The retirement of former Denver Broncos safety T.J. Ward again placed a spotlight on one of the best defenses to ever be assembled.
For everything this game brought me I am forever grateful, to the fans I gave my all too, to the teams I gave my all too. To my family who gave there all to me through all the ups and downs, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Blessed 8 years! #wardcorp pic.twitter.com/7OofnBEReI
— T.J. Ward (@BossWard43) April 21, 2021
The “No Fly Zone” was as good as any secondary in the history of football. Coupled with a ferocious pass rush, the Denver Broncos moved through the 2015 season on the back of their defense.
With the increased ineffectiveness of the offense, the defense carried the team towards the organization’s latest world championship.
However, how the defense meshed together to form such a formidable group and is something Broncos fans can appreciate for a lifetime.
They were legendary.
How the “No Fly Zone” happened
Following a blowout loss in Super Bowl 48, then general manager John Elway knew he must do something drastic.
Even though the team had featured the most prolific offense to grace the field, it was not enough to win a championship. The defense had to get better.
Entering the 2014 offseason, the Broncos had the returning talent of edge rusher Von Miller and cornerback Chris Harris Jr. Both Pro-Bowl players returned from ACL injuries suffered late in the 2013 campaign. Additionally, the team had young defensive end Derek Wolfe, who had battled a frightening neck injury that season and it was unsure if he could continue playing.
Elway, poised to create a well-rounded roster went to work.
In 2014, the Broncos entered free agency with roughly $29 million in salary-cap space for their top 51 contracts. In the NFL, a team’s salary cap is based on the top 51 players.
First, Elway and Co. cleared just over $10 million of salary-cap space when they released (Hall of Fame cornerback) Champ Bailey, and gained another $4 million with the retirement of the offensive guard (now assistant line coach) Chris Kuper.
First, Elway put a handsome deal in front of cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (DRC). DRC played fantastic for the 2013 Broncos and was ready for a big payday the following offseason. He waited on the deal and shopped it to other teams. As Elway would do with most players in free agency, he did not wait long and pivoted to New England cornerback Aqib Talib. Armed with the same six-year worth up to $57 million, Elway snagged his number 1 cornerback.
Remaining aggressive, Elway grabbed safety T.J. Ward with a four-year, $22 million deal. Ward, was the type of player this team had no that since the retirements of John Lynch and Brian Dawkins.
When future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware was released by the Dallas Cowboys. Ware signed for a three-year, $30 million deal. Then, Elway pulled the final rabbit out of the hat by selected former Buckeye cornerback Bradley Roby in the 1st round of the 2014 NFL draft.
"I came to the Denver #Broncos with the type of edge that I feel like the team needed, and it got us to the point of winning Super Bowl 50."@DeMarcusWare reflects on our historic 2014 free-agent class » https://t.co/XuNA5jKFAo pic.twitter.com/s6uEwkWZ3a
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) March 17, 2020
The defense then saw the elevation of linebacker Danny Trevathan and the masterpiece was almost complete.
Following a disappointing 2014 playoff run, the team made their final moves to secure defense for the ages.
Heading into 2015, Elway let former safety Raheem Moore go elsewhere and the team brought in unheralded safety Darian Stewart. Add linebacker Brandon Marshall of the Jacksonville Jaguars practice squad and the elevation of former 5th-round pick Malik Jackson and the construction of the “No Fly Zone” was almost complete.
Former Broncos head coach was not the first selection to head up the defense when new Head Coach Gary Kubiak was brought on to get this team over the hump. Elway was frustrated with outgoing head coach John Fox and believed the players on this team were good enough to win a championship.
Initially, the team wanted to hire Cincinnati Bengals assistant Vance Joseph for the defensive coordinator job, but that move was blocked and the Broncos had adjusted their plan.
Kubiak made the call to his former assistant Phillips about the job.
Phillips had a much different style than the team that ran under former defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. This defense plays downhill, and attacks with relentless pressure from all angles. To complete the defensive plan, the secondary must be able to match up in man-to-man coverage.
Phillips’s personality fits well with his players. His dynamic ability to manage the personalities within the locker room unlocked the immense talents of each individual to create a defense that excelled in almost every facet of the game.
He was the final piece to the puzzle.
The personalities of the secondary
There is no secret that the secondary boasted a group of complex personalities. Now their complexity ranged from outspoken Talib to the quiet Stewart. However, each member of the “No Fly Zone” had one thing in common, confidence.
Their confidence caused friction in the meeting room and confrontations on the practice field, the desire to be perfect was evident in what they do.
Peyton Manning told a story about how he came into the building at Dove Valley and each member of the secondary was already watching that week’s game film together. He heard them arguing like brothers over the PlayStation controller. Needless to say, that day’s practice did not end well that day, for the offense.
What Talib, Harris, Roby, Stewart, and Ward shared was a belief, that if they bought into this system each would all shine.
Most elite players recognize when they are not the focal point of a scheme. When non-guarantees are on the line, NFL players face the conundrum of sacrificing their worth by playing for the team or trying to maximize their own market. If players do not produce statistics of value to the league (i.e. sacks and interceptions), they rarely are paid well when it is time for a new contract. With limited windows to maximize earning potential, it is tough to blame them for putting them first.
This group bucked the trend. They trusted Phillips to play to their skills, but most of all, they trusted each other to do their jobs. Each player knew, if they did their job, the sky was the limit.
Ride to the 2015 Super Bowl
From the first game, it was evident this group would be special when Talib picked off Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, returning to the house for a pick-six.
To deal with the game, newly acquired Darian Stewart intercepted Flacco in the end zone to deal with a Broncos victory.
Aqib Talib is the difference maker as his pick-6 leads Denver to win over Baltimore, 19-13. pic.twitter.com/dSl1lKbQ2N
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) September 13, 2015
The defense kept it rolling into the next week. After some clutch throws by Petyon Manning, the Chiefs had the ball with under a minute to play. They called a draw to All-Pro running back Jamaal Charles, which the ball was punched out and scooped up by Roby for a game-clinching touchdown.
The secondary continued to cause havoc, turning the ball over for the first 6 games, 5 of those games saw multiple turnovers, keeping the team undefeated.
A matchup with the also undefeated Green Bay Packers would be the ultimate test for Denver’s defense. Many NFL experts picked the Packers to win. No one really believed in the Bronco’s resume.
The Packers were not ready. The pressure, coupled with the coverage skills of the “No Fly Zone” heald Aaron Rodgers to a total of 50 net passing yards.
The team would continue to roll despite an injury to Manning and inconsistent play on offense.
According to Pro Football Reference, the 2015 Broncos should have been 9-7 at best, due to below league average offensive football.
However, the defense catapulted the team to a 12-4 record, and a number 1 overall seed in the AFC.
The “No Fly Zone” was historic and their stats showed it. The 2015 defense ranked 1st in yards/game (283.1 yards), passing yards/game (199.6), total sacks (52), 3rd in the NFL against the run (83.6), 4th in scoring (18.5), and No. 3 in defensive touchdowns (5).
These numbers show are phenomenal, now consider the Denver offense committed 31 turnovers and the turnover ratio was minus-4.
The Broncos faced the gauntlet of Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, and 2015 MVP Cam Newton.
None of them found success. The Broncos would accumulate 27 turnovers through the regular season. In the AFC Division and Champion games, the Broncos would tack on 3 more while leaving both Roethlisberger and Brady battered and bruised.
The Super Bowl brought the 15-1 Carolina Panthers, and the game’s top offense. The hoopla through the weeks leading up to the game indicated Denver did not stand a chance.
However, the Broncos turned over the Panthers 4 times, scoring a touchdown and setting up the game-clinching score. Newton struggled to gain traction, and essentially would not be the same player he was that season again. Though the score remained close, the game never felt in reach for the Panthers.
The “No Fly Zone” played simple coverage throughout the season, and especially in the Super Bowl. They simply were better than their opponents. The group was legendary, and it will be tough to find a secondary as good again.
All good things come to an end. Eventually, time would wear away the defense, but it was tough to watch.
Phillips would leave after the 2016 season. Elway refused to play Phillips what he was worth and seemed to believe he could do keep a top-flight defense without him.
Though the Broncos defense has been good in years since then, it has never regained the dominance. The slow deterioration began after a disappointing 2016 season.
The personalities themselves began to erode the locker room. The defense was tired of losing. They began to challenge the offense and demand more, leading to friction.
T.J. Ward would be cut to make room for his heir apparent, Justin Simmons ahead of the 2017 season. Talib was traded to the Los Angeles Rams in the offseason before the 2018 season. Stewart and Roby would remain through the 2018 season before finding new homes. Lastly, Harris would hang on through the 2019 campaign before finding a new home with the rival Los Angles Chargers in 2020.
Each player left with little fanfare. In each case, the fan base sided with the organization over the player. However, time will remember this group as it should be.
The “No Fly Zone” remains the standard in Denver. Even the 2021 version has been connected to the all-time group. However, no secondary will likely be able to match their tenacity, their play-making, and overall production.
These guys talked a lot and they absolutely put their money where their mouth was.
Who is the best defense of all time, they are? Just ask them. However, they are not the only ones.
I also think they will be the best I’ve ever seen in person. I will always remember the “No Fly Zone” as they were.