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Reunited with Fox, Del Rio charges up Denver 'D'

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Reunited with Fox, Del Rio charges up Denver 'D'

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) There are a few more lines around the eyes, each of them a symbol of some lesson learned during a head-coaching tenure that lasted nearly a decade, had its share of success but ended badly for Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville.

Some things, however, haven't changed.

The Broncos defensive coordinator, now 49 and reunited with John Fox in the same role he had a decade ago in Carolina, is still a formidable presence whenever he walks onto a football field. And the schemes the NFL linebacker-turned-coach crafts still make life very difficult for offenses around the league.

Asked to describe his approach to defense without using the word ``aggressive'' - because, really, what defensive coordinator doesn't want to be aggressive? - Del Rio laughed.

``Aggressive,'' he said. ``I don't know. There are a lot of good people out there doing a lot of good things. From my standpoint, the No. 1 thing we want to do is create a culture where players understand the things they're being asked to do. That they build a confidence playing for each other, with each other. And that in the end, you play fast.''

Denver's seventh defensive coordinator in seven years has the Broncos (6-3) playing fast, and at a level this defense hasn't reached in a while. Yes, they are ranked a more-than-respectable sixth in yards allowed and 10th in points allowed, in the running to finish with the best statistics in those categories since the mid-2000s. But they are also ranked second in sacks per pass play and, with four touchdowns and a pair of safeties, are making the kind of plays that swing games.

They are building a reputation as a swarming, playmaking and, yes, aggressive group, which is just how Del Rio coaches it, especially when the talent is there to make it happen. Had it worked this well in Jacksonville over the past few years, the coach might still be there. Instead, he got released 11 games into last season with a 69-73 career record.

Some might have sat it out for a while, let some wounds heal and, in Del Rio's case, collected some easy paychecks, which could have totaled up to around $5 million.

Not this coach, who Thursday was standing in the midst of his defenders at the start of practice, shouting, listening, correcting and at one point, insisting the players ``get this (expletive) down'' by the end of the day.

``I love coaching,'' he said. ``And this was a good opportunity for me to get hooked up with a guy I respect and a program that's first class.''

Indeed, when Fox came calling, Del Rio knew he could get right back into his comfort zone: Coaching defense alongside one of the men he came up with; working in the room with players; getting back to the kind of routine that wasn't available as much when he was a head coach, where PR, delegating to staff and big-picture decision-making often overshadows the Xs and Os.

``That's something you probably kind of miss after a while,'' Fox said. ``It kind of re-energizes you. I think he's having fun doing it.''

No doubt, Del Rio said.

``When we interviewed, I said, `Hey, I don't mind being an assistant strength coach again,''' Del Rio said. ``I love ball with the right people, right organization. I love to be a member on the staff and going through the grind and having my feet in the grass and having a chance to touch some players. That's what I have a passion for.''

Del Rio's last two stops in his 11-year NFL playing career were in Dallas, where he played for Jimmy Johnson, and Minnesota, where Tony Dungy was the defensive coordinator. It was Johnson's ``all-in mentality,'' as Del Rio called it, and Dungy's ability to coach, teach but not dwell on failure that got Del Rio thinking about the kind of coach he'd like to be someday.

He started in New Orleans as, yes, the assistant strength coach, then moved to Baltimore to coach the linebackers from 1999-2001. Led by Ray Lewis, the Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2001. Del Rio left Baltimore to join Fox in Carolina in 2002, where he transformed the defense from 32nd-ranked to second in the span of a season.

Impressed with that sudden bout of success, and looking to inject some new, young energy into the franchise after firing Tom Coughlin, Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver bypassed coaches with more experience and took a chance on Del Rio, who with blue eyes, blond hair, standing 6-foot-4 and still close to his 240-pound playing weight was a made-for-TV presence in a city looking for a football star.

He had also proven he could coach a little, though the perils of going with a guy who had never been the head man reared their head early. There was the infamous tree stump Del Rio put in the locker room. Message: Keep chopping wood, but when punter Chris Hanson did, he swung the ax nearly through his shin and had to be rushed to the hospital.

The coach had trouble managing changes at the quarterback position involving Mark Brunell, Byron Leftwich and David Garrard. There was a revolving door of assistant coaches and two playoff appearances to show for eight-plus years on the job.

Through it all, though, the players played hard for Del Rio. And, of course, staying in the same job for that long in the NFL is a victory of sorts, no matter how it ends.

``Certainly, I'm a much better coach now,'' Del Rio said. ``I got a wealth of experience. You learn from good and bad. I feel like a better coach at this point. I still have all my fire and desire and energy, which is why I'm doing what I'm doing now.''

By returning to his roots - running the defense - Del Rio gets to go back to what he's best at: Connecting with players, devising schemes that bring out their best, which, in Del Rio's mind, is what coaching is supposed to be all about.

``When I was in college, I started hearing about him and we used to watch the Jaguars defense,'' said Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard, who leads the team in tackles and has earned an AFC Defensive Player of the Week honor in Del Rio's scheme. ``They used to always talk about him and the stuff he runs. He's one of those guys who's always amped and believes in his players. And him being a past linebacker, it makes it easier for us to follow him, look up to him and believe in him.''

The subplot in all this is that the success of the Denver defense could make Del Rio a popular choice to become a head coach again. That's a particularly delicate topic for the Broncos, who lost Dennis Allen to the Raiders after last season and haven't had a defensive coordinator serve back-to-back seasons since Larry Coyer from 2003-06.

No problem from the boss's point of view.

``Whenever you hire an assistant coach, you want them to have high aspirations,'' Fox said. ``You want to hire people who may have that ability. Otherwise, you're not hiring the best people.''

Del Rio says he doesn't look beyond the next Sunday, which in this case is a rematch with the Chargers. If Denver wins, it takes a three-game lead in the AFC West. Knowing far more about life as a head coach than when he took the job in Jacksonville, Del Rio says there's no rush to move up the ladder again.

``When you're a young guy and you haven't been there, the urgency and desire to get that opportunity is such that you'd take just about any job given to you,'' Del Rio said. ``I don't feel that way now. If there's something that fits and the right situation comes along, so be it. But in the meantime, I'm all in, 100 percent as a lieutenant on this staff. I'm somebody that John Fox, John Elway ... and the players can count on. I'm 100 percent invested in helping them be their best.''

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Will Suggs still be an impact player when he comes off PUP?

Will Suggs still be an impact player when he comes off PUP?

Clifton Brown and Bo Smolka are taking turns putting 25 key Ravens under the microscope leading up to veterans reporting to training camp. They’ll speculate on a best-case, worst-case scenario for at least one player every day, concluding with quarterback Joe Flacco on July 25.

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: Terrell Suggs, 33-year-old outside linebacker

Best-case scenario:

Suggs makes a full recovery from Achilles injury and returns as a double-digit sack artist and three-down linebacker.

Why it could happen:

Suggs knows people are wondering how much quality football he has left. It’s dangerous to write off great players too soon. Suggs would love to silence skeptics with a strong season, and if some of the young Ravens pass rushers develop, they won’t have to overwork Suggs. If he stays healthy once he comes off the PUP list, a player with Suggs’ talent and experience can still be a valuable defensive leader.

Worst-case scenario:

The Achilles injury limits what Suggs can do, and he is no longer an impact player.

Why it could happen:

It’s asking a lot of Suggs to remain a cog in the Ravens’ defense, after 106 ½ career sacks, and entering his 14th NFL season. Sooner or later, the NFL road will end for Suggs, just like it ended for his former great defensive teammates like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. It will be interesting to hear Suggs’ thoughts on his career when he meets with the media Wednesday. If 2016 is not Suggs’ last ride, the end of the journey is getting closer.

RELATED: FIVE YOUNG PASS RUSHERS TO WATCH

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Five young pass rushers to watch, with Suggs and Dumervil on PUP

Five young pass rushers to watch, with Suggs and Dumervil on PUP

With Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil starting training camp on the PUP list, the Ravens’ young pass rushers have an opportunity to show what they’ve got.

It’s not surprising, or overly alarming, that Suggs (Achilles) and Dumervil (foot) aren’t ready to participate in full-team practices, which begin Thursday. The priority for them is to be ready by Week 1.

But the reality is that Suggs is 33 years old and Dumervil is 32 – closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. Remember when the Ravens loaded up on pass rushers in the draft? Training camp and the preseason will shed light on which young pass rushers are ready to contribute, and which ones are not.

RELATED: RAVENS NAME SIX PLAYERS TO THE PUP LIST

Here are five young Ravens pass rushers to watch closely during training camp and the preseason:

Kamalei Correa, rookie OLB

Correa might see more time at inside linebacker as a rookie, because the Ravens are looking for a starting inside linebacker next to C. J. Mosley. However, Correa’s skills as a pass-rushing outside linebacker at Boise St. convinced the Ravens he was worthy of being a second-round pick. If Correa is getting pressure on quarterbacks, the Ravens will find consistent snaps for him.

Matt Judon, rookie DE

He led the nation in sacks last season with 20 at Grand Valley State. As a fifth-round pick, Judon is making a major leap to the NFL and he is raw. But he also has size (6-foot-3, 275 pounds) and athleticism. Judon could earn an immediate role as a situational pass rusher.

Bronson Kaufusi, rookie DE

He’s huge (6-foot-6, 285 pounds). He’s mature, already 25 years old after completing a two-year Mormon mission before attending BYU. And he’s athletic, good enough to spend one season on BYU’s basketball team before focusing on football. The Ravens’ third-round pick, Kaufusi could also earn a role as a situational pass rusher.

Victor Ochi, undrafted OLB

Ochi (6-foot-1, 245 pounds) has a body build like Dumervil – powerful with a low center of gravity. The Ravens have had at least one undrafted rookie make their roster for 12 straight years. Ochi could extend that streak. He was hoping to be the first player from Stony Brook ever drafted. Now he’s hoping to prove he should have been drafted.   

Za’Darius Smith, second-year OLB

Smith finished strong as a rookie. Of his 5 ½ sacks, 3 ½ came over the final three games. According to Smith, Ravens coach John Harbaugh wants 10 sacks from Smith this season. If Smith becomes a double-digit sack artist, the Ravens’ pass rush will take a major leap.

MORE RAVENS: WILL SMITH'S BODY BETRAY HIM AGAIN?

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Suggs, Smith among six Ravens named to PUP list

Suggs, Smith among six Ravens named to PUP list

The Ravens announced six players placed on the physically unable to perform list Saturday - linebacker Terrell Suggs, wide receivers Steve Smith Sr. and Breshad Perriman, linebacker Elvis Dumervil, running back Trent Richardson, and cornerback Jumal Rolle.

Quarterback Joe Flacco (knee), cornerback Jimmy Smith (foot), tight end Dennis Pitta (hip), and cornerback Will Davis (knee) were not placed on PUP, indicating they were ready for the team’s first full-team training camp practice Thursday.

Any player on the PUP list can be activated and return to practice at any point prior to the regular season. Once a player is placed on the regular-season PUP list, he must sit out at least the first six weeks of the regular season.

RELATED: WILL SMITH'S BODY BETRAY HIM AGAIN?

Rolle (Achilles injury) is expected to miss the entire season. Here’s the breakdown on the other five PUP list players:

Suggs – He still has not fully recovered from his season-ending Achilles injury suffered in Week 1 last September. Suggs is scheduled to meet with the media Wednesday, where further details about his progress should be revealed.

Smith Sr. – Also recovering from a season-ending Achilles injury suffered in November. Smith said he would not care if he missed the entire preseason. His priority is to be ready by Week 1.

Perriman – He suffered a knee injury during minicamp which did not require season-ending surgery. However, Perriman has still not played a preseason or regular season game since being drafted in the first round in 2015. After two knee injuries in two years, the Ravens have every reason to be cautious with Perriman until they think he is ready to return.

Dumervil – He had offseason foot surgery after playing through pain last season. Dumervil missed mandatory minicamp, but did not sound concerned about being ready for Week 1.

Richardson – His lingering hamstring issue could ruin his bid for an NFL comeback. The Ravens are deep at running back, and Richardson needs to get healthy to have any chance to win a roster spot.

MORE RAVENS: FLACCO HAS LONG ODDS FOR MVP