The Denver Broncos have Peyton Manning at quarterback and a gaggle of offensive talent. Now that Manning has conquered the cold, there’s really nothing this offense can’t accomplish—even without his twice-concussed slot receiver Wes Welker.
While the Broncos only need to score 25 points per game over the final three games to break the record for points scored in a season, they would need to score over 48 points per game without allowing another point on defense to break the NFL record for point differential.
Unless the Broncos win the Super Bowl, the defense if going to be remembered as having held the team back—similarly to the 2000 St. Louis Rams.
The Broncos are allowing 26.5 points per game, which means that the offense almost has to score gobs of points for the team to win.
Only five teams have allowed more points than the Broncos this season and those teams have won an average of just three games apiece. Luckily for Denver’s defense, the offense has scored no fewer than 27 points this season.
Unluckily for the defense, both of the playoff-caliber teams with the ability to score that the Broncos have played have been able to defeat them. This should be a matter of great concern for the Broncos as they march toward the postseason.
The Broncos need to fix the defense if they are going to win the Super Bowl because it’s somewhat rare for a team to win the big game with an offense or defense ranked at the bottom of the league.
It’s probably inevitable that a team in the playoffs will at least slow down Manning in the playoffs, so the defense may have to pull out a victory.
Do the Shuffle
Fixing a struggling defense can sometimes be as simple as making some adjustments as to who is actually on the field. Benching a struggling player in favor a backup is a luxury only some teams have, but it’s a very good way to try to correct issues.
The Broncos started this process last week by demoting linebacker Wesley Woodyard and safety Duke Ihenacho. Woodyard was one of the team’s best defensive players last year and Ihenacho was one of the stars of the preseason, but neither has played well lately.
Just a few short months ago, Woodyard was widely considered one of the best players on defense for the Broncos. Woodyard’s past performance didn’t hold as much weight as his lackluster performance this season.
If the alternatives don't prove to be much better, Woodyard can regain his starting job.
Woodyard will still play a role and now he will have some time to get healthy—he suffered a stinger in Week 5. The Broncos are in a unique position to be able to rest some key players for the playoffs and Woodyard could still be one of those players.
The two demotions didn’t seem to help the Broncos that much last week, as they still allowed the Tennessee Titans to score 28 points.
More changes could be on the way until the Broncos start getting better defensive play.
The Broncos have three weeks to get a look at all the players on their roster in the hopes of finding defensive players who can perform. The Broncos are doing the wise thing by trying to find the right mix of defensive players before the playoffs, but time may no longer be on their side.
The reality might be that the Broncos just lack the talent needed to perform at a high level on defense. There are a number of players that should be playing smaller roles, but the Broncos don’t have many viable alternatives.
For example, the Broncos could limit the snaps for veteran defensive end Shaun Phillips, who has had two poor games in a row. Unfortunately, the alternative to Phillips is Robert Ayers, who isn’t much of a pass-rusher.
Phillips and Ayers could split time as planned, but the Broncos need to get defensive end Derek Wolfe healthy for that to happen. According to Joan Niesen of The Denver Post, Wolfe had seizure-like symptoms a few weeks ago, so no one knows for sure when he’ll be able to play again.
Even if Wolfe returns, he would benefit from being in a rotation with a pass-rusher like Phillips.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Wolfe is the worst pass-rusher on the team with a grade of -12.2 on 370 snaps rushing the quarterback.
There are players in the secondary who are playing only because of ineffectiveness or injuries to other starters, who would also otherwise have less significant roles. Rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster has had two poor games in a row now and it could be time to give veteran corner Tony Carter another opportunity.
Webster may get a bit of a longer leash because Carter has been so poor this season and he has so much upside. The Broncos may ultimately need both players in the playoffs, so it might make sense to get Carter more than a couple snaps per week.
With star cornerback Champ Bailey and starting free safety Rahim Moore out with injuries, the secondary is understandably thin.
Omar Bolden started for Moore last week and didn’t perform well, so the Broncos could give veteran defensive back Quentin Jammer an opportunity to play free safety.
Another injury to a member of the secondary and the Broncos will be scrambling just to find a warm body. What was expected to be a strength has become a weakness this season due to injuries and a less effective pass rush.
Sometimes shuffling around a lineup can yield unexpectedly positive results, but the Broncos may also have to do other things to get their defense humming again.
Though shuffling in fresh blood can resolve issues, it can also create other problems.
Von Miller, the Matchup Nightmare
Outside linebacker Von Miller is without a doubt one the Broncos’ best players. When he is performing, the defense should also be performing, but for some reason that hasn't been the case lately.
Miller is such a good player that he can hide a multitude of defensive issues.
Denver’s questionable usage of Miller in recent weeks could be the reason the defense is struggling. Miller has frequently lined up on the defensive right side and matched up with the generally more talented left tackle.
Although Miller has still been able to make a lot of plays, he may have been able to make more against suspect right tackles.
By flipping Miller to the right side, the No. 2 rusher's job should be easier. Unfortunately, this might also result in a reduced pass rush across the board instead of stronger and weaker sides. Miller has still been making plays, but there has been a noticeable lack of big plays from him until last week.
The difference may not be noticeable in sack statistics or pressures, but it could be manifesting itself as a noticeably weaker secondary that seems to be allowing big play after big play.
The pass rush and coverage are so connected that any improvement in one area should help the other.
Getting more pressure is vital when your quarterback is constantly putting up crooked numbers and getting leads, but the Broncos haven’t been getting a good rush consistently from anyone except Miller.
The Broncos desperately need to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but outside of giving Malik Jackson more snaps at defensive tackle, there’s not a lot they can do from a personnel standpoint.
Miller is obviously a good place to start because he’s one of the best pass-rushers in the league. The solution could be to just let him take advantage of the team’s weakest tackle and challenge him to make more big plays.
Truly fixing the defense might have to wait until the offseason, but the Broncos have enough talent to be a lot better than they are right now. With the exception of pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil, the roster is still nearly identical to that of last season when the Broncos ranked fourth in points allowed.
Getting Bailey, Moore and Wolfe back from injury will certainly help, but none of them are going to save this defense. Even Miller hasn’t saved the defense like many thought he would.
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio needs to put the best players in position to make big plays. It makes sense to figure out who those players are right now, but we know that Miller is one of them.
Just how poorly the defense has performed in Del Rio’s second season probably hasn't been discussed enough.
The Broncos defense needs to perform at an average level—at least—because that’s what you would expect from one of the best teams in the league. That’s also what the Broncos need in order for them to have the best possible chance to win the Super Bowl.