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11-05-2006, 01:27 AM
Brown: Revenge of the Broncos

By Scott Brown
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, November 5, 2006


Of the many images the Denver Broncos conjure up, suffocating defense is generally not one of them, especially since the famed "Orange Crush" unit reigned when 8-track tapes were still relevant.
This year could change that.

Defense has been the driving force behind Denver's 5-2 start, and until last Sunday, the Broncos had allowed just two touchdowns.

They are still only giving up just over 11 points a game after the Indianapolis Colts scored -- gasp! -- three touchdowns and added four field goals in a 34-31 win at Denver.

But what the Colts were able to do against a defense that has twice gone 11 consecutive quarters without yielding a touchdown doesn't necessarily help the Steelers, who play host to the Broncos today at Heinz Field.

As wide receiver Hines Ward said, "We don't have that style of offense."

The Steelers did have enough offense to score four touchdowns, three in the pivotal second quarter, on the way to a 34-17 win over the Broncos in last year's AFC Championship game in Denver.

Whatever scabs that still remained from that loss were ripped open last week by the Colts. That means Denver, and particularly its defense, won't be in a particularly generous mood today.

It might be a stretch to call a unit that held five consecutive opponents to single digits in scoring underrated, but it doesn't get quite the recognition of defenses like the ones in Baltimore and Chicago.

"We have to produce over a whole season, not just five games," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. "You get notoriety after you do it in a situation where it really counts, like the playoffs and Super Bowls. Until you do that, you aren't going to separate yourself from the rest of the pack."

The Broncos tied an NFL record that has stood since 1942 by not allowing a touchdown in Denver's first 11 quarters of the season. The Colts brought them back to the pack a bit last week, but the Broncos have yet to allow a rushing touchdown and they are second only to the Chicago Bears in scoring defense.

The Broncos aren't especially opportunistic - they have forced just 10 turnovers - and give up their share of yardage (over 200 passing yards per game).

So why has scoring touchdowns been such a problem for teams that don't have Peyton Manning at quarterback?

"They really feel like once you get to their 20 yard-line, they can make it very hard for you to score," said former Broncos linebacker Tom Jackson, a two-time All-Pro selection who is in the team's Ring of Fame. "Overall they're a very good unit from front to back."

And one that will be different from the one the Steelers saw last January.

"Last year, they brought a lot of pressure. You had to try and guess where everybody was coming from," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "This year, it looks like they're just lining up and saying, 'We've got better players than you do.' "

Indeed, the most striking thing about Denver's defense is not the blinding speed of its linebackers or wondrously talented cornerback Champ Bailey - Steelers coach Bill Cowher said he might be the best in the game - but how it went from good to potentially great.

The Broncos have scaled back on their blitzing after Shanahan said they got too enamored with it last season. A back-to-the-future approach has fittingly put this year's defense in the company of the 1977 "Orange Crush" group that gave up 10.6 points per game and willed Denver to the Super Bowl.

Of course, the Broncos have been able to adhere to a more basic philosophy on defense because they have an abundance of what every NFL team covets: speed.

"They're not real big, per se," Cowher said. "but they're very well coordinated in what they do, and they run very well to the ball. Those linebackers are special."

The linebacking trio of Ian Gold, D.J. Williams and Al Wilson might be the best in the AFC.

The Broncos' front four is unheralded but players such as Browns castoff Gerard Warren have kept blockers off the linebackers and allowed them to roam relatively unfettered.

Denver has also gotten four sacks in five games from rookie pass-rushing specialist Elvis Dumervil.

Bailey leads a secondary that also features safety John Lynch, a veteran who is still one of the fiercest hitters in the game.

Bailey had eight interceptions in 2005 while making his sixth consecutive Pro Bowl and already has three this season.

Second-year cornerback Darrent Williams had a tough time against the Colts but Shanahan attributed that more to the lack of pressure the Broncos put on Manning.

Jackson, now an analyst for ESPN, said the loss to the Colts showed the Broncos are susceptible to crisp passing attacks, especially since they are not doing as much to put pressure on the quarterback the last two years.

Still, Denver doesn't figure to deviate from what it has done defensively, and certainly not against a Steelers team that has gotten inconsistent play from Roethlisberger.

"They're not giving up the big plays by doing the all-out blitz or what not," Ward said. "They're going to test the offense's patience, see if they can drive the ball down the field."

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