Every Denver Broncos fan has heard of the "Orange Crush." Back in the 1970's they were one of the most feared defenses in the NFL and a major reason why the Broncos went to the Super Bowl in 1977. From the days of John Elway until now, the Broncos defense hasn't been able to consistently play at that level for more than a season or two at a time and infrequently at that. However, with an oustanding defensive-minded head coach in John Fox and a commitment from the organization to focus on that side of the ball, the Broncos are poised to bring back that "crush" nickname in a big way.
The first element in developing a top defense in the NFL is a dedication to that side of the ball in your coaching philosophy and the draft. Previous coach Mike Shanahan had his best seasons when his defense was good, but it was Shanahan's inability to find a decent defensive coordinator in his final few seasons that was probably the major factor in his firing. Here are where the Broncos ranked in total defense over Shanahan's last eight seasons: 21st (2001), 15th (2002), 9th (2003), 9th (2004), 4th (2005), 8th (2006), 28th (2007), and 30th (2008). Josh McDaniels' turbulent two seasons resulted in the Broncos defense finishing 14th in 2009 and 32nd in 2010.
When John Elway was looking for a new head coach after the firing of McDaniels, he purposefully selected a coach with a strong defensive background. Fox came to Denver with the major goal of rebuilding the Broncos' defense and he's been a busy man. His biggest move on defense was in drafting Vonn Miller with the third-overall pick in the draft. Miller went on to win the AP defensive player of the year in 2011, made his first Pro Bowl, and looks like he will be a cornerstone of the Broncos defense for the next decade.
Although the Broncos were 24th in total defense in Fox's first year as coach in 2011, they played much better than the statistics show. With an anemic offense led by Tim Tebow over 2/3 of the season (an offense that finished 25th in points scored despite leading the league in rushing), the defense played under a great deal of pressure. It was the defense that kept games close enough so that Tebow could "win" the game with a late-game drive. They just never got much credit for it outside of certain football circles.
Despite the fact that 99% of the attention the Broncos have received since the 2011 season ended has been due to the acquisition of Peyton Manning (and the jettisoning of Tim Tebow), the Broncos have spent the majority of the off-season making moves to improve the defense. They hired former Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio. Del Rio was very much like Fox as a head coach in that his teams always played good defense and he will add another layer of defensive expertise that they Broncos haven't had in years. They've shored up the defensive line by selecting a defensive tackle, Derek Wolfe, with their first pick. They added depth and quality to their secondary by adding Tracy Porter, Drayton Florence, and Mike Adams. Don't forget they have future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey still close to his prime. This is a team that has vastly improved the talent level on defense from where it was a few years ago.
The biggest obstacle to the Broncos being a top 10 defense in 2012 will be their difficult schedule. On the other hand, their biggest asset going into 2012 is new quarterback Peyton Manning. By virtue of his ability to consistently put points on the scoreboard coupled with his technique of running the offense so that the clock is always moving, the defense should play under far less pressure than it did in 2011. If the new defensive additions are as good as advertised, and Del Rio can work with Fox to mold this defense into a strong, aggressive unit, the Broncos will be able to proudly bust out that "Orange Crush" label once again.
Julie is a featured NFL contributor to the Yahoo Contributor Network. Although she grew up a Chicago Bears fan, she began following the Denver Broncos closely when she moved to Colorado in 2001. She currently lives five minutes from team headquarters and will hopefully attend training camp when it opens later this month.