Vonnie Holliday is one of the more vociferous players in football, but even he was stunned into silence early last month by an impromptu scouting report on his new team, the Broncos. A 12-year veteran defensive end, Holliday signed with Denver the week before the Sept. 13 season opener and arrived in the Mile High City optimistic and excited. Then, while talking to a local reporter, he got the lowdown on his teammates: "Basically," Holliday recalls being told, "you're playing with a bunch of bums." ¶ The newcomer was taken aback. "At first I didn't know what to say," Holliday says. "Then I was like, Whoa. I don't know what you've seen so far, but in the couple of [preseason] games I've watched, they've played hard and at a high level. I mean, how do you say something like that?"
A month later the answer is obvious: You don't.
The Broncos are arguably the biggest surprise of the young season: With a controversial but confident new coach, 27 new players and new schemes on offense and defense, they are 4--0 for the first time in six years. The defense in particular has been transformed: A unit that hemorrhaged points the past two seasons, giving up 26.8 per game, is surrendering a league-low 6.5 this year.
In Sunday's 17--10 victory over the visiting Cowboys, Denver shut out the NFL's fifth-ranked scoring offense over the final three quarters, held Dallas to 100 net yards in the eight possessions that preceded the Cowboys' final drive and made a dramatic goal line stand in the final seconds, when Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey broke up back-to-back Tony Romo passes from the Broncos' two-yard line.
"We know the Broncos' history from last year and the year before—of not being able to stop the run, not being able to stop the pass, not being able to stop people, period," says outside linebacker--defensive end Darrell Reid, a former Colt whom Denver signed as a free agent last February. "But we've got a chance to establish a new identity, and we're going to keep establishing it until people realize things have changed."
Change was a dirty word around Denver in the off-season. If fans weren't upset about rookie coach Josh McDaniels's trading Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler to Chicago, they were irritated that he appeared to do little to upgrade a defensive front seven that was transitioning to a 3--4 scheme under new coordinator Mike Nolan, the former 49ers coach. Before the arrival of Holliday, a backup who rotates in, the only notable addition was 2009 first-round pick Robert Ayers, a down end at Tennessee who plays stand-up outside linebacker in the 3--4.
Though the Broncos have eight new starters on defense, it's doubtful a casual fan outside Denver could identify any of the five newcomers on the line and at linebacker. Ends Ryan McBean and Kenny Peterson had one career start between them before this season; nosetackle Ronald Fields hadn't started a game since 2006; and linebackers Andra Davis and Mario Haggans were free-agent signees who didn't draw great interest from other teams. Incumbent linebackers D.J. Williams and Elvis Dumervil are Pro Bowl--caliber players—Dumervil is tied for the league lead with eight sacks, and Williams leads the team in tackles with 31—but no one envisioned such a patchwork unit being able to carry the Broncos to a two-game lead in the AFC West after only a month.
One of the keys has been the preference of McDaniels and general manager Brian Xanders to find players who are good fits rather than big names, though they did pick up former Eagles All-Pro free safety Brian Dawkins as a free agent. Dawkins and fellow veterans Andre' Goodman and Renaldo Hill (both from the Dolphins) were brought in to solve some of Denver's pass-rush deficiencies. Over the first four games the tighter coverage in the secondary has forced opposing quarterbacks to hold the ball a fraction of a second longer. Denver sacked Tony Romo five times on Sunday and leads the league in that department, with 15; the Broncos had 26 sacks all last season.
The Denver defense is also successful in areas that often go unnoticed. For instance, entering the Dallas game the Broncos were fourth in the league in yards allowed on first down, limiting opponents to two or fewer yards on 36 of 55 first-down snaps (65.5%). They had allowed only 25 plays of 10 or more yards (fewest in the league) and had forced opponents to take 10.25 plays per scoring drive, third best in the NFL.
McDaniels is best known for overseeing a Patriots offense that set a league record for scoring (589 points) in 2007, but he cut his professional teeth as a New England defensive assistant from 2001 through '03. When McDaniels went looking for a defensive coordinator, he wanted someone who shared his philosophies and would employ an attacking 3--4 scheme. "I thought Mike and I would be a good fit," McDaniels says of Nolan, "because I would try to use my offensive background during the week to say, Hey, here are some of the keys to disrupting Carson Palmer; here's what I think Brady Quinn really likes and doesn't like; here's how I think Tony Romo gets going best. I felt we could have a good working relationship, where I could give him some insight on the other side of the ball, tell him what I think, then let him go do it. He and I communicate exceptionally well together. He's a great resource."