- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 21, 2017

ASHBURN — The Denver Broncos lost the 2014 Super Bowl and general manager John Elway looked at the construct of his roster. He determined that the Broncos, who had an all-time record-setting offense led by Peyton Manning, needed to get better on defense.

Elway’s dramatic turnaround worked. The Broncos won the Super Bowl in 2016 — in large part due to their defense. In fact, a funny thing happened. With Manning suddenly showing his age, Denver became defined by its defense.

Even this season, a down year, the Broncos have a top ranked defense ranked first in yards allowed. In advanced metrics, they rank eighth in DVOA, a Football Outsiders stat which measures efficiency.

So what exactly was the secret sauce? Can the Redskins, who made moves this offseason to improve their defense, take anything away from the defense Elway built?

There is more than one way to go about it, but the Broncos employed a multi-prongerd approach.

Finding generational talent

Long before the Broncos made their turnaround, they were 4-12 and used the No. 2 pick in 2011 to select Von Miller.

Von Miller, who now makes $19.9 million per year, is one of the league’s top pass rushers. Miller helped transform the Broncos into a dominant defense. This season, Miller has accounted for 32 percent of his team’s 31 sacks with 10.

“When you get them into pass rush situations, he’s got every move known to man,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “…There’s really nothing that he can’t do.”

Finding generational talent is easier said than done, though there are still ways to generate pressure. This year, the Redskins actually lead the league, according to ESPN’s stats and information, in pressure rate with 34 percent.

The Redskins get pressure on the quarterback thanks to a revamped interior line and solid outside linebackers in Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith.

Denver, by comparison, ranks eighth in pressure with 29.7 percent.

Scoring on free agents

Part of Denver’s turnaround in the 2014 offseason centered around Elway’s decision to acquire three free agents: outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward.

Conventional football wisdom says spending big money on free agency can be risky, but each player gave the Broncos a much-needed upgrade in those spots. While Ware and Ward aren’t with the Broncos anymore, Denver was able to replace those players internally with outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett and safety Justin Simmons.

But it was Talib, who signed a six-year, $57 million contract, who made a dramatic difference. Paired with Chris Harris, the two formed the league’s best corner situation, dubbing themselves “The No Fly Zone.”

Since 2015, Talib’s second-year in Denver, the Broncos defense has allowed more than 200 passing yards just 18 times out of 46 games.

The Redskins have taken shots of their own to rebuild their defense. Of the Redskins’ 11 starters on defense, five were signed in free agency (or four, if Zach Brown doesn’t play this week).

Washington, most notably, dished out a five-year, $75 million contract in 2016 to cornerback Josh Norman. The Redskins have tried to spend their way into fixing their problems at safety, too. This offseason, they signed D.J. Swearinger to a three-year, $13.5 million deal.

Both moves have paid off — Norman has has some mistakes this year, but he generally can be counted on to take away half the field. Swearinger has been one of Washington’s best safeties in years.

But the Redskins haven’t had a perfect track record. Marginal moves like signing safety David Bruton haven’t worked out. They famously whiffed on Albert Haynesworth.

Under-the-radar moves

It was fitting that quarterback Kirk Cousins, when asked about the Broncos defense, singled out two players that aren’t thought of as “stars” of the Denver defense: linebacker Brandon Marshall and safety Darian Stewart.

The Broncos, under Elway, have had key discoveries that have elevated their defense. Marshall was an undrafted free agent and Stewart initially signed a two-year, $4.25 million bargain contract, leaving the Baltimore Ravens.

“We’ve got our hands full and [we’re] going to have to be on the details, on the screws, making plays, executing, and hopefully staying penalty-free protecting the football,” Cousins said.

Elway hasn’t been perfect — the Broncos have a mess at quarterback and along their offensive line — but he recognized Denver needed significant changes. That included making a coaching change, hiring Gary Kubiak and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to replace John Fox in 2015, the season the Broncos won the Super Bowl. (The Broncos then hired Vance Joseph, their current coach, in 2017 after Kubiak retired following the 2016 season.)

The Redskins have also tried to remake their defense with changes in the offseason, promoting Greg Manusky to defensive coordinator and bringing in Jim Tomsula to coach the defensive line.

Despite being impacted by injuries, Washington under those two coaches has ranked 10th — just two spots below Denver — in defensive DVOA.

Still, stats, like points allowed, don’t tell the whole story.

Despite losing eight games, there are indications the Redskins have gotten better on defense.

“From our standpoint, we are growing I think each and every week,” Manusky said. “We have our ups and downs, but overall it’s a process — wherever I’ve been — of trying to get that implemented across the board and we are working to it.”

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