ENGLEWOOD — The headline screamed the truth of the championship: What A Rush!
That's what The Denver Post read — proudly, it was my headline as I was the beat writer then — after the Broncos won Super Bowl 50. The Broncos suffocated the Carolina Panthers, assaulting Cam Newton from every angle. That was the day that Von Miller became just Von, a national star who transcended sports.
The Broncos won their third ring because of the leadership of coach Gary Kubiak and legends Peyton Manning and DeMarcus Ware. They were a lighthouse in every storm. But the reason this team is remembered, if we are being fair, is the defense.
And that started with pressure as this group made quarterbacks more uncomfortable than sitting on a cactus. The top two outside linebackers — Von and Ware — combined for 18.5 sacks in the regular season and eight sacks in the playoffs along with 18 quarterback hits.
Last season the Broncos combined for 36 sacks, ranking 18th in the league, including 9.5 from the top two OLBs Malik Reed (five) and Von (4.5).
New defensive boss Ejiro Evero promises to affect the quarterback more, to produce more takeaways.
Let's be clear. The Broncos' optimism centers on quarterback Russell Wilson and new coach Nathaniel Hackett. But to return to the playoffs for the first time since Super Bowl 50, it requires three-dimensional improvement in all phases.
The defense is strong. However, without more takeaways and sacks, it is nothing more than shrugged shoulders in the standings. As such, the Broncos need top backers Bradley Chubb and Randy Gregory to combined for at least 20 sacks.
This is a realistic number, but fraught with danger because of number of missed games by both. Gregory, 29, has missed more games than he has played in his career, leaving him with six sacks as his single-season best, which he posted last season. And Gregory is recovering from rotator cuff surgery, and might not participate in training camp and could be limited early in the season.
Chubb has 20.5 sacks in 41 games, but only 8.5 the past three seasons, including 7.5 in 2020 when he earned his lone Pro Bowl berth.
Chubb, 26, remains bullish about this season, finally healthy after ankle surgeries sabotaged last year, leaving him with zero sacks in seven games.
"It was one of those things that you go through so much, you know what I mean? The dam has to break at some point," Chubb told Denver7 recently. "I feel like things have been building up and building up and it’s finally time to let it all out."
Chubb and Gregory finding synchronicity would be a script flip from the past five seasons. The Broncos' top two outside linebackers have combined to average 15 sacks a season.
Chubb and Von paced the group with 26.5 in 2018.
From 2017-2021, the Broncos' top two OLBs collected 77 sacks. Compare that to the previous five seasons when the top two combined for 108 or an average of 22 per season.
That number cannot be overlooked. When the Broncos paid Gregory $28 million guaranteed, this is the type of production they expected. No one has more at stake financially this season than Chubb. If he delivers, he could land a longterm deal as a core player or get franchise-tagged. Sputter and he might be searching for a new employer on a make-good contract.
Everything is set up for the sack numbers to increase if the offense takes more leads, as fully expected. But that amounts to speculation and crossed fingers.
The Broncos are putting in the work, but will it pay off?
Sacks must show up in the stats, starting with Chubb and Gregory.
"We feel good," Chubb said. "We have a chance to be special on defense with the guys we have coming back."