With Super Bowl XLVIII just days away, the headlines surrounding the game are undoubtedly the weather, Richard Sherman, and Super Bowl commercial teasers.
While these facts are true, neither the Broncos nor the Seahawks are one-dimensional squads; the battle that will ensue between the Seahwks' offense the Broncos' defense could easily decide the game's outcome.
Should this indeed be the case, Denver Broncos fans should start preparing for their post-game celebrations—quarterback Peyton Manning and the Denver offense may have made history this season, but the Denver defense has quietly improved to become a reliable and feared squad.
It definitely wasn't the smoothest of regular seasons for defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio's unit; they allowed 29 passing touchdowns and an average of 254.4 passing yards per game. On the contrary, they only gave up an average of 101.6 rushing yards per game, yet they did allow 15 rushing touchdowns.
Overall, the unit fell victim to almost always facing offenses who were playing from behind. With the Denver offense scoring more rapidly than any other team in the league, opposing offensive coordinators quickly abandoned the run and opted for a passing attack.
This was highlighted most clearly, perhaps, in Denver's thrilling Week 5 victory over the Dallas Cowboys. In possibly the best performance of his career, Dallas quarterback Tony Romo annihilated the Broncos' secondary, throwing for 506 yards and five touchdowns. Dallas was just trying to match the Broncos' offense, and the Denver defense was subsequently overwhelmed. The Broncos walked away with a 51-48 victory, yet the defense walked away looking quite porous.
In the weeks that followed this game, Denver remained a one-sided team. The offense was putting up scores that rendered the defense almost unnecessary, and not surprisingly, the defense's statistics were awful.
Week 15 changed this however. The surging San Diego Chargers came into Denver and handed the Broncos their third and final loss of the season. In the 27-20 loss, Manning and the Denver offense showed vulnerability. They couldn't move the ball in any fashion, and the Denver defense couldn't contain the San Diego offense. With the playoffs just two weeks away, Denver seemed to have exposed their Achilles’ heel.
In the four games that have followed, however, the Denver defense has been nothing short of stellar. Even with the devastating loss of Pro Bowl linebacker Von Miller in Week 16, the unit has given up only 15 points per game since that revealing loss to the Chargers.
While they didn't garner too much credit or attention for holding the Houston Texans and Oakland Raiders to 13 and 14 points, respectively, people began to take notice in the divisional round of the playoffs this year. The Chargers, hot off a road win against the Cincinnati Bengals, were back in town, and once again, Manning and the offense struggled to get anything really rolling. This time, however, the Denver defense stepped up, holding the San Diego offense to just 17 points and sacking Chargers' quarterback Phillip Rivers four times.
In the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots, the Denver defense once again played tough football, frustrating Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense all day while allowing Manning and the Denver offense to play conservatively.
The improvement of the unit has been largely due to acquisitions made under John Elway's reign as Executive VP of Football Operations and de facto general manager for the Broncos. Defensive end Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan were both late draft picks in the 2012 NFL Draft who have found their stride this season. Veterans Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton (DT) and Shaun Phillips (DE) were both signed this past offseason and have made huge impacts on the defensive line. In an NFL.com article by Chris Wesseling and Marc Sessler, many of the Broncos' players cited Knighton as being one of the team's behind-the-scenes leaders. Not bad for a guy who was previously playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars; win-win at its truest fashion.
The defensive line also had to deal with major adversity; defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson went down with an injury and defensive end Derek Wolfe was stricken with illness. This has opened the doors for defensive tackle Sylvester Williams—the Broncos' first-round pick from last year's draft has become an asset to the team in his rookie season.
Lastly, let's not forget the biggest defensive signing of all under Elway's jurisdiction, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. The former Jacksonville Jaguars head coach was picked up by the Broncos in January 2012 to run the defense; this signing is starting to pay large dividends.
Peyton Manning and the flashy Denver offense may draw ratings and are unarguably the best in the league, yet the Denver defense, despite hardships and doubters, have proven that they complete the Denver Broncos, making them a true Super Bowl team. A team this well-rounded, constructed by such careful, under-the-radar signings, comes along only once every few years. Everyone, please enjoy, and Denver fans' revel, for a Lombardi trophy seems very much within reach.