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What was the Orange Crush defense?

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The Denver Broncos first playoff berth came in 1977 and was spearheaded by the Orange Crush defense. Let’s take a trip down memory lane.

In this week’s episode of Something Something Broncos, Laurie Lattimore-Volkman, Jess Place, and I get into the way back machine to review the rise of the Orange Crush in Denver. The Orange Crush defense had an historic run in 1977. The suffocated opposing offenses and willed their team to a 12-2 record that year.

The ride didn’t end until the Super Bowl when the Dallas Cowboys own defense dominated forcing a Super Bowl record eight turnovers against the Denver Broncos offense, but that doesn’t diminish the kind of season that Orange Crush defense had. They gave up over 20 points just once during the regular season and held their opponents to under 10 an incredible seven times that season.

It was a defense built from the ground up. Each player they added to the mix beginning in 1969 would culminate in a squad that could beat any team on its own. Let’s take a look at how Denver built that extraordinary unit.


Billy Thompson. With their third round pick, the Broncos picked up a little known defensive back out of Maryland Eastern Shore.


Lyle Alzado. Drafted in the fourth round of the 1971 NFL Draft, Alzado became a key piece of the Orange Crush defense. Many believe he’d be in the Broncos’ Ring of Fame had he not ended up playing for the Las Angeles Raiders.


Barney Chavous. In the second round, the Broncos found their starting defensive end in Chavous. He played his entire career in Denver and still ranks fourth on the teams all-time sack list with 75. That number is unofficial since sack numbers weren’t kept as an official stat in 1982, but we’ll believe Wikipedia on that one.

Tom Jackson. Later in that same 1973 NFL Draft, the Broncos snagged Tom Jackson in the fourth round. He would go on to be named a three-time All Pro and a member of the Broncos Ring of Fame.


Randy Gradishar. Speaking of Ring of Famers, the Broncos drafted another one in the first round of the 1974 NFL Draft and Gradishar would live up to his draft status every step of the way. He was NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1978 and a six-time All Pro, but according to Hall of Fame voters he was just a guy out there.

Joe Rizzo. Rizzo was drafted in the 15th round that year by the Buffalo Bills. He didn’t last long there and would end up with the Broncos by the start of his rookie year. He’d play his entire career in Denver and was an integral part of that 1977 defense.


Louis Wright. Stacking first round Ring of Fame picks in back-to-back years, the Broncos got cornerback Louis Wright with their seventeenth overall selection. He was a member of the 1970s All-Decade Team and a four-time first-team All Pro. He was the original Champ Bailey.

“They use a term today of shutdown cornerback,” Broncos’ defensive coordinator Joe Collier said. “We didn’t have that term back then, but Louie Wright was a shutdown cornerback. He was a great run defender. He played the left side and in those days most teams were right-handed and their running plays usually went to our left side.”

Rubin Carter. The immovable force inside for that 1977 Orange Crush defense was Rubin Carter. He locked down that nose tackle position and drew enough attention away from the outside to allow the Orange Crush to swarm to the ball.

Steve Foley. In the 8th round of the 1975 NFL Draft, the Broncos picked Steve Foley who would be the piece on the defense that took advantage of the opportunities created. He would finish his career with a Broncos record of 44 interceptions.

Bob Swenson. Finding an undrafted gem was the cherry on top for the Broncos in 1975. Bob Swenson would round out the linebacker corps for Denver for that Orange Crush defense. However, his comments to Sports Illustrated years later after going undrafted hilariously ring true even today.

“The draft is bullshit,” Swenson said in 1978. “The scouts for most of the teams are 100 years old, and most of them don’t know what they’re doing. I went to school at Berkeley, and most of the NFL scouts think the students are still rioting in the streets out there. They didn’t want to look at me.”


Bernard Jackson. The only player on that Orange Crush defense that wasn’t truly homegrown by Denver was defensive back Bernard Jackson. He was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in 1972 and traded to Denver prior to the 1977 season. Good for him, because the Broncos were actually good that year.

That not one of these players have joined the Pro Football Hall of Fame is a travesty. While the Broncos have gained a much bigger representation in the Hall in recent years, it still needs to find a way to get someone from the vaunted Orange Crush defense a gold jacket. My vote would be for Randy Gradishar and Louis Wright.