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Five unheralded defenders have keyed Denver’s resurgence

(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

On paper, it looked like Vic Fangio was stepping into a perfect situation when he became the head coach of the Broncos. The defensive mastermind was inheriting a roster that set him up for immediate success.

Every coach on that side of the ball would love to build around the likes of Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, Chris Harris Jr., Derek Wolfe and Justin Simmons. They’d also be drooling once the team spent money in the offseason to add Kareem Jackson and Bryce Callahan to the mix.

Everywhere Fangio looked, he saw talent. His defense was loaded for bear.

Through the first four games of the season, however, things weren’t going well. Not only was the team 0-4, but the head coach’s specialty was anything but special.

During the Broncos first three losses, the defense failed to record a sack or force a turnover, making NFL history for ineptitude in the process. And in Weeks 2 and 4, the much-ballyhooed group surrendered late leads at home, letting Mitchell Trubisky and Gardner Minshew drive for winning field goals in the waning seconds.

The last two games have been different, however. Finally, the Broncos look like the defense everyone expected.

In their past eight quarters of play, Fangio’s group has only surrendered six points. They’ve also forced six turnovers and racked up seven sacks. Not surprisingly, Denver is 2-0 in those games, climbing back into the AFC West race in the process.

The defensive resurgence certainly has been due in large part to the team’s stars. In those wins, Simmons has two picks, while Jackson and Harris Jr. each have one. Meanwhile, Wolfe has had 2.0 sacks, while Miller has added a half sack and three quarterback hits.

But the big-name, big-money players aren’t what’s provided the catalyst for the turnaround. After all, they were all on the field during the team’s anemic start.

Rather, it’s been a batch of unheralded journeymen, castoffs and afterthoughts that have elevated Denver’s defense. Five players nobody was counting on when the season began has provided a much-needed spark.

Alexander Johnson was thrust into action a week ago when Josey Jewell was sidelined against the Chargers due to a hamstring injury. The second-year linebacker was given the nod over veteran Corey Nelson, as Fangio and Company searched for a playmaker in the middle of their defense. Johnson has answered the bell.

In his debut, the linebacker had eight tackles, two passes defensed and a key interception in the end zone to thwart a drive. A week later, he was even better, racking up nine tackles and 1.5 sacks against the Titans.

But beyond the stats, Johnson has brought an energy to the field. He’s a sideline-to-sideline player that is constantly around the ball, forcing opposing offenses into mistakes.

The same day Johnson was inserted into the starting lineup, the Broncos also promoted Mike Purcell. The five-year veteran has been just was the doctor ordered at nose tackle, providing the defense with the bulk they need to stop the run and create interior pressure.

In two starts, Purcell has recorded six tackles, two tackles for loss and one quarterback hit. But the numbers are only part of the equation.

Fangio’s defense needs a presence in the middle. It requires a player who can take up space, occupy blockers and create a push. At 6-foot-3, 328 pounds, Purcell is perfectly suited for that role.

Putting him in the lineup has also allowed the Broncos to move Shelby Harris to the outside. At 290 pounds, Harris was miscast at nose tackle. At defensive end, the veteran seems much more comfortable, recording a sack, a tackle for a loss and one pass defensed during his first two games on the outside.

The third defender to make his starting debut against the Chargers was linebacker Malik Reed. Due to the season-ending knee injury that Chubb suffered in a Week 4 loss to the Jaguars, the undrafted rookie was thrust into the lineup; he done a more-than-admirable job filling some very big shoes.

In Sunday’s win over the Titans, Reed was in on 62 of the 70 defensive snaps, the same number as Von Miller. That’s a testament to the faith the coaches have in the rookie to make plays and be in the right position. He’s not Chubb, but Reed has helped the Broncos defense avoid a huge drop off.

But it’s not just new starters that are making an impact. Denver’s defense is also getting big contributions from reserves.

At cornerback, the Broncos have been bitten by the injury bug. Callahan has yet to play a down in an orange-and-blue uniform, De’Vante Bausby saw his season come to a premature end due to a scary spinal injury in Los Angeles and Duke Dawson Jr. missed Sunday’s game.

Throw in continual struggles from second-year cornerback Isaac Yiadom and the Broncos are thin in their defensive backfield. They needed someone to step up.

Davontae Harris has done just that. The cornerback was picked up just before the start of the regular season after he was released by the Bengals. He spent three weeks primarily playing special teams for the Broncos, before finally seeing the field on defense against the Jaguars.

On Sunday, Harris got his first career start, as Denver was out of other options at cornerback. He responded by playing 100 percent of the team’s defensive snaps and held up well despite the fact that the Titans tried to target him early and often. The second-year cornerback didn’t give up any big plays, made two tackles and brought an enthusiasm to the defensive backfield that seemed contagious.

As impressive as these performances have been, however, they pale in comparison to Fangio’s greatest reclamation project. The fact that he and his defensive staff have been able to coax something out of DeMarcus Walker borders on miraculous.

During his first two seasons in the NFL, the second-round pick in the 2017 draft was highly ineffective. In two years, he had 11 tackles, 2.0 sacks and two tackles for a loss. Total. In two seasons. As a result, he had been labeled a bust by almost everyone.

Six games into this season, however, the defensive end looks like a different player. He has three sacks, 12 tackles and four tackles for a loss. More importantly, he’s active on the field, causing havoc in the opposing team’s backfield and making his presence known. That’s hard for most long-time Broncos observers to believe.

In the past two weeks, Denver has salvaged their season and clawed their way back into the mix, setting up a huge game on Thursday night against Kansas City. They’ve done it by riding a defense that has played at an exceptionally high level.

The team’s stars will get most of the credit for the resurgence, but they aren’t the root cause of the turnaround. Instead, it’s five little-known players who’ve jumpstarted the Broncos defense and got the season back on track.

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