ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- A carpenter is only as good as his tools. A good carpenter never blames his tools.
There's a wisp of contradiction in those cliches. But it was clear by Super Bowl XLVIII that Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio's toolbox was missing a claw hammer, a socket wrench and maybe a pair of needle nose pliers and a vise grip.
Without Von Miller … and Kevin Vickerson … and Derek Wolfe … and Chris Harris Jr. … and Rahim Moore … the Broncos was game and capable in the two previous playoff games, and held its own early in the Super Bowl before the dam burst. To this day, Del Rio will not use their absences as excuses.
"You do what you can," said Del Rio. "I would suggest if you go back and review last year, that we were very good down the stretch when it mattered. That didn't help our rank for the regular season but we were effective in the home win against San Diego and we were effective in the home win against the Patriots.
"And we helped our football team get to the championship game. So we did things that we're very proud of. And we did them shorthanded."
Four months later, Wolfe and Moore are back. Miller is taking part in individual drills and using the quick, successful rehabilitation of Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson as the model for his own comeback. Harris is working back up to strength with sessions on a side field. Vickerson has been cleared to begin moving and is targeting a Week 1 return.
Their comebacks, the free-agent pickups, the presence of Quinton Carter after nearly two years on injured reserve and the returns of 2013 rookies Quanterus Smith and Lerentee McCray from injuries give the Broncos a defense that is designed to be capable of allowing Del Rio to unleash his full tactical arsenal.
This was rarely possible in 2013, since injuries and a suspension of Miller compromised the unit from the start.
"This is a time of year when people rank how good you are on paper. And certainly on paper it looks real good," Del Rio said. "But I'm not really concerned much with that."
For the moment, Del Rio is concerned about implementation -- of the scheme -- and experimentation. OTAs provide the chance to shuffle personnel in and out, giving plenty of players looks on the first team from time to time, and learning what might have potential and what ideas get tossed.
"We've got plenty of creativity," said Del Rio. "What it really comes down to is getting on the same page, selecting from the packages the things that we can do the best and play fast with that."
Del Rio mentioned that new safety T.J. Ward can come into the box or work at a traditional safety spot. Using the aggressive Ward near the line of scrimmage brings more speed off the snap up front. Edge rushers like DeMarcus Ware and Quanterus Smith have the speed to drop into coverage, if the need arises. Aqib Talib embraces the notion of being placed on an island, so if he holds up well, he can be used like Champ Bailey in his prime years. Wolfe and Malik Jackson can line up inside or outside on the defensive line.
"We've got a large library of thoughts and ideas and different schemes and things we can do," Del Rio said.
Carter could be at the focal point of some of them; as a rookie in 2011, he grew rapidly and intercepted passes in each of the Broncos' playoff games that season.
"Two guys [Assistant Secondary Coach] Sam Garnes talked about when I first got here was Chris Harris and Quinton Carter," Del Rio said. "Quinton, having him back in the rotation, letting him get snaps and watching the way he is – instinctive and makes plays, plays with confidence – it'll be a great addition to have him back at full strength."
"Full strength." That's key for the defense, even though it appears to have better depth than in past years to combat inevitable injuries. But attitude matters, as well, and Del Rio spoke of the sacrifice players must make to provide the chance for the defense to achieve its potential -- which the Broncos hope is much closer to their No. 2 total defense ranking in 2012 than the No. 19 ranking last year.
"With our group and the way we are and our expectations anyway, we expect to be a special unit," Del Rio said.