Broncos D Back In Conversation For NFL’s Best

Football Outsiders has released its DVOA ratings for Week 4 and is now accounting for opponents to an extent.

Although we are four weeks into the season, it’s still too early to say for certain how every team will finish overall and the full playoff picture. It’s possible for a team to start 1-3 but finish 10-6 or for a team to start 3-1 but finish 8-8. And, in recent seasons, we’ve seen multiple teams finish with unimpressive overall records but make the playoffs because their division was weak overall.

So what does it all mean for the Broncos and other teams? Let’s start by looking at FO’s DVOA.

The Broncos rose up to fourth in overall DVOA, fifth in defensive DVOA and are ninth in offensive DVOA. The biggest jump came in defensive DVOA, which I would attribute to their overall play against the Colts and Buccaneers. On one hand, neither team is good, but with that said, the top teams should dominate the weaker teams. Were it not for some issues on offense (namely turnovers), the Broncos would have likely beaten the Colts by a larger margin. The Broncos did not have as many issues on offense against Tampa Bay and we know what was the end result.

Last week, I pegged the Patriots as the best team in the AFC, but now I stand corrected. The Patriots are not the top AFC team simply because the Patriots aren’t doing that well defensively. They are ranked 26th in defensive DVOA and you can’t just attribute that to a bad half against Miami. The Patriots lack a pass rush and, while the return of Rob Ninkovich from suspension may help, the Patriots need more than that to get up the ranks. The return of Tom Brady will help the offense, but while he might take some of the pressure off the defense, the Pats need a pass rush if they are going to move up in DVOA.

Then there’s the top 10 offenses and defenses in DVOA. For offense, that’s Atlanta, Oakland, Dallas, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Green Bay, San Diego, Denver and Detroit. At this point, I think you have to say that the Atlanta and Oakland offenses are for real, but with that said, both have defenses that rank among the lowest (Oakland is 29th, Atlanta is 31st) so that has to improve if those teams want to get to the Super Bowl. (Keep this in mind: When the Broncos were ranked first in offensive DVOA in 2013, the defense was ranked 15th, so they had a league average defense, not one of the worst in the NFL.)

As for defense, they look like this: Seattle, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Baltimore, Denver, Arizona, Cincinnati, Houston, Kansas City, Green Bay. Of course, Philly has only played three games, but I still think the Eagles, Seahawks and Vikings belong in the conversation of best defenses in the NFL. Interestingly, the Vikings may not be this year’s version of the 2015 Broncos because their offense is ranked 15th – while not good, it’s just above league average. The team that looks more like the 2015 Broncos is Baltimore, which is ranked 27th in offense.

The Broncos, though, still have a defense that’s in the conversation for best defense in the NFL. But in order to claim that title outright, they must get better at run defense, at which they are ranked 23rd. Their pass defense isn’t an issue – the Broncos are ranked third. As for the others I’ve mentioned that are in the conversation for a top defense, it looks like this.

Seattle: Second in pass defense, third in run defense.
Philadelphia: First in pass defense, 10th in run defense.
Minnesota: Fourth in pass defense, fourth in run defense.
Baltimore: Ninth in pass defense, first in run defense.

Keep in mind that “pass defense” includes both the pass rush and the defensive backs and a strong pass rush can make up for a few issues with the defensive backs. But that aside, it’s clear the Broncos need to get better at stopping the run (in particular, their issues with letting QBs rush for first downs when they find nobody open) if they want the title of “best defense in the NFL.” There are still 12 games to play so it’s possible they get there, but right now, they are not.

All that, however, doesn’t mean the Broncos aren’t going to the Super Bowl. Their offense is in better shape this season and their defense is better than every AFC team except Baltimore, a team whose offense trails far behind Denver’s (again, Denver is ninth and Baltimore is 27th). If the Broncos keep themselves in the top 10 in DVOA for offense and defense, their Super Bowl chances are great.

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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.