clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Denver Broncos Orange Crush looks to return in 2014

As part of my weekly defensive recap this season, I will be adding a comparative section. How does the 2014 D compare to the Orange Crush defense - hoping that the comparison is favorable? To effectively do that we need to take a walk down memory lane and refresh our knowledge of those defenses.

In 1975 there were only 26 teams in the NFL and I hadn't been born yet.

So everything in this post is going to be from reading about the Orange Crush and from looking at stats. I fully welcome any personal remembrances from those who have seen more winters than I. By the time I was actively following the Broncos in the mid 80s, the Orange Crush had already faded into history.

The 1975 Broncos finished the season with a record of 6 wins and 8 losses (sadly that was good enough for second in the AFC West). Defensively the Broncos were below average in 1975, finishing 18th (of 26) in points allowed. - 21.9 pts/game. The best D in the league in 1975 was the LA Rams who allowed an amazing 9.6 pts/game (3rd best value all-time). Then something happened that turned the Broncos D from below average in 1975 to one of the best in the league in 1976. What changed? Keep in mind that the D didn't reach all-time greatness levels until 1977.

Firstly, the starters on D were fairly different. Part of this is that the 75 Broncos ran a 4-3 and the 76 Broncos switched to a 3-4. Here are the starters in 1975

LDE Chavous
LDT Grant
RDT Smith
RDE Alzado
LOLB Jackson
MLB Gradishar
CB Wright
CB Jones
SS Thompson
FS Rowser

Gradishar made the pro-bowl in 1975. There were no rookie starters (until injuries hit). May and Jones only played 8 games and Chavous 9, due to injury. Starting for May when he was hurt, we had the young Joe Rizzo (second year player). Starting for Jones, we had the journeyman CSU grad, Earlie Thomas. When Chavous missed 5 games, the rookie Ruben Carter stepped and started to make a name for himself. So what was different in 1976? Let's look at the starters

LDE Chavous
NT Carter
RDE Smith
LOLB Swenson
LILB Rizzo
RILB Gradishar
ROLB Jackson
CB Wright
CB Jones
FS Thompson
SS Rowser

Our secondary was unchanged, but we still had starters missing time with injuries. While our safeties made it through the whole regular season without missing a game, Calvin Jones only started 8 games (Louis Wright started all 14). Rookie Steve Foley started 6 games for Jones. Lyle Alzado was expected to be the starting RDE. He blew out his knee on the first play of the regular season and veteran Paul Smith ended up making 10 of the 13 remaining starts. From our LB group, May was gone (retired I think) paving the way for Rizzo and Swenson to both become starters (although Swenson only started 6 games while Godwin Turk started 2 - I'm not sure who took the remainder of the starts at LB unless we started some games in a 4-3). Rizzo missed 2 games with injury. So that's who started, but what did they do relative to the previous year's D?

1975 NFL rank 1976 NFL rank 1977 NFL rank 1978* NFL rank 1979 NFL rank
Points allowed 307 18 206 6 148 3 198 2 262 6
Pts/game 21.9 18 14.7 6 10.6 3 12.4 2 16.4 6
Yards allowed 4006 9 3734 8 3775 9 4449 6 4852 19
Yards/game 286 9 267 8 270 9 278 6 303 19
Yards per play 4.45 8 4.06 4 4.05 9 4.4 7 4.7 12
Interceptions 16 18 24 T-7 25 T-8 31 2 19 19
Rushing yards 1974 13 1709 3 1531 1 1979 6 1693 1
Yards per carry 3.8 8 3.4 2 3.3 1 3.6 5 3.4 3
Passing yards 2032 7 2025 12 2244 25 2470 14 3159 23
Passing NY/A 5.4 14 4.8 10 4.9 8 5.3 12 5.9 16
Completion % 52.0% 11 54.7% 19 55.2% 22 56.2% 23 57.8% 24
Sack % 7.2% 19 7.6% 20 7.6% 20 6.4% 22 3.6% 28
Fumbles recovered 16 T-15 13 23 14 15 13 27 18 11

*The NFL went to 16 regular season games in 1978

The 1976 Broncos were able to shave 7.2 ppg allowed off of what they allowed in 1975. That value is pretty impressive. The 14.7 ppg allowed still stands as the 90th best value in NFL history. The 1977 Broncos shaved another 4.1 ppg off of that. You can talk yourself into thinking otherwise, but even the most staunch supporter of DVOA knows that points allowed is the gold standard for measuring a defense. The 1977 D allowed a measly 10.6 ppg. That is still the 11th best value in NFL history. The year over year drop of 11.3 points is also one of the best improvements over two seasons in league history. Surprisingly over the 3 best seasons of the Orange Crush (76, 77 and 78), we only had 3 shutouts (SD twice in 76 and StL in 77). The 77 D did hold  7 of 14 regular season opponents under 10 points. While the 78 D did that to 8 of 16 regular season opponents.

What I didn't really know about the Orange Crush was how much of a contrast there was in their ability to stop the run (best in the league) and their relative inability to stop the passing game (average to horrible). This wss still a very effective defensive model though since the NFL of the mid-to-late 70s was run-first, run-second and throw-third. If you could shut down the run, you could shut down most teams and the Orange Crush front 7 were great at stuffing the run.

This ability to stuff the run allowed the 76 and 77 defenses to hold their opponents under 20 points in all but three regular season games. Few teams had enough proficiency throwing the ball to rely solely upon that to attack our D. How difficult was it to run against the Orange Crush? Well, in an era where the average team gained 50% of their yardage on the ground (and when 56% of all plays were running plays), if you stopped the run, you took away most team's best offensive weapon(s). The 77 D held the opponent to less the 100 yards rushing in 7 of 14 regular season games. However (dramatic example of how the league has changed), they still allowed 109 yards rushing per game. That led the league while KC was the worst allowing 212 yards rushing per game. In 2013 the average NFL team gained only 32.5% of their yards on the ground and only 41.7% of all plays were running plays. So to be as good at stopping the the opponent's offense in the current NFL you absolutely have to be able to stop the passing game AND the running game.

It's better to focus on yards per carry allowed if we want a good historical comparison of run-stopping ability. The 1977 Broncos allowed 3.26 yards per carry. That would have lead the league in 2013, 2012 and 2011. You have to go back to 2010 Steelers (3.02 ypc) to find a team that gave up fewer yards per carry than the 1977 Broncos. Only 5 teams this century have given up fewer ypc than the 77 Orange Crush. 3.35 ypc was great then and is still great.  The best rushing D in NFL history was the 2000 Ravens who allowed 2.68 ypc. The number of teams that have allowed under 3.0 ypc can be counted on one hand.  If the 2014 Broncos D can come close to matching the run D displayed by the Orange Crush, we will all be happy.

The Orange Crush D in 76 and 77 was also quite good in yards allowed per play (ypp). That LA Rams D that I mentioned in the beginning (3rd best all-time in ppg allowed), they allowed a paltry 3.89 yards per play in 1975. The Broncos were in the top third of the of the league in ypp 75 through 78. The 1977 Cowboys had an amazing 3.65 ypp allowed. To put that in historical perspective, no team will ever come close to those numbers in the modern NFL because of the modern passing game. The 12 Broncos led the NFL in ypp with 4.58 ypp. The 00 Ravens (an all-time great D) gave up 4.29 ypp to lead the league.


As good as they were against the run, the Orange Crush had a really tough time rushing the passer. Even at its peak in 1977, the Orange Crush was ranked 20th or 28 teams in sack % (% of drop-backs by the opponent that ended in a sack). The 3.6% sack rate of the 79 D was horrible at the time and would have been similarly horrible in today's NFL (NE led the league with triple the sack rate at 10.9%). The worst team in the league in 2013 (Philly) had a sack% of 5.2%. The worst in the league in 2012 was JAX with a 3.6% value. The rate at what sacks occur is significantly less than in the 70s making the 77 D's sack% of 7.6% (which would be above average in the modern NFL) look fairly bad. The best team in the league in 1977, NE, sacked the opposing QB on 14.0% of his drop-backs. The league average in 77 was 8.9%. The league average in 2013 was 6.7% (league best was CAR with 9.6%).

So this begs the question, how could the team be so good against the run and so poor against the pass? Not having watched the Orange Crush play, I can only theorize that it was a combination of poor pass rush ability from the DL (and OLBs) and below average coverage ability from our LBs. When you can't get pressure on the opposing QB, it makes every QB look like an All-Pro (we need only think back to the pathetic 08 D).

Here ends today's history lesson and based upon the numbers the 2014 Broncos D could very well be better than the Orange Crush (if we stay healthy) in almost every statistical category. The only numbers that appears out of reach are points allowed (which is the most important one) and yards per play. If this year's D gives up fewer than 11 ppg, they will not only be remembered as the second coming of the Orange Crush, they will also go down as one of the best defenses in NFL history. If they do that by only allowing something on the order of 4.1 ypp, they will enter into the conversation as arguably the best defense in NFL history. Much of this is putting the cart WAY before the horse since we haven't seen them play a regular season down yet, but it's fun to speculate about just how good this D can be.