Warning from Ware: Bron­cos aren’t soft

The Denver Post - - NFL SUNDAY - MARK KISZLA

Bron­cos linebacker DeMar­cus Ware caught the drift of my ques­tion and did not like it. Not one bit. His eyes nar­rowed, like a tiger ready to pounce on an af­front to the team’s man­hood. Are the Bron­cos soft? “When you say to us, ‘Let’s try to push the Bron­cos around,’ that sparks some­thing in us as a de­fense. It doesn’t mat­ter how much of a grind the sea­son is or if I’m hurt­ing dur­ing a game, it makes us think, ‘I’m go­ing to blow some­body up and make a big play,’ ” Ware told me.

“You’re not go­ing to push us around. You’re just not. And every­body on this de­fense has the same men­tal­ity. Every­body.”

Here. We. Go.

The tough­ness of the de­fend­ing Su­per Bowl champ is about to be chal­lenged in Ten­nessee, where the Ti­tans are a bunch of big uglies that want to bully the Bron­cos and steal their lunch money.

You want a pre­dic­tion? Pain. Drop a hand­ful of quar­ters in the juke­box and play “The Fightin’ Side of Me” by Merle Hag­gard. In a town known for its honky­tonks, there are bad men from Nashville, look­ing to start a bar­room brawl.

On pure foot­ball tal­ent, Ten­nessee can­not beat Den­ver. So the Ti­tans are go­ing to try to beat up the Bron­cos.

You know the sta­tis­tics: Led by DeMarco Mur­ray, the Ti­tans av­er­age 141.5 yards rush­ing per game, third-best in the NFL. Den­ver is rank against the rush, its vaunted de­fense man­han­dled for 122.8 yards per game on the ground.

Ware, the wis­est philoso­pher in the Den­ver locker room, knows de­spite the end­less praise for the No-Fly Zone, there are whis­pers the Bron­cos might not be tough enough in the trenches.

“We’re not the big, bulky, strong guys that you of­ten see on de­fense,” he said. “You look at us and you might ask, ‘How are the Bron­cos do­ing it?’ ”

What the Ti­tans want to do is crush a foe’s soul. Why do they have to be that way? Well, here’s some­thing you might not know: Ten­nessee is built tough by the metic­u­lous de­sign of gen­eral man­ager Jon Robin­son, who

spent a dozen years in the Pa­tri­ots or­ga­ni­za­tion. For years, New Eng­land mas­ter­mind Bill Belichick has packed a smirk and a ham­mer for show­downs against Den­ver, con­vinced the Bron­cos even­tu­ally back down from a heavy­weight fight.

So it’s no sur­prise the Ti­tans are in­clined to play smash-mouth foot­ball. Young of­fen­sive tackle Jack Con­klin is a road grader. When Mur­ray needs a breather, Ten­nessee hands the rock to Heis­man Tro­phy win­ner Der­rick Henry, who is 250 pounds of trou­ble. This is a team that puts the tail­back 7 yards be­hind cen­ter and gets ready to rum­ble.

Bring it on, says Ware. He uses the words “maulers” and “hogs” to de­scribe Ten­nessee’s of­fen­sive line­men. In a nice way. Of course.

“If you say to us, ‘I’m go­ing to pound ’em,’ then I’ll tell you what, we’re not go­ing to let you pound us. We’re go­ing to find a way to stop you. We’re go­ing to use our quick­ness. And once we start to make big plays in the back­field, things are go­ing to change,” vowed Ware. He ad­mits the Ti­tans will some­times blow Den­ver off the ball for a 5-yard gain.

But when Ten­nessee quar­ter­back Mar­cus Mar­i­ota least ex­pects it, there will be Den­ver linebacker Von Miller slam­danc­ing him or safety T.J. Ward rock­ing his world with a blitz. And then … “Now what hap­pens?” Ware said. With four games re­main­ing in the reg­u­lar sea­son, win­ning the AFC West is not out of the ques­tion for Den­ver. Lose to Ten­nessee, how­ever, and there’s a real pos­si­bil­ity the Bron­cos won’t even make the play­offs.

Den­ver is 5-0 against teams with a los­ing record. Den­ver is 3-4 against teams with a record of .500 or bet­ter. The num­ber of teams with a los­ing record left on Den­ver’s sched­ule: zero.

So Ware knows what’s at stake. The NFL smells weak­ness on the Bron­cos.

There’s no room for Den­ver to dance. The only choice is to fight.

“How hard do you want it? It’s not just go­ing out there and say­ing, ‘OK, I’m go­ing to try to out­wit the guy.’ I want to steal his heart. That’s the way that I play,” Ware said. His goal against the Ti­tans is as subtle as a punch in the nose: “I want the guy (on the other team) to shake my hand at the end of the game be­cause he knows that he got his butt kicked.”

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