A couple of years ago, I did a post looking at just how bad the Broncos D had been in 2010. I hope to never have to root for a team with a defense that bad again. Many of us at MHR feel that the defense is improving and should continue to improve with the additions of this past off-season and the maturation of some of our younger players. This post is going to be about the roller-coaster ride that has been the Broncos D in the past ten NFL season. With all the recent woes, it is easy to forget just how good the D that got us to the AFC championship game was in 2005. As I sat down to research this I found myself asking questions to which I didn't have an answer: Statistically what makes a defense great - yards/play, points/game, 3rd down % against, sacks, QB rating against, yards/point? What have the best defenses from the past 10 years done in these stats? Obviously points allowed is the bottom line most important, but how do the other stats rank? Where did the Broncos rank in those stats over the past 10 years? Where did the Broncos D rank last year? Are the trends good or bad for the Broncos D? Make the jump with me if you want to talk defensive stats and specifically Broncos D...
I compiled ten years of NFL defensive stats (2002-2011) so that I could see who was the best and the worst over that time period (mainly the best) at any defensive statistic in a given year. I wanted to see how far the Broncos D has fallen since 2005 and also see how far we have yet to go to get back to elite D status.
Charts show just the Broncos stats (except the black charts which are for the entire league). NFL averages for the whole ten year span are shown below the chart title.
Allowed Points per game
The team with the stingiest D over the past ten season is the 2002 Bucs. They only allowed 12.2 pts/game. To understand just how good that number is, the 2008 Lions allowed almost three times that at 32.3 points/game (worst ppg against of the past 10). The 2000 Ravens allowed 10.3 pts/g and the 77 Broncos 10.6 pts/g. The Broncos have a long ways to go to get close to elite after allowing 24.4 pts/game in 2011.
Admittedly the 2011 Broncos D was not responsible for the pick-6 and fumble return TDs that the Broncos offense allowed, but even taking those scores against out, the 2011 Broncos D was average at best (22.1 ppg). The 2011 Broncos O allowed 37 of the 390 points that the team gave up during the regular season (2 fumble return TDS, 3 pick-6, 1 safety). It's hard to tell if there is a trend here, because of the complete lack of continuity in the Broncos D (coaches and personnel) over the past 10 seasons.
So what about yards/play. Great defenses give up few yards/play. The best in a long while, the 2008 Steelers only gave up 3.9 yards/play. In that same year, the hapless Lions gave up 6.4 yards/play. The 2011 Broncos gave up 5.4, which was slightly below average (5.45). I hope that the D is getting back to where we were in 05 and 06 and then back to where we were in three years prior. The trend seems to indicate that but the same lack of continuity in the D the hurt ppg has also showed up in yds/play. In 2002 the league average yards/play was 5.16 that has slowly crept up to 5.45 in 2011. That 0.3 yards per play may not sound like a lot, but when you think about that over the entire league, the offense definitely has the current upper hand.
The Broncos average over this time span is 5.3, but that would have been better if we didn't have the horrible 2008 and 2010 defenses.
A bend-don't-break D might give up a lot of yards without a lot of points, but generally good D's give up fewer yards than bad ones. The 237.2 yards/game allowed by the 2008 Steelers is amazing. Particularly when you realize that two of the worst teams in terms of yards allowed over the past ten season were the 2011 Packers and Pats who combined to go 28-4 in the regular season. The Packers allowed 411.6 while the Pats allowed 411.1 yards/g. That packers 411.6 was the worst total of the last decade. The Broncos 357.8 was 20th in the league last year. To put this in perspective the 2000 Ravens only allowed 248 while the 1977 Broncos only allowed 270 yards/game.
Again the trend appears to be following the downward arc back towards average or below. I had forgotten how stingy the 03 and 04 defenses were for our Broncos.
Another way that the a D can really change the game is through forcing turnovers. The best team at forcing turnovers during the past ten season was the 2007 Chargers who forced 48. The worst team at forcing forcing turnovers was the 2011 Phins who only forced 11. This is an area where the Broncos have been bad for quite some time as the graph below shows. Don't laugh at the Phins too much, though; the Broncos only forced 13 in 2008.
These numbers look bad, but fewer turnovers are happening in the NFL. See the NFL trends for TOs particularly for fumbles lost over the past 10 seasons (really just the past 4 season).
Allowed 3rd Down Conversion %
When the Broncos defenses were at their worst, they couldn't seem to stop anyone on 3rd down. The best team in the league at stopping 3rd downs over the past ten seasons was a surprise. Not the Steelers or the Ravens or even the Jets (with Revis). Nope. The 2003 Titans only allowed 28% 3rd down conversion. That is not to say that the Steelers and Ravens defenses were bad in that regard, just not the best. The Broncos have not been as bad as I might have expected in allowed 3rd down conversion %.
The 2010 Broncos numbers are likely a result of allowing so many first downs on first or second down plays. Few teams needed to convert on 3rd down against us.
The big improvement from 2002 to 2003 for the Broncos. That would be Champ Bailey and DWill starting at CB, right? Wrong. This surprised me and I still don't have a great explanation for the big improvement from 02 to 03. In 2003 our two starting corners were Lenny Walls and Kelly Herndon. Deltha O'Neal was the Nickel. The safeties were Kennedy and Ferguson. The starting defensive backfield in 2002 was O'Neal, Walker, Kennedy and Reese. The only real difference I can see is Betrand Berry starting (11.5 sacks) instead of the anemic Kavika Pittman (0 sacks as a starter in 02).
Opponents QB Rating Against
Whether you like the old QB rating formula or not, good defenses don't allow QBs to have great numbers against them. So how have the Broncos fared in this respect?
Five good years and five bad years with 2008 being outrageously disgusting. I was surprised that the numbers in 2011 were not any better than the numbers in 2010, but there is a flip side to this. If you can't stop the run, teams have no need to pass against you. As you will see in the in next section (or you might remember), the 2010 Broncos were atrocious against the run.
Allowed yards per carry
And now we see why QBs weren't rated higher against the Broncos D in 2010, their need to pass was less because the D in 07-10 was very poor against the run.
The improvement from 2010 to 2011 was tangible. It remains to be seen how much of that was a direct results of Bunkley. The best run D over the past decade was the 2006 Vikings who only allowed 2.8 ypc. This was a direct result of having a bad pass D and two tenacious DTs. Over the past 10 seasons the Broncos have allowed 4.3 yards/carry on average - which is only slightly worse than the league on the whole. 2011 brought the Broncos D back to where the generally were during 02-06.
One the whole a good D will get more sacks than a bad D. The Broncos D over the past decade has been at or below average, but keep in mind that a good D can get pressure without getting sacks.
I found it interesting to see how poor the 2005 D was a getting sacks. I would expect the numbers to continue to go up a little in 2012 (assuming VonDoom is healthy for the whole season). Two teams tied for the NFL lead in sacks in 2011 with 50, the Vikings and the Eagles. The Vikings were horrible against the pass, despite racking up league-leading sack numbers. The highest sack number posted over the past 10 season was 61 by the 2006 Chargers (the Chargers have most on-paper super bowl victories than any team in the NFL). Sacks on the whole have been pretty stable for the past decade in the league with a an average of 1137 and only one year that was dramatically different than that (in 2008 there were only 1036 sacks during the regular season). Not surprisingly, the 2008 Chiefs had the worst sack total of the whole NFL decade with 10 that year.
Big plays allowed
While these can be a result of bad luck (defender slips on wet grass, ball miraculously lands in Stokely's hands), in general good defenses don't allow many homeruns. These are the demoralizing plays that act like a punch to the gut for both the D and the home crowd (if they happen to the Broncos in Denver).
These numbers were a bit surprising to me, again. Seemingly the Broncos D has been giving up huge chunks of yardage for the past 10 years on an alarming basis, but I guess my recollections are just jaded by the contrast between the 02-06 years when the Broncos did not give up many big plays (average) and the 07-11 years when the Broncos D gave up significantly more long passes (really only in 2010 and 2011) and big runs (slightly above to well above average). Our pass D has been about average for the past decade in terms of allowing big plays. 2010 is the exception and it is definitely coloring my view. The run D has been allowing bug chunks since 07. That appeared to have improved somewhat in 2011, but we'll see if the positive trend continues.
I think we saw a good foundation laid last year. The numbers improved in just about every category you could track, but the caveat is that the 2010 was so bad that it was almost impossible not to improve. I hope that the foundation that was laid in 2011 is built upon and not ripped apart to start over like it has been so many times before. Time will tell, but I am optimistic about continued improvement of the defense in 2012. This rebuilding process started in 2011 and I think we will see more discernible benefits in 2012.