When he was kicked off the football team at Illinois State during his senior season, Shelby Harris took a job as a waiter at Biaggi’s, an Italian restaurant.
Harris was determined to keep chasing his NFL dream amid the setback, so he trained on his own for the NFL combine while his teammates took the field Saturdays. But he also had to pay the bills, so he dished out pasta and poured wine to keep food on his own table.
It’s why, as he stood in the visiting locker room in Miami last week following the Broncos’ eighth consecutive loss, the defensive end bristled at a question about how tough it was to keep taking the field during Denver’s miserable skid.
“Every snap out there is a blessing. There’s people out there that have regular jobs,” Harris said. “Come on, man. I love this game of football. There’s not something different I would want to be doing.”
Football finally reciprocated the love to Harris and his teammates on Denver’s defensive line. The group set the tone in Sunday’s 23-0 victory over the Jets, which ended two months of frustration and unrewarded effort. The Broncos gave up just 100 yards of total offense and posted a shutout for the first time since 2005.
Harris blew kisses to the crowd after sacking Jets quarterback Josh McCown in the first quarter. On the previous series, fellow defensive end Adam Gotsis recovered a McCown fumble, which was caused by blitzing linebacker Brandon Marshall.
Defensive end Derek Wolfe, on injured reserve with a neck injury, watched — and tweeted about — the game from home. Nose tackle Domata Peko was in sweats on the sideline, unable to play for the second straight week because of a knee injury. Yet, as they have since losing veteran defensive end Jared Crick in training camp, the defensive line rose to occasion.
“We’ve got a bunch of dogs on the D-line,” Harris said. “Everyone is out here grinding and everyone steps up when they need to. We have five or six guys on our D-line that could start anywhere in the league. We play for each other, and you can see in our emotion on the field that we love playing.”
When the Broncos’ season ends on New Year’s Eve, the hard decisions will begin for general manager John Elway and his staff. A December victory over the Jets, no matter how cathartic, doesn’t change that reality. But Sunday’s performance — the Broncos held New York to an astonishing 1.6 yards per pass play — was another illustration of the bright foundation Denver has built on the defensive line.
Harris was no lock to make the roster out of training camp. He was a seventh-round pick by the Raiders in 2014 but played in only eight games his first two seasons and was out of football entirely in 2016. He worked part time at his wife’s office for much of that season, far from the glamour that comes with sacking a quarterback in front of 75,000 fans.
“Shelby has been doing it all year,” said linebacker Von Miller, who had one of Denver’s four sacks. “There was no surprise in the productivity along the defensive line.”
That group includes Gotsis, who struggled to grasp the game as a rookie last season as Denver’s second-round pick. He came back this season bigger and stronger, determined to carve out his role. He’s become a key cog in Denver’s top-five rush defense, which answered the bell once again Sunday. Zach Kerr, who battled injuries early in the season, is another offseason addition who has found his stride the past three weeks and had one of Denver’s six pass breakups Sunday.
“Our D-line really stepped up,” Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. “That’s backup players playing (at) a high level.”
Even second-round rookie DeMarcus Walker got into the mix, narrowly missing a sack on one second-half play and registering a third-down stop on another. Walker, relegated to the inactive list for five consecutive games earlier this season, danced his way onto the sideline in the fourth quarter, allowing the misery of the last two months to melt away.
“(Defensive line coach Bill) Kollar is always grinding us,” Kerr said. “I think it’s a testament to how we’re practicing, the technique and the fundamentals he teaches us. In the D-line room, we are literally like a family. We know we can depend on the guy next to us.”
The Denver defense had begged all season for a clean game. The offense obliged by playing turnover-free football and converting the fumble recovery by Gotsis into a 10-0 lead. From there, Marshall flew around and made tackles (three for loss), safety Darian Stewart had an interception and the defense as a whole made life miserable for McCown and his injury replacement, Bryce Petty.
But it all began up front as Harris helped the Broncos kiss their losing streak goodbye.
Halting the Jets
The Broncos’ defense finally lived up to its reputation Sunday with a shutout of the visiting Jets. It was the first time the Broncos shut out an opponent since Nov. 20, 2005 — also against the Jets. Here’s a quarter-by-quarter breakdown of how little Denver allowed New York’s offense to do.
|Qtr.||Pass. Yds.||Rush. Yds.||Total Off.||Sacks||TOs|