ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – **As the Broncos move further and further away from Feb. 7, 2016, and a Super Bowl 50 win, the defense repeatedly faces the same question.
After a season in which the 'No Fly Zone' smothered receivers and the front seven wreaked havoc on quarterbacks; after a season in which the Broncos held opponents to 14.6 points per game in the playoffs; and after a season in which Denver's defense proved itself one of the best of all-time, this question might be more difficult than winning their third world championship.
How can they get better?
"There's only two ways to go," Phillips said. "It's up or down, and you need to go up in this business because everybody else is trying to shoot at you and they know what you did last year. It's going to be a big challenge every game. I think we can get better. There are some areas where we can get better. Individually, we gave each player what they could do to improve themselves. We made a list of things that we could improve ourselves on defense overall [and] coaching-wise, what we need to change and do better. We're always working to get better, no matter how well you do."
For many of the players Phillips mentioned on Thursday, that improvement will stem from consistency. Outside linebacker Von Miller had five sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception during the Broncos' playoff run. During the regular season, Miller recorded four sacks through the first eight games and then went off for seven during the final eight weeks of the season. That includes a stretch in which Miller terrorized opposing quarterbacks at a torrid pace, recording six sacks in five games.
As Phillips looks for ways for the defense to improve, he hopes Miller can translate his end-of-year performance to the entirety of the regular season. Should that happen, the sixth-year pro could take a huge step.
"I had [Houston DE] J.J. Watt at the Texans," Phillips said, "and at the end of his first year in the playoff game, he really came on. You could see all the things he could do. It's the same thing with Von here. Von has been great before this, but he played at a higher level. He played at an MVP level. Not just defensive MVP, but league MVP, really, the last [part] of the year. I'm sure that will be the challenge for him."
Miller certainly won't be the only player that Phillips looks toward to help boost the defense after the loss of defensive lineman Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan to free agency.
Count ILBs Todd Davis, Corey Nelson and Zaire Anderson among those to whom Phillips will turn to replace Trevathan. Defensive end Derek Wolfe, who re-signed with Denver this offseason, will need to contribute interior pressure at an even higher level. And, just as he is with Miller, Phillips is excited about the prospect of Wolfe's contributions if he can extend his postseason contributions throughout the course of a season.
"He really came on toward the end of the year and was really our dominant inside player," Phillips said. "He's always been a good run player, at least for us this last year he was a tremendous run player. Toward the end of the year, he was getting after the quarterback really well. I look for him to take up where he left off."
At Thursday's press conference, the questions for Phillips were similar in structure and focus: How much can insert player here improve? The media rattled off the names: Shane Ray, Bradley Roby, Will Parks, Justin Simmons. And to hear Phillips speak, each player had a fair number of areas in which they could get better.
"They know we're honest with them. We're honest when we tell them, 'Hey, you did a good job' on something. We're honest when we say, 'Hey, you can better if you do this better.' We told them that there are a couple of things like when they run a 'stag,' we're going to change up how we play that every time so that can help you guys do better. It's all of those."
So even as the Broncos head toward their Super Bowl ring ceremony, the prevailing thought is clear: Many of the players still have higher ceilings. And it's not too difficult to follow the resulting logic. If the players all get better, one would expect the defense to improve, as well.
Even after a dominant postseason performance. Even after a Super Bowl win.
"We were outstanding and one of the legendary defenses of our time," Phillips said. "I told them, I said, 'We want to get better, certainly, but you're not going to get better than winning the Super Bowl.' That's the goal that you reached last year and you have to try and reach again. But you can get better as a player and you can get better scheme-wise. We can do those things better for them. I think individually you're always trying to get better coaching-wise and playing-wise. That's what our goal is."
After all, there's at least one thing better than earning a Lombardi Trophy:
Winning two in a row.