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Gazette Premium Content Klee: Broncos defense, without the big names, shows it can play, too

By Paul Klee Updated: September 6, 2013 at 11:09 am

DENVER — Let’s get this straight, just to make sure the NFL knows who is really in charge.

There was a blackout at the last Super Bowl, a lightning delay at this NFL Kickoff Game and, almost certainly, a snowstorm coming to New Jersey’s Super Bowl next February.

Anyone else worried what could be next?

It was OK, even normal, to be worried about the Broncos before they smoked the Ravens 49-27 at Sports Authority Field on Thursday.

For one, we had no idea what to expect from the Broncos defense. It played with six undrafted free agents and more hard-to-pronounce names than big names, after all.

Now we know. Without Von Miller (until Week 7 against Indianapolis), Champ Bailey (until he's healthy) and Elvis Dumervil (until never), this Broncos defense will either flourish or flail with a bunch of guys who need an introduction.

“Everyone’s like, What are they going to do without Elvis?” linebacker Shaun Phillips said in the locker room. “What are they going to do without Von?"

“We have good football players, you know. Everybody screams (that) we suck. You know what I mean?” Phillips continued. “We’ve got guys that can play football. Hopefully we start getting a little bit more respect.

“But we don’t care. We want to be the underdog. Being the underdog gives us a little more fire.”

At least for now, it’s a defense built around guys like Duke Ihenacho, who had 11 tackles, almost double anyone else. And safety David Bruton, who blocked a punt and turned a tight game into a sigh of relief.

And Chris Harris, who intercepted Joe Flacco, again. And Wesley Woodyard, who deserved the Pro Bowl last season and remains the heart and soul of the defense.

You know their names. I know their names. But step outside the great state of Colorado, and the Broncos' defense right now is a huddle of no-names.

“It doesn’t matter to me if they can’t say my name (correctly),” Ihenacho told me after a recent practice at Dove Valley. “As long as they’re saying my name, I’m good.”

The longest pregame show in NFL history lasted 235 days, from that frigid night Jan. 12 to Thursday’s NFL opener. For good measure, the football gods tacked on a 34-minute lightning delay before the start of the 2013 season.

The wait was worth it.

The singular highlight, for fans that dig a redemption story, was Rahim Moore’s jarring tackle on Ravens tight end Dallas Clark. Moore rattled the ball loose to cause an incompletion, roughly 20 yards from the site of the Mile High Mistake.

“That was one of those hits that just felt good, you know?” Moore said.

Like Phillips said, I had my doubts about this Von- and Elvis-less defense. Still do. Eli Manning and the Giants, playing at home, figure to present a more difficult challenge than Joe Flacco and the Ravens, on the road.

But this was a solid start, a sigh of relief that had been held in for eight months, for a defense playing without three Pro Bowl starters from a year ago.

“Even though we lost those big-name guys, it shows the front office has faith in us,” said Harris, an undrafted free agent.

Really, through the first three quarters, the Broncos' defense was only responsible for allowing 10 points. After Wes Welker botched a punt near the goal line — his only boo-boo in a dynamic debut — the Ravens scored a 1-yard touchdown run.

“If we play like that, the sky’s the limit,” Moore said.

There are still holes. Before Peyton Manning’s offense erupted into a 35-17 lead in the third quarter, the Broncos' pass rush had all the energy of a lightning bug, not a lightning strike.

But if the Broncos continue to score points like the Nuggets, the defense can continue to chase the opposing quarterback without fear.

“He’s the best quarterback ever,” Moore said of Manning, who tied an NFL record with seven touchdown passes. “He’s the best to touch the football.”

When Mile High really got rocking on Thursday, it was the defense that sent 76,814 Broncoheads into a tizzy. To a sold-out NFL stadium, a playmaking defense is like free beer.

Remember the controversial banner the NFL forced on Colorado and hung on Mile High stadium? At some point during the third quarter, the Flacco Flag came tumbling down.

Eight months after playoff heartbreak, the Broncos' defense brought Flacco tumbling down, with four sacks. Elvis and Von and the rest of the Broncos managed only one sack Jan. 12.

Let’s be clear: One win guarantees only that the Broncos won’t open the season 0-2 after the Manning Bowl next week in New Jersey.

(Although it does make you wonder how the Broncos lost to these guys earlier this year.)

But when Super Bowl blackouts and Super Bowl snowstorms are possible, why can’t a defense without a slew of big names help a team on the road to the Super Bowl?

Twitter: @Klee_Gazette

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