Nowhere was the instability of recent Broncos history better illustrated than by their inability to keep a defensive coordinator longer than a single season.
After then-coach Mike Shanahan fired Larry Coyer in January 2007 following a late-season collapse, any consistency in the second-floor back-corner office of Broncos headquarters evaporated. Jim Bates, Bob Slowik, Mike Nolan and Don "Wink" Martindale came and went; under their watch the defense regressed, improved in 2009, then collapsed entirely under Martindale after he lost Elvis Dumervil to a torn pectoral muscle in the 2010 training camp.
When John Fox hired ex-New Orleans secondary coach Dennis Allen in January 2011, the match seemed secure. Their defensive backgrounds were similar philosophically, even though they'd never coached together before, and Fox had a respect for Allen earned from facing the Saints' defenses while being the Panthers' head coach.
Given Fox's long-term building mandate, it seemed just one circumstance could keep their union from breaking after one year: a defense that improved so much that Allen was snapped away as someone else's head coach. The Oakland Raiders took care of that, making Allen their first defensive-oriented head coach since the 1969 promotion of linebackers coach John Madden.
Thus, the Broncos were forced to set a modern NFL record with their seventh defensive coordinator in seven seasons. But No. 7, Jack Del Rio, was also Fox's first defensive coordinator with Carolina in 2002, so the two have philosophical familiarity that should ensure a friction-free transition.
"I spent just the one year with him," Del Rio said, "but during that time, I learned a great deal being a part of his staff and the way he conducted his business, the way he motivated the team and rallied the team and led the staff, the way he interacts with the building. Those are all things that I believe in."
Del Rio inherits a defense on the upswing. From 2010 to 2011 improved from 32nd to 20th in yardage allowed, increased its sack total from 23 to 40 and allowed one fewer touchdown per game. During a six-game winning streak, it allowed an average of 17.0 points per game and held foes below 14 points four times -- something it only did twice in its previous 28 games.
"We just want to build on that, and try and improve on that and help this football team win. Last year was a good start in that direction," Del Rio said.
But Del Rio also takes over a defense that struggled at times, particularly in the first and last months of the season. Denver allowed 40 or more points four times in 2011, matching Tampa Bay for the most in the NFL. Three of those 40-point games were against playoff teams Green Bay, Detroit and New England -- teams that possess two common traits: Pro Bowl quarterbacks and ample pass-catching depth. Each club had at least four players catch at least five touchdown passes in 2011; the Broncos simply couldn't cope with that many downfield threats, and were consequently torched.
The Patriots, in particular, exposed the Broncos' defensive shortcomings during two routs on Dec. 18 and Jan. 14, scoring 41 and 45 points at Denver's expense. New England used quick, well-timed passes to neutralize the edge pass-rushing threats of Pro Bowlers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, then Tom Brady threw away from cornerback Champ Bailey's side of the field. Without injured safety Brian Dawkins, the Broncos' young safeties and other cornerbacks struggled to keep pace.
Green Bay and Detroit used some similar tactics in October, but then the Broncos were a gasping team that appeared headed nowhere but last place. By the time the Patriots arrived in December, the surging Broncos had a six-game winning streak, "Tebowmania" gripping the nation and a defense that had held opponents to one touchdown in four of its previous five games.
The scant resistance to New England's onslaught showed a defense not yet ready to keep pace with lofty competition.
"We can do some good things but we've got a lot of work to do," Bailey said. "Obviously, if we want to be one of the elite, we've got to play like it when you play teams like this, especially when it's win or go home."
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