• BRONCOS VS. COLTS / SUNDAY 4:40 P.M. EST
HEADING INTO this season, most examinations of last year's Super Bowl runners-up focused on the defense's collection of high-priced free-agent signings. General manager John Elway (page 44) spent a combined $59.5 million in guarantees on safety T.J. Ward (from the Browns), defensive end DeMarcus Ware (Cowboys) and cornerback Aqib Talib (Patriots). The return on these investments appears to be as lucrative as the Broncos hoped.
Ward has been excellent in the box and has shown that he can cover tight ends man-to-man. That was particularly critical in December when injuries at linebacker forced Denver to use more six-DB (dime) packages. Ware, even at 32, has set the edge well against the run, and he's been effective enough as a pass rusher to rack up 10 sacks and attract the occasional double team. This has helped draw at least some attention away from linebacker Von Miller, who earned second-team All-Pro accolades. And Talib, a lanky seventh-year playmaker, has been terrific in man-to-man, Denver's predominant coverage. (Opposite Talib, Chris Harris, coming off a left-ACL injury last January, has been even better, prompting Elway last month to lay down another hefty pile of cash: $42.5 million over five years for the undrafted 25-year-old's services.)
The success of those acquisitions has made it easy to overlook a much less trumpeted addition to the defense: first-round pick Bradley Roby, a cornerback out of Ohio State. He and Harris have thrived by toggling back and forth between the slot and the outside, giving the Broncos the best cornerbacking trio in the NFL.
None of these roster changes were made with the goal of winning the regular season, of course. The playoffs are what matter. And it's this stable of quality man-to-man defenders that makes these Broncos a better team than the one that got shellacked in Super Bowl XLVIII. The ability to play man coverage is more important these days than it has been at any point in the NFL's modern era. Today's quarterbacks—especially superstars like Tom Brady and Andrew Luck—are too intelligent and accurate against the natural seams in zone coverages, and more offenses are using no-huddle looks that operate too quickly for defenses to organize the disguises and rotations that make zones viable. (Additionally, an increased emphasis on player safety has hindered big hitters like Ward from punishing wideouts who traverse zone voids inside.)
Man-to-man is also the coverage of choice behind most blitz designs. (Rationale: A blitz is aimed at making the opposing QB throw quickly; defenders must be right up on their receivers, not hanging back five yards.) The Broncos' defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio, a longtime zone acolyte, has been surprisingly creative and aggressive with blitz designs since coming to Denver in 2012.
After employing an abundance of coverage-based concepts earlier this season, Del Rio started ratcheting up more pressure packages down the stretch. Opponents will have to spend significant time preparing for this moving forward. Just how far forward? That will depend on this month's return on Elway's off-season investments.
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GARRETT W. ELLWOOD FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
Times that the Broncos trailed by six or more points this season. They lost four of those.
DENVER'S RUNNING GAME
The Broncos' late-season transformation into a power running team has been well-documented. Permanently moving center Manny Ramirez and right guard Louis Vasquez one spot to their right in Week 10 fixed a lot of problems on the O-line and created a more stable ground game. What's more, in the final six games of the season, offensive coordinator Adam Gase employed a six-man line roughly 20% of the time, plus he made regular use of blocking tight end Virgil Green. The result: Undrafted second-year back C.J. Anderson averaged 107.5 rushing yards (4.6 per carry) over the final six weeks. In his heart of hearts, however, Gase is not a running-game zealot. If tight end Julius Thomas's bum ankle regains full strength, the temptation to drop Peyton Manning back 45 times could be too enticing. But that might not be the worst thing in the world.