About That Orange Crush Defense…

Lost in all the talk about you-know-what-position is just how good the Denver Broncos defense has been this season. The Broncos D is not only arguably the best defensive unit the Broncos have ever had, it’s one of the best units in the NFL since the switch to four divisions.

Football Outsiders’ advanced metrics ranked the Broncos first overall for the 2015 season at -25.8 percent DVOA (keep in mind, a negative DVOA for a defense is good), but more importantly, those metrics ranked the Broncos as the eighth-best defense in all the years FO has rated teams (their work dates back to the 1990s). Among the defenses since the switch to four divisions, the Broncos rank seventh.

What units have ranked ahead of Denver? FO’s highest ranked defense is the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles (you can follow this link and scroll down for the table), but that team played when the NFL had three divisions per conference and the Eagles missed the playoffs (they finished 10-6, but Washington and Dallas had better records). The other units that ranked ahead of the Broncos were, in order of their ranking:

* 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won the Super Bowl.
* 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers, who won the Super Bowl.
* 2004 Buffalo Bills, who did not make the playoffs (they finished 9-7).
* 2008 Baltimore Ravens, who lost the AFC conference championship (this was the same season the Steelers won the Super Bowl).
* 2012 Chicago Bears, who did not make the playoffs (they finished 10-6, the same as the Minnesota Vikings, while the Green Bay Packers finished 11-5).
* 2013 Seattle Seahawks, who won the Super Bowl.

What’s interesting about the bulk of the teams that had such a strong defensive unit is that most of them had a record that was good enough to make the playoffs (the Bills are the only exception) and, for those teams that didn’t make the playoffs, they were arguably faced with a tough division that year. Furthermore, the 2012 Bears played in a season in which no division winner was worse than 10-6, so there wasn’t a division in the NFC that year in which the best team would be considered average or mediocre at best.

But as for the teams that did make the playoffs and had better defenses than the 2015 Broncos, as per FO DVOA, the only team that failed to win the Super Bowl was the 2008 Ravens, who had to get through the 2008 Steelers to have that chance. I suspect the Ravens may very well have reached — and won — the Super Bowl were it not for the Steelers being just as strong defensively.

OK, so what about how the defense has done down the stretch? Football Outsiders measures weighted DVOA, which adjusts its rating so that earlier games aren’t taken into account and shows how well a team is playing at the end of the season. The Broncos still rank first in weighted DVOA at -22.1 percent. The second-ranked defense is Carolina, whose DVOA is -18.4 percent, and whose weighted DVOA is -17.7 percent. In other words, the Broncos’ defense down the stretch remained the best in the NFL.

There are other factors that Football Outsiders measures. One is variance, or the consistency a unit shows from week to week. The Broncos defense ranks 14th in variance, which puts them just above league average. (Cincinnati is first in variance.) But there may be a factor that explains why the Broncos’ variance falls toward the league average.

Per Football Outsiders, here is an important factor to consider about the defense: No playoff team’s defense has faced a stronger slate of offenses than the Denver Broncos. FO ranks the schedule based on the average offensive DVOA of all opponents and the Broncos faced the fourth-toughest slew of offenses. The three that rank ahead of Denver (St. Louis, San Francisco, Cleveland) failed to make the playoffs.

But how does Denver’s schedule compare to other teams that made the playoffs? Here it is:

Denver, 4th
Minnesota, 9th
Green Bay, 10th
Kansas City, 14th
Arizona, 15th
Pittsburgh, 16th
Cincinnati, 17th
Seattle, 18th
Houston, 19th
Washington, 24th
Carolina, 26th
New England, 32nd

No AFC playoff team’s defense faced a top-10 slew of offenses this season. This is not to declare the Broncos have a free ticket to the Super Bowl, but to point out how much the Broncos defense has been tested, while other AFC playoff team’s defenses have not been tested as much.

Let’s examine the Broncos’ schedule this season and how those offenses ranked in Football Outsiders DVOA and weighted DVOA. The teams are listed by DVOA rank, then weighted DVOA rank.

Cincinnati: 1st, 7th
Pittsburgh: 3rd, 2nd
New England: 5th, 10th
Kansas City: 6th, 3rd
Chicago: 10th, 9th
Green Bay, 11th, 21st
Detroit: 13th, 11th
San Diego: 15th, 17th
Minnesota: 16th, 15th
Oakland: 17th, 20th
Baltimore: 20th, 22nd
Cleveland: 27th, 27th
Indianapolis: 30th, 32nd

The Broncos defense has faced five offenses that ranked in the top 10. It faced several units that are better than you may think they were (Chicago and Detroit are the most notable). Fans who remember the Colts game might be concerned, but we must remember that two factors should be considered: The Colts made an offensive coordinator switch and Andrew Luck was cleared to start.

Football Outsiders isn’t the only measure by which we can look at the Broncos, though. Pro Football Reference ranked the Broncos third in its Simple Rankings System behind Seattle and Cincinnati, which is still a good spot to be ranked. But when you look at individual games and expected points, the defense has done some really good things. If you recall how I ranked a unit’s performance in an individual game, it went like this:

* Double-digit positive number: Great showing.
* Single-digit positive number at least 3: Good but not great showing.
* Between 2 and -2: Average showing.
* Single-digit negative number less than -3: Mediocre showing.
* Double-digit negative number: Bad showing.

Listing the Broncos’ games per PFR expected points, which you can find here, the defense had these outings.

Bad showing: Colts
Mediocre showing: Steelers
Average showing: Minnesota, Green Bay, Chicago, New England, Cincinnati
Good showing: Both Kansas City games, at Oakland, Detroit.
Great showing: Baltimore, Cleveland, both San Diego games, home vs. Oakland

For more than half the season, the Broncos defense at least had a good showing, and just twice did it perform below average. Those times it did, it came against an offense that made a coordinator switch and had an elite QB, and against one of the best offenses in the NFL, arguably the best offense the Broncos played in the final six games of the season. That’s a very good track record.

Of course, some of you like to know about traditional statistics, so let’s roll some out for you.

Stopping the run: The Broncos have held opponents to 3.3 yards per carry. The most rushing yards the defense gave up was 147 to the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 2.

Stopping the pass: The Broncos have held opponents to 5.1 net yards gained per pass attempt. The most passing yards they gave up were 354 to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Quarterback sacks: The Broncos led the NFL with 52 sacks. The sack roll call would be Von Miller (11), DeMarcus Ware (7.5 in 11 games), Derek Wolfe (5.5 in 12 games), Malik Jackson (5.5), Shaquil Barrett (5.5), Shane Ray (4 in 14 games), Antonio Smith (2.5), Sylvester Williams (2.5 in 15 games), Vance Walker (2 in 15 games), and with one apiece are David Bruton and Corey Nelson. Throw in Lerentee McCray with half a sack and that makes 12 defenders who have gotten their hands on a quarterback. And keep in mind that’s just sack totals.

Examples of containing a top playmaker: There have been times in which the Broncos had their problems containing a quality offensive players (Antonio Brown, anyone?) but the defense has held its own against many of them. Some notable ones:

* Adrian Peterson: While he did have a 48-yard touchdown, that was the only long run he had. On his other 15 attempts, he gained just 33 yards. All things considered, the Broncos contained him.
* Rob Gronkowski: He did have a 23-yard touchdown reception, and he did leave the game late with an injury. Take away the scoring play and he had five catches on nine targets for 65 yards. Considering that Gronk had five 100-yard receiving games and scored at least once in nine games, you can consider it a solid effort by the defense in containing him.
* A.J. Green: Held to five catches for 57 yards and a touchdown with no catches in the second half (he was targeted nine times). This is the guy who put up 227 yards on 10 catches for two touchdowns against Baltimore. Again, the Broncos contained a top playmaker.
* Amari Cooper: An Offensive Rookie of the Year contender, the Broncos held him to four catches for 47 yards in Oakland. When the teams met in Mile High, Cooper had zero catches.
* Danny Woodhead: Arguably the best playmaker the Chargers have had, the Broncos limited him to 34 yards of total offense in San Diego and to 62 yards in Denver.
* Calvin Johnson: While he caught eight passes for 77 yards, that came on 13 targets and he never found the end zone.
* Randall Cobb: He caught six of nine passes but gained just 27 yards, with 17 coming off one reception. He had a 10-yard run, but that and his 17-yard catch were the only times he gained double-digit yardage.
* Gary Barnidge: On one hand, the Broncos gave up two touchdowns to a tight end who had a quality season despite playing for one of the worst teams in the NFL. On the other hand, he was targeted nine times and caught just three passes for 39 yards.

While it would be nice to shut out a top offensive playmaker in every game, the first objective should be containment, and if you do shut him out, you have done very well.

While nothing is guaranteed in the postseason, the Broncos defense is one that, when it plays at a high level, an opposing offense is going to have problems. We’ll cross our fingers that everyone stays healthy and that they fire on all cylinders, because if they do, the chances of the Broncos making the Super Bowl are that much better.

But regardless of the final outcome, enjoy having by far the best Orange Crush defense to take the field, and join me in saying…

Thank You Wade Phillips.

Published by

Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.