ON THE morning of March 12, two Pro Bowl--caliber NFL players boarded an early-morning American Airlines flight from Dallas to Denver. The league's free-agency period had opened barely 12 hours earlier, sending prospective new hires jetting across the U.S. in search of a match, but in the groggy commotion of the hour neither player spotted the other. Not a fan made a fuss. Instead, both men settled into first class for the two-hour flight.
Late in the journey, toward the back of the section, cornerback Aqib Talib, a second-team All-Pro with the Patriots last year, awoke from a nap. As he scanned the rows in front of him, Talib, 28, noticed the bald head of a broad-shouldered African-American and did a double take. Could that be ... DeMarcus Ware?
The two had never met, but with a little neck-craning Talib confirmed that yes, it was indeed the 6'4", 258-pound defensive end, who'd been cut one day earlier by the Cowboys. Talib, who spends his summers in Dallas and was traveling to Denver to be introduced as the newest Bronco (six years, $57 million), had heard rumors that his new team was pursuing the four-time All-Pro. He put the pieces together: This had to be Ware's first visit of free agency.
Not wanting to draw attention by chitchatting down the aisle, Talib waited until he reached the terminal before announcing, loudly enough for Ware to hear, "Man, I've got to [change for] my press conference."
At first Ware, 32, didn't recognize Talib; he hadn't expected another player to be on his flight. Only when the cornerback finally introduced himself did everything click for Ware: I see exactly what the Broncos are building. He agreed to a three-year, $30 million contract just hours later. "Their mentality is, I'm not looking forward to the next season or the season after that—the time is now," Ware says. "When I saw Talib, I knew: They're trying to get the job done."
They are, and the job began with some off-season finagling. Only days before the Ware-Talib Express took off, Denver had appeared poised to re-sign cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and was considered the front-runner for free-agent defensive end Jared Allen. But it didn't take long for general manager John Elway's eye to wander. For the amount he would pay Rodgers-Cromartie, Elway realized, he could get more, so he set his sights on Talib. And just when Elway became discouraged by Allen's price tag, another, better option emerged: Ware.
Elway moved quickly, and by the end of the day that for Ware and Talib had started 800 miles away, Denver had introduced that pair, plus former Brown T.J. Ward, the NFL's fourth-best safety in 2013 according to Pro Football Focus. (Ward's was a simple courting: We like you, you like us, pen to paper on a four-year, $22.5 million deal.) The much-maligned defense that allowed 341 yards to the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII is no more. It has been replaced by something tougher and more talented, a D that talks a huge game—but that hasn't quite come together to play it. Yet.
TECHNICALLY, THE Broncos ditched their brown helmets in 1962. But it wasn't until '77, really, that the franchise turned orange. Denver had mustered just three winning seasons in 17 years when, under new coach Red Miller, a defense that had been slowly building toward greatness finally went wild. That team finished 12--2, with the best run defense in football, and the Mile High City geared up for its first trip to the NFL playoffs with the utmost dedication.
Throughout that season Rocky Mountain News sportswriter Woody Paige had helped popularize a nickname for the Broncos' defense: Orange Crush. That unit, under coordinator Joe Collier, was anything but sticky-sweet—not with the likes of Lyle Alzado, Randy Gradishar, Tom Jackson and Louis Wright delivering jaw-rattling hits—yet the name gained traction. Collier wore an orange baseball cap as he patrolled the sidelines to denote his role in the madness and to help players find him (no one else was allowed by the team to do this), and fans mailed orange toilet seats to Miller. "They went berserk, painting their cars orange, their houses orange, dying their hair orange, writing songs [about it all]," Collier recalls.
Thirty-seven years later, as the Broncos waited in the tunnel before facing the Colts at home in their 2014 opener, a hype video played across the LED board at the south end of Sports Authority Field. In bold orange letters the words crush 2.0 flashed, presaging a first half in which Denver allowed Andrew Luck & Co. just 137 yards of total offense and seven points.
That first half, though, was the best the Broncos' defense has played in 2014. In the second half, with Denver's offense flailing, the defense looked winded, and Luck started doing Luck things. A week later, against a Chiefs team that (on paper, at least) Denver should have eviscerated, an almost nonexistent pass rush left Alex Smith free to do what he liked, and K.C. ran for 133 yards, despite the absence of Jamaal Charles. In the end, the Broncos ceded just 17 points, and a game-winning goal line stand provided at least a glimpse of what this unit can become. These players, new and old, want nothing more than to put a little bit of 1977 into 2014.
In the week leading up to that opener, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio had dusted off film of the old Orange Crush defense, which picked off Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler seven times in a crucial divisional game that season and sacked the Steelers' Terry Bradshaw six times three weeks later. Del Rio had first showed his defense the film in 2012, when he arrived in Denver, but when he saw the potential of this season's revamped unit, he decided to bring it back.
"I like to have the guys respect who did this before us and understand that there's a legacy here," Del Rio says. "That helps them understand that maybe, 20 years from now, that team will look at us and say, 'Man, these guys were really good,' and start naming our names."
Collier is honored that this new regime is looking to the one he built for inspiration. And though he thinks the Broncos can be a top 10 D in 2014—they were 19th in yards allowed last year, 22nd in points—the former coordinator is skeptical of just how much this new iteration of the Orange Crush can resemble the original (which lost to the Cowboys in Super Bowl XII). Collier ran a 3--4; Del Rio uses a 4--3. In Collier's day teams typically played with just two receivers; now the field is often spread with far more threats. Add in stricter rules preventing defenders from pummeling offensive players—"We know we can't smack people upside the head or drop-kick people anymore," defensive end Malik Jackson said after watching the old footage—and it's clear that this will have to be a gentler Crush. Certainly one that's sharper against the pass.
"It happened here before," says Talib, looking back to that 1977 defense. "With this group of guys, it could happen with us."
IN EARLY FEBRUARY, five weeks before free agency began, the Broncos' coaches and front office personnel returned, downtrodden, to Denver from New Jersey, where Seattle had scored six times in its first eight drives. Almost immediately the brass began to make wish lists for the off-season. Del Rio knew that his unit (particularly the pass defense and pass rush) had been lacking in the Super Bowl in large part due to injuries, but he nonetheless ticked off potential upgrades, knowing Elway's propensity to swing big. At the top of his list: a safety, a "really good" cornerback—whether that meant re-signing Rodgers-Cromartie or looking elsewhere—and someone to help the pass rush.
Del Rio never dreamed he'd get all three. He couldn't have fathomed they'd each be Pro Bowlers, including a likely Hall of Famer in Ware. "I was very excited," Del Rio says, then laughs at his understatement. "It's helpful to have some of the [new] leadership, but also to have some of the younger guys back in our system, with experience."
Chief among that returning crop is cornerback Chris Harris, who went undrafted out of Kansas in 2011 before starting 15 regular-season games for Denver last year. (He tore his left ACL in a divisional playoff win over the Chargers and missed the Super Bowl.) Harris still shows flashes of the unsung college player—earlier this month he wondered aloud whether he should count as a member of the Broncos' 2011 draft class since he hadn't been, you know, drafted—but for the most part he's been one of the loudest, surest voices in the locker room. New players, from linebackers to defensive tackles, seek out Harris for advice on the Broncos' defensive scheming, and last season he could be found from time to time teaching plays to cornerback Champ Bailey, a 15-year veteran and a future Hall of Famer.
Harris's instructions will be crucial this season, especially early on, as the team works to incorporate new talent into Del Rio's system, which generally operates in man-to-man, with the free defender used to blitz. Acclimating to new personnel is taking longer than expected, Harris conceded on Sunday. Just as a year ago, the brunt of the consternation early this season has fallen upon Denver's defense, which seems to be lacking a measure of poise. (Note the nine penalties on Sunday.) There have been too many cheap hits, too lax an eye on detail, and in the days leading up to Denver's Week 3 game against Seattle—the NFL's first year-after Super Bowl rematch since 1997—the likes of Harris, Ware and tackle Terrance (Pot Roast) Knighton, some of the loudest voices in the locker room, need to speak up.
If this jumble of talent does come together as expected? Then Denver's run defense should be every bit as strong as it was last year, when it ranked seventh in the NFL, especially with Knighton poised to build upon his breakout 2013 postseason and with Jackson, 24, still coming into his own. Second-year tackle Sylvester Williams shed 10 pounds in the off-season and appears quicker, and adding Ward, the best run-stopping defensive back in football, injects some of that Orange Crush thump. Now that Harris and safety Rahim Moore (compartment syndrome) are healthy, and given the additions of Talib and first-round cornerback Bradley Roby (Ohio State), the secondary has more depth and talent than it did a year ago too. Harris is one of the most consistent and versatile players at his position, and Roby's athleticism, if harnessed, could make him just as much of an asset. Talib's value is different; if he stays healthy, which has been a challenge, he'll be the guy that the Broncos trot out every week to go one-on-one against the league's best receivers.
Linebacker Von Miller, a two-time Pro Bowler at 25, wasn't himself in the nine games he played in 2013—the added weight and muscle that he put on during an early-season suspension for using a banned substance slowed him—and Shaun Phillips proved to be, at best, an adequate substitute for Elvis Dumervil, who'd departed in free agency. Even if Ware has lost a step, he's still an upgrade, and he'll provide priceless mentorship for Miller. If both can stay healthy—along the edge the defense's depth is thinnest—the Broncos could field one of the most formidable pass rushes in football.
And to think that two years ago few NFL observers outside of Denver had even heard of Harris. Twenty months ago Moore was the goat of an upset playoff loss to the Ravens; six months after that the NFL was serving up Miller's suspension. In 2012, Knighton, now a Broncos captain, was toiling away in the purgatory that is Jacksonville; 10 months ago defensive end Derek Wolfe was so depressed and physically stressed that an episode on the team bus left him in a 26-hour, medically induced coma. These are the stories the Broncos want to share—of picks they've developed and gems they've discovered. It's all well and good that Elway stomps into free agency each March and splashes cash, but what this team is building has taken time as much as it has dollars.
For Collier, too, time was essential. His Orange Crush defenses of the late 1970s and early '80s had players who stayed year after year, but he knows such a thing is difficult in the modern NFL. Still, when a defense struggles, as Denver's did last season, change trumps continuity, and this brand of change, when harnessed, should look a lot like improvement.
That leaves the question of how long that improvement will take. In the locker room following Sunday's 24--17 win over Kansas City, after the defense had eked out a win in the final seconds by forcing an incompletion on fourth-and-goal from the two-yard line, Harris summed up the situation: "We haven't done anything." The Broncos were gifted this we—this talented, pricey present of a we—by a front office with a fat wallet and lofty goals. Now it's up to the players to prove they were worth it, to stomp into Seattle and show that the Broncos are ready to run this back.
Orange Crush 2.0? Only to a certain extent. "We know we can't smack people upside the head or drop-kick people anymore," says Jackson.
Almost immediately after the Super Bowl, Del Rio ticked off potential upgrades: a safety, a "really good" corner, help in the pass rush.
Two hundred thirty-one days later, the Broncos and the Seahawks will go at it again. The MMQB's Andy Benoit tells you what's different in Week 3's Super Bowl rematch
The defense in Denver isn't all that's changed since the last whistle at Super Bowl XLVIII. After the Broncos' receivers failed to defeat Seattle's press coverage and after their offensive line—specifically the tackles—got embarrassed by the Seahawks' front four, Denver replaced wideout Eric Decker with the Steelers' much quicker Emmanuel Sanders and reshuffled its front five, moving right tackle Orlando Franklin to guard, left tackle Chris Clark to the right side and welcoming back All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady from the left-foot Lisfranc injury that wiped out most of his 2013 season. The Seahawks, too, have seen transition: Slot corner Walter Thurmond signed with the Giants, and his replacement, Jeremy Lane, landed on the short-term IR (groin). Having addressed their key deficiencies, the Broncos will find this matchup more favorable—or, more accurately, less unfavorable—than the last time these two teams met.
But let's not forget that Seattle's offense is improved too, despite last week's 30--21 loss at San Diego, the credit for which goes to a stout Chargers defense. The return of receiver Percy Harvin (who played just 20 regular-season snaps last year before a hip injury shelved him until the playoffs) adds not just an explosive vertical facet to the passing game but also a lethal east-west threat in the running game. Without remarkable aggression and tackling from safeties and cornerbacks, defenses will struggle to contain the jet sweep that Harvin has added to the Seahawks' read-option playbook.
Also consider: What was already a stellar base rushing attack to begin with could be even more potent in 2014. Marshawn Lynch, 28, looks quicker and more agile than he did in 2013, when he rushed for 1,257 yards, and Russell Wilson still scares defenses as a read-option runner and scrambler. Up front, what last year was a suspect Seattle line now looks much more mobile. Left guard James Carpenter is in the best shape of his career, and second-round rookie right tackle Justin Britt (Missouri) has displayed lighter feet than predecessor Breno Giacomini.
Wilson will be his offense's biggest difference maker, though. His phenomenal training camp and preseason have carried into September: In two games he has completed 67.9% of his passes with four touchdowns and zero interceptions. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell is making things even easier on his 25-year-old signal-caller. To avoid the vision obstructions that the 5'11" Wilson inherently faces, Bevell frequently uses rollouts and moving pockets, putting his quarterback in motion as he looks to throw. Wilson is the best on-the-move passer in football, whether he's going right or left. And most on-the-move passing plays effectively slice the field in half, which helps give a QB defined reads. That allows him to rely more on his natural tools—and there Wilson, like most of his Seahawks teammates, is well endowed.
Denver's defense is improved, but not enough to take down the defending champions at CenturyLink. The prediction:
Photograph by Joe Mahoney AP
ALL BOTTLED UP By adding Ware to the likes of Knighton (top) and linebacker Nate Irving, Denver hopes to bring more heat up front.
HEINZ KLUETMEIER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
YOU SPIN ME ROUND Hits from Gradishar (53) and Joe Rizzo helped lift the 1977 Broncos into the playoffs—while upending opponents like Raiders receiver Fred Biletnikoff.
DAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
CATTY CORNER Newcomer Talib says a revival is in the works, and his play on Sunday affirmed that: He held Dwayne Bowe to 40 yards on three catches.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED