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Peyton’s place? Nah — Denver’s defense is Broncos’ best bet

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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.

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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.

Sunday Night Football odds: Eagles laying touchdown against Cowboys

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The fact that the Philadelphia Eagles are coming off a bye while the Dallas Cowboys had a short week to work on their road woes should tip off straight-up bettors, but the spread might be another story.

The Eagles, led by quarterback Carson Wentz, are 7-point favorites on the Sunday Night Football odds against the Cowboys with a 43.5-point total at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. Philadelphia is 16-3 straight-up and 12-6-1 against the spread in its last 19 games after having at least a full week off, while Dallas is 0-9 SU in its last nine games after playing the Monday prior.

Dallas carries a good head-to-head trend of being 5-1 SU and ATS in their last six road games at Philadelphia, according to the OddsShark NFL Database, and is also 6-3 ATS in its last nine road games as an underdog of 6.5 or more points.

The Cowboys are 3-5 both SU and ATS after a home loss against the Houston Texans on Monday. Dallas and quarterback Dak Prescott have habitually struggled to score points on the road, and a nicked-up offensive line faces a very strong Eagles defensive line led by tackle Fletcher Cox. For all the formidability of its front four, though, the Eagles are giving up 4.5 yards per rush and Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott should find some room to the outside as both a rusher and pass receiver.

Dallas will be without wide receiver Tavon Austin (groin) and will need more out of Amari Cooper in the passing phase as the ex-Oakland Raider enters his second game for the Cowboys.

The Eagles, who are 4-4 SU and 3-5 ATS and need the win to have any reasonable chance at defending their Super Bowl crown, are 7-1 SU and 6-2 ATS over their last eight games at night. Bettors’ confidence in the Eagles’ offensive capabilities might come down to the health of right tackle Lane Johnson (knee), who is expected to play and provide resistance to the Dallas pass rush.

Quarterback Carson Wentz now has wide receiver Golden Tate, recently acquired via trade, in his arsenal against a Cowboys pass defense that allows the sixth-worst opponents’ passer rating (101.1) in the NFL.

The ground game has generated middling results for the Eagles, who are still hoping either Corey Clement or Wendell Smallwood can take a lead role. Dallas also allows the second-least yards per rush in the NFL, which is a small reason to think the Cowboys will offer some resistance by forcing Wentz into obvious passing downs.

Wentz will likely face some long-yardage scenarios, though, as the Cowboys allow the second-least yards per carry.

There are pronounced UNDER trends in this matchup. The total has gone UNDER in the Cowboys’ last three games against the Eagles, with an average combined score of 30.67 points. The total has gone UNDER in the Cowboys’ last eight games on the road, with an average combined score of 31.25 points. And the total has gone UNDER in eight of the Eagles’ last nine games at home, with an average combined score of 31.89 points.

For more odds information, betting picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify or listen to it at OddsShark.libsyn.com.

NFL Week 6 odds: Bengals, Eagles, Patriots are all betting favorites

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The Cincinnati Bengals usually handle struggling teams, but it’s fair to wonder if that trend will be cancelled out by their long-running difficulties against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Bengals, led by quarterback Andy Dalton, are 2.5-point favorites against the Pittsburgh Steelers on the NFL Week 6 odds with a 53-point total at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

According to the OddsShark NFL Database, it is only the sixth time in the last 14 seasons that the AFC North-leading Bengals are favored at home against the Steelers, but they are 14-4 straight-up in their last 18 home games against teams with losing records, and are also 6-1 SU and against the spread in their last seven games.

The Steelers, 2-2-1 SU on the season, have dominated the matchup with a 16-2 SU record in their last 18 road games against the Bengals, but they are also 1-6 ATS in their last seven games in the early afternoon.

The Philadelphia Eagles are 3-point road favorites against the New York Giants  with a 43-point total for the Thursday Night Football matchup. The Eagles are 14-6 ATS in their last 20 games against the Giants. The total has gone OVER in the Eagles’ last five games against the Giants, with an average combined score of 54.6. The Giants are 2-8 SU and 3-7 ATS in their last 10 home games.

The Seattle Seahawks are 3-point favorites against the Oakland Raiders with a 48-point total in a matchup at Wembley Stadium in London. The Seahawks, who will be idle in Week 7, are 7-0 SU and 6-1 ATS in their last seven games before a bye. The Raiders are 2-5 SU and 1-5-1 ATS in their last seven games before a bye. The total has gone UNDER in 10 of the Raiders’ last 12 games, with an average combined score of 43.33.

The Chicago Bears are 3-point road favorites against the Miami Dolphins with a 42-point total. The Bears are 1-9 SU in their last 10 games on the road against teams with winning records. The total has gone UNDER in five of the Bears’ last seven games, with an average combined score of 37.43. The Dolphins are 0-7-1 ATS in their last eight games at home after consecutive road games.

The Washington Redskins are 1-point favorites against the Carolina Panthers with a 44.5-point total. The Panthers are 4-0 ATS in their last four games against the Redskins. The Redskins are 3-10 SU in their last 13 games in Week 6. The total has gone UNDER in four of the Redskins’ last five games in the early afternoon.

The Los Angeles Rams are 7-point road favorites against the Denver Broncos with a 52.5-point total. The Rams are 8-2 SU and 7-3 ATS in their last 10 games in the late afternoon. The total has gone OVER in eight of the Rams’ last 10 games on the road, with an average combined score of 54.5. The Broncos are 4-13 SU and 2-14-1 ATS in their last 17 games.

The Jacksonville Jaguars are 3-point road favorites against the Dallas Cowboys with a 40.5-point total. The Jaguars are 4-22 SU and 6-20 ATS in their last 26 games in the late afternoon. The Cowboys are 0-5 SU and ATS in their last five games in the late afternoon.

The New England Patriots are 3.5-point favorites against the Kansas City Chiefs with a 59.5-point total in the Sunday Night Football matchup. The Chiefs have covered in every game so far this season and are 8-2 ATS in their last 10 games after consecutive ATS wins. The total has gone OVER in 10 of the Chiefs’ last 14 games at night. The Patriots are 10-4 ATS in their last 14 games at night.

And the Green Bay Packers are 9.5-point road favorites against the San Francisco 49ers with a 46.5-point total for Monday night’s game. The 49ers are 0-14 SU and 5-9 ATS in their last 14 road games as an underdog of 7.5 or more points. The Packers are 8-2 SU and 6-4 ATS in their last 10 home games as a favorite of 7.5 or more points.

For more odds information, betting picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify or listen to it at OddsShark.libsyn.com.