CHICAGO --None of the four Broncos who were selected for last season's Pro Bowl played a down Thursday night.
The starting lineup when the defense took the field in its dime personnel/nickel alignment sub package included just five players who were first teamers by the time the Broncos arrived at Super Bowl 50; the rest were reserves and included one rookie -- precocious third-round pick Justin Simmons.
It didn't matter.
Three key players on last year's defense are now on other teams -- including one, linebacker Danny Trevathan, who delivered a hit on Mark Sanchez as he threw his 32-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas early in the first quarter.
That, too, didn't matter.
Denver's defense is far more than just Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib, among others. And what the Broncos had was more than enough to dominate and prevent the Bears from advancing beyond the Broncos' 43-yard line, let alone threaten to score in a 22-0 whitewashing at Soldier Field.
"That shows the depth we have," said T.J. Ward, who roared into the backfield on a safety blitz for one of seven sacks racked up by the defense in a performance that offered the first tangible statement that the unit wants the sequel to its blockbuster season to be football's answer to The Empire Strikes Back, and be superior to the original that spawned it.
One reason why the defense believes it can be better is because of the depth that was on display at Soldier Field. Returning players like cornerbacks Bradley Roby, Kayvon Webster and Lorenzo Doss, outside linebackers Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett and inside linebackers Corey Nelson and Zaire Anderson are a year older, a year wiser and a year better.
Roby, Webster and Doss shut down Chicago's receivers. Ray and Barrett blew up plays near the line of scrimmage, with Ray showing his improved awareness and strength at the point of attack against the run.
"Last year, we had a lot of young guys," Ray said. "But now we have a lot of young guys that are playing at a high level. That's the most important thing -- for our depth to continue so step up."
It starts with having performances that resemble the one the Broncos notched last year. Thursday was a good example. Between incompletions, sacks and tackles for losses, 21 of the Bears' 48 plays ended in no gain or with a loss of yardage -- a whopping 44 percent.
That's a lot.
Of course, that's a typical performance for the Broncos defense, especially compared with the standard it set last January and February. Against Carolina in Super Bowl 50, the Broncos held the Panthers to no gain or a loss on 49.3 percent of their 75 plays from scrimmage.
This was the textbook example of a team that picked up where it left off.
"It's definitely the same attitude. It may be a little bit better as far as wanting to dominate the opponent," Ward said. "We're clicking."
Of course, a year ago at this time, the defense was already dominating opponents, serving notice of the dismantlings to come.
But Ward sees this unit being ahead of where it was 12 months ago.
"Absolutely," he said, and he needed to say no more. Despite missing some of its key components, it already looks to be in regular-season form.
"It says we're at another level right now. We have top-tier players, but then we have a group of backups that can start for other teams."
And it is in that core of dynamic players itching for their opportunities that the possibility of matching and even going beyond last year's greatness exists.
"We have a lot more depth than we had last year," Ward said. "So it's very possible to repeat."
All three quarterbacks got reps, the defense dominated and the Broncos shutout the Bears, 22-0, in Chicago. (Photos by Eric Bakke unless otherwise noted)