Vonnie Holliday isone of the more vociferous players in football, but even he was stunned intosilence early last month by an impromptu scouting report on his new team, theBroncos. A 12-year veteran defensive end, Holliday signed with Denver the weekbefore the Sept. 13 season opener and arrived in the Mile High City optimisticand excited. Then, while talking to a local reporter, he got the lowdown on histeammates: "Basically," Holliday recalls being told, "you'replaying with a bunch of bums." ¬∂ The newcomer was taken aback. "Atfirst I didn't know what to say," Holliday says. "Then I was like,Whoa. I don't know what you've seen so far, but in the couple of [preseason]games I've watched, they've played hard and at a high level. I mean, how do yousay something like that?"
A month later theanswer is obvious: You don't.
The Broncos arearguably the biggest surprise of the young season: With a controversial butconfident new coach, 27 new players and new schemes on offense and defense,they are 4--0 for the first time in six years. The defense in particular hasbeen transformed: A unit that hemorrhaged points the past two seasons, givingup 26.8 per game, is surrendering a league-low 6.5 this year.
In Sunday's 17--10victory over the visiting Cowboys, Denver shut out the NFL's fifth-rankedscoring offense over the final three quarters, held Dallas to 100 net yards inthe eight possessions that preceded the Cowboys' final drive and made adramatic goal line stand in the final seconds, when Pro Bowl cornerback ChampBailey broke up back-to-back Tony Romo passes from the Broncos' two-yardline.
"We know theBroncos' history from last year and the year before—of not being able to stopthe run, not being able to stop the pass, not being able to stop people,period," says outside linebacker--defensive end Darrell Reid, a former Coltwhom Denver signed as a free agent last February. "But we've got a chanceto establish a new identity, and we're going to keep establishing it untilpeople realize things have changed."
Change was a dirtyword around Denver in the off-season. If fans weren't upset about rookie coachJosh McDaniels's trading Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler to Chicago, they wereirritated that he appeared to do little to upgrade a defensive front seven thatwas transitioning to a 3--4 scheme under new coordinator Mike Nolan, the former49ers coach. Before the arrival of Holliday, a backup who rotates in, the onlynotable addition was 2009 first-round pick Robert Ayers, a down end atTennessee who plays stand-up outside linebacker in the 3--4.
Though the Broncoshave eight new starters on defense, it's doubtful a casual fan outside Denvercould identify any of the five newcomers on the line and at linebacker. EndsRyan McBean and Kenny Peterson had one career start between them before thisseason; nosetackle Ronald Fields hadn't started a game since 2006; andlinebackers Andra Davis and Mario Haggans were free-agent signees who didn'tdraw great interest from other teams. Incumbent linebackers D.J. Williams andElvis Dumervil are Pro Bowl--caliber players—Dumervil is tied for the leaguelead with eight sacks, and Williams leads the team in tackles with 31—but noone envisioned such a patchwork unit being able to carry the Broncos to atwo-game lead in the AFC West after only a month.
One of the keyshas been the preference of McDaniels and general manager Brian Xanders to findplayers who are good fits rather than big names, though they did pick up formerEagles All-Pro free safety Brian Dawkins as a free agent. Dawkins and fellowveterans Andre' Goodman and Renaldo Hill (both from the Dolphins) were broughtin to solve some of Denver's pass-rush deficiencies. Over the first four gamesthe tighter coverage in the secondary has forced opposing quarterbacks to holdthe ball a fraction of a second longer. Denver sacked Tony Romo five times onSunday and leads the league in that department, with 15; the Broncos had 26sacks all last season.
The Denver defenseis also successful in areas that often go unnoticed. For instance, entering theDallas game the Broncos were fourth in the league in yards allowed on firstdown, limiting opponents to two or fewer yards on 36 of 55 first-down snaps(65.5%). They had allowed only 25 plays of 10 or more yards (fewest in theleague) and had forced opponents to take 10.25 plays per scoring drive, thirdbest in the NFL.
McDaniels is bestknown for overseeing a Patriots offense that set a league record for scoring(589 points) in 2007, but he cut his professional teeth as a New Englanddefensive assistant from 2001 through '03. When McDaniels went looking for adefensive coordinator, he wanted someone who shared his philosophies and wouldemploy an attacking 3--4 scheme. "I thought Mike and I would be a goodfit," McDaniels says of Nolan, "because I would try to use my offensivebackground during the week to say, Hey, here are some of the keys to disruptingCarson Palmer; here's what I think Brady Quinn really likes and doesn't like;here's how I think Tony Romo gets going best. I felt we could have a goodworking relationship, where I could give him some insight on the other side ofthe ball, tell him what I think, then let him go do it. He and I communicateexceptionally well together. He's a great resource."
Nolan andMcDaniels stress situational football and attention to detail. They reviewparticular situations so regularly in practice that defenders feel they can seea play developing before it happens. The second of Dumervil's two sacks onSunday is an example. The coaches had preached during the week that wheneverRomo comes off his primary read, he usually checks down to the running back. Sothe Broncos decided to take away the back by dedicating a linebacker to coverhim. Midway through the third quarter, Dallas had first-and-10 on its own 31.Romo dropped back, looked for his first option, then checked to running backRashard Choice, who wasn't open. That gave Dumervil the time to swoop in forthe sack.
A similar scenarioplayed out when the Cowboys had the ball at the Broncos' two-yard line,trailing by seven with nine seconds to play. Nolan had emphasized during theweek that if there were more defenders than blockers on the side of theformation that featured multiple receivers, Romo would look to the other sideof the field, where he had a single receiver. That's exactly how it played outon each of the final two snaps: Denver overloaded to the left side of theCowboys' formation, where Dallas had multiple receivers, and Romo predictablythrew to the right (single wide out) side—even though fourth receiver Sam Hurdwas matched against an All-Pro in Bailey.
"Champ didn'teven need to go to the huddle to get the call," McDaniels says. "Heknew what it was based on the situation and the formation. We had gone over itall week."
As good as theBroncos feel about their start, there is enough veteran leadership to keepeveryone from getting overconfident. Dallas was a good test, but Denver'sprevious two wins were against the feeble offenses of Cleveland and Oakland.Plus, there is the memory of 2006, when Denver won five in a row after anopening loss and held opponents to seven or fewer points in each of those wins.Then the wheels came off. In Week 8 the Broncos surrendered 34 to Indianapolis;in two divisional games against San Diego they allowed 83 points. This year theteam is focused on working hard and staying humble.
"This coachingstaff has done a tremendous job of coming in, implementing this 3--4 defenseand getting these guys comfortable in playing in it—playing the technique,putting your hands on guys, locking out and extending, two-gapping, all thosethings that you have to do, especially against the run," says Holliday, whohad one of Denver's five sacks against the Cowboys. "Nobody gave us achance. But when you get guys in a locker room who believe in each other andlay it on the line for each other and hold each other accountable, good thingshappen."
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"We know the Broncos' history of not being able tostop people," says Reid. "Things have changed."
Photograph by PETER READ MILLER
ROOKIE TO THE RESCUE First-round pick Knowshon Moreno, one of 27 new faces on the Denver roster, started the comeback against Dallas with a nine-yard scoring reception.
PETER READ MILLER (MCDANIELS)
NO SWEAT McDaniels (in hoodie) took plenty of heat from fans for his off-season moves but has made believers out of his Broncos.
HORSEPLAY Peterson (90) and the rest of the retooled front seven stymied Dallas's running game, and Brandon Marshall (left) struck for the go-ahead TD.