By Michael Lev The Orange County Register
If anyone can explain the recent rise of the Denver Broncos’ defense, they ought to be doing something more important than following football.
It’s not inconceivable that Denver’s defense would improve after all it has been through. But it’s undeniably illogical — more difficult to decipher than the true meaning of “Omaha!”
Despite losing five starters to injuries, Denver’s D is playing its best ball right now, heading into a Super Bowl XLVIII showdown with Seattle.
The Seahawks happen to have the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense, a unit that forced three turnovers, including the clinching interception, in the NFC Championship Game. They have surrendered a league-low 16 points per playoff game. The Broncos are right behind them at 16.5.
Unlike their Super Bowl counterparts, you won’t hear a ton of talk about or from the Broncos’ defense the next week and a half. Denver’s Peyton Manning-led offense gets all the attention, including 10 pages of notes in the team’s pre-Super Bowl press release. The defense gets 21/2.
But that’s OK. The group simply will continue to defy expectations — and reason.
“I think (it’s) just the mindset of getting better every day,” Broncos coach John Fox said of the defense’s improvement. “Statistically, we weren’t where we wanted to be. The staff, the players, everybody involved has worked to make that happen.”
In their first 14 games, the Broncos allowed 371.5 yards and 26.6 points per contest. Over the past four games, those figures have dropped to 268.5 and 15.
As Fox suggested, their success is a product of collaboration — young players blending with veterans, castoffs and misfits coming together to form a cohesive unit whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Only one defensive starter in the AFC Championship Game was a first-round draft pick by the Broncos — rookie defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, who played about half the snaps. (Reserve defensive end Robert Ayers, a key member of the line rotation, also was a Broncos first-rounder.)
Only four of the starters were Broncos draft picks, period. Five were veteran free agents, including four signed this past offseason. One was an undrafted free agent. And one was a trade acquisition.
That group held the New England Patriots to 16 points, a week after they scored 43.
“We got beat up pretty good (by) the outside world,” Fox said after the AFC Championship Game. “It’s been a lot of hard work by those players, guys that have stepped in and replaced pretty significant players.”
During the course of the season, the Broncos lost safety Rahim Moore, defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, linebacker Von Miller, defensive end Derek Wolfe and cornerback Chris Harris.
Moore, a second-round pick in 2011 from UCLA, was Denver’s most effective safety before getting hurt, according to Pro Football Focus’ metrics. Miller, Denver’s 2011 first-round pick, was the best 4-3 outside linebacker in the league, per PFF. Harris, an undrafted free agent in 2011, ranked ninth among cornerbacks.
The players who have stepped in and stepped up include defensive end Shaun Phillips, who signed with the Broncos for the bargain price of $1 million for one year. Phillips had 10 sacks this season after recording 9.5 for the division-rival Chargers in 2012.
Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton toiled in the obscurity of Jacksonville for his first four seasons. But former Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio, now the Broncos’ defensive coordinator, knew Knighton’s work. He became a sturdy run stuffer in his first season in Denver before producing one of the biggest plays of the AFC Championship Game: a fourth-down sack of Tom Brady late in the third quarter.
The man nicknamed “Pot Roast” attributed the sack — in which he cleanly beat six-time Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins — to devouring film leading up to the game. That fits Knighton’s M.O., according to Phillips.
“His football IQ is unbelievable,” Phillips said, “and he spreads that knowledge to the younger guys.”
The younger guys include second-year linebacker Danny Trevathan, a sixth-round pick in 2012. If anyone embodies the defense’s development it’s Trevathan, who has gone from inconsistent to reliable over the course of the 2013 season.
Trevathan does not possess exceptional size or speed. Yet he was one of only seven players in the league to record 120 or more tackles and at least three interceptions.
Trevathan concluded one of those interceptions with one of the most boneheaded plays of the season. After picking off Baltimore’s Joe Flacco in the opener, Trevathan raced unimpeded toward the end zone. But he celebrated prematurely and dropped the ball before crossing the goal line.
“Life is a game,” Trevathan said this week. “It’s ups and downs, highs and lows. But, you know, I like my lows . because without my lows, I’d never know what my highs are.
“It was a rough, rollercoaster year, but we pulled it together.”