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THE BRONCOS had just won their sixth consecutive game, scoring twice in the final 2:08 of regulation against the Bears before Matt Prater kicked the decisive 51-yard field goal in overtime, and veteran cornerback Champ Bailey was completely spent. "It's hard winning like this," he said in the locker room that December night.
It was the fifth straight Denver game decided by a touchdown or less, and the fourth in a row that required a score in the final two minutes of regulation or in overtime. Overlooked in the euphoria of another improbable comeback was that the defense had to be nearly perfect through three-plus quarters for Tim Tebow (now with the Jets) to have a chance to work his last-minute magic.
"It's demanding—emotionally, mentally, physically, however you want to put it," Bailey said this summer. "You feel drained after games like that. You want to be able to beat teams and beat them good. We're capable of doing that now."
That's what adding Peyton Manning will do to a cornerback's confidence. In 10 of Manning's first 13 seasons with the Colts, the four-time league MVP had Indy in the top seven in scoring, seven times among the top three. Mix Manning's precision passing with a running attack that would have ranked 12th even without Tebow's 660 yards, and it's understandable that the Broncos' defense let out a collective sigh of relief when Manning was signed last March for $96 million over five years.
"You know how you're so excited for something, you don't even want to talk about it until it happens?" says defensive end Elvis Dumervil. "This was one of those moments. I've played against him and seen what he has done to guys, what he has done to me. I know how hard that no-huddle is. In this altitude it's insane. If he can stay healthy and get those points like he's used to doing, our defense is built for the lead."
Exactly what this defense is remains to be seen. Much of the answer will be supplied by Jack Del Rio, the former Jaguars coach who is Denver's seventh defensive coordinator in as many seasons. Veterans speak of Del Rio with nearly the same reverence they do Manning, not only because he has a successful coordinator pedigree—in his one season running the Panthers' D, in 2002, Carolina improved from last to second in total defense—but also because he played linebacker for 11 seasons in the NFL. That's a longer playing career on defense than any other head coach in the league.
The significance of Del Rio's time as a player is more subtle than bold. For instance, during practice the Broncos were running a Cover Two drill. Bailey, seeing no receiver to his side, cheated to the inside, which on paper he wasn't supposed to do. After the play he and Del Rio shared a quick look and a nod. They were on the same page without speaking.
"To have that guy who understands what we're going through, that's big," says Bailey, who has made 11 Pro Bowls in 13 seasons. "I may not be doing it exactly how he's telling it to us, but he understands that I know my responsibilities. That's because he's played the game, he's seen me play, and he knows I understand the game."
Del Rio inherits a unit still seeking the right mix of players after going from a 4--3 to a 3--4 and back again in recent years. The secondary, which struggled a year ago when elite teams went to spread formations, will have two new starters from Week 1 of 2011, and middle linebacker D.J. Williams is facing at least a six-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Still, for Del Rio everything begins with stopping the run (the Broncos ranked 22nd a year ago), and in that regard the return of tackle Ty Warren, who missed 2010 with a hip injury and last year with a torn right triceps, is critical. If Denver can put opponents in third-and-longs, it can turn loose Dumervil and linebacker Von Miller, who were central to the unit's having the league's 10th-best sack rate last season.
"It's all there on paper; we've just got to hit on all cylinders," Dumervil says. "We've got everything we can ask for." Including a quarterback who can provide some breathing room.