The conversation immediately turned to Pro Bowl outside linebacker Von Miller, one of the NFL’s elite pass rushers. Phillips is a coach who values individual player propensities over hardline scheme. This approach has served the old coach well throughout his storied career as one of the league’s most accomplished defensive minds.
“If you’re a really good ‘man’-[defense] team, you play more ‘man’; if you’re a ‘zone’ team, play more ‘zone’,” Phillips said. “Each guy’s capabilities—what they can do—you try to meld that into the defense. That’s part of our learning process. It’s not just the players; it’s the coaches learning what the players can do. I can think of a lot of defenses but it’s what our players do best, and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”
What Miller does best is rush the passer and make plays on the edge. Don’t expect to see him in coverage much in 2015, even though when called upon to do so last year under Jack Del Rio, Miller was surprisingly proficient.
“We’re going to let him rush,” Phillips said regarding Miller. “I’ve had some guys over the years that have played the ‘Will’ linebacker, and I have had a lot of good players play there, and, yeah, they made a lot of sacks, but I have had some ‘Sam’ [linebackers]’—Ricky Jackson for one, was a ‘Sam’ linebacker for us. Bryce Paup was AFC Defensive player of the Year, had 17 sacks, Shawne Merriman had 17 sacks in 12 games. It’s a position that if a guy can rush, you can match up well. That’s why we’ve kept [Miller] there. You’d think he’d be a ‘Will’ linebacker who rushes almost every play, but you can rush the ‘Sam’ linebacker, too, so that’s what we’ll do.”
The Broncos will field two guys who were born to lay 5-tech defensive end—Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson—while utilizing Sylvester Williams’ athletic ability to penetrate from the nose tackle position. According to Phillips, the unit will rotate consistently. But with Bill Kollar cracking the whip, Phillips expects the most out of his D-line.
“I’m really pleased with that group,” Phillips said. “I think they’re really working hard. [Defensive Line Coach] Bill Kollar is going to get the most out of every player—he’s done that throughout his career. We know about [Texans DE] J.J. Watt, but there are a lot of other players that he’s coached that have gotten better and better, and I’ve seen this group get better and better already.”
There are some question marks at inside linebacker. The Broncos have their two starters ironed out, but both Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan have been relegated to classroom pupils only, as they recover from their respective surgeries. The competition behind them has been fierce.
“I’m pleased with the two guys who are out (LBs Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan) and [OLB] Shane Ray also. The two guys who are out, as far as learning the defense, they’re really studying, they’re helping the other guys. That’s important for our team overall, and they know that, but they’ve played before.”
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“There’s a lot of competition in there, which is good,” Phillips continued. “I think we’ve got some talented young guys that have a pretty good feel. We’ve still got a ways to go. There are a lot of calls in there and different things that they have to do—more so than the outside backers—but I think they’re coming along well.”
The competition behind Trevathan and Marshall, the respective team tackle leaders in 2013 and 2014, is stacked with young, relatively inexperienced players, like Steven Johnson, Corey Nelson, Lamin Barrow, Todd Davis, Reggie Walker and even Shaquil Barrett. Nelson showed flashes as a rookie in 2014 and Johnson and Davis even saw starting action, but if any complications arise with the starters’ recovery, this unit will have to step up.
As Phillips mentioned, the Broncos 2015 first round pick Shane Ray has yet to see the field, as he recovers from a foot injury. He’s been restricted to the classroom mostly. Many draftniks and NFL scouts had Ray as the No. 1 pass rusher in the draft. The rich got richer, as Miller and DeMarcus Ware combined for 24 sacks last season. Phillips plans on getting creative utilizing all three but Miller and Ware have already taken Ray, and the other young guys, under their wing.
“[OLB] DeMarcus [Ware] is great at it,” Phillips said. “Von Miller is helping the young guys. Those two guys are certainly helping our young guys. I told them if they can coach the position, and they have the talent they have, they can play. I can coach the position, but I can’t play. If they can coach the position and watch their position, they’re going to get better, and I think that’s what they’ve done.”
The Broncos let last season’s starting free safety, Rahim Moore, walk in free agency and went out and signed Darian Stewart to replace him. Soon after, the rumor mill spit out a story that the Broncos were interested in moving Bradley Roby and/or Kayvon Webster to free safety. However, the reality is that the job is Stewart’s to lose. He’s been running with the ones, as Phillips confirmed.
“We brought Darian in, and he’s been playing the free safety with our first group, and I think he’s done a good job,” he said. “We have other guys certainly. I think [S] Omar [Bolden] has done well at safety. We’ve got some other guys that look pretty good. Obviously [S] T.J. [Ward] and ‘Bru’ (S David Bruton), those guys have been here and are good players, too. We’ll look at all of them and see how it shakes out. I think Darian probably said it, but it’s probably his job to lose. He’s there right now as the first-team guy, so he’s got to prove he can play.”
Bruton performed very well in his action on defense last season. As the team’s special teams stalwart, he has gotten to a point in his career where he can impact the defense, too. If Stewart falters, Bruton will likely be the next man up. As for Roby at safety, Phillips still has some ideas.
“We have a package,” he said. “[Roby] really had a super day at corner—he had a nice interception. He had a great day. We’ve got three corners that can play, and if we need to move him into a certain package, we will, and we’ll do that later on.”
It’s still early in the process. The Broncos have yet to put pads on and engage in full contact. But so far, Phillips is happy with the progress so far but knows that there’s still a long road to walk yet. The defense is still installing and learning but training camp will be here before we know it.
“We don’t have the pads on yet,” he said. “We’ve got a long ways to go. We’ve gone one week, three practices, and those aren’t even live. But I like the way they’re working. I look at their movement skills. We’re going to get them to give their great effort.”