The Denver Broncos’ offense has struggled early in the season. Gary Kubiak’s schematic and personnel mismatch with what Peyton Manning has traditionally done on offense have clashed, producing an offense that has spent much of the season sputtering. A leaky offensive line has made the problem even worse.
Yet Denver is 2-0 despite opening the season against the Ravens, who gave the Patriots a stiff test last postseason, and the Chiefs at Arrowhead, where Kansas City went 6-2 last year with wins against both Super Bowl participants. How have they managed this? The offense helped come back against Kansas City, but the real key has been the defense, and specifically the pass defense.
Through two weeks, the Broncos have the best defense and pass defense in the league by Football Outsiders’ VOA metric, which adjusts for down, distance, and situation. The pass defense is especially impressive, ranking at 82.4 percent better than league average.
To put this in perspective, by VOA, the best performance by a pass defense in Week 1 was Denver’s -89.4 percent against the Ravens, and the best performance by a pass defense in Week 2 was Denver’s -75.1 percent against the Chiefs.
This early in the season, there are no opponent adjustments to VOA because we are still waiting to see just how good teams are. But last year, Baltimore was a very efficient pass offense and Kansas City a bit above average. Both teams also performed well in their other games, putting up a top ten performance by VOA. Opponent adjustments do not seem likely to dim the luster of Denver’s sterling performances that much.
Enter Wade Phillips
The man reaping much of the credit for these great defensive games is new coordinator Wade Phillips. When John Fox was fired as head coach, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio followed him out the door. Phillips arrived with Kubiak, resurrecting a partnership that immediately produced the first two playoff seasons in Houston Texans history.
Phillips the coordinator had a strong history of being associated with defensive improvement his first year. That’s partly for obvious reasons: defensive coordinators tend to get fired after unlucky seasons, so their defenses are likely to improve the next year anyway. One area that seems to be partly that kind of luck and partly Phillips is improved turnover work, especially on interceptions.
Interceptions are a big reason why the Broncos defense has done so well early. Their four interceptions, two each of Joe Flacco and Alex Smith, are tied for the league lead. The Broncos have done that in fewer attempts than their co-leaders Jets and Patriots. An interception rate of 7.0 percent is unsustainable in today’s NFL. Last year’s leader was the 49ers at just 4.2 percent, and only one other team had a rate even half Denver’s. Still, harassing Smith into two interceptions was noteworthy, since he’d thrown just three in his past sixteen starts (including postseason).
Denver’s recent history of strong pass defense
Phillips has helped turn around some mediocre units. That was not his task with these Broncos. They had a superb pass defense in 2014, ranking fifth in the league by DVOA. The 2013 unit looks less impressive, but the overall ranking of 21st conceals an important split: with Von Miller in the lineup, they were sixth. In 2012, they were fifth once again. Their excellence through two games should have come as no surprise.
Excellent defensive personnel is the key to those rankings. The 2013 split hints at Miller’s importance. With no suspension or torn ACL to limit him, he had an excellent 2014 and has started off playing very well in 2014. A lifelong linebacker, the transition from Del Rio’s 4-3 to Phillips’ version of the 3-4 has been basically seamless. Pretty much the same is true on the other side of DeMarcus Ware, who rose to prominence in Dallas when Phillips was his head coach. Both seem poised to post double-digit sack seasons again, with a combined 3.0 in the first two games after 23.5 last year.
The secondary is also vital, and the Broncos have a trio of cornerbacks as good as or better than any in the league. Starters Chris Harris and Aqib Talib both ranked in the top six among all corners in adjusted yards per pass last year per Football Outsiders charting. Harris’s ability to play both outside and in the slot makes him especially valuable. The nickel corner is last year’s first-round pick Bradley Roby. He had the expected rookie ups-and-downs, but has already made two game-changing plays, breaking up what would have been the winning touchdown pass against the Ravens and scoring the winning touchdown on a fumble recovery against the Chiefs.
What it means
Phillips’ acumen and the personnel quality means Denver’s pass defense excellence is likely to continue. The Lions, who have been just average through the first two weeks and have a banged up offensive line, do not seem like the team to challenge that. Not until the Packers travel to Denver in Week 8 will the Broncos face a high quality passing offense. That will give them plenty of winnable games and plenty of time for Kubiak and Manning to fix the offense while continuing their winning ways.