I'm not gonna try and blow sunshine up your butt - removing two All-Pro defenders from any defense is going to leave some major holes. What I am going to do in the fan post is remind everyone here that our defense was not very good in the first five and a half games in 2012. I'm going to do this with stats and then I am going to speculate about the first six games of 2013 - the ones we are going to have to play without our All-Pro LB.
The 2012 Broncos were 3-3 after 6 games. We were without an above average LB for these 6 games, DJ Williams, however, Von >>>>> DJ Williams. Also keep in mind that JDR was our newest new defensive coordinator last year and the players were still learning his system in the first # games. It still feels odd to have the same DC this year as the last.
Defensively here are how those first six games went down
Game 1 - home vs Pitt
Points allowed - 19
Total yards allowed - 284
Turnovers forced - 1 (pick six by Porter)
Sacks - 5 (Von 2, Wolfe 1, Woodyard 1, Mays and Harris 0.5)
3rd down conversion allowed - 58% (11/19). Our D allowed 7 of 9 3rd and longs to be converted.
Our D got some good pressure on Ben R this game, but it didn't matter on 3rd down. Our D still couldn't get off the field. Given our 3rd down futility, it's amazing we still won that game.
Game 2 - at Atlanta
Points allowed - 27
Total yards allowed - 275
Turnovers forced - 0
Sacks - 1 (Von)
3rd down conversion allowed - 38% (5/13). Our D allowed 3 of 7 conversions on 3rd and Long.
Our D played well in this won, but did so without generating much pressure on Ryan. The offense's turnovers were the story of this game - at least we mounted a furious comeback that fell short.
Game 3 - home vs Houston
Points allowed - 31
Total yards allowed - 436
Turnovers forced - 2 (Woodyard INT, Bannan FR)
Sacks - 1 (Doom - safety)
3rd down conversion allowed - 50% (7/14). Only allowed 2 of 7 3rd and longs to be converted.
This is the first game were our defense got exploited. Houston established the run and then Kubiak play-action passed our D to death. We were able to generate very little pressure and our only sack of the game came on Houston's opening drive. Unlike the first two games, Houston was able to run on our D, rolling up 152 yards on the ground.
Game 4 - home vs Jokeland
Points allowed - 6
Total yards allowed - 237
Turnovers forced - 0
Sacks - 3 (Doom 1.5, Harris 1, Woodyard 0.5)
3rd down conversion allowed - 9% (1/12). Stopped all 6 3rd and longs.
This game turned into a slaughter as our D really asserted itself in the second half, but don't forget that we only led 10-6 at the half and that our D had to stop the Faiders at the goal-line (24 yard FG) to maintain the lead. Despite the final score, the Broncos allowed the Faiders to hang around way too long in this one. The QB pressure that our D generated in this one was good. Even when we weren't getting sacks, the D was in Palmer's face forcing bad throws. Oakland's ground game was completely stymied.
Game 5 - at NE
Points allowed - 31
Total yards allowed - 444
Turnovers forced - 1 (Adams fumble recovery)
Sacks - 4 (Von 2, Wolfe 1, Doom and Woody 0.5)
3rd down conversion allowed - 65% (11/17). We allowed NE to convert 5 of 7 on 3rd and long.
NE ran at will on our D - racking up 251 yards on 54 carries. Mays was completely exposed. When NE did pass they were pretty successful, despite the pressure that our D was bringing against Brady. Brady completed 23 of 31 passes for 223 yards and 1 TD. We didn't record a sack until the 3rd quarter. 3 of our 4 sacks occurred in the 4th when we were trying to come back from a 17 point deficit.
Game 6 - at SD
Points allowed - 24 (all in the first half)
Total yards allowed - 307 (most of them in the first half)
Turnovers forced - 6 (go luck them up if you want to know who did what)
Sacks - 4 (Doom 2, Von 1, Wolfe 1) - all in the second half
3rd down conversions allowed - 46% (6/13). All 6 conversions were in first half. SD was only 1 of 8 on 3rd and long for the game.
The first half was bad. Our D didn't do much to stop the SD offense and our special teams turned the ball over (Bolden and Holiday). The second half was the turning point for the season. Our D got pressure, forced bad throws and turned the Bolts over 6 times. 25% of our defense's forced TOs came in this game.
So to take stock, at 3-3 and heading into the bye week, the 2012 defense was:
allowing 23 points per game
giving up 331 yards per game
forcing 1.7 TOs per game
getting 3.0 sacks per game
allowing teams to convert 46% of their 3rd downs against us. For the season last year the worst team in the league allowed 44% conversion on third downs (WAS and BUF tied).
Even with the great defensive game against Oakland and the great defensive half against SD, our D was essentially average through the first six games of the season. The NFL average points per game allowed last year was 22.7. The NFL average yards allowed per game last year was 347. The only stat where the team was well above average was sacks. The average NFL team had 2.3 sacks per game last year. With the exception of TOs/g, all of these numbers improved dramatically in the last 10 games of the season.
You also have to keep in mind that 3 of our 6 opponents in the first six games made the playoffs and all three of those opponents defeated us.
Of the 18 sacks that our D had in the first 6 games, Von had 6 and Doom had 5. 11 or those 18 sacks came from players who won't be playing for the Broncos in the first six games in 2013. However, even though we were getting sacks, we still weren't stopping teams on third down consistently in the first 6 of 2012.
Often Overlooked key to the 2012 defense
The 2012 defense was one of the best in the league at NOT giving up yards on first down (or any other down for that matter - 4.6 yards per play was best in the league). This put most of our opponents "off-schedule" in 2nd and long and forced many of them to throw on both 2nd and 3rd down to try and convert. Overall the Broncos only allowed 3.6 yards per carry last season (2nd best in the league behind the Bucs), however two of the games in the first 6 were games in which our defense got gouged by the run (HOU and NE). Unless you assert that Von and Doom where a key to stopping the run in 2012, we should still have a top run defense team.
My worry, and I am sure that many share it, is that our pass rush will be weak without VonDoom and that will lead to our defense returning to the trend of not being able to stop third long like we couldn't do in the first 5.5 games of 2012.
Projecting the first 6 of 2013
Of our first 6 opponents, only Baltimore made the playoffs last season, so viewing the first 6 through the lens of last season it appears to be an easy stretch. The final combined record of our first 6 opponents from 2012 was 56-40. The combined 2012 record for our first six opponents in 2013 is 37-59. Only the Ravens and Giants had winning records. So, on paper, the first 6 games in 2013 appear to be significantly easier than the first 6 games in 2012.
Defensively, our starters will not be learning a new system (except maybe the guy who starts at MLB) since we have the same DC as last year. Wolfe, if healthy, should be better than he was as a rookie (if he doesn't get constantly double-teamed). Across the front 4, we will be bigger than last year so that should be helpful against the run where Ayers, Vickerson, Knighton and Wolfe should be able to continue our d's success from last year at stopping first down runs. Trevathan should be improved over last season and be ready for a bigger role. Woody should continue his superb play. The 35% of the time that we have a MLB on the field, he will be an upgrade over Mays (who played quite a bit in the first 6 games), but how much of an upgrade remains to be seen. Irving/Phillips will have be able to shoulder a big load at SLB while Von is gone.
If we can get to the passer at all and they are healthy (big if), our secondary should be as good or better than 2012. Moore is one year older and wiser. Champ, when healthy, is still elite. DRC can be elite. Harris is elite. Ihenacho is untested and an unknown in terms of coverage. He figures to play well in run support since he is a converted LB. Adams is consistent, but he is still a liability in coverage.
The 800 lb gorilla in the room: where does our pass rush come from?
The broncos had 52 sacks in 2012. 29.5 (57%) of those came from VonDoom. Over the first 6 games, 61% came from VonDoom. Our 3rd leading sack-man, Wolfe, just had a scary-as-hell spinal injury so there have to be some question marks surrounding what effect, if any, that will have on his game. Additionally he will see plenty of double teams in the absence of VonDoom. Shaun Phillips still has some gas left in the tank. He recorded 9.5 sacks last year, so everyone is looking for him to at least provide some rush from the end spot on passing downs. He was double-teamed a lot while in SD since he was their leading pass rusher. Woodyard was effective when he blitzed and was untouched last year (5.5 sacks), but he had a bad habit of getting blocked when he was sent. Harris is effective as a corner on the blitz, but it is not wise to rely on your DBs for sacks. Everyone else on the team is an unknown in terms of being able to rush the passer. Q did it well in college, but he is still coming back from a torn ACL. Malik Jackson showed some prowess, particular with his ability to fight off double-teams in the SEC despite being undersized for a DT (where he mostly played at TEN). Ayers has never shown an ability to get to the QB - in college or the pros. Sly was above average in college for a DT, in terms of generating pressure, but it is rare for a players pass rushing ability to transition smoothly to the NFL as a rookie.
While sacks are not the be all and end all of defending against the pass, it is damn-near impossible to stop a passing game if you can't get near the QB. Anyone who remembers the Broncos 2010 defense (the horror, the horror) can attest to that. So we at least need to be generating hurries. If not, even guys like Gabbert are going to be able to pick our secondary apart.
I'm going to take the optimistic view and say that we go 4-2 in the first 6 games. I can see our defense doing about what the same in the first 6 games in 2013 as it did in 2012 - with the exception of fewer sacks. How many fewer sacks will be the key to how well the defense is doing.