While playing for the Titans last season, new Broncos cornerback
Denard Walker studied the Ravens' defense each of the three times
Baltimore and Tennessee played each other, taking note especially
of the little things--such as how free safety Rod Woodson directed
his teammates--that helped the Ravens' unit become one of the
NFL's best ever. "Their defenders played as one," says Walker.
"They didn't have a lot of stars, but they had people who
believed in each other and what they were doing. That's what we
What Denver needs even more is for Walker to be a shut-down
corner; that's why the Broncos gave him a six-year, $26 million
deal. Although they finished second in the league last season in
interceptions, with 27, they were last in pass defense, giving up
246.6 yards per game. It was no surprise that cornerbacks Ray
Crockett and Terrell Buckley weren't re-signed.
Also gone is defensive coordinator Greg Robinson. He has been
replaced by Ray Rhodes, whose first order of business is to
determine who will start opposite Walker. Deltha O'Neal, Denver's
first-round pick in 2000, is an explosive athlete whom coach Mike
Shanahan says made more plays than any other Broncos defensive
back down the stretch last season. But O'Neal is still learning
the position; he didn't play corner full time until his junior
year at Cal. Eric Davis is a 12-year veteran and a two-time Pro
Bowler whom the Panthers dumped during the off-season for
salary-cap reasons. Davis told Shanahan that while trying to win
a starting job he would help O'Neal and rookie Willie
Middlebrooks, a first-round selection out of Minnesota, learn the
game. "I liked hearing that because if you get guys who are
content to just come in and sit behind somebody else, you have
the wrong guys on your team," Shanahan says. "We'll have a lot of
competition at that spot."
Rhodes, the man responsible for deciding who gets to play, has a
successful track record as a defensive coordinator. With the
Redskins last season he inherited a unit that had ranked 30th in
the league in 1999 and transformed it into one that finished
fourth. In Denver, Rhodes is stressing an improvement in
tackling. Maybe he saw a tape of the Bengals' Corey Dillon
running through the Broncos' defense for a league-record 278
yards last October. "We've done a lot of drills to improve in
that area," says linebacker John Mobley. "Our big thing is to
have every hit pushing the play backward. Last year we had a lot
of arm tackling, and backs were getting four or five yards after
the initial contact."
Rhodes has also installed a scheme that is fundamentally sounder
than Robinson's, which involved a lot of stunting and was more of
a read-and-react attack. "The attitude is already different,"
says defensive tackle Trevor Pryce. "We're not sitting back on
our heels and waiting to be hit in the mouth."
"Ray's terminology has changed, but his mind-set is still the
same," says Davis, who spent three seasons playing under Rhodes
with the 49ers. "He's going to get after people, but he also
wants his players in position and relaxed. If there's one defense
that is working for him, he'll call it all game so his guys will
Shanahan didn't stop at cornerback while trying to upgrade his
defense. The most prominent new arrivals up front include free
agents Leon Lett and Chester McGlockton, who could create even
more pass-rushing opportunities for Pryce (12 sacks in 2000) and
defensive end Kavika Pittman. The jewel of the linebacking corps
could be second-year man Ian Gold. Shanahan likes Gold's blitzing
and coverage abilities and has vowed to increase his playing
time. The question is at whose expense. The Broncos are set with
Mobley and Bill Romanowski on the outside. For now, Gold will
back up Romanowski.
The turnover on defense could disrupt Denver's chemistry, but the
upside is huge for the Broncos, who are expecting another Super
Bowl run. All the pieces, except left tackle, are in place on an
offense that was second in the league in scoring in 2000. Plus,
based on last season's records, Denver will play the
second-softest schedule in the league, and the players could
especially benefit from their bye, which falls in the penultimate
week of the regular season.
As was the case last year, the defense is receiving all the
scrutiny. Things look good on paper, but the players know that
doesn't mean a thing. "If we don't perform, it won't matter if
Norman Schwarzkopf is leading the defense," says Pryce. "We're
going to wind up in the same position."
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Brian Griese, healthy again after off-season shoulder surgery, runs an offense that was No. 2 in scoring in 2000.
COLOR PHOTO: WILLIAM R. SALLAZ O'NEAL
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Broncos
"They have great depth, but there are questions. I wonder if Leon
Lett can play defnsive end. He struggled at tackle in Dallas
last season.... Then there's Chester McGlockton. He won't give
them what they want because he takes plays off. I think Mike
[Shanahan] thought he had to get more girth in his line.
Remember the playoff game against the Ravens when Jamal Lewis
ran right through the defense for a touchdown?...Tackling was a
problem in their secondary too. I don't know if Deltha O'Neal is
ready to play cornerback full time....The best player on defense
is Trevor Pryce. After Warren Sapp and La'Roi Glover, he's the
hardest tackle in this league to block....Brian Griese has
really grown into a leader. He's smart and accurate, and last
year he proved he was pretty tough....They've shown that whoever
carries the ball is going to get 1,000 yards, but I don't think
people understand how much losing [offensive line coach] Alex
Gibbs will hurt them. He was an excellent teacher, and now they
have questions at tackle. They're going to try Cooper Carlisle
or Trey Teague on the left side, and I like our chances against
either of those guys....I know Mike Anderson is coming off a big
year, but Olandis Gary probably has the most upside. He's
younger than Anderson, and he's not as beaten up as Terrell
Davis seems to be....They want Eddie Kennison to help them as a
third receiver. They've been looking for someone to do that for
a few years now."
Sept. 10 N.Y. GIANTS (Mon.)
16 at Indianapolis
23 at Arizona
Oct. 7 KANSAS CITY
14 at Seattle
21 at San Diego
28 NEW ENGLAND
Nov. 5 at Oakland (Mon.)
11 SAN DIEGO
22 at Dallas (Thurs.)
Dec. 2 at Miami
16 at Kansas City
23 Open date
2001 SCHEDULE STRENGTH
NFL rank: 30 (tie)
Opponents' 2000 winning percentage: .461
Games against playoff teams: 6
with 2000 statistics
COACH: Mike Shanahan; seventh season with Denver (72-44 in NFL)
2000 RECORD: 11-5 (second in AFC West)
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): offense 3/3/2; defense 7/31/24
OFFENSIVE BACKS PVR*
QB Brian Griese 25 336 att. 216 comp. 64.3% 2,688 yds.
19 TDs 4 int. 102.9 rtg.
RB Terrell Davis 41 78 att. 282 yds. 3.6 avg. 2 rec.
4 yds. 2.0 avg. 2 TDs
RB Olandis Gary 89 13 att. 80 yds. 6.2 avg. 3 rec.
10 yds. 3.3 avg. 0 TDs
FB Patrick Hape[N]273 No rushing attempts in 2000 6 rec.
39 yds. 6.5 avg. 0 TDs
RECEIVERS, SPECIALISTS, OFFENSIVE LINEMEN
WR Rod Smith 28 100 rec. 1,602 yds. 8 TDs
WR Ed McCaffrey 37 101 rec. 1,317 yds. 9 TDs
WR Eddie Kennison[N] 150 55 rec. 549 yds. 2 TDs
TE Desmond Clark 173 27 rec. 339 yds. 3 TDs
K Jason Elam 155 49/49 XPs 18/24 FGs 103 pts.
PR Deltha O'Neal 361 34 ret. 10.4 avg. 0 TDs
KR Kevin Kasper (R)[N]343 no kickoff returns in 2000
LT Trey Teague 6'5" 292 lbs. 2 games 0 starts
LG Lennie Friedman 6'3" 285 lbs. 16 games 8 starts
C Tom Nalen 6'3" 286 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Dan Neil 6'2" 285 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Matt Lepsis 6'4" 290 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LE Keith Washington[N] 18 tackles 0 sacks
LT Chester McGlockton[N]39 tackles 4 sacks
RT Trevor Pryce 46 tackles 12 sacks
RE Kavika Pittman 28 tackles 7 sacks
OLB Bill Romanowski 68 tackles 3 1/2 sacks
MLB Al Wilson 61 tackles 5 sacks
OLB John Mobley 86 tackles 2 sacks
CB Denard Walker[N] 45 tackles 2 int.
SS Billy Jenkins 93 tackles 4 int.
FS Eric Brown 92 tackles 1 sack
CB Deltha O'Neal 7 tackles 0 int.
P Tom Rouen 61 punts 40.2 avg.
[N]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 119)
"I don't think people understand how much losing Gibbs will hurt