No matter what the Denver Broncos did or didn’t do in free agency, they were likely going to be the favorites in the AFC in 2014. As long as Peyton Manning is the quarterback, the Broncos will be contenders.
However, being a contender is not enough for a team coming off an embarrassing loss in the Super Bowl. Contending is not enough for Manning or general manager John Elway.
Lombardi Trophy or bust. No plan B. Win now. Call it what you want, but that’s Denver’s approach.
It’s no wonder the Broncos went out and signed veteran pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware to form a formidable tandem with Von Miller. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Ware will sign for $30 million over three years with $20 million guaranteed in the first two years.
Ware affects the Broncos’ ability to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Denver’s pass defense was a significant problem last season and the Broncos saw firsthand how formidable the Seattle Seahawks’ pass defense was in 2013 with its collection of pass-rushers.
Elway knows he needs to be able to compete with the best teams in both conferences and the path to the Super Bowl will be even harder next season.
Manning will be a year older and the Broncos play the NFC West, so Elway couldn’t sit on his hands and hope to make it back to the Super Bowl next season.
Had the offense not been so great last season, opposing teams would have exposed Denver’s defense more often. Whenever the offense struggled, the pass defense was abysmal.
That’s why the Broncos went out and spent money on big-name free agents that all help the pass defense.
Manning isn’t young enough for the team to wait for young players to develop. There is also only a small window before key stars like Miller and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas will demand huge contracts.
Along with Miller, Ware brings another presence that can bend the edge and get after quarterbacks. This is especially useful when the Broncos get a lead. Coming from behind to beat the Broncos with Miller and Ware screaming off the edge is going to be difficult if the opposition doesn’t have two All-Pro offensive tackles.
Although Ware’s sack numbers were down last season, sack numbers don’t always tell the whole story. The Broncos are replacing Shaun Phillips with Ware, which on its face is a net negative of four sacks.
|Player||Snaps||Pass Rush Grade||Run Defense Grade||Sacks||Pressures||Hurries|
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Ware also hit the quarterback eight times and had 34 pressures. His pass-rushing grade was a modest 2.7, but he was good against the run with an 8.0 grade and 28 stops.
By comparison, PFF credited Phillips with 13 sacks, four hits and 36 hurries, but with a pass-rushing grade of minus-11.3. Like Ware, Phillips was solid against the run with an 11.6 grade and 33 stops.
So what’s the difference? Ware did it on about 70 percent of the opportunities Phillips had last year. Ware is also a year younger and has 37.5 more career sacks.
Ware will also replace Robert Ayers, who had 5.5 sacks last season. Ware’s 2013 performance was similar to Ayers', so he’ll have to regain the production he had in the 3-4 defense earlier in his career.
|Ware's 2013 Production Splits|
In 2013, four of Ware’s sacks came in the first six weeks when he was injured. Ware was terrorizing opposing quarterbacks, but missed three games with a quadriceps strain and wasn’t as effective after returning.
Ware also had a nerve issue in his elbow for the last two seasons and had surgery to correct the issue last month.
If the Broncos are getting a healthy and productive Ware, their defense will be scary for opposing quarterbacks. The Broncos obviously expect that, but he’ll have to prove it on the field. It helps that offenses can’t slide protection to Ware’s side if Miller is coming off the other edge.
As we saw last year, veteran pass-rushers can still be productive even if they aren’t in their prime. Dwight Freeney was productive in San Diego before getting hurt and John Abraham was productive in Arizona.
When the Broncos had a good secondary pass-rusher in Elvis Dumervil in 2012, they had a good defense. The Broncos were tied for the league low in yards per play allowed, allowed the fourth-fewest first downs and the fourth-fewest points.
|2012 vs. 2013 Denver Broncos Defense|
|Year||Points||Yard Per Play||1st Downs||Sack Percentage|
|2012||289 (4)||4.6 (2)||287 (4)||8.5% (2)|
|2013||399 (22)||5.3 (15)||339 (27)||6.3% (17)|
|Change||-110 (-18)||-0.7 (-13)||-52 (-23)||-2.2% (-15)|
In 2013 without Dumervil, the Broncos were 15th in yards per play allowed, 27th in first downs allowed and 22nd in points allowed.
Injuries, suspensions and a record-breaking offense were factors, but not to the extent that the Broncos should have had such a large drop in defensive performance.
The Broncos sacked quarterbacks 8.5 percent of the time in 2012, but that dropped to 6.3 percent last season. Given that the Broncos had many leads, there is no reason for this drop other than a less productive pass rush.
Players like Phillips and Ayers had inflated sack numbers because they had a lot more opportunities.
On Tuesday, ESPN.com reported that the Broncos also signed cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward. They must believe that these additions can help get the defense back to its 2012 level. If they are right, the Broncos will be a tough team to beat next season—even for NFC West teams.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.