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Every Rose Has Its Thorn...Life After Mike Nolan

Love--like defensive coordinators--is a game of easy come and easy go.  Just listen to the McDJ on the radio.

Now that Mike Nolan is heading to Miami to work on his South Beach tan, we are left to ponder (at least for a few days) the fate of the Denver Broncos defense.  And lonely Broncomaniacs everywhere want to know: 

Was is somethin' we did or somethin' we said?  Did our words not come out right?

We may never know the exact reason.  What we do know is that Mike Nolan is gone.   And it's not sitting well with a lot of us. The latest rumor from the Boston Herald is that McDaniels wasn't a fan of the number of times Nolan blitzed this year so the marriage had to end.  Personally, I'd like to see the Broncos blitz on every play of the game, but that's why I'm just a stats guy. Either way, as much as we may need a reason for Nolan's departure, we may never get a good one.  He may have left Denver because he's an East Coast guy. He may have left because he wants to work with Bill Parcells.  Perhaps he left because he's a closet Jennifer Lopez fan. 

The more important question is where does this leave the future of the Denver Broncos?

If one believes the rumors coming out of Denver, that future is coming in the form of former Patriots defensive coordinator Dean Pees.  As our own Sayre Bedinger wrote yesterday, Pees is very likely the choice.

Dean Pees?  Who?  Are we rebounding too fast?  Can we give this guy our love so quickly?

Broncos fans, although we all lie close together, we feel miles apart inside.  But as always, the stats are here to help mend your broken hearts.  

Follow me after the jump and we'll check out Pees' defenses over the past four years.  And maybe you'll feel like blitzing a little less.

I Listen to our 5-2 Song Playing on the Radio

Before getting into the numbers, a brief thanks to Mike Nolan for his work in 2009.

By almost all accounts, and from casual fans to league insiders, Nolan did a bang-up job with this year´s Denver Broncos.  Denver´s inferior personnel would not allow for a pure switch to the 3-4, so Nolan went back in time and brought out a good old-fashioned 5-2 defense.   

And for six glorious weeks it worked about as well as it could.  Since the 5-2 is a good run defense, the Broncos got a lot of mileage early in the season by placing the two outside linebackers at the line of scrimmage.  This didn´t require as much athleticism at outside linebacker as other 3-4 teams possessed.  And, as noted earlier, Nolan blitzed.  And early in the season, the blitzing worked.  

After six games, however, the novelty wore off and the run defense crumbled.  In the last third of the season, if you really wanted to gash the Broncos, you ran to the left side of the line.  Here you would find the worst three run defenders on the Broncos defense:  Kenny Peterson, Elvis Dumervil, and D.J. Williams.   Once teams figured this out, they worked the left side like a nervous tick.  Even the Chiefs and the always-combustible Oakland Raiders figured this formula out.  In the last two divisional games, K.C. and Oakland ran the ball over the left guard-center on 42% of their rush attempts, averaging almost 9 yards per carry.   Without beating a dead Bronco, there is a reason Brian Dawkins led the team in solo tackles this year aside from the fact that he is immortal.  As any coach can tell you, if you are running a 5-2 defense and a defensive back is leading the team in solo tackles, you've got some big-time problems.  

Outside of the Indianapolis game, it was interesting to see Nolan take the 5-2 experiment through a full 16-game schedule. Absolutely fascinating.  Although the 5-2 has the same general functionality of the 3-4, the ability of the 5-2 to disguise zone blitzes is more limited.  One might have expected Nolan to deviate from this look at some point during the season.  However, he pushed the boundaries of the 5-2 to its breaking point and gave as good as he got.  Given his personnel in Miami, which is more talented at the line of scrimmage than Denver's personnel, I would be shocked to see him touch the 5-2 again.  But we do wish him well.

Somebody New? Dean Pees

Can Dean Pees be as effective as Mike Nolan was this year? 

I decided to break the Patriots defense down statistically over the four years that Pees was defensive coordinator to find out. Before I give you the results, it's interesting to know that the Patriots, while talented up front with the likes of Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork, have experienced significant player losses due to injuries in the last several years.  Pees, even if you don't believe in the numbers, should at least get a decent amount of credit for his ability to plug players into his scheme and get production out of them.  As this quote from the Patriots' website indicated:

In 2008, the Patriots allowed 19.3 points per game and achieved an 11-5 record despite using 22 different starters on defense, including four rookies.

Any defensive coordinator would be happy with that result, given the circumstances.  But the truth is that all of Pees' numbers were indicative of this type of success.  Rather than going through each of his four seasons, I simply took the average of all four and compared them to both the 4-year NFL average and the 4-year Broncos average.  Here were the results:

Team Rushing Yards / Game Rushing Yards / Play Passing Yards / Game Passing Yards / Play Interception Rate Sacks / Pass Attempt 3rd Down Pct 4th Down Pct Red Zone Pct Goal to Go% Points / Game
NE 103 4.21 200 6.33 3.58% 0.08 37.77% 37.47% 53.63% 60.46% 17.25
DEN 133 4.52 205 6.59 2.69% 0.07 40.15% 54.55% 52.96% 70.56% 23.25
NFL 115 4.17 212 6.49 3.05% 0.07 39.07% 50.64% 51.98% 68.07% 21.48


Try not to laugh (or cry) at Denver's numbers over the last four years.

Pees' defenses have been better than the average NFL defense across the board, but here is what stands out from these numbers:

  • Pees' defenses have been better in allowing less yards per rush and pass.
  • Pees' defenses have been better in turnovers and sacks.
  • Pees' defenses have been better in getting the other team off the field on 3rd downs.
  • Pees' defenses have been better on 4th down and in goal-to-goal situations
  • Pees' defenses are close the league average in the red zone.

The last column interests me the most, which is Points Allowed.   Pees' defenses were significantly better than the league average. Allowing only 17 points a game in any season will put you in the top 10 in defense--each and every year.  

Many of you will remember from a few weeks ago a piece in which I gave an equation that helps to predict winning percentage within 6% on average over the last 23 years.  The equation uses only two variables--points scored and points against.  The reason I mention it once again is that is useful as a speculative tool here.  If Pees becomes the defensive coordinator for the Broncos, and he can maintain his 4-year average of 17.25 points allowed, then the Broncos would simply need to score the same number of points they scored this year (20.4 per game, which many were disappointed with) in order to be a 10-win team.

Clearly I'm speculating a bit, but Pees, if history is any indication, can make a difference.  His teams just don't give up a lot of points.  And Denver's offense is going to improve.  This bodes well.  This bodes very well.

Well enough to get over the loss of Mike Nolan?  

Can you throw Vince Wilfork in the deal and ask me again?