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Horse Tracks: The Tale of the No Fly Zone

Digging into the No Fly Zone’s 2015 & 2016 performance versus playoff teams.

San Diego Chargers v Denver Broncos Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Historic defenses are a rare thing in the NFL, and the bye week is a great time to celebrate ours by digging a little deeper into some of its most crucial performances. This time, it’s a look into the Broncos’ No Fly Zone secondary and its performances against playoff teams. What better way is there to get perspective on this unit than by examining how it does versus the best teams it faced each season?

I put together a list of every 2015 & 2016 game the Broncos played versus a playoff team, for both the regular and postseason. Teams are only included during the year(s) that they made the playoffs. So, for example, the 2015 Raiders aren’t on the list but the 2016 Raiders are.

Just the list of games itself is pretty impressive: out of the 35 games played in 2015 & 2016, the Denver Broncos played 17 games against playoff units. Ten different teams are represented, with an impressive combined regular season winning percentage of .7206

The Broncos’ win/loss results across those 17 games are a tale of two seasons, as you might expect: 8-2 in 2015, but just 2-5 in 2016.

On to the stats themselves, and then some analysis:

NFZ vs Playoff Teams 2015

Game Team Attempts Completions Completion % Passing Yards Passing TDs Interceptions
Game Team Attempts Completions Completion % Passing Yards Passing TDs Interceptions
Week 2 Chiefs 25 16 64.00% 191 0 2
Week 4 Vikings 41 27 65.85% 269 1 0
Week 8 Packers 22 14 63.64% 77 0 0
Week 10 Chiefs 31 17 54.84% 204 1 0
Week 12 Patriots 42 23 54.76% 280 3 0
Week 15 Steelers 55 40 72.73% 380 3 2
Week 16 Bengals 35 22 62.86% 200 1 0
Divisional Steelers 37 24 64.86% 339 0 0
Conference Patriots 56 27 48.21% 310 1 2
Super Bowl Panthers 41 18 43.90% 265 0 1
Total 385 228 2515 10 7
Per Game Avg 38.5 22.8 59.22% 251.5 1 0.7

NFZ vs Playoff Teams 2016

Game Team Attempts Completions Completion % Passing Yards Passing TDs Interceptions
Game Team Attempts Completions Completion % Passing Yards Passing TDs Interceptions
Week 5 Falcons 28 15 53.57% 267 1 0
Week 7 Texans 41 22 53.66% 131 0 0
Week 9 Raiders 31 20 64.52% 184 0 0
Week 12 Chiefs 44 26 59.09% 220 1 0
Week 15 Patriots 32 16 50.00% 188 0 0
Week 16 Chiefs 36 25 69.44% 244 1 1
Week 17 Raiders 32 20 62.50% 171 1 1
Total 244 144 1405 4 2
Per Game Avg 34.9 20.6 59.02% 200.7 0.57 0.29

Key Stats

The NFZ allowed just...

  1. 250 passing yards per game in ‘15, which dropped to just 200 passing yards per game in 2016.
  2. In both seasons the NFZ held playoffs QBs to an average completion percentage of 59%
  3. The passing TDs allowed per game rate dropped from an average of 1 per game in 2015 to 1 every other game in 2016.
  4. The interception dropped in 2016, from 0.7 interceptions/game to 0.29 interceptions/game.

What It Means

This kind of tells us nothing new. It shows that the No Fly Zone is an elite and remarkably consistent unit. But let’s take a more practical approach: What did this secondary do to these opposing quarterbacks? How did they impact the level of performance and production that these QBs, many of them among the best in the league, brought to the game?

I’ll give you stat lines for three sets of multiple QBs, combined for 16 game seasons per set:

QB Sets Comparison

QB Set Attempts Completions Completion % Passing Yards Passing TDs Interceptions QBR
QB Set Attempts Completions Completion % Passing Yards Passing TDs Interceptions QBR
Set 1 592 350 59.14% 3689 13 8 79.00
Set 2 606 368 60.73% 4216 19 23 76.31
Set 3 570 339 59.47% 3914 20 11 83.91

The numbers are pretty close together, as you can see.

The first set is our sample of 17 games, but averaged down to a 16 game season. That 79.00 QBR? That’s gotta hurt. The same goes for the sub-60% completion percentage and the significantly less than 2-to-1 TD to Interception ratio. All in all, the No Fly Zone wrecked opposing QBs.

The next two sets tell us just how badly.

Set 2 is the Broncos’ 2015 quarterbacks’ season. They’re stats put up by an old, injured Peyton Manning who became interception prone and by some good-enough play from Brock Osweiler.

Set 3? That’s the combined 16 game stat line for Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch from 2016. So there’s some perspective, folks: as much as we moaned and complained about the QB play for most of last season, the No Fly Zone took a large portion of the playoffs QBs from the last two seasons, many of them very good to elite players, and turned them into something even worse than the quarterbacking we were getting.

What Does it Mean for 2017?

It’s still too early to be drawing any hard conclusions. What I can tell you is that, so far, the 2017 edition of the No Fly Zone isn’t quite living up to the two previous years statistically. While that’s a bit troubling, I don’t think it’s something Broncos fans should worry about.

The Broncos are currently on pace to allow 372 completions on 576 attempts for 3,360 passing yards, with 32 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. That comes out to a QBR of 87.15 being allowed by the NFZ so far.

Part of that is due to young players adjusting to starting or quasi-starting roles: Justin Simmons and Will Parks. Part of it is due to the secondary having to re-learn some communication & coordination with the departure of T.J. Ward. And a considerable part of it is that we’re currently 1) playing from ahead by 2+ scores a lot more often and 2) on pace for one of the best run defenses in NFL history rather than one of the worst teams against the run like we were in 2016. Both of those factors mean that teams are being forced into passing on us more, and going for the big, deep play more. And the big, deep play is about the only thing that’s worked on our secondary with any consistency so far.

And, frankly, part of it is the offense giving up turnovers that have resulted in short fields for the opposing team and optimal chances at scoring.

So far, the Broncos are only allowing 10 more passing yards per game than the 2015 No Fly Zone. And getting just one more interception per set of four games than we have so far will put us right there with the 2015 unit in that area. But most importantly, as the young bucks gain experience and the communication and coordination gets back to where it was with Ward, I expect that passing touchdowns allowed rate to drop significantly.

The tale of the 2017 No Fly Zone will be far more about what it allows in the second half of the season than about what it has allowed in the first quarter.

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