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The Broncos defense still looks great, but there’s one big question mark

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The absence of Malik Jackson in the middle of the Broncos defense was noticeable on Thursday night.

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NFL: Carolina Panthers at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Broncos were an immovable object in 2015 and the only team that didn’t allow an opponent to eclipse 400 yards in a game all season. When the vaunted defense met the unstoppable force that was the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl, it held the NFL’s No. 1 offense to just 10 points and forced four turnovers.

But the dominant showing in February wasn’t mirrored by the Denver defense that held the Panthers just enough in a 21-20 win in Week 1.

The Panthers finished with 333 yards, including a 71-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter and an even more concerning 18-play, 89-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter.

While the Broncos torched the Carolina offensive line to the tune of seven sacks in Super Bowl 50, Newton was sacked three times in the 2016 opener. A good-not-great total in a good-not-great performance by the highly regarded Denver defense.

Don’t sound the alarms just yet and certainly don’t drop the Broncos defense from your fantasy team. Denver is 1-0 because the Panthers were only able to score three points in the second half.

It’s still a group that features Super Bowl MVP and $114.5-million pass rusher Von Miller, along with top defensive talent like Derek Wolfe, Brandon Marshall and Aqib Talib. But the unit looked like it was missing one of the puzzle pieces that made it elite in 2015: An interior push.

"After watching the tape, I thought the best Denver defensive player on the field was Malik Jackson," Greg Cosell said of the Super Bowl on a podcast with Bill Simmons in March.

Jackson finished Super Bowl 50 with five tackles and no sacks, but his real contribution was collapsing the pocket and allowing players like Miller and DeMarcus Ware to tear after Newton. An edge rusher’s best friend is a interior rusher that can either freeze a quarterback in place or back them up.

One example was a sack split by Wolfe and Miller in the Super Bowl, when the pair crushed the right side of the Panthers line. However, they were aided by Jackson, who cleanly beat the Carolina left guard to hold Newton in place.

Malik Jackson Super Bowl

Jackson left to join the Jacksonville Jaguars in free agency, signing a massive six-year, $85.5 million deal with the team.

On NBC’s broadcast on Thursday, Cris Collinsworth noted that the absence of Jackson in the middle was making things somewhat convenient for Newton. He was still hit throughout the game, but there were at least a few examples of potential plays by the Broncos pass rushers nullified by the interior of the Denver line’s struggles to get after the reigning MVP.

No Malik Jackson

It’s not a new concern. "How will they replace Malik Jackson?" was the No. 1 question of the offseason asked by DenverBroncos.com. 34-year-old veteran Antonio Smith wasn’t resigned and the Broncos are relying on mostly untested players to fill the void.

"I think we've got enough guys," Wolfe said during OTAs. "I think everything is going to be fine."

And it very well may be fine. But the looming questions about the Broncos’ ability to aid Ware and Miller with interior pressure weren’t answered on Thursday night and, for now, the Denver defense looks a little less intimidating than it did in 2015.

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