So I've heard a lot lately (mostly from NFC West fans) about how it wasn't the Broncos' defense that lost Super Bowl XLVIII. Some people can't understand why Denver would load up on that side of the ball in the off season. The initial implication to these claims, of course, is that Denver's record-setting offense was nothing more than a sham that had never faced a "real" defense, with the secondary implication being that a stomping like the one Denver experienced is, therefore, an expected result.
Let me start off by saying these claims are hogwash, put forward by lazy fans, pure and simple. You can file such claims in the same place as "Peyton chokes in the big game," "Manning is one big hit away from retirement," and "The Raiders are going to be competitive this year." However, if you read these claims a certain way--that Denver needs to do more than just beef up their defense in order to take that next step--there may be some merit here, so lets take a look at the team in general.
Defense: Pressure is the Name of the Game. Staying Healthy Helps Too.
In 2012, your Denver Broncos sported the #2 overall defense in the NFL, allowing an average of 290.8 yards per game overall, 199.6 yards per game through the air, and 91.1 yards per game on the ground. That defense was better than the Seattle Seahawks (4th overall) and San Francisco 49ers (3rd overall) in each of these categories. Admittedly, the Seahawks and 49ers had better scoring defenses, allowing just 15.3 and 17.1 points per game respectively (good enough for 1st and 2nd overall in scoring defense) versus Denver's 18.1 points per game (and 4th overall) scoring defense, but even here, Denver was a top five defensive unit on par with the "real" defenses of the NFC West.
In 2013, however, Denver's defense slipped all the way to 19th overall and 22nd in points per game. Quite a fall. So what happened, and why should this give Broncos fans hope of a better 2014?
The first culprit for Denver's defensive slide in 2013 was the loss of pressure on the quarterback. Dumervil went to Baltimore; Von Miller was suspended, overweight, and injured; Derek Wolfe's promising sophomore season was cut short; and while Shaun Phillips got respectable sack numbers, his production was streaky--he wasn't disruptive on a down-by-down basis. Injuries, and the added workload of having the league's most prolific passing offense on your team, did the rest for the Broncos' defense.
2014 should bring a return to 2012 form for several reasons. The return to health of Von Miller and addition of DeMarcus Ware as well as the emergence of "Pot Roast" Knighton gives the Broncos a pick-your-poison pass rush that should be able to get to the quarterback at will--without blitzing. That means more opportunities for turnovers; less time for the secondary--which is younger, faster, and meaner than 2013's version--to be in coverage; and that should translate into more turnovers, more three-and-outs, and better field position for the Broncos overall. The likelihood of the Broncos' defense returning to top five form is quite good, provided that they stay healthy.
Offense: The Broncos Need to Run More
It's hard to imagine anyone criticizing the Broncos' 2013 offense--the most prolific in NFL history--and yet criticism abounds. People continue to think that the wheels are going to fall off Peyton Manning at any moment, which we know isn't true. Where the critics may have a point, however, is in the fact that Denver's offense in 2013 was one of finesse, meaning that it was vulnerable to a team that could shut it down or force it to play outside of its comfort zone (as in the losses to the Patriots, Chargers, and Seahawks). It also exposed the Broncos to making turnovers in bunches (losses to the Colts and Seahawks). If there is one way that Denver can improve offensively going into 2014, it's in running the football better and more often.
They've got the running back to do exactly that--Montee Ball was an absolute workhorse at Wisconsin and he showed that the NFL game isn't too big for him. And they made the offensive line adjustments to show massive improvement in the running game--you would be hard pressed to find a defensive line that could prevent Orlando Franklin, Manny Ramirez, and Louis Vasquez from opening a running lane. If the Broncos can establish an improved running game, that should allow them to take their time moving the football down the field and that should translate to a better-rested Broncos Defense. It should also help them when playing in conditions adverse to the passing game (like Seattle's noise, or Foxborough's weather). If the Broncos can take a page from Green Bay and the way the Packers utilized Eddie Lacy, a more balanced offensive unit--while likely not putting up the same kind of numbers as the 2013 version--should be more effective overall.
Special Teams: Play Mistake-Free Football
Not to be discounted is the third phase of the game in Special Teams. Gone are the cardiac moments of Trindon Holliday--I swear I held my breath every time he set to receive a kick because he had just as much chance of returning a kick for a score as he did of fumbling the ball--and that's a good thing. With their offense, Denver doesn't need the kick return game to be stellar, it just needs it to make sure it secures the ball. Paradoxically, the kick coverage units need to show some improvement. Percy Harvin should never have been able to run that kickoff back for a touchdown--honestly, Prater should just kick it through the end zone every time, but even failing that, the coverage assignments should have shown more discipline. This is where I think Denver's newest members--Bradley Roby, Lamin Barrow, and Corey Nelson--will make their biggest impact. That's a lot of youth to inject into the special teams, and that should show some positive results.
Conclusion: Balance is the Path to Success
Considering the Denver Broncos schedule in 2014--especially that week 4 bye--it's going to be a tough row to hoe, but Elway has set this team up for success. Matching a top flight defense to that best-in-the-league offense--and one that can better run the ball--gives the Broncos a chance to match up with anyone on any field. I even like their chances of coming out of Seattle with a W, provided they show better balance throughout the entire team. A defense based on pressure compliments a high powered offense so well that even those teams that base their success on running the football and playing a physical brand of defense could quickly find themselves playing outside of their comfort zone. So when someone asks what the Broncos will do when they play a "real" defense in the NFC West, just ask them what their team will do when they're trailing the Broncos by two or more scores--when Miller and Ware will be able to pin their ears back and have fun--because the way this team is built, that could be a common predicament for Broncos' opponents in 2014. And hopefully that balance will lead to a celebration in the Mile High City come February. Go Broncos!