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The Broncos run defense stunk in 2016

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The drop-off from 2015 to 2016 against the run was staggering.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

This is going to be a data-heavy post. If you don’t feel like looking at data, just skip down the conclusions section.

Our run defense was elite in 2015. You will see that when I show some of the more in-depth stats about our run defense over the past decade. You will also see how much our run defense regressed in 2016. As I have done for our (mostly anemic) rushing offense in the past few years, I created histograms showing how many runs of each length (in yards) we gave up by year. The chart is not shown below because it is so busy. I converted from total number of runs by length to % of total rushing attempts against that went different lengths. That is easier to digest. I also included the tabular form as well for those who are color-blind and want to just see the numbers.

Denver rushing defense histogram 2008-2016

For those who prefer here is the tabular form

2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
% of runs < or eq 0 yards 17.0% 18.2% 15.8% 21.4% 19.6% 21.2% 21.6% 23.3% 11.3%
% of runs 1-2 yards 28.0% 26.0% 27.3% 24.9% 25.6% 29.2% 28.9% 28.6% 26.4%
% of runs 3-5 yards 26.7% 28.2% 31.6% 25.8% 32.5% 24.3% 25.7% 27.8% 37.3%
% of runs 6-10 yards 15.9% 16.4% 14.6% 17.8% 15.1% 17.1% 17.8% 12.7% 17.7%
% of runs 11-20 yards 8.2% 7.8% 7.4% 7.6% 6.2% 5.3% 4.1% 6.8% 5.1%
% of runs 21 or more yards 4.2% 3.3% 3.3% 2.5% 1.0% 2.9% 2.0% 0.8% 2.1%

Conclusions from the data

Over this time frame, 2015 was the best year by far. Our % of stuffed runs (stopped at or behind the LOS) was the highest; our % of runs that went for 1-2 yards was the 2nd highest (2013 was higher) and the % of really long runs (21 or more yards) was the lowest. For comparison, our 2008 (atrocious) run defense was five times more likely to give up a long run than our 2015 defense. Our run defense was pretty darn good in 2013 as well. Over the past decade in the NFL our run defense was the 4th best, allowing a paltry 3.28 yards per carry (ypc). If you look at the top 40 run defenses in the past decade in the NFL by ypc allowed, three Denver D’s show up on that list (2012 is 26th at 3.61 ypc and 2014 is 30th at 3.66 ypc allowed). I have shown the top 10 in below. To put the ypc allowed by the 2015 run D in perspective, the league averaged 4.13 ypc so our defense allowed 20.5% fewer yards per rushing attempt than the average NFL team.

Rank Year Team YPC
1 2007 Baltimore Ravens 2.84
2 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers 3.02
3 2007 Minnesota Vikings 3.13
4 2014 Detroit Lions 3.17
5 2015 Denver Broncos 3.28
6 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers 3.29
7 2008 Minnesota Vikings 3.32
8 2013 New York Jets 3.35
9 2016 Seattle Seahawks 3.37
10 2008 Chicago Bears 3.42

As good as the 2015 Denver run D was, 2016 was that bad. We were horrible at stopping teams at or behind the LOS (11.3%) and not too good at stopping them for gains of 1-2 yards (26.4%). In fact if you call a run for 2 yards or less a “win” for the defense, then our win% in 2016 was 37.7%, by far the lowest for any Broncos’ D during this time period. That 11.3% stop for 0 or negative yards value was dead last in the NFL in 2016 and less than half of the league leading team, the Rams, who had 26.2% of the runs against them result in stops for 0 or negative yards. It gets worse. The second worse team in the league, the Vikings, still had 14.6% of the runs against them go for 0 or fewer yards. Compare that to our 2015 D which was 4th in the league with 23.3% of runs going for 0 or fewer yards. Also the worst team in the league in 2015, the Bears, still had 14.3% of the running plays against them stopped for 0 or fewer yards.

Denver Run D win% by year

2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
45.0% 44.2% 43.1% 46.3% 45.2% 50.4% 50.4% 51.9% 37.7%

I haven’t looked (yet) but I would wager that the 14.2% drop in run D win% year over year is the worst of any team in the past decade. To see that our 2016 run defense had a worse win% than our 2008 run defense (our 2008 defense overall was historically bad) really should make you appreciate the No Fly Zone even more. Teams could basically stumble into a 3-yard run against us last season and we weren’t giving up huge points to any team.

We don’t have to look very far to find the cause of this decline in run D win%. The 2015 D had Danny Trevathan, Malik Jackson, Antonio Smith, Vance Walker and David Bruton. The 2016 D had Todd Davis, Jared Crick, Billy Winn, Adam Gotsis and Justin Simmons replacing them. I would argue that across the board each of the 2016 replacements was a downgrade in run defense relative to 2015 - some more than others.

What will happen in 2017? Will our run D get back to where it was in 2015? I would expect improvement because of the development of Adam Gotsis and Kyle Peko and the signings Domata Peko and Zach Kerr, but I doubt we reach the elite levels we saw in 2015. What do you think?