Overshadowed by Russell Wilson-infused offense, Broncos’ defense still poised to set tone in Denver

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — For all the excitement about a star quarterback and an offensive-minded head coach arriving in Denver, there is something that isn’t about to change with this team.

The Broncos are still going to be disruptive and dynamic on defense. They’re still going to be playing as if every outcome depends on what they do on that side of the football. The offense may be in a better place these days, but it’s that defense that still wants to set the proper tone for this franchise.

The optimism and energy around the Broncos these days is palpable with the addition of Russell Wilson. The trade that delivered the nine-time Pro Bowler from Seattle — and paired him with first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett, the former Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator — injected an undeniable belief that Denver is championship-caliber once again. Among the most excited players in that locker room are a group of talented defenders who’ve served as the strength of this team for the past few uneven seasons. They’re the ones who often gave Denver, which hasn’t been to the postseason since winning Super Bowl 50 back in February of 2016, the best chance to win. Their job just became much easier with a quarterback who can put them in the kind of favorable positions that once seemed so hard to create.

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That defense was one of the best in the NFL last year, a unit that ranked third in the league in points allowed. And it should be more dominant this fall.

“That mindset is 100 percent still there,” safety Justin Simmons said. “The coaches are drilling that into us every day, but from a player perspective, we want that. The majority of the guys in the room were here last year. And we know there were three or four games that we could’ve won if we’d gotten stops. If we can find a way to win those games, we can find our way into the playoffs. And once you’re in the playoffs, anybody can beat anybody.”

So there’s no confusion here: This isn’t a column about a formerly defensive-minded team acclimating itself to the notion that the offense will be receiving more credit. It’s about a talented roster finally finding more balance and providing more opportunities for that defense to shine.

The Broncos spent last season with former head coach Vic Fangio leading a team that excelled at stifling opponents and struggled to put the ball in the end zone. (Denver ranked 23rd in the league in scoring at 19.7 points per game.) This year’s version of the Broncos should be capable of unleashing all the potential this organization has steadily built. This is critical because that defense will be dealing with an AFC West that is stacked with dynamic quarterbacks and explosive offenses. As much as the Broncos will need all those points that Wilson and his offensive teammates should generate, they’re going to need those same stops that Simmons wanted at various points last season, when this team finished with its fifth straight losing record at 7-10. In fact, Hackett hired defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero partly because Evero’s philosophies include some influences from Fangio. Evero — who spent the last five seasons as a secondary coach with the Los Angeles Rams and also is a former UC Davis teammate of Hackett’s — also has ties to other respected defensive minds, including Monte Kiffin, Wade Phillips and Dom Capers (who’s a senior defensive assistant for the Broncos).

“He’s been with all those guys, and I wanted this defense because it’s the hardest defense for me to attack. It always has been,” Hackett said. “At the same time, some of the weaknesses we’ve exposed, I wanted to make sure I had somebody who could make adjustments. So not only is he somebody I love and respect, but he’s got the man-to-man (schemes) of Wade Phillips, the pressures of Dom Capers, the Cover 2 from Monte Kiffin. He’s got an unbelievable knowledge of all that stuff.”

“(Rams defensive coordinator) Raheem Morris is a big mentor of mine, and he used to always say the best coaches are the best thieves,” Evero said. “I don’t know if there are a lot of original ideas. You use your experiences to make you better in the future and that’s what I try to do. You try to gain all that knowledge and experience, but when you have your opportunity, it’s still about the players. It’s still about putting them in position to do what they do best.”

Evero has a straightforward expectation for this defense. He wants physicality, great effort and a unit that attacks the football. What he’ll also need is the availability of his two best pass rushers: outside linebackers Bradley Chubb and Randy Gregory. Both players are disruptive when on the field. The problem is that both have missed a lot of games, and Gregory — who signed a five-year, $70 million deal after seven years in Dallas, some of which were marred by drug suspensions — is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. Chubb hasn’t hidden his frustration with the way his last three seasons have played out, as he’s missed 24 of 49 games during that span.

“The injuries, of course, always bring you down, but when you’re injured, you kind of feel like you’re away from the team,” said Chubb, who had 12 sacks as a rookie in 2018 and 7.5 in his lone Pro Bowl year in 2020. “You don’t feel like you’re the person they brought you here to be. I had lot of battles with myself internally. My [family] knows and everybody around me that’s close knows. I’m past that now and I’m good to go mentally, physically and all that.”

If Chubb and Gregory stay on the field — and second-round edge Nik Bonitto catches on fast — this defense should challenge for the best in the league once again. The secondary is loaded, with Simmons and second-year cornerback Patrick Surtain II operating as the headliners. The versatility in that back end gives Evero plenty of coverage options. Just as important is the approach Evero has taken with this unit. He met with Simmons and fellow safety Kareem Jackson after taking the job, spending as much time listening as he did talking.

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“He asked us what we can do together to make this work at the highest level,” Simmons said. “He didn’t have to do that. It’s his defense. He could come in and [tell us] what we do. But he’s learning lingo we’ve used in prior defenses. We’re learning lingo he’s comfortable with to make it our own. It’s so much easier (for Evero) to just drill it and install it, but he’s focused on what we can do together.”

So the energy around Denver these days isn’t just about an improved offense — it’s about a team that has more reason to be excited about what it can become, a team that can truly believe all of its promise on paper might really materialize into more wins. There’s an appreciation for all that has been built up to this point. There’s also an expectation that there are no more excuses for this team to not return to the postseason.

Wilson obviously will play a huge role in that. But Denver’s defense will, as well. As Hackett said, “As an offensive-minded head coach, I just want the ball back. Any way we can get it, I like that.” That’s the mission every head coach sends to his defense in today’s NFL. And judging by the last few years, this unit is more than ready to hold up its end of the bargain.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.

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