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D-Line Uses Criticism as Fuel

Posted Sep 7, 2013

Independent analyst Andrew Mason breaks down an inspired performance by the Broncos' defensive line against the Ravens.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Words didn’t wound the Broncos’ defensive line. But as the unit prepared for Thursday’s season opener, it took note of the public skepticism that formed as it faced a season opener without two players who combined for 27.5 sacks from the edges last year.

Each question, each skeptical critique wondering where the pass rush was going to originate was another splash of lighter fluid onto a flame that kept growing and finally became a full-fledged explosion Thursday, with Shaun Phillips’ 2.5 sacks leading the way. 

“There’s always going to be doubters, and I know S.P. had a huge chip on his shoulder – which he should,” said defensive lineman Derek Wolfe. “I had one on my shoulder. So did everybody else.”

But Phillips, the newest member of the defensive line – since he agreed to terms two days after rookie Sylvester Williams was drafted – took the criticism most personally of all.

After all, he was brought to Denver in the first place to replace what had been lost when Dumervil was released following the fax snafu and opted not to return to the Broncos in March. Phillips didn’t see the breakdowns from detached observers as offering calculated analysis; he viewed them as an attack of his proficiency.

"Of course, because that's basically saying, 'Shaun Phillips, you suck. Denver Broncos defensive line, you suck,’” Phillips said.

“We've got good football players. Football's not about one person; it's about 11 people doing the same thing at the same time. Von Miller, to me, is the best player in the NFL, and it hurts not to have him, but it's part of the game. If you don't have somebody sometimes, it's the next man up."

What helped make the Broncos’ front four work Thursday was that there were plenty of next men to go around – and they each took their turns. No defensive lineman played fewer than 18 percent of the snaps (Sylvester Williams); none played more than 79 percent (Robert Ayers), and the Broncos used 20 different line combinations.

Such a liberal rotation helped the defensive front wear down the Ravens. The points the offense amassed helped; as it piled up one touchdown after another, it forced the Ravens into a multi-score deficit that made them one-dimensional, freeing the front four to rush Joe Flacco while occasionally using a zone blitz and dropping an end into coverage.

But even in the second quarter through the early part of the third, when the game was still in considerable doubt, Denver’s defensive linemen did better at filling gaps and getting a consistent push off the snap. As Baltimore’s offensive line wore down, the Broncos’ front four stayed fresh.

“Especially in the second half, we did a great job of rotating,” Wolfe said. “Malik (Jackson) did a great job of coming in every time he saw I was tired, and everybody in the middle did a great job of rotating. That’s huge on the defensive line. Everybody’s fresh and ready to play relentlessly.”

And the group seems to know how to play well off each other. When defensive tackles Kevin Vickerson and Terrance Knighton lined up together, they helped defuse Baltimore running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. The first of the defensive tackles to crash through the Ravens’ offensive line would help steer the ballcarrier into the other, or to onrushing linebackers or safeties closing in after reading the play’s development.

The improved work of Vickerson and Knighton was a promising development, given the occasional struggles the pair had at times during training camp as they grew accustomed to one another. That was a part of the growth process, and helped lead to their play Thursday.

“In camp we were just trying to get a feel for each other, and then in live action, it just naturally flows,” Vickerson said. “Everything else happened. We're just trying to play fast and physical inside, and that's all we can do."

But good chemistry also helps. And that’s where the offseason and preseason chatter about what the line could and could not do paid dividends.

“We have the closest D-line group I’ve ever been a part of, other than maybe my senior year in college (at the University of Cincinnati),” Wolfe said. “We were pretty close last year, and I didn’t think we could get any closer than that, but we have.

“When people doubt you, you either grow apart or come together. We’ve come together.”

Now that they’ve flourished once, the only question revolves around whether they can keep stepping forward with the same kind of performance and chemistry. One game is well and good, but the veterans know that it isn’t enough.

“They were asking us where we're going to get our answers from, and I think we all stepped up and answered the question,” Vickerson said. “But it's just one game. But if we put them together, then you can say something.”