Klee: The next Broncos defense must be a big-play defense

By: PAUL KLEE The Gazette
May 3, 2014 Updated: May 4, 2014 at 8:33 am
photo - The ball pops loose as Broncos Steve Atwater hits Green Bay's Brett Favre in the second quarter of Super Bowl XXXII. Neil Smith recovered the fumble, one of three turnovers for the Broncos in the game.  Gazette file photo
The ball pops loose as Broncos Steve Atwater hits Green Bay's Brett Favre in the second quarter of Super Bowl XXXII. Neil Smith recovered the fumble, one of three turnovers for the Broncos in the game. Gazette file photo 

DENVER — What do you remember about Super XXXII?

John Elway's helicopter spin? Terrell Davis' three touchdowns? Ed McCaffrey's devastating block to free Howard Griffith on a long pass play? The parade?

Before all that happened, something else had to happen.

"We came up with a couple (three) turnovers," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said into Greg Gumbel's microphone on a confetti-covered stage on Jan. 25, 1998.

On a chilly afternoon fit for football, I rewatched Super Bowl XXXII. Yes, the final score was the same: Broncos 31, Packers 24. The takeaway was different.

This strut down memory lane offered a reminder of what's often forgotten about those Broncos: Theirs was a solid defense, not a great defense, at least by historical standards. But it did one thing exceptionally well. It made big plays.

The '97 Broncos led the NFL by scoring seven defensive touchdowns. Remember that? I didn't, either.

Guess what the Broncos want to improve next season?

"We want to be a defense that hits people, that forces turnovers, that makes plays," new safety T.J. Ward told me after a recent workout at Dove Valley.

If the Broncos are to win a Super Bowl before the Peyton Window slams shut, they must include a key ingredient of the first Broncos team to win a Super Bowl: a big-play defense.

The '14 Broncos don't need a great defense. Not with Manning at quarterback. But they need a defense that takes the ball and gives it back to Manning's offense.

"That's what we've been emphasizing," Ward said.

The '97 Broncos defense might be best described by breaking down the pivotal possession of Super Bowl XXXII.

With the score tied 24-24 and 5:25 remaining in the fourth quarter, Brett Favre and the Packers had the ball on their 11. On one series, Alfred Williams forced a holding penalty and a false start. Ray Crockett nearly intercepted a deep pass down the right sideline. A determined pass rush forced a Favre incompletion.

The Packers had to punt. The Broncos got the ball back and Davis scored the winning touchdown.

The Broncos defense wasn't great. But it was great when it needed to be, great at making big plays.

Of all the splashy additions to this Broncos defense, I consider Ward to be the most important. He doesn't bring the name of Aqib Talib and didn't draw the guaranteed money of DeMarcus Ware.

But he's got a little Steve Atwater to him. Not a lot, just a little. Maybe just enough.

When Ward lists the safeties who impacted his position, he ranks Atwater alongside Ronnie Lott (Ward was a Niners fan), Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu, among others.

"Definitely the late Sean Taylor, rest in peace," Ward said.

I believe Atwater — as much as Elway, Davis, Shannon Sharpe or a powerful offensive line — is the reason the Broncos won Super Bowl XXXII.

"I remember watching Atwater hit people," Ward added. "He was that physical presence where he was going to make a play. Somewhere, some time, he was going to make a play. More than likely, he was going to hit you.

"He was one of the greatest safeties to play this game."

For all the superlatives of the 2013 Broncos season, they rarely forced turnovers. They scored two defensive touchdowns. They recovered nine fumbles (tied for 20th in the NFL) and snagged 17 interceptions (12th). They committed the same number of turnovers as they forced (26).

(The world-champion Seahawks forced a league-leading 39 turnovers. Ahem.)

"Forcing turnovers, that's one way we can help out the offense," Ward said. "We know our offense is going to score points."

With Manning at quarterback, the Broncos don't need a great defense.

But do they need a defense great at forcing opponents into mistakes?

Before they can win a Super Bowl, yes.


Twitter: @Klee_Gazette

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