Leaving door ajar was biggest issue for Broncos' defense
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JERSEY CITY -- If you believe implicitly in statistics, Denver has a mediocre defense that figures to have trouble containing Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch and read-option quarterback Russell Wilson in Super Bowl XLVIII on Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
But numbers rarely tell the whole story. They don't explain how the Broncos overcame a variety of injuries, the four-week absence of coach John Fox with a heart condition and the unique problem of finishing off all the blowout wins created by quarterback Peyton Manning and the NFL's No. 1 offense.
The 15-3 Broncos won nine games by at least 16 points and had a 15-point third-quarter lead against Dallas that turned into a 51-48 shootout win.
"The thing we haven't done well is close the door with a big lead," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. "We're up 20 points, the game is over, and we give up a garbage touchdown or two and still win easy. When it's mattered, I think we've played really good football and have been an effective defense."
It mattered plenty when Fox had heart surgery at midseason, when the Broncos faced four straight games against playoff teams, including three on the road. Del Rio, who has nine years of head-coaching experience, stepped in as the Broncos scored two wins over Kansas City and one at San Diego and lost in overtime at New England.
"It was a really tough four-game stretch, and we battled through it," Del Rio said. "When Coach came back, we were in first place and rolling. I was proud of that. Everybody had to do their part. Nobody sat in his chair. We just kept it there. We left everything as it was. When he came back, he assumed his position."
The defense grew stronger toward the end of the season, giving up an average of only 15 points and 70 yards rushing in the past four wins, including playoff games against San Diego and New England. The Seahawks will try to buck that trend in the Super Bowl by using the powerful Lynch to run, control the clock and keep Manning idling.
"Everybody comes in each week and thinks they're going to run the ball and play keep-away from our quarterback," Del Rio said. "That was executed and we lost narrowly one time this year with that approach [by San Diego in a 27-20 win Dec. 12].
"[Seattle] is a very explosive team. The quarterback can buy time and get his receivers deep down the field, and he's got the arm to get it there and the legs to keep the play alive. They find explosive plays, whether it's a gadget or a big run by Marshawn."
Some might wonder if Manning should play a little more ball control to buy time for Broncos defenders to rest from the battering Lynch dishes out. But Del Rio said: "We've been a team that puts the pedal down. You want to play complementary football behind it. Whatever it takes to get the win is what we're after."
Just one set of numbers matters at the end.