Ever since Justin Simmons came down with his heroic interception, one thought won’t leave my mind.
No, it wasn’t whether T.J. Ward could have made the same play (he couldn’t, by the way). All I can think about is why couldn’t Simmons have been in the same position in 2012? Even though he would have been 19, there’s no doubt he would have made the play that ended the Baltimore Ravens season and sent the Denver Broncos to the AFC Championship Game. What could have been.
Instead, we saw the latest example of why the Broncos made the move to Simmons. The second-year player has a chance to become the next great safety in this organization. He gave us all another glimpse into that future in Denver’s 16-10 win over the Oakland Raiders when he sealed it with his play.
Thanks in large part to Simmons, the Broncos head into their bye week 3-1 and 2-0 in the AFC West. This is where it’s imperative to point out that anytime Denver beats the Raiders, it’s cause for celebration. Perhaps there are cracks in the facade, as Adam Malnati and I said on the latest Mile High Report Radio Podcast, but you can see a path to sustained success after Sunday’s game if those cracks are patched over the bye and next few games.
Here’s the five things we learned from the Broncos big win over their hated rival.
Denver’s run defense is dominant
The fact that the Broncos have the best defense in the NFL right now isn’t much of a surprise. When you have Von Miller and his Sack City compadres paired with the No Fly Zone, you’re certain to at least have one of the better units in the league.
What is a surprise is how dominant the Broncos are in rush defense after four games. There is no longer any doubt: this is the best run defense in the NFL. When you consider when the season started, this was a massive area of concern given how bad Denver was at stopping the run last season. It makes the turnaround even more significant.
The Broncos held Oakland to 24 yards rushing. Yes, you read that right, 24 yards rushing. That’s an average of 1.6 yards per carry. For the season, Denver has allowed just 2.42 yards per carry through four games, the best in franchise history, per Pro Football Reference. Since the Broncos allowed 21 yards on the first carry of the season to Melvin Gordon, they’ve allowed just 2.2 yards per carry. As Andrew Mason highlighted on Twitter, since 2011 just one team (2012 Dolphins) has allowed fewer rushing first downs through four games than the 2017 Broncos (nine), per PFR.
Against the Raiders, it wasn’t just the rush defense that dominated. As Mason pointed out, eight of 12 Oakland possessions ended without a first down, and the Raiders averaged just 0.92 first downs and 16.8 net yards per series. Let’s throw out one more stat to highlight the defense: The Raiders had no trips to the red zone.
Things got a little hairy at the end of the game and you’d like to see the defense keep it’s aggressiveness, but Sunday’s game was, as Larry David would say, “pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good.”
Domata Peko is the difference
The play of the rush defense brings the key question: Why the change?
The answer is simple yet also very large — Peko. The free agent nose tackle brought over from the Cincinnati Bengals has sparked the change on defense it needed. When that move was announced, there was some doubt as to how much Peko had left. He hadn’t played that well the last few seasons for the Bengals. So much for that.
There’s no doubt in my mind Peko has been the best free-agent signing in the NFL. When you consider where this defense was a season ago in terms of stopping the run and where it is now, it comes back to him and what he brings to this defense. Also, give a lot of credit to Derek Wolfe, Adam Gotsis and the others on Denver’s front. I also think Bill Kollar deserves some acknowledgement for the job he does.
Broncos' D has faced a Pro Bowl RB in each of its first 4 games, holding those four players (12 Pro Bowls) to 50 att for 95 yds (1.9 avg).— Patrick Smyth (@psmyth12) October 2, 2017
The path to sustained success in the NFL starts and stops in the trenches. The Broncos have shown their rush defense is for real, and with seven of 12 games on the road after the bye, that’s one of the ways Denver will have chances to win games.
Effective and efficient rushing offense
The other aspect the Broncos have that keeps them in contention is the way they run the ball on offense. On Sunday, Denver had 143 yards on 32 carries, led by C.J. Anderson and his 20 carries for 95 yards. What continues to impress is how great Jamaal Charles looks when he’s called upon. When he gets the ball in his hands, great things happen and you think he could bust one loose. He finished with five rushes for 33 yards, but showed he needs to get more touches.
The key now is for Denver offensive coordinator Mike McCoy to stick with what his offense does best. In the second half of games that you’re dominating on defense and rushing the ball offensively, don’t become predictable. Don’t consistently throw the ball on first down. That doesn’t mean you can’t be aggressive, just do it on second down. McCoy wasn’t nearly as bad in this area on Sunday as he was in the loss to the Buffalo Bills, but he needs to get this figured out. There’s no need to be cute and overthink it. Run. The. Damn. Football.
Third down and red zone must improve
The Broncos were as good in the red zone on Sunday as Oakland, and the Raiders didn’t have a single trip inside the 20-yard line. It gets worse for Denver given it was 0-of-2 in goal-to-goal situations. That cannot continue.
It wasn’t much better on third down either. For the game, the Broncos were 5 for 16. If you don’t convert on third down or score touchdowns, you won’t win games in the NFL (thanks, John Madden). The fact Denver still found a way to win this game despite those two failures on offense is a testament to the defense. It may also demonstrate how bad the Raiders are, but we won’t go deep into that water.
While you can see a path to success for the Broncos with how dominant the defense is and the effectiveness of rushing the ball, if third down and red zone struggles don’t improve, it won’t matter. The best solution is to not be so predictable on offense, which could be easier said than done.
Denver has a better record than New England
It’s crucial to point out that Tom Brady and the New England Patriots not only failed to go 16-0 or 19-0, they’re not even in first place in the AFC East. I could have sworn the Patriots were flawless and unbeatable. In the first four games, New England’s defense has allowed at least 33 points in three of them. Ouch.
Is there panic in Masshole nation? Or perhaps the national media? At this point, that’s syrup on a big bowl of humble vanilla ice cream. As we speak, the Patriots have the same record as the New York Jets. Ouch.