The ugly memory of Super Bowl XLVIII is a driving force for many Broncos. “We saw that a great defense could shut down a great offense, and that’s kind of what happened,” GM John Elway says.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — For the Denver Broncos, all the hope and swagger leading into Super Bowl XLVIII started to slip away on literally the first play. That’s when the snap sailed past Peyton Manning and into the end zone for a safety.
It went downhill from there — “a perfect storm” of Broncos mistakes and Seahawks domination, recalled guard Louis Vasquez, one of 16 players who experienced that humiliation two years ago and are back for another try.
What was the Seahawks’ shining moment, a 43-8 Super Bowl victory, became the Broncos’ worst nightmare come to life.
“As much as we’d like to forget it, it does still leave a sour taste in our mouth,’’ Vasquez said. “Just in that memory and the way we lost, it’s used as a motivational tool for us. We want to come out and flip that script from two years ago and show what we’re about.”
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The ugly memory of Super Bowl XLVIII is a driving force for many Broncos.
But it doesn’t just provide motivational fodder. Far more important, it reinforced to general manager/legend John Elway the importance of building a transformational defense.
Wouldn’t you know it — the man known for his golden arm did just that. And now, heading into Sunday’s game against the Carolina Panthers, the Broncos have many of characteristics of the Seahawks team that blew them out of MetLife Stadium.
In that game, the NFL’s No. 1 defense destroyed the No. 1 offense. The Broncos, you might recall, had scored more points (606) than any team in history, and Manning was at the top of his game. Just two weeks earlier, Manning had thrown for 400 yards and two touchdowns in an AFC title-game win against New England, but Denver’s only touchdown against Seattle came in garbage time.
Now Carolina is the team with the top-ranked offense in the league, and the en-fuego quarterback in Cam Newton, while the Broncos not only lead in many defensive categories but are being compared (probably prematurely) to the best units in history.
Elway insists that he already had the philosophical inclination to emphasize defense. His very first draft choice after taking over as GM in 2011 was Von Miller, selected No. 2 overall — right behind Newton. But the Seahawks game spurred him into feverish action.
“We saw that a great defense could shut down a great offense, and that’s kind of what happened,” he said.
Two weeks after the Super Bowl, Elway signed pass-rusher extraordinaire DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward off the free-agent market, all in a 24-hour span. The three contracts totaled $110 million, a small price to pay in pursuit of a defensive vibe like the Seahawks had shown them.
Elway also added linebacker Brandon Marshall that offseason, and along with the nearly unstoppable Miller, the foundation of a dominating defense was in place. Elway continued to add and refine, but what solidified the whole thing was the hiring of Wade Phillips to replace Jack Del Rio as defensive coordinator — but only after the Bengals luckily refused to allow Vance Joseph to interview.
Phillips had a history with Broncos coach Gary Kubiak, but he had to win over Elway, which he did, emphatically, in his interview.
“One thing that stuck with me,” said Elway, “is Wade said, ‘You know, I was a good head coach, I wasn’t great, but I was a good head coach.’ But he says, ‘I’m a great defensive coordinator, and I want to be known as the greatest defensive coordinator ever in this league.’
“That’s the kind of guy I want. Gary and I agreed on that. He’s taken another step this year to that for what he’s done with the defense.”
But it will all end in another steaming disappointment if the Broncos don’t finish it off with a victory on Sunday. Elway observed wryly, “We gave up 43 points last time we were in the Super Bowl, so we figured if we can not give up that many points, we’ll be in better shape.”
It will help that the Broncos will be at full strength. They faced the Seahawks without Miller, defensive back Chris Harris, safety Rahim Moore and defensive end Derek Wolfe, all out with injuries.
Harris believes the outcome “definitely” would have been different if the Broncos hadn’t been depleted. I don’t think anything was going to stop the Seahawks that day, but the absences were significant.
“The game changes when you have a guy like me, Von, Derek Wolfe, and even a lot more guys that weren’t there,” he said. “We’re fully intact now, everyone is healthy, ready to go. That right there, just having us all back out there on the field, gives us a better chance.”
Under Phillips, the Broncos have switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base, and they swarm the quarterback. The secondary is explosive and intimidating. They led the NFL in total defense and pass defense, while finishing third (behind Seattle, Cincinnati and Kansas City) in scoring defense.
Whether it will be enough for a victory against the powerful Panthers is an open question. But it should keep a reprise of humiliation at bay.