Denver’s defense giving up 90+ points over the last two weeks has fans and analysts alike wondering what in the world is going on.
There has been a lot of discussion here on the site over the course of the season about TJ Ward leaving, Joe Woods’ mixing up coverages, and the pros & cons of man vs. zone.
All of these are good discussions to have, but are all secondary to the primary issue that has been bubbling underneath the surface of the once Super Bowl winning defense: they can’t pressure the quarterback like they used to.
Denver’s defense had become synonymous with nasty pass rush, #sackcity, and evoked images of Tom Brady, Cam Newton, and Aaron Rodgers all gingerly picking themselves up off the ground, sporting dirty, grass stained jerseys.
However, that has not been true of Denver’s defense this year. The NFL’s Next Gen Stats tracks players with microchips embedded in the shoulder pads. They describe it this way on their site:
NFL player tracking, also known as Next Gen Stats, is the capture of real time location data, speed and acceleration for every player, every play on every inch of the field. Sensors throughout the stadium track tags placed on players' shoulder pads, charting individual movements within inches.
Thus, they are able to track how close defenders get to the quarterback on any given snap, and use that data to come up with a pressure rate.
Bottom 5 defensive pressure rates this season per #NextGenStats— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) November 13, 2017
According to their tracking, through the first ten weeks of the season, Denver ranks 29th in the league in defensive pressure rate.
These are some astounding numbers, especially considering Denver was the number one pass rushing team in the league, by Next Gen Stats last year.
So what is going on? First of all, the issue is clearly not superstar, Von Miller.
Miller leads the league in pass rush productivity (15.6), according to Pro Football Focus, is second in the league in total pressures (49), and ranks 11th in sacks (8).
It is Miller’s surrounding cast that have struggled to generate pressure.
Shaquil Barrett, who has been Miller’s primary passing rushing partner on the other side ranks 39th in the league out of 58 edge rushers with only 23 total pressures. Shane Ray hasn’t been much better, with 7 pressures in three games.
The even larger issue comes from Denver’s interior pass rushers. Adam Gotsis, Derek Wolfe, and Shelby Harris are ranked #50, #46, and #42 (respectively) out of 55 interior rushers in pass rush productivity, and are all bottom 15 in the league in total pressures as well.
We can debate zone vs. man coverage or talk about our weakness against tight ends and running backs until we’re blue in the face, but until Denver is able to generate some pressure from someone not named Von Miller, none of those things really matter.