DENVER – If you hang around enough locker rooms and hear enough coach-speak, player platitudes and endless cliches, then eventually you’ll learn to discern fact from fiction and truth from bluster.
You’ll also find yourself with a distinct case of déjà vu.
In the last seven days, Denver’s defenders come back to two words to describe new coordinator Dennis Allen and his defense: aggressive and intense.
You might have heard this before. One year ago, as a matter of fact. So why would this year be different?
“Well, it’s partly scheme but a lot of it is just mentality,” Allen said.
And aggression lies not just in the game plan, but the overall philosophy of defense, which encompasses the procurement of players and the everyday work of coaches, scouts and executives.
Last year, the Broncos continued a five-year trend of over-emphasizing offensive players in the draft’s early rounds; they didn’t even take a defender until the fifth round, 137 picks into the draft. By the same point this year, the Broncos had taken four defenders — three of whom have worked with the first team since the beginning of training camp (safeties Quinton Carter and Rahim Moore; linebacker Von Miller). Another, sixth-rounder Mike Mohamed, has worked as the first backup in at the strong- and weak-side slots; with Miller and D.J. Williams each missing some time, that’s kept him on the first unit for most of the week.
If Williams and Brian Dawkins remain sidelined, it’s possible that six of the 11 defensive first-teamers on Thursday will be players who were not on the roster at the end of last season. Add Joe Mays and Elvis Dumervil to that list — both of whom finished 2010 on injured reserve — and the defense is filled with quick evidence of a makeover in the Allen/John Fox image.
“I think the only advantage defenses have anymore is they have to be fear,” Allen said. “So, that’s the thing that we want to be.
“We want to be a violent, aggressive defense that plays within the rules, but we’re going to hit try to hit you as hard as we can and then obviously schematically we’re going to try to bring pressures in different areas when we get you in those downs and distances.”
Because aggressive defense was only a strategic ploy for the 2010 Broncos, it died when Dumervil tore a pectoral muscle. How everything could change was foretold by eventual preseason roster casualty Akin Ayodele in June, some two months before Dumervil’s injury.
“How aggressive the calls that he (then-coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale) makes are going to be determined (by) the players and how we execute,” Ayodele said at the time.
We’ll never know what Martindale truly had planned, because we never saw it. Instead, last year witnessed a punchless pass rush that the Broncos attempted to disguise with tricked-up formations and coverages that were designed to minimize the threat of a big play. Little of it worked, and the defense sunk to its lowest point since the 1960′s. It faded so far as to necessitate the hiring of the club’s first defensive-minded head coach in 17 years and just the second in the last four decades.
Eight months later, Broncos sit at the cusp of another season, pledging to attack, to be aggressive, to force the game’s pace and outcome, rather than having it dictated to them.
But with the moves that have been made and the players in the lineup, this year’s Broncos have assured that their aggression won’t be derailed by the loss of a single player.
It’s not just strategy; it’s philosophy. That makes all the difference.