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No Fly Zone. Best secondary in NFL history


Carolina Panthers v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Aqib Talib.

Chris Harris Jr.

T.J. Ward.

Darian Stewart.

Bradley Roby.

And don’t forget David Bruton Jr., Kayvon Webster and Shiloh Keo.

They called themselves the No Fly Zone, and it didn’t just become a nickname. It became an identity.

Some might even call them legendary.

I would call them the best secondary in NFL history.

But regardless of the No Fly Zone’s place among NFL ranks, its mention in Broncos history is nothing short of Ring-of-Fame-worthy.

Without the No Fly Zone, there would be no third Lombardi.

Talib recently had Ward, CHJ, DStew and Roby on his Call to the Booth podcast for a five-year No Fly Zone anniversary.

There was mention of the Legion of Boom secondary being as good as the No Fly Zone.

Roby piped in immediately that he “ain’t tryin to hear that,” and Talib, as usual, had a hyped up version of “ummmm...No.”

“It’s the way we did it. ...Like my dog ‘Rob’ said, we’re out here strappin’. We’re playin’ man, we’re on the line with it. Across the board you see Chris on the line in the slot, ‘Rob’ on that side, ‘Lib on his left. Across the board, you know what time it is, you know what I’m saying? And then we was smart, too. We’d mix it up on you, make you think you’re getting that and then we’d get a pick, go to the crib. I just think the way we did it, we just were a little bit sexier than the way they did it.”

Either way, the No Fly Zone - and that crushing pass rush - was definitely sexy.

From the first game of the 2015 season to the Super Bowl 19 games later, the No Fly Zone was an integral part of the Broncos’ No. 1-in-the-league defense that frustrated offenses from every angle - the lightning-fast pass rush, the run-crushing D-line, and the no-fly-zone secondary.

During the season, the Broncos’ defense had 27 takeaways. They added another seven in the postseason, four of them coming off Cam Newton and the Panthers in the Super Bowl.

It was as dominating a unit as you’ll find in NFL defenses.

As a fan that season you may or may not have paid close attention to those stats. But you couldn’t help but notice how the defense came up with a game-changing turnover, a breath-taking stop or a back-breaking sack to win a majority of the games.

In fact, it became so common for the defense to win it for the Broncos in the waning seconds, that it almost became expected.

Members of the No Fly Zone themselves expected to do that. They weren’t just hoping for a big play. They were planning on it.

As T.J. Ward told me last fall, they were confident enough to make their destiny happen that season.

Even in the Super Bowl, they still planned on it coming down to the defense.

“We felt like we would win the game like we won every other game,” Ward said with a big laugh. “We knew it was going to be a dog fight; we knew we probably wouldn’t put that many points on the board, I mean let’s be real. They had a really good defense too, and it wasn’t even about how the season had gone for us offensively. They were coming in with the No. 1 offense and No. 2 defense. But offensively, we knew they couldn’t mess with us. There is nothing they can do to beat us offensively, so as long as we can get some points, we’ll be all right.”

The funny thing that has been mostly overlooked in our celebratory memories of Super Bowl 50 is that both the team and Broncos Country expected a championship the year before.

After having been embarrassed against Seattle in Super Bowl 48, then-GM John Elway spent big in free agency to create the juggernaut he got - bringing in Demarcus Ware, T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib on the defensive side and Emmanuel Sanders on the offensive side.

A surprise butt-kicking by the Colts in the divisional playoffs prevented that destiny, but set up the revenge tour in 2015.

“2015 was amazing for a couple reasons. We knew we had a good team, but really we were supposed to go to the Super Bowl the year before. That’s when everybody was like, ‘We’re going to the Super Bowl. Peyton is still on, the offense is going, we brought in all these defensive free agents. We’re going to the Super Bowl.’ And that’s why we didn’t,” Ward recalled. “The Colts kicked our butts on our home field. The next year we were wasn’t even like a chip on our shoulder. It was more like, ‘we’re just going to come out here and play.’ We were just hungry. We just wanted to play ball.”

As often as the season is remembered for the defense’s dominance at every unit - Miller and Ware on the edge; Ward, CHJ, Talib, DStew and Roby in the secondary; Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe on the line - it is also common to think of the offense as sputtering much of the time.

But Ward and his compadres will be the first ones to defend Peyton Manning’s performance that year.

“Peyton still found the magic in times that we needed it,” Ward said, noting that although technically many games were won on defense, “Peyton always put us in position to win those games with last offensive drives.

“We needed three points with three minutes left, Peyton’s going to get it. We need six, Peyton’s going to get it,” Ward added. “He may not have scored all game, but when we needed him on that last drive, he’s going to go get it for us and then we just have to seal it. And that’s perfect teamwork.”

It was also perfect chemistry, noticed most obviously within that secondary. So many moving pieces, yet such good communication, even with just a year or two together. Darian Stewart was added via free agency in 2015 and became an immediate starter.

“When D-Stew came, we kind of puzzle-pieced him in and he fit right in,” Ward said. “I knew what type of player he was, and I was excited to have him because I knew he was a hitter, and I was like, ‘oh yeah, Stew gonna come down and knock somebody out so I don’t have to.’ He just fit perfect. He had the same mentality we had. He was the same student of the game. It was just a perfect fit.”

On Talib’s reunion podcast, Ward pointed out what a special group the secondary was - both as friends and competitors who were always trying to out-prep the others before meetings.

To me Ward mentioned how the greatness of that year and the tightness of that group grows the more years that go by.

“Honestly, it feels like the further I get away from it, the greater it becomes,” he said. “In the midst of playing in it, it was just like playing backyard football. That’s how close we were; how well we played together; how relaxed we were. This was our family. This was us. It didn’t feel like we were going to work each day. We went out there and had fun. That’s what football is all about - when you get back to those simple basics and you’re having fun and winning. It becomes easy and time flies.”

It was short-lived and perhaps unfortunate the No Fly Zone couldn’t stay intact to continue its dominance.

But it was still one fabulous season.

“We were hot, then we got red hot, and then it was done,” Ward said. “But we did everything we were brought here to do, and you can’t be mad at that.”