Sharpe from catching this pass, but Sharpe later had a crucial reception in Denver's AFC title-game win (page 26) . [T of C]

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Thigpen got double trouble from Atwater and Crockett (obscured), who made the interception. [Yancey Thigpen, Ray Crockett and Steve Atwater in game]

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Elway can call on bona fide rushing and deep receiving threats in Davis and Smith (opposite). [Terrell Davis carrying football in game]

COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON [See caption above--Rod Smith catching football in game]


John Elway is going back to the Super Bowl with more support
than he had in his previous three visits. Here's how the 1997
Broncos stack up offensively, compared with the other Denver
teams that Elway led to the AFC Championship. (NFL season
rankings are in parentheses.)

Leading Leading Team Team
Season rusher, yds. receiver, yds. rushing passing

1986 Sammy Winder, Mark Jackson, 104.9 221.1
789 (17th) 738 (36th) (20th) (10th)

1987 Winder, Vance Johnson, 131.3 243.6
741 (11th) 684 (25th) (12th) (3rd)

1989 Bobby Humphrey, Johnson, 130.8 187.6
1,151 (8th) 1,095 (13th) (6th) (23rd)

1997 Terrell Davis, Rod Smith, 148.6 218.4
1,750 (2nd) 1,180 (8th) (4th) (9th)

Statistics in NFL charts by Elias Sports Bureau