The best teams in the NFL identify early on where they’re good, where they’re deficient and how to amplify the former while masking the latter.
For the past three seasons, the Denver Broncos have beaten teams mostly based on the knowledge inside Peyton Manning’s head, his comfort within the Broncos’ offensive scheme and the ability and strength still remaining in his right arm. For a variety of reasons – Manning’s weakened state, a sub-par offensive line and an unfamiliar scheme – those days might be ending. After leading the league in point-differential, points scored and yards per offensive play from 2012-14, this year’s Broncos are ninth in point-differential, 10th in points scored and most alarmingly, dead last in yards per offensive play. It admittedly is a small sample size, but Denver’s 3.73 yards per play in 2015 is almost a full yard below the 31st-ranked team, the Carolina Panthers and 1.62 yards behind the Broncos’ opponent Sunday night, the Detroit Lions. Part of that is due to a poor running game – and, in relation, the offensive line – but Manning is averaging just 3.89 adjusted yards per attempt. To put that in perspective, Jacksonville Jaguars rookie Blake Bortles was last in the league in 2014 with a 3.81 average.
Sample size notwithstanding, it’s not like Manning’s arm is suddenly going to get stronger. The Broncos’ offense might benefit from veering away from coach Gary Kubiak’s preferred West Coast scheme, but Denver must adjust in case Manning and the offense never approach their productivity of the last three seasons. Therefore, to reach their desired goal this season – a deep playoff run at the very least, if not a Super Bowl appearance – the Broncos may need to rely on something other than their high-powered offense. Luckily for Manning, the Broncos have assembled a defense capable of rivaling the Seattle Seahawks for the best in the league.
Broncos vs. Lions: Coverage Sunday at 7 ET on NBC
The biggest change comes from on high, where former Houston Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips replaces Jack Del Rio, who left to coach the Oakland Raiders. While Del Rio’s units were always strong – their lowest adjusted defensive DVOA was 10th in 2013 – Phillips is a defensive mastermind. Everywhere he’s gone, defensive units have taken massive leaps forward, particularly in pass defense. Phillips’ 3-4, one-gap system stresses speed and an aggressive, blitz-heavy style, perfect for a Broncos defense loaded with athletic edge-rushers, including Von Miller, and speedy inside backers. Although it’s only two games, Phillips’ unit is first in overall defensive DVOA and pass defense DVOA and sixth in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate. Outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, Phillips’ former pupil in Dallas, is playing like he’s 29 again, registering seven hurries, six quarterback hits and two sacks thus far.
In Denver, Phillips also has his best secondary yet, including the league’s best cornerback triumvirate. Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, Jr. and Bradley Roby are all aggressive, lock-down corners, giving Phillips the freedom not to devote extra players up front to coverage and thus increasing Denver’s numbers advantage in the pass-rush. In the early going, each corner is allowing 1.09 yards or less per coverage snap, a PFF metric which registers the number of yards a defender allows while in primary coverage relative to his coverage snaps. Simply put, on average, the Broncos’ top three corners are allowing opposing receivers, tight ends and running backs to gain roughly one yard every time they line up.
If the Broncos are going to make a Super Bowl run this season, they may not need Manning’s best. While Denver’s defense has been good in the past, it’s never had the ability to shut down an opposing offense simply by showing up. The last team that could do that was the 2000 Baltimore Ravens and before that, the early 1990s New York Giants and 1986 Chicago Bears. It’s far too early to connect this year’s Broncos’ defense to the greatest defenses of all time, but through two games, they at least appear plenty capable of carrying Manning and the offense to January.