ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — It’s not the 11 Pro Bowls, the six All-Pros or even the four Super Bowl rings that makes the Broncos’ secondary elite, it’s the friendship.
In the multi-billion dollar business that is the NFL, loyalty is almost non-existent and constant turnover is expected, especially when it comes to elite units on great teams, such as Denver’s defensive backfield.
After a tremendous 2015 season, capped off with a Super Bowl celebration at Civic Center Park, the secondary could have easily fizzled. Darian Stewart could have played out the final year of his contract in 2016 and hit free agency in March. Instead, he signed an extension in November, choosing to stay in Denver over pursuing the open market where he could have commanded more money.
Chris Harris Jr., although under contract through 2019, could have justifiably tried to pry more money out of the Broncos’ brass after three straight trips to the Pro Bowl, including a First-team All-Pro nod in 2016. Instead, he took his modest, in NFL standards, $8.5 million annual salary and focused on the task at hand: dominating opposing quarterbacks for the third year in a row.
“This league changes so much, but just knowing that those guys are going to be in the room week in and week out, year in and year out, it’s great just knowing you can count on those guys,” Stewart said about the dependability of the rest of the starters in the secondary. “It’s a great luxury.”
The final piece of the ‘No Fly Zone’ was added when the Broncos signed Stewart before the 2015 season. Since then, they have had the best secondary in the league the past two seasons, leading the NFL in passing yards per game allowed both years.
“We’ve been together [going on] three years. We’ve worked together for three years. We just know the ins and outs of each other,” T.J. Ward said on Wednesday. “We know how each other likes to play, what guys don’t like to do in certain situations and having a defense and knowing the small intricacies as four veterans; you can’t get that man.”
On the field, they understand each other's moves and signals like teammates. However, what allows them to do that is the bond that they have off the field.
“Just our friendship. Just being closer,” Stewart said on what propels them to be a great unit. “Three years together, you really don’t see that a lot, especially with having the years we have under our belt. I think there is going to be a lot of plays made just by us being comfortable with one another.”
The major change in the defense and secondary this offseason was to the coaching ranks. After former defensive coordinator Wade Phillips left the Broncos, defensive backs coach Joe Woods was promoted to fill Phillips' absence.
The secondary wasn’t without a coach for long, hiring Marcus Robertson from the Oakland Raiders to lead the elite unit. The coaching shakeups won’t have a negative impact on the group, according to Ward.
“It’s so exciting just going into this atmosphere, this situation where the whole 'No Fly' is coming back,” he said. “We still have [former defensive backs coach Joe Woods] as our [defensive] coordinator now and [defensive backs] coach [Marcus Robertson] is doing a great job with us now in the room and meetings.”
After leading the league, allowing just 199.6 passing yards per game in 2015, the Broncos set out with the same goal for 2016. No only did they accomplish that, they significantly surpassed their average the year before, only allowing 185.8 through the air. For Harris, 2017 isn’t about just leading the league; it’s about topping their performance last year.
“If we can cut to 175 [passing yards per game], that would be amazing,” he said. “I think it’s possible, though. I’m not going to say that we can’t do that. I think our run defense is going to be so much better now. They’re going to have to throw the ball now. They’re going to have to throw to us, so I think that we’ll have more chances to get more picks too.”
Even though the pass defense has been the best in the business for two straight years, Ward said the goals for 2017 are straightforward.
“Leading [the league against the pass] and winning another Super Bowl,” he said. “This year, it’s All-Pro. That’s my goal. I’m never satisfied, always working to be great. We have coaching staffs in the room that will always bring the guys up. I really feel like that group is going to take us to the next level and we are ready to work.”
How does a team that is already the best get better? By getting back to the fundamentals of what got them there in the first place.
“Back to the basics. Technique, assignments, getting familiar with the playbook,” Stewart said. “We are all ready to work and ready to be legendary and lead the league three years straight. It’s our mindset, so we are ready to go…We are going to do some great things.”