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Defense looks to bring back Orange Crush

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --Future Broncos offenses will try to match the records set last year, when the warp-speed passing attack broke a slew of league records en route to the Super Bowl.

But for the defense, the standard was set in the mid to late 1970's. The "Orange Crush," a unit that engulfed opponents and played with fire as bright as their jerseys. As NFL Films' renowned "Voice of God," John Facenda, intoned during the Super Bowl XII highlight film, the defense was "an angry avalanche of swarming defenders."

No Broncos defense has matched the standard established in those days. But the Orange Crush remains the inspiration, and the subject of a video that Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio showed to his defense this week.

"We always talk about it," said defensive end DeMarcus Ware. "It is about bringing that back and being a really potent defense, talking about it just defensively, and just bringing that tenacity to the field week in and week out.

"At the end of the day, this is an offensive-minded regime, but we're trying to be the No. 1 defense and we're bringing that Orange Crush back."

When the Broncos changed from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4 defense in 1976, the Orange Crush was born. That shift was borne of necessity; the loss of Lyle Alzado to an injury necessitated a four-linebacker set in order to get the best defenders onto the field.

But the heart of the defense remained at the core of the defensive line: nose tackle Rubin Carter. He drew double teams, freed the linebackers to swarm and make plays and helped establish a Broncos defensive tradition that has endured, with some hiccups along the way, for nearly four decades.

Once again, the interior of the defense is a strength: Terrance Knighton, Sylvester Williams, Marvin Austin and Mitch Unrein bring varied skill sets and still-untapped upside.

"We've got four guys that can go in there and get it going any time and make big plays," said Williams.

None is bigger than Knighton, whose skill set and ability to break down plays from the inside evokes memories of Carter's ability to draw double teams. (Of course, Carter did it at 256 pounds, which further illuminates how the game has changed.)

"He makes it real easy, because half the time he takes up two blockers," said linebacker Brandon Marshall. "Half the time, you're not going to single block him. He has to demand a double-team. So with him right there, you can flow more freely and you don't have to be so run-conscious. Just having him and Sly and Mitch and Marvin in the middle helps out tremendously."

With the strength in the middle that the Broncos believe they have again this year, the Orange Crush was elite for several seasons, and overwhelming for two. Its apex came after it allowed 17 points to Cincinnati in Week 1 of the 1976 season; the Broncos held 21 of their next 27 opponents to fewer than 17 points. Only three foes managed to score 20 or more points on Denver in that span.

But as overwhelming as the Broncos defense was in allowing just 148 points in 1977, the Atlanta Falcons' "Grits Blitz" actually did better that season, conceding just 129. This was the height of what has been dubbed the NFL's "dead ball era."

A year later, illegal-contact rules were tightened, and pass blocking was liberalized to allow blockers to extend their arms and open their hands. Myriad rules tweaks have followed in the next 36 years. Now, you don't even need to lead with your helmet to draw a penalty; if a shoulder hits an opponent's helmet, a penalty is called. As a result of the changes, scoring has steadily risen, from 17.2 points a game in 1977 to 23.4 last year. That trend shows no sign of abating.

"Back in the day they could do pretty much anything out there. So you've got guys clotheslining guys, ripping guys facemasks off. All kinds of crazy stuff," Austin said. "It was definitely different. They wouldn't be getting (any) game checks because they would have been fined every single play."

The methods must change, and it is unreasonable to expect the Broncos' points allowed to come close to their 1977 pace. But the basic concept of swarming to the football has not changed, and relative to other defenses in 2014, the Broncos have an opportunity to be in the elite.

"Defense is defense," said Austin. "(You've) got to play hard, play fast and play together."

Added Unrein: "The thing we try to take away from them is just the hustle to the ball and everyone playing for one another."

Just as the game has changed, so has the means of constructing an elite defense. Free agency didn't exist in 1977, unless you'd been cut. In 2014, that avenue brought Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib. The return from injuries provided a further transfusion of talent to the defense, with Derek Wolfe, Rahim Moore, Von Miller and Chris Harris Jr. returning injured reserve.

The result in 1977 was what Ware wants to see from the 2014 defense: "brutal nasty."

"You can see how they played on defense and just the tradition throughout the whole tape of how guys played and what they did," Ware said. "And now this year, we're trying to bring that back."

"Despite all our offensive productivity and how special our offense is, this town loves its team to play great defense," added Del Rio. "I look forward to us bringing back some of that Orange Crush feel."

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