ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos players exited the 2019 season saying the defense was poised to return to its recent glory days during the second year of what figures to be a more revved-up version of coach Vic Fangio's system.
But Fangio believes the depth chart after these next seven weeks will make that call.
"It depends who the players are," Fangio said. "... It's really more player-driven than second-year-driven."
Or as star linebacker Von Miller put it: "We got more experience in the scheme, I think we'll be totally better. Pick up a couple pieces this offseason, a couple of dogs, and we'll be straight."
Make no mistake, Fangio wants more versatility in his personnel, fewer injuries and the benefits of a second year with players such as Miller, linebacker Bradley Chubb, cornerback Kareem Jackson and safety Justin Simmons. Through Chubb’s season-ending knee injury in Week 4, Bryce Callahan's missed season and a carousel at cornerback for much of the year, the Broncos still found a way to finish 12th in total defense and 10th in scoring defense during Fangio's first season.
They also finished No. 1 in red zone defense, allowing touchdowns on plays inside the 20 just 39% of the time, a testament to the scheme and the variety of players who were asked to execute it during an injury-marred year.
The Broncos defense will face a bit of a makeover -- at the least -- in 2020. The defensive line has free agents in Derek Wolfe, Adam Gotsis and Shelby Harris. At cornerback, Chris Harris Jr. is expected to depart, while A.J. Bouye has already been secured in a trade with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Callahan’s status is still uncertain as he tries to return from the second foot surgery since December 2018 and De'Vante Bausby is returning from a neck injury.
Fangio's peers say some of the greatest strengths of his defensive game plans are the variety of coverages, as well as the ability to disguise those coverages pre-snap. To do that, Fangio needs assignment-sound players who can handle all that’s being asked. That will be easier for players in their second year with the coach.
"We should all improve next season," Simmons said. "That's a natural progression if we do the work. But I've said, I don't think we’ve really tapped what we can be -- we showed it in some bursts at times, but we have more."
During Fangio's four seasons as Chicago Bears' defensive coordinator before being hired by the Broncos in 2019, significant roster turnover -- especially in 2015 and 2016 -- impacted at least some of the Bears' defensive improvements.
The Bears were 14th in total defense and 20th in scoring in Fangio's first year in 2015 to go with 15th in total defense and 24th in scoring in 2016. But in Year 3, the Bears finished in the top 10 in total defense (10th), scoring defense (ninth), pass defense (seventh) and sacks (seventh).
It all came together in Year 4, when the Bears were No. 1 in the league in scoring defense, run defense, interceptions and forced turnovers. Miller, for one, has consistently said he sees a jump on the horizon.
"We can do that," Miller said. " ... We had a great scheme [in 2019]. We had a great defense. It’s different, and it's a learning curve with all of that. My job is to get sacks in whatever defense that I'm in, and I didn't do a great job with that ... but we can get better, I'll be better, Chubb's back."