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Question No. 6 in Broncos' camp preview: Can pass rush again become elite?

It can if Von Miller and Bradley Chubb stay healthy.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — If each aspect of a successful football team were put on trial, the importance of sacks would be a difficult case to try.

Tom Brady’s Patriots won Super Bowls following the 2016 and 2018 seasons with defenses that ranked 17th and 30th, respectively, in sacks.

Then again, Brady’s Buccaneers won the Super Bowl last season with a Shaq Barrett-led defense that ranked No. 5 in sacks. And Peyton Manning’s Broncos won Super Bowl 50 to cap the 2015 season thanks to an aggressive defense that ranked No. 1 with 52 sacks during the regular season – and that was before Von Miller became unstoppable in the postseason.

> Video above: What to watch for at Denver's 2021 training camp.

The Broncos haven’t created quite as much havoc on quarterbacks in the five years since Super Bowl 50. But pass rush hasn’t been a team weakness, either. The Denver D finished in the top 10 in 2016 (3rd) under Wade Phillips, 2018 (8th) under Vance Joseph, and 2020 (9th) under Vic Fangio and didn’t make the playoffs in any of them.

Still, with new general manager George Paton fortifying his back end this offseason by making Justin Simmons the NFL’s highest-paid safety and adding cornerbacks  Ronald Darby, Kyle Fuller and Pat Surtain, it’s imperative Denver’s D bring the complementary heat up front in 2021.

Which leads to the next topic in 9NEWS series of 9 Questions confronting the Broncos as they report Tuesday to training camp.

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos outside linebacker Bradley Chubb, left, celebrates his sack with teammate outside linebacker Von Miller during the first half of an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

6. Will the Denver Defense again generate a top 5 pass rush? 

Issue: The Broncos’ top two pass rushers, outside linebackers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, are both coming off ankle surgeries. Miller missed all of last season after tearing an ankle tendon six days prior to the season opener. Chubb underwent a less serious arthroscopic procedure on his ankle in late-May, although his recovery time is considerably shorter. Miller says he’s “94 percent” recovered with the final 6 percent to come as he practices live in training camp. Chubb will work himself back into shape gradually during camp.

Background: During their Super Bowl run in 2015, that great Denver D attacked QBs in waves. Not only did the Broncos have likely Hall of Famers in DeMarcus Ware and Miller as their starting outside linebackers, they were backed up by Barrett and a healthy, first-round rookie Shane Ray.

The defensive line also had two superior interior penetrators in Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe. Add in Phillips’ five-man rush principles and opposing QBs always seemed harried.

Resolution: This current Broncos’ defense doesn’t quite have the pass-rush depth as the 2015 unit had. Malik Reed, who had 8.5 sacks in place of Miller last year, is a super sub, but Fangio said during the offseason one of the team’s needs is finding a fourth outside linebacker. Second-year edge rusher Derrek Tuszka and rookies Jonathan Cooper and Andre Mintze are candidates. But Paton may have to acquire a veteran backup edge rusher as the team sets its season-opening roster.

Shelby Harris and Dre’Mont Jones have the ability to be inside pass-rush forces. And Fangio can help by calling a higher percentage of blitzes than normal. But for the most part, the key to the Broncos’ pass rush in 2021 is the health of Miller of Chubb. Both are top 5 overall draft picks. If they’re healthy, the pass rush will be there.

Oh, and playing with a lead would help the pass rush, too. 

Credit: AP Photo/Jack Dempsey
Denver Broncos linebackers Bradley Chubb (55) and Von Miller (58) watch from the sideline during the first half of an NFL football game against the Oakland Raiders in Denver.

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