Former Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio will be the man behind the defense in Denver… (Paul Buck / EPA )
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller, last season's NFL defensive rookie of the year, was asked to describe the change in defensive coordinators, from Dennis Allen last season to Jack Del Rio now.
"We had a fiery coach last year," Miller said. "Coach Del Rio, he's a little bit laid-back."
Del Rio's response? Ah, training camp is young.
"I'm going to drive them and push them and demand of them," said the clench-jawed Del Rio, charged with turning around a talented but largely underachieving defense. "I may come across at times as a little bit laid-back, but I promise you I'm going to grind them as I need to. As we get going, they may not feel that way a couple weeks from now. 'Hey, what happened to coach?'"
Del Rio, the former Jacksonville coach hired by Denver in January, is the Broncos' seventh defensive coordinator in seven seasons and replaces Allen, new coach of the Oakland Raiders.
The Broncos have potential, particularly with pass rushers Miller and Elvis Dumervil on the outside and All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey blanketing receivers. But they also need to bump up their lackluster numbers from last season, when they were in the bottom half of the league in most major categories, including points allowed (24th) and yards allowed (20th).
"Those aren't numbers I'm looking for," Del Rio said. "I won't be proud of that. We're going to want to be a top-10-type unit."
Plenty of hurdles await. The first seven quarterbacks the Broncos will face are Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, Atlanta's Matt Ryan, Houston's Matt Schaub, Oakland's Carson Palmer, New England's Tom Brady, San Diego's Philip Rivers, and New Orleans' Drew Brees.
Those players have a combined 23 Pro Bowl invitations and six Super Bowl rings.
"It's the gantlet," Del Rio said.
Del Rio had impressive success in Carolina in 2002, when he was John Fox's first defensive coordinator with the Panthers — a job Del Rio held for one season before Jacksonville hired him as head coach. He was fired by the Jaguars last November.
In that one season, Del Rio took a Carolina defense that finished last in the league and transformed it into the NFL's second-ranked unit.
"He gets instant credibility with the players because he was a Pro Bowl player," Fox said. "He gets instant credibility with me because of what he did with that defense in Carolina."
A former standout linebacker at USC who played 11 years with five NFL teams, Del Rio said he can relate to players but doesn't dwell too long with them on his playing days.
"A guy may sit up in his seat for the first five or 10 minutes because you played," he said. "They may appreciate the fact that you can … relate a story that occurred, a memory. But at the end of the day, there's some fine coaches that never played. I don't lean on that.
"The biggest thing for me as a coach is, can you help a guy feel like they're going to play better on Sunday?"
The Broncos are one of 12 teams that changed defensive coordinators this year, counting the St. Louis Rams, who have not replaced the suspended Gregg Williams, out of the league indefinitely for his role in the New Orleans bounty scandal. The Rams will handle the defensive coordinator job by committee.
The other new coordinators:
Steve Spagnuolo, New Orleans: The former Rams coach takes over a unit that's without its captain and best defensive player, linebacker Jonathan Vilma, suspended for the season for his role in the bounty scandal.
Mike Nolan, Atlanta: Maybe Nolan, who spent the last two seasons as defensive coordinator in Miami, can revive a pass defense that has ranked no better than 20th since 2008.
Dean Pees, Baltimore: Pees was promoted from linebackers coach when former Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano was named coach of the Colts.
Jason Tarver, Oakland: Al Davis used to love to tinker with the defense. Tarver is different from his Raiders predecessors in that he has autonomy. He'll try to fix a defense that hasn't stopped the run in years.
John Pagano, San Diego: The Chargers fired Greg Manusky after just one season, replacing him with Pagano, the team's linebackers coach and brother of the new Colts coach.
Alan Williams, Minnesota: Williams spent the last 10 seasons coaching defensive backs for the Colts. Vikings Coach Leslie Frasier also coached the Colts' secondary alongside him, so the two are reunited.
Kevin Coyle, Miami: Coyle, a 35-year coach who spent the last 11 seasons overseeing the secondary in Cincinnati, gets his first opportunity to be a defensive coordinator in the NFL.
Dave Wannstedt, Buffalo: If the Bills are to break their streak of 12 years without making the playoffs — the league's longest drought — they need their defense to step up. Wannstedt has an elite defensive line, for starters.
Greg Manusky, Indianapolis: Perhaps Manusky can do in Indianapolis what he couldn't get done in San Diego. The Colts are transitioning from a 4-3 defense to a more aggressive 3-4.
Bill Sheridan, Tampa Bay: Sheridan was an assistant under Tom Coughlin when the New York Giants won the Super Bowl in 2008. So was Mike Sullivan, the Buccaneers' new offensive coordinator.