Broncos’ defense shines in win, but will the unit be elite again in 2023?


DENVER — Justin Simmons has pondered the question more times than he cares to count during a career filled with brilliant individual performances but no postseason experience to show for it.

In the final, cold month of a lost season, the All-Pro safety for the Broncos was asked this week, where does your motivation come from?

“These next four weeks will tell a lot about your character as a player and as a person because you’re not playing for the playoffs,” he said. “That’s obviously out the window. It’s a true test of character that when you are out there playing, are you still giving it 100 percent? Is this everything that you said it was and more? Everyone talks about how it’s a childhood dream, something you’ve always wanted to play since you were little, and how you love the game. Now you are playing for the love of the game because we’re not playing for that playoff spot. For me, thinking about that question, it’s a no-brainer. It’s going out there and doing my job at the highest level possible because that’s what I get paid to do and I love doing it.”

There are plenty of hard questions to be asked about how things went colossally wrong for the Broncos in a 2022 season that fell miles short of expectations — a season way too far gone to be saved by Sunday’s 24-15 victory over the lowly Cardinals that snapped a five-game losing streak. But the pride and effort put forth by Simmons and this talented Denver defense have been largely above reproach, a testament to its stars, role players and coaches alike. It is a unit that deserved a celebratory postgame moment like the one that took place in their locker room Sunday.

Take the scene at the stall occupied by DeShawn Williams, the veteran defensive end who tallied a career-high 2 1/2 sacks Sunday. Teammate Dre’Mont Jones, who landed on injured reserve this week with a hip injury, pushed a microphone toward Williams, then playfully wiped a tear away as Williams started singing the praises of his friends and teammates on the defensive front. Mike Purcell sat in a chair below the crush of reporters, listening intently. D.J. Jones turned his phone into a recording device, pushed it toward Williams and hollered, “Excuse me, DeShawn, what was your motivation?”

“My son,” responded a smiling Williams, who welcomed his first child in February.

“Hallelujah!” said Jones, who is also the father to a newborn son.

No matter what they are playing for, members of Denver’s defense have found a way to stay connected during a season that was dragged down by one of the worst offensive outputs in franchise history. You can bet that there has been frustration that their effort has so rarely been rewarded with victories like the one they enjoyed Sunday, the team’s first home win since September. But the continued success of that unit — Denver ranked No. 3 in scoring defense (18.1 opponent points per game), No. 2 in opponent points per drive (1.46),  No. 2 in third-down efficiency (32.1 percent) and No. 1 in red-zone efficiency (37.5 percent) after Sunday afternoon’s games — is a result of the tight bond that has been nurtured by first-year defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero.

“The way we communicate, the way we fly around, the way we stick together no matter what, it’s a special feeling,” said Pat Surtain II, the young star cornerback who notched his second interception in as many weeks in the fourth quarter to extinguish’s Arizona’s final drive. “We preach that about this unit all the time. It’s relentless effort, hard work and just making plays, and that’s what we do week in and week out. I’m proud to be a part of it.”



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A play late in the first quarter illustrated the complementary way in which Denver’s defense has thrived this season, even as injuries have caused significant changes to the lineup from week to week. On third-and-5, the Broncos simulated a five-man pressure with linebacker Josey Jewell ready to blitz up the middle. At the snap, Jewell retreated and fellow linebacker Alex Singleton, who began the play almost 6 yards off the line of scrimmage, fired toward the backfield, evaluating his path as he sprinted forward. When Cardinals running back James Conner moved to provide a double-team block on Randy Gregory, the outside linebacker who returned Sunday after a nine-week absence due to a knee injury, Singleton seized the open space and laid a hit on Colt McCoy that forced the quarterback to fire high and into the waiting arms of Simmons.

“We really do treat every day like a game day, and so it’s fun when we get out here and get to go against someone else,” Singleton said. “We’re flying around and playing our brand of football, and we truly enjoy it.”

The first-quarter interception was Simmons’ fifth of the season, marking the third year in a row he has hit that mark. His interception in the fourth quarter off Trace McSorley, which set up a touchdown pass from Brett Rypien to tight end Eric Tomlinson that gave the Broncos their largest lead of the season, 24-9, was the 26th of Simmons’ career. No other safety has more since Simmons entered the NFL in 2016, and among all players, only Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard (28) has a higher total.

This year, though, has been as trying as any during Simmons’ career. He missed five games due to injury, including an early-season stint on injured reserve, but he continues to make game-changing plays at a rate few at his position can. He sparked a victory in London with a goal-line interception of Trevor Lawrence, picked off two passes in a 10-9 loss against the Ravens and set the tone Sunday, not only with his two interceptions but with the way he set expectations during the week for what the final stretch of the season should look like.

“He is the leader of this football team,” head coach Nathaniel Hackett said Sunday. “To be able to go out there and execute the way he has despite having some adversity — he has not experienced that type of adversity with the injuries and being out and on IR. He has come back, and I love how that whole back end is communicating. I love watching how they get organized with the motions, all those things. I think that just shows how they are as a group and how our defensive staff is putting them in the best positions.”

Perhaps the Broncos would have been able to reward the defense’s performance more frequently this season had they played complementary football in the way they did Sunday. Denver scored 21 unanswered points in the second half behind a bruising rushing attack. Latavius Murray gained 130 yards on 24 carries to become Denver’s first 100-yard rusher this season and was rewarded afterward with what he said was the first game ball of his career.

“Year 10 and still checking things off the list,” the 32-year-old said.

It was a seemingly unlikely rebound after the Broncos gave up six sacks in the first half and shuffled through four different combinations of offensive linemen because of injuries to Quinn Meinerz (eye), Tom Compton (back) and Dalton Risner (elbow; he later returned). But play-caller Klint Kubiak kept sticking with the run game, and Murray broke off runs of 21 and 35 yards in the second half and capped his day with a 7-yard touchdown.

“In the second half, we really committed to running the ball, and we didn’t give (coaches) a reason to call passes,” center Graham Glasgow said. “We were executing well, everyone seemed to be communicating and listening. Everybody was kind of rolling. When you’re leaning on someone for a while, you can feel when they just don’t really want to play anymore.”

The formula that gave the Broncos success Sunday on offense should be one they replicate when Russell Wilson, who missed Sunday’s game after suffering a concussion last week, returns to the field. Run the ball, pick spots to feature Jerry Jeudy (another big game with seven catches for 76 yards) and finish red-zone opportunities (3-of-3).

That alone won’t guarantee a rebound in 2023. Significant upgrades are needed to the offensive line, and Denver needs to add more playmakers. But this should be the framework for the offense at this stage in Wilson’s career.



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An equally important task for the Broncos and general manager George Paton is figuring out how to retool the offense while trying to recreate the special environment the team has cultivated on the defensive side of the ball, where success tends to be harder to maintain from year to year. Veteran leaders such as Kareem Jackson, Dre’Mont Jones, Singleton and Williams will be free agents. It would be a surprise if Evero was not interviewed for head-coaching vacancies in the upcoming cycle, and members of his coaching staff, such as secondary coach Christian Parker, could get looks for open coordinator jobs. The business of football could alter the makeup of a unit that has been one of the NFL’s best in 2022.

But whether you are giving them their flowers or offering them condolences for the defeats they’ve suffered, members of Denver’s defense are focused, Simmons said afterward, “on finishing this thing the right way.”

“We have a bunch of brothers who have been through the ups and downs, and it has just brought us closer together,” Williams said. “With this defense, we are just trying to put it on the resume each week because we know this is how the game goes — not everybody is going to be here (next season). We’re just trying to put on the best tape we can for all 32 teams. Hopefully, we can all stay together, but that’s not likely how it is, so we just try to put on the best tape we can.”

(Photo of Patrick Surtain (2) and Justin Simmons: Ron Chenoy / USA Today)


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