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A super secondary for Broncos?

Denver's otherwise shaky defense may have one of NFL's best corps of DBs By Mike Klis
The Denver Post
Posted: 07/19/2009 01:00:00 AM MDT
From left, Renaldo Hill, Brian Dawkins, Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman are the projected starters in the Broncos' upgraded secondary. (Reza A. Marvashti, The Denver Post )

Operating amid thunderous outrage of what was a tumultuous start to the offseason, the Broncos may have quietly gathered one of the NFL's best secondaries.

"We should be the top secondary in the league," strong safety Renaldo Hill said. "I don't think anyone is expecting anything less."

The boldness of Hill's statement was nearly concealed by his low-key delivery and unassuming nature. Later, Hill said he meant that through hard work, his unit can become the best. But, upon reflection, there may have been no reason for Hill to backpedal.

Think about it: Name another secondary that has two Hall of Fame-caliber defensive backs with 15 combined Pro Bowls, as the Broncos do in cornerback Champ Bailey and safety Brian Dawkins. Added to that are Hill and cornerback Andre Goodman, who received a combined $30 million in new contracts this offseason.

Who else has two candidates for bronze busts and two handsomely paid free agents, who are backed up by two second-round rookies in cornerback Alphonso Smith and safety Darcel McBath?

"Yeah, on paper we sound good," Goodman said. "Super Bowls were never won on paper. At the end of the day, you can put five Hall of Fame players in the secondary, and if you don't win, what does it matter?"

Looks can be deceiving

Case in fear: The 2008 Oakland Raiders. Entering last season, Scouts Inc. ranked the Raiders as having the NFL's No. 1 secondary. Besides the incomparable Nnamdi Asomugha at cornerback and former first-round pick Michael Huff at safety, the Raiders signed cornerback DeAngelo Hall and safety Gibril Wilson to lucrative, free-agent contracts.

They then gathered for the first game of 2008 - and immediately got torched by Jay Cutler and some rookie receiver named Eddie Royal in a 41-14 Broncos victory.

"Right now, we're not even thinking about where we rank as a secondary, we're just trying to get to know each other and jell together," Bailey said. "I don't know a whole lot about Renaldo or Andre, but I know they're smart players, and it seems like they want to do whatever it takes to win. Of course, I knew about Dawk, but after being around him, the thing about him is his intensity. He can put some fear in people."

In his first 13 seasons, Dawkins played for a Philadelphia Eagles secondary that was frequently considered among the league's best. Playing alongside former University of Colorado safety Michael Lewis, Dawkins teamed with the cornerback tandems of, first, Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor, and, then, Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard.

"When I was with Bobby and Troy, I knew Troy was going to jump some things," Dawkins said. "I knew I would have to cheat to his side sometimes. I knew Bobby was going to play a more technique style. Same thing when I got with Sheldon and Lito. Lito is going to jump stuff. I know that. Sheldon is going to be more technique sound on his side. Those are the things you learn as a defense, and I'm starting to get that feel with these guys. Once we get that, once they know that if I get beat on this coverage, Dawk is going to be there, then he's free to make his move without worry."

What's my line?

It wasn't easy for the Broncos to communicate the potential of their new secondary to their public. Even the signing of Dawkins went all but unnoticed. The Broncos signed, and introduced, the seven-time Pro Bowl safety on the same day the Cutler-Matt Cassel nontrade story erupted.

Besides the Cutler

Denver Broncos

saga, the Broncos have received roaring criticism this offseason for what they didn't do to bolster their defensive front. The Broncos ranked 30th against the run in 2007 and allowed 4 more yards per game in 2008.

That old adage about how stopping the run starts up front? Go back and rewind the tape of the New England Patriots' 41-7 pasting of the Broncos last October. As the Pats amassed their most productive ground game in 15 years with 257 yards rushing, they trampled through the flailing likes of safety Calvin Lowry and cornerback Dre Bly.

"We value tackling in the secondary," said Broncos coach Josh McDaniels, who game-planned that October stampede as the Pats' offensive coordinator last season. "What we tell them is their job is to prevent touchdowns, by not letting balls over their heads, and tackling the runner. If the runner gets to them, they're the last line usually."

Maintaining that last line of defense requires keeping up with speedy receivers and shifty running backs. This led to the biggest question mark regarding the Broncos' secondary: age. The youngest of the starting four is Hill, who turns 31 in November, one month after Dawkins turns 36.

But McDaniels comes from a Patriots organization known for getting high-level play out of such aging defenders as Rodney Harrison and Junior Seau.

"It's just like you said about how good we are on paper - on paper, we are old," Goodman said. "But my true answer: So? If we don't get the job done, then you can blame it on age. You always expect criticism. If age is our criticism, we're doing pretty good, if that's all we've got."

Mike Klis: 303-954-1055 or mklis@denverpost.com

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