State of the 2016 Denver Broncos: Defensive Line

Mile High Huddle brings you State of the Broncos—a position by position evaluation of the roster. Today's edition focuses on the defensive line. Doc Bear breaks it down.

Nearly every new defensive coordinator I’ve ever heard got on the mike at the podium and promised an ‘attacking defense’. Few have pulled it off.

Wade Phillips takes it literally. He matched a vicious and deep set of bookend elite pass rushers to a tough interior defense. He filled in any gaps with linebackers and safety-backers, like T.J. Ward. Then he cried ‘Havoc’ and loosed the dogs. No one had a response for it.

It made the secondary’s job much easier, as the No Fly Zone has repeatedly mentioned. Very few quarterbacks left their games un-rattled. Most left with turf still hanging from their backs.

Hit and hurries can mean as much as the many sacks Denver’s front provided. Constant pressure will affect any QB. Denver brought it in landslides. Overall, I’m very high on this position. The nucleus is still there from last season. Denver had the second-highest blitz rate in the league, at 40 percent. Like the stretch zone scheme for the offensive line, that kind of blitzing takes talent, quick feet, perfect technique, great coaching and incessant practice.

Having this number of players, including most starters returning to the team means that their communication and confidence in each other is already in place. It makes the input process with the scheme in training camp much easier. They’re already on the same page as their teammates.

In 2015, Derek Wolfe was a one-canine wrecking crew. After serving a four-week suspension, Derek returned with a fervor. He laid five tackles on the Oakland Raiders in his first game back.

D-line coach Bill Kollar taught him technique. That led to announcing, late in the season, that Wolfe was disappointed when he ‘only’ got a half sack per game.

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From Weeks 11 to 17 Wolfe put up 5.5 sacks, burying the idea that he couldn’t pass rush. He added another 2.5 sacks in the playoffs (some sources say 3).

His sudden improvement is technique oriented—no one ever had to talk to Wolfe about increasing his aggression. That makes it more likely that this production will continue.

The improvement came with changes to his hand fighting—which he had identified as an issue since being drafted—and learning what it meant to flip his hips in the DL sense.

You drop your chin and throw your entire weight behind your attack, from the lowest core muscle to the chin, aimed at a single point. The hand fighting clears the pathway as you attack. Properly done, it’s almost impossible to stop, especially given Wolfe’s somatotype and power. He’ll start at left DE.

Wolfe will be joined by Vance Walker, who also came on hard late last season. 23 solo tackles, two sacks and two stuffs don’t tell the story of the guy who forced double teams, twisted and stunted to gain more team QB hits, hurries, attacked the run and played like a champion. I’d bet on Walker starting at right DE, at least at first.

Then there’s Jared Crick out of Nebraska. He started 31-of-32 games in the past two seasons. Houston wanted to retain him, but they parted ways on his contract.

He has 5.5 sacks over that time and could gain more in the penetration-driven Phillips offense. He’s expected to start out on sub-packages and earn the rest. An injury could also move him up.

Adam Gotsis is the first Australian defensive end/tackle in the league. He played both American and Aussie rules football before coming to Georgia Tech and becoming a force there.

He was chosen to assistant teach the incoming DL players, which give you an idea of the respect the coaching staff had for him.  Still recovering from injury, he’s been doing mental reps.

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But he’s getting healthy, now. Gotsis became a force in college and is meeting each challenge as it comes up. The SB Nation Hog’s Haven described the issue by saying Gotsis could be a problem for them. True for the other teams in the league as well. He’ll start, whether this year or next.

"He was dominating our offensive line (in practice)," said Georgia Tech's Jeremiah Attaochu, now with the San Diego Chargers. "Things it takes guys longer to learn [things] like leverage on the defensive line; he already had that coming in. He plays so low, and his legs are so powerful, it's difficult for him to be moved. And he's pretty quick, too."

Gotsis was asked about reaching the point when the game starts to slow down for you.

“I think that is when you know you are ready for the next level, when you are seeing the play before it is happening and you can have an effect on it that way,” he said. “I am ready for that next level and that next challenge.”

He’s going to get it, Kollar style.

Broncos DL coach Bill Kollar was said to be pounding on doors demanding this player, which he denies. Adam is about Wolfe’s size—6-foot-5, 285 pounds for Derek, 6-foot-4 and 287 for Adam. But Gotsis has 34.25-inch arms that are as powerful as they are long.  With developing a lower pad level, plenty of sand and arms like anacondas, what Gotsis needs is a coach who will drive him to become an elite player. With Kollar’s knowledge that technique is the difference between good and great, I have high hopes for Adam.

He lets his pad level raise and plays upright too much. Too often, he stands up at the snap rather than firing out.  Adam likes body-to-body sacks, which ensure some level of helmet-to-helmet contact that will be called in today’s NFL. He has some grinding to do.

Kenny Anunike is a very real option for the RDE slot. His job is to impress the coaches in training camp to stay healthy. If he does, he has a decent chance to stick. Kyle Peko is a practice squad candidate, who might work his way in via injury.

The nose guard group is interesting. They are:

Starter: Sylvester Williams, who ranked third on defense for the Super Bowl,

Second: The immense (6-foot-3, 335-lb) and immensely talented Phil Taylor who has struggled with injuries,

Third: The developmental Darius Kilgo, 6-foot-3, 319 pounds, showed progress last year after being chosen in the sixth round. He saw the field in nine games and defended one pass, plus six tackles. He’s fighting for his job.

Sly holds the starter’s position. He was clearly better than Kilgo in 2015. Taylor was out of football in 2015 and only made four starts for Cleveland in 2014, playing in five games. He’s in camp to win back his career.

Sly’s fifth-year option wasn’t picked up. Denver showed him the exact stats, playing reps and on-field mistakes that had them concerned. They're also very firm that they like him as a player and believe in his ability to overcome those issues. All three of the nose guards are driven.

In an ongoing drill, Kollar has the entire line getting their arms up during pass rushes. Malik Jackson’s production can be replaced, which is all that matters.

Having this number of players, including two starters returning to the team, means that their communication and confidence in each other is mostly in place. It makes the install process that much easier. They’re already on the same page as teammates. Here's how I'd call the starters for Week 1.

Defensive Line

LDE: Derek Wolfe

NG: Sly Williams

RDE: Vance Walker

Gotsis has a ways to go before starting, but he’ll get some reps, as will Crick, who may blossom in this defense.

The DL is ready to do their part in continuing the pocket-folding attacks that marked the 2015 Championship season. They might or might not rank first in the league. But they’re unlikely to drop out of the top-five.

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Doc Bear is a Featured Columnist for MileHighHuddle. You can find him on Twitter @DocBearOMD.

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