Sat, Jan 21, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Broncos gradually build up defense

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , DENVER, COLORADO

Two years ago, the Denver Broncos made the playoffs after a two-season absence and sported the fourth-ranked defense in the NFL. Still, with things looking up, coach Mike Shanahan did something unusual.

He tore down.

In the seven seasons since the Broncos last went to the Super Bowl, Shanahan's most public role has been to find a worthy successor to quarterback John Elway. But most of the work trying to turn the Broncos from playoff also-ran to the verge of the Super Bowl was performed on defense.

Eight of the 11 defensive players expected to start in Sunday's American Football Conference championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers were not on the roster two years ago. Another, safety Nick Ferguson, joined the Broncos in 2003.

Contrast that with the offense, where only one of the 11 starters -- tight end Stephen Alexander -- has arrived after 2003.

Whether the defense is better is debatable. Whether it is different is not.

"You're not really sure how much you're going to reshape your team," said Shanahan, who has had three defensive coordinators in the past seven seasons but just one offensive coordinator. "What you try to do is get the best players in to compete, and those players eventually separated themselves on who's starters, who's second team and who doesn't make the squad."

A 41-10 loss to Indianapolis in the 2003 playoffs served notice that the Denver defense was not ready for a serious title run. The Broncos held the Colts to 85 rushing yards but allowed quarterback Peyton Manning to throw for 377 yards.

So the Broncos traded offense for defense. They sent running back Clinton Portis, with back-to-back seasons of more than 1,500 rushing yards, to the Washington Redskins for the all-pro cornerback Champ Bailey. They signed safety John Lynch as a free agent after he was cast off by Tampa Bay.

history repeats

The next season was a near replay. As in 2003, the Broncos and their fourth-ranked defense finished 10-6, went to Indianapolis in the playoffs and were beaten badly -- this time, 49-24. They held the Colts to 76 rushing yards but allowed 454 yards through the air.

Shanahan dismantled the defense as never before. When the Broncos face the Steelers on Sunday, they will have seven different starters and two different coaches from the team that faced the Colts last season.

Shanahan's first move came before the 2004 season ended. The midseason dismissal of the defensive backs coach, David Gibbs - later replaced by the former Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Bob Slowik -- was just the first of Shanahan's eyebrow-raising decisions.

After hiring the former Cleveland defensive-line coach Andre Patterson last February, the Broncos spent March collecting Patterson's former starters -- four players who started on the Browns' defensive line in the 2004 opener, anchors of a team that went 4-12 and fired its coach.

Tackle Gerard Warren came for a fourth-round draft choice. Tackle Michael Myers and defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban cost Denver the running back Reuben Droughns. Defensive end Courtney Brown signed as a free agent.

In April, Denver used its first three picks in the draft on cornerbacks -- a peculiar strategy overshadowed only by Denver's next draft choice: the troubled running back Maurice Clarett.

The moves smacked of desperation, and Shanahan -- at that point without a victory in the playoffs since Elway retired -- was increasingly criticized for his personnel failures of the past and his risky maneuvers that seemed to cloud the future.

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