The Denver Broncos' Defense Could Be Even Better Than Last Year

After propelling the team to a title in 2015, is this year's version of the Broncos' defense even better? Let's see what the numbers have to say.

It’s not easy to remain a top tier defensive unit on a yearly basis in the NFL. Using our Net Expected Points metric, we can see just that as only six of the past 14 top-ranked defenses by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play have finished in the top five the following season.

On offense, nine teams have been in the top five in Adjusted NEP per play the season after finishing first -- with three of them finishing No. 1 in back-to-back seasons. Since 2000, only one team has finished first in defense in back-to-back seasons, the 2003 and 2004 Baltimore Ravens.

This year’s Denver Broncos have a chance to join them.

Just Getting Better

Denver’s 2015 team was carried to a Super Bowl win by the most dominant defense in the league, and this year’s unit might be better.

The Broncos are again No. 1 in the league by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play and rate slightly better than where they finished last season in overall defense. However, this year’s defense isn’t currently the best in any one area. The Broncos are second behind the Philadelphia Eagles in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play, and Denver is just the 20th best run defense. Combined together, the Broncos are still this year’s best defense through eight weeks.

Below is a table comparing how Denver has measured these past two years years in schedule-adjusted NEP per play, Adjusted Defensive NEP per drop back and Adjusted Defensive NEP per rush. (Reminder for the table below: negative is better for Defensive NEP).

YearAdj. Def. NEP/PAdj. Def. PNEP/PAdj. Def. RNEP/P

Now while this year’s Broncos defense comes out ahead of where last year’s team finished, they’re actually behind the pace set by the 2015 Broncos at this point in the season. Here's how the two defenses through the first eight games of the season.

Through 8 GamesAdj. Def. NEP/PAdj. Def. PNEP/PAdj. Def. RNEP/P

In Week 9, the 2015 Broncos suffered their first loss of the season in a 27-24 game against the Indianapolis Colts. The defense, statistically, took a hit in that game as Andrew Luck put up the only positive opposing quarterback performance by NEP against the Broncos last year. To this point in 2016, the Broncos have only allowed one positive quarterback performance -- Week 5 against the Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons.

Shutting It Down

Maybe it shouldn’t be too surprising that Denver has been able to repeat their dominance on defense since almost all of the key pieces returned for 2016. Yes, Malik Jackson is now in Jacksonville and Danny Trevathan is in Chicago, but 12 of Denver’s 14 defenders with the most 2015 snaps are on the 2016 roster. And with younger players like Shane Ray getting increased roles, there hasn’t been much of a drop off for the replacements.

The NFL is increasingly a passing league -- we hear that all the time -- and that’s exactly what the Broncos defense stops opponents from doing. This is a unit built to get pressure on the quarterback and limit completed passes (when they’re able to be thrown), and the defense is excelling in both of those areas.

Denver leads the league in opposing completion percentage, allowing just 53.5% of passes to be caught. The next best team is the Minnesota Vikings at 56.8%. There’s also no team getting to the quarterback more than the Broncos -- they lead the league in defensive pressure rate, per Sports Info Solutions charting from Football Outsiders. They’re also converting that pressure into sacks with the second best sack rate in the league (8.4%), behind only the Buffalo Bills (9.0%).

Von Miller is having an even better season than he did during 2015, and he’s currently second in the league with 8.5 sacks through eight weeks. Miller has gotten a sack every 52 defensive snaps he’s played this year, which is a considerably better pace than last season when he had a sack every 75.9 snaps. That’s also an impressive feat for an edge rusher who plays on nearly 80% on the defensive snaps and isn’t just on the field in obvious passing situations. But on those passing downs, Miller might be the most frightening player in the league.

In the secondary, the Broncos also have two cornerbacks who could claim to be the best in the league. Aqib Talib is tied for 3rd in the league with 3 interceptions and tied for 2nd with 11 passes defended. Among cornerbacks targeted 20 or more times, he's also 10th in yards allowed per pass at 5.3, per Sports Info Solutions charting.

Talib missed Week 8’s game against the San Diego Chargers, but the secondary was still fine thanks to some tipped interceptions and the presence of Chris Harris. Harris is second among corners in yards allowed per pass at just 4.4. Harris continues to move all around the field in coverage and barely comes off it, playing 95.6% of Denver’s defensive snaps this season.

Stiff Tests

Over the next two weeks, the Broncos are set to face two of the this season's best offenses. In Week 9, the Broncos will hit the road to take on the Oakland Raiders, who have the No. 7 offense, per our metrics. Not only are the Raiders a top-10 offense, they’re also currently tied with the Broncos at 6-2 atop the AFC West.

The following week, the Broncos will go to New Orleans to play the Saints, who are fifth in Adjusted NEP per play through eight weeks. Following the Week 11 bye, the Broncos will get three weeks of subpar offenses before hosting the New England Patriots in Week 15.

The Broncos defense will definitely have some tests over the second half of the season, but the play to this point suggests the unit can handle it. Whether the defense can be better than the 2015 unit might not really matter all that much. Denver has already proven it can remain a top-level defense after dominating last year. That feat is impressive enough and could carry the team to another playoff run.