When the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks take the field Sunday night, there’s no doubt that the Seahawks will be the team with the better defense. However, there’s also no sense debating that the Broncos will have the more resilient defense. The Broncos have fought through injuries on the defensive side of the ball all season long, but the Denver defense has persevered, and now they enter the Super Bowl playing their best football of the season, even amidst some of the most significant injuries they’ve suffered this year.
The Broncos began the season with Von Miller, one of the best defensive players in the league, serving a six-game suspension. Without Miller, the Broncos were missing one of the most feared pass rushers in the NFL, and that was after losing their other top pass rusher, Elvis Dumervil, in free agency during the offseason. Denver also had to place rookies Lerentee McCray and Quanterus Smith on injured reserve before the season started, after hoping that at least one of them could develop into a pass rush specialist and help fill the void in the absence of Miller and Dumervil.
A lacked of pass rushers looked like an area of concern for the Broncos, especially with their opponents routinely playing from behind and relying on their passing game. But the resilient Denver defense has been able to put together a viable pass rush, led by the 10 sacks from 10-year veteran Shaun Phillips, who has received help from backup Malik Jackson and backup turned starter Robert Ayers. Miller gave the Denver pass rush a temporary boost, but he was lost to a season-ending injury in week 16, before he had a chance to make an impact in the postseason.
The Denver defensive line also had to deal with the loss of Derek Wolfe and Kevin Vickerson to the injured reserve list for the latter part of the regular season and the postseason. Neither Wolfe or Vickerson is a star by any stretch, but both have become important contributors and a key part to Denver’s success over the past two seasons. The loss of those two players forced the Broncos to sign free agents late in the season to help fill out their depth chart. The absence of Vickerson could be felt in the Super Bowl, as both of Denver’s backup defensive tackles, Mitch Unrein and Sione Fua, are nursing injuries, and the ability of the Denver defensive to stop Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch could be a critical component of the game.
While the Denver defensive line has been battered and banged up all season, the secondary has been a revolving door personnel wise due to a constant flow of injuries. The aging Champ Bailey has struggled to get on the field and stay on the field all season, rarely staying on the field long enough to redeem himself for his pitiful performance in Denver’s playoff loss to the Ravens last year.
In addition to Bailey, starting safety Rahim Moore has been out since mid-November and the team’s best cornerback Chris Harris suffered a season-ending injury in the divisional round playoff game against the Chargers. At times, the entire Denver secondary appears to be an injury waiting to happen, as it’s become common for players to leave with an injury and re-enter the game later, giving the group little consistency or cohesion with regard to who’s on the field.
But through it all, the Denver defense has managed to survive all of the injuries and lineup changes, and they are now playing their best football at the right time of year. The Broncos have given up 15 points per game over their last four games, including their two postseason wins, after giving up no less than 17 points in a game through the first 15 weeks of the season. The Broncos are stuffing the run, sacking the quarterback when they need to, and holding their own in the secondary.
With the Broncos having a historically good offense, the defense isn’t the strength of the team; and with that offense facing the NFL’s stop defense Sunday in the Super Bowl, the Denver defense has been easy to overlook. But the Denver defense has fought through a series of key injuries and become an important part to the team’s success. After the adversity they’ve faced this season, they won’t be a liability in the Super Bowl, and if the Broncos win, the defense will likely be a big reason why.