A year after Emmanuel Sanders arrived in Denver as a free-agent signing in 2014, hailing the Broncos as "wide receiver heaven," the Broncos have added another heaven, this time on defense.
With 26 sacks, 17 takeaways, four defensive touchdowns and 4.26 yards per play allowed through six games, the Broncos have establish themselves as a dangerous ball-hawking, stingy group.
"This is linebacker heaven," inside linebacker Danny Trevathan said following his first game action of 2015. "This is defensive heaven right here. This is the defense you want to play in when you don't want to think. You want to have fun and you want to go out there and knock some heads, get loud and get the crowd pumped. This is the type of defense you want to be in right here."
Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips' 3-4 defensive alignment gets a lot of the credit, and for good reason with what it allows the Broncos to do. Linemen can concentrate on driving through one gap rather than trying to control two; outside linebackers including Pro Bowlers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware have the ability to set the edges; the front can disguise who rushes, confusing opposing offenses; and the secondary can capitalize on when the pressure affects throws into coverage.
But at the field level, the defense's changes are simple and go beyond the finer points of schematics. Many players have spoken about how much it simplifies things by letting them clear their mind.
"Defensive players, they're aggressive by nature. I think you take something away from them when you don't let them be," Phillips said in February at his introductory press conference.
So his philosophy tries not to take anything away, which fits the defensive players just fine.
That aggressiveness without having to hold anything back affects a balance between the two sides, allowing the defense to dictate what the opposition does.
"We've got a heck of a defense, heck of a scheme and Wade's a heck of a defensive coordinator," inside linebacker Brandon Marshall said. "So with all those things combined, it's not much an offense can do, regardless. They're going to have their plan but like Mike Tyson said, 'Everybody's got a plan until you get hit in the mouth.' And these preseason games, we've been hitting people in the mouth. So that's why we've been doing well."
Marshall and numerous teammates on the defense haven't limited themselves little jabs here and there, though. They've brought haymakers each week, beginning with safety Darian Stewart's game-sealing interception in the end zone against Baltimore to open the season. Each week it tends to be someone different making the game-changing play.
It seems that much of the defensive accolades often come back to Phillips. A 38-year NFL coaching veteran (45 years total as a coach at any level), Phillips has more experience coaching football than any player on the roster has experience being alive. And even as the age difference between him and his players continues to widen, he always is able to connect with them, even when it comes to staying on top of today's music.
"He's got a great personality," cornerback Aqib Talib said during OTAs. "He knows some of the music that we're playing when he walks past in the locker room and he's a funny guy. He'll grab the guys and pull them together in a heartbeat. He's a great coach. He knows how to get our attention."
Phillips appreciates a good beat, regardless of genre, he says, but music just scratches the surface of how he connects with his players.
"I started in the league when I was 27, so I had players older than me then," Phillips said. "It's changed the other way, except I've always treated them the same. I treat them with respect, but also been fair with all of them I've also let them know what I want them to do and they try to do that."
Naturally, part of Wade's coaching style stems from that of his father, Bum Phillips. Bum, the legendary head coach of the "Luv Ya Blue" Houston Oilers, engendered a fun family-like environment and helped draw out the best in his players by fostering connections and friendships that lasted until his passing in 2013.
"I learned from my dad, obviously," Phillips said, "and if you don't want to have fun, I just worry about how important your job is to you if you don't enjoy it. Player-wise, coach-wise—I think it's the same thing."
Ware, who had been coached by Phillips previously in Dallas, knows exactly why players want to play so hard for him, and it comes down to passion and accountability.
"When you look at Wade, he's that guy to where it's almost like a father figure," Ware says. "When you see him, you don't want to do anything wrong, especially in plays. He's not going to be that rah-rah type of guy. He's a guy that you want to play for and pour your heart out because you know how passionate he is for this game."
Accountability has been a major theme for Phillips, and not just for the players. In 2008, HBO's Hard Knocks gave us a glimpse of it as Phillips, then the Cowboys' head coach, told the team "The mistakes are mine" after a preseason loss to the Broncos.
"I think when you think about 'Iron sharpens iron' and 'one man sharpens another' that's what it's about: being accountable for each other and holding each other to a high standard," Ware says. "That's how the players play and it started with Coach Wade and how he takes on things.
"You say, 'Hey, if it's explained right and you do what you need to do, you won't have to worry about making any mistakes. The mistakes are on me,'" Ware continued. "And we just go out there and just give it all we have and you can see how it's sort of changed our defense from these preseason games from last year. I know our defense is going to be better this year, so I'm looking forward to getting it done."
As the intensity increased throughout training camp, Phillips' philosophy took shape in preseason and continued into the regular season.
"He's just an old-school coach and he kicked it to us real," Trevathan said. "He told us to just go out there and play ball. Don't worry about anything. Just play ball, know what you're doing, be fundamentally sound and just play ball. It's going to work out for good. We have the pieces to the defense. For us to go out there and showcase this, it's just showing that we're working towards our goal to be the best defense in the league."
Another of Phillips' hallmarks is one that goes a bit by the wayside with football as a profession, but it gets to the heart of what the game should be for everyone involved: fun.
"This is something that we've been doing since we've been little and why should it change just because we're at the NFL level?" Trevathan says. "It's all about having fun. I love the way Coach Wade gave it to us. […] He says just have fun and play ball, and that was just a burden lifted off me because I like to go have fun and be full speed.
"It's a family thing," Trevathan said. "Coach [Kubiak] came to us, Coach Wade, everybody—it makes us want to play for them, play hard. So that's why I showcase so much. People have a hard time [against] us because we're playing not only for ourselves. It's bigger than us. That's our motto."