How Good Is the Denver Broncos' Defense?

How does the Broncos' defense stack up against some of the best?

It’s not a complete surprise that the Denver Broncos are 7-1 at this point of the season.

Since general manager John Elway and quarterback Peyton Manning joined forces in 2012, the Broncos have lost a total of 11 regular season games over three and a half years. Manning himself has been a part of three other teams that started 7-1 (2003 Colts, 2007 Colts and 2013 Broncos). The shocking thing is the manner in which the Broncos have dispatched of their opponents.

The defense has been a boa constrictor, suffocating the life out of opposing offenses. No team has scored 30 points against them. No team has passed for 300 yards, and only three teams have accumulated over 300 total yards. 

The Week 8 game against the Green Bay Packers exemplified this dominance perfectly. Aaron Rodgers was held to 77 yards passing on 14 completions with a long of 17 yards and zero touchdowns.

In 110 career starts, Rodgers had completed 14 or fewer passes 10 times, never thrown for fewer than 100 yards and played in only nine games in which he didn’t throw a touchdown. He got knocked out early in the only other the game in which his longest completion was for under 17 yards.

That's quite a feat.

Just How Good Is This Defense?

Comparing teams across different eras is very difficult. Players get bigger, faster and the game evolves, primarily from the implementation of certain rules. 

In 1978, the NFL wanted to open up offenses and instituted a rule that prevented defenders from roughing up receivers beyond five yards of the line of scrimmage. The modern game as we know it took form and passing numbers exploded. Over time, though, the enforcement of the rule became lax before getting "reintroduced" in 2004.

Since then, the single-season touchdown record has fallen twice and seven of the eight 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history have occurred. 

How does this Denver defense compare to teams since that shift?

Let's break things down numberFire style.

We utilize a metric called Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP factors in variables such as down and distance to give a more accurate representation of a play. For defenses, the lower the number the better, as it reflects how many points a team has prevented from being scored. For more information on NEP, please visit our glossary

On a schedule-adjusted basis, the Ravens franchise actually owns the top two Defensive NEP scores since 2000: 2006 (-187.64) and 2008 (-175.77).

If we look at the data after eight games, because the 2015 Broncos have only played eight games so far, the Broncos have a -32.95 Adjusted Defensive NEP score.

That figure is not even the best in 2015, as the Rams have a -34.03 mark. Among all the teams since 2004, the Broncos rank 48th. The 2006 Ravens? After eight weeks, the unit had a ridiculous Adjusted Defensive NEP score of -106.14.

Overall, there is no comparison between this Broncos defense and those Ravens defenses.

Where is the weakness on those Ravens defenses? They had stout, run-stuffing linemen, explosive edge rushers, one of the greatest middle linebackers ever, great cornerbacks and one of the greatest safeties of all time. The Broncos have great cornerbacks and edge rushers but come up short in the other areas.

This becomes apparent when looking at the rush defense. The Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play for the Broncos is -0.03, which ranks them 10th among their contemporaries. The 2006 Ravens were at -0.20. Not even in the same zip code. 

With that said, the strengths of the Broncos' defense have put them in the conversation as being one of the best. Having shutdown cornerbacks and explosive pass rushers should rank the unit high in pass defense, sacks and interceptions.

When we look at Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play, the Broncos allow -0.13. The Rams are a distant second with a -0.06 mark. Among all teams since 2004, the -0.13 mark places the unit tied for 26th. The 2006 Ravens had a score of -0.23. Cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris could go down as one of the better duos in history.

Because the Broncos have only played eight games, I chose to use Adjusted Defensive NEP per play to compare the units. Below is a list of the top 10 defenses in that metric since 2004:

Team Year Adj. Def NEP per play
Ravens 2006 -0.19
Ravens 2008 -0.18
Steelers 2008 -0.15
Jets 2009 -0.15
Eagles 2008 -0.13
Ravens 2004 -0.12
Bears 2005 -0.11
Bears 2004 -0.10
Bears 2006 -0.10
Bills 2004 -0.09

The Broncos' Adjusted Defensive NEP per play score is currently -0.06, which ranks second behind the Rams (also at -0.06), so they don't crack the top 10.

However, in terms of interceptions, the Broncos currently have nine. That puts them on a pace for 20 interceptions for the season. That would place them 7th among the 10 teams listed above. The leader is the 2006 Ravens with 28 interceptions.

The Broncos have allowed 274.1 yards per game, good for sixth among those squads, for comparison. The leader is the 2008 Steelers, which allowed a paltry 237.2 yards per game.

In regards to points allowed per game, the Broncos rank 9th (17.4 points per game) -- a good number, but a far cry from the 12.6 points allowed by the 2006 Ravens, 2004 and 2005 Bears.

It is often said that pressure on the quarterback helps cornerbacks and good coverage helps pass rushers. Pairing Talib and Harris with the likes of DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller creates the perfect relationship. On the season, the Broncos have tallied 30 sacks, which puts them on a pace for 60 sacks on the season. The 1984 Bears have the single-season record with 72 sacks. Of the 10 teams listed in the chart, the 2006 Ravens accumulated the most sacks with 60.

When defenses not only stifle the opposing defense but score touchdowns? Yahtzee! The Broncos have scored five touchdowns, which puts them on pace for 10 touchdowns. The 2004 Ravens and 2004 Bills both scored nine touchdowns. It’s hard to imagine the Broncos approaching double digits, but the fact that we are even discussing it is amazing.

Mile Higher?

The 2015 Broncos defense was built to neutralize opposing passing games, a sound strategy in this pass-happy league. Mission accomplished, as it ranks up there with some of the best in that area.

In order to be mentioned with some of the best defenses of all-time, domination must happen in all phases of the game. The Broncos defense is great but cannot be historically great due to an average run defense.