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Denver Broncos 2023 defensive snap review

Who played? Who didn’t? A full season review of the Denver Broncos defensive snap counts.

Los Angeles Chargers v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

While the offense was mostly healthy in 2023, the Bronco defense had some key players miss time and that led to some terrible games (like the 70 points allowed to Miami). Only three defensive players finished the season on the IR, Jonas Griffith, K’Waun Williams and Caden Sterns.

Of the three only Sterns played at all in 2023 and even he only played a few snaps. Each player could have really helped the defense that struggled to do most things that NFL defenses are supposed to do. Griffith could have helped when Josey Jewell was out.

Williams could have allowed Damarri Mathis or Fabian Moreau to play less and Sterns could have kept Delarrin Turner-Yell off the field. DTY was one of the worst pass defenders in the league in 2023 allowing an astounding passer rating of 158.3 when his man was targeted. That’s the highest you can allow. Nine NFL defenders allowed that passer rating in 2023 and surprisingly, one of them was a starter (Ryan Neal)

  1. Ryan Neal
  2. Tre Hawkins
  3. Delarrin Turner-Yell
  4. Terrell Burgess
  5. Tre’Vius Tomlinson
  6. Jordan Kunaszyk
  7. D’Angelo Ross
  8. Jay Ward
  9. Sidney Jones

Among players with enough snaps to qualify, Damarri Mathis was the worst pass defender on the 2023 Denver Broncos. He allowed a passer rating of 128.3.

Full defense table (drag the slider at the bottom to see the later season games)

Player POS Game 1 Game 2 Game 3 Game 4 Game 5 Game 6 Game 7 Game 8 Game 9 Game 10 Game 11 Game 12 Game 13 Game 14 Game 15 Game 16 Game 17
Patrick Surtain II CB 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 87% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100%
Damarri Mathis CB 98% 100% 100% 99% 100% 100% 5% 13% 7% 4% 0% 13% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
Essang Bassey CB 39% 89% 66% 10%
Fabian Moreau CB 3% 11% 15% 10% 100% 100% 100% 96% 97% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100%
Tremon Smith CB 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 2% 0%
Ja'Quan McMillian CB 8% 60% 52% 73% 48% 95% 98% 64% 81% 60% 87% 70% 71% 85% 67%
Riley Moss CB 0% 4% 4% 4% 4% 2% 3% 5% 8%
Zach Allen DE 90% 81% 70% 86% 86% 89% 77% 80% 81% 85% 75% 87% 75% 73% 78% 74% 85%
Jonathan Harris DE 66% 53% 68% 62% 78% 65% 41% 39% 19% 31% 56% 29% 31% 42% 29% 40% 35%
Frank Clark DE 42% 17%
Matt Henningsen DE 15% 25% 32% 17% 12% 15% 27% 10% 15% 19% 26% 18% 24% 26% 28% 15% 12%
Elijah Garcia DE 12% 18% 17% 39%
D.J. Jones DT 59% 56% 47% 65% 18% 48% 48% 61% 62% 40% 62% 63% 53% 67% 57% 53%
Justin Simmons FS 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100%
Caden Sterns FS 3%
P.J. Locke FS 14% 3% 23% 100% 37% 74% 99% 99% 85% 100% 100% 98%
Ronnie Perkins LB 23% 34% 41% 35% 33% 32%
Josey Jewell LB 95% 89% 26% 86% 76% 84% 77% 61% 74% 64% 75% 93% 71% 78% 83% 76%
Alex Singleton LB 90% 64% 89% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100%
Randy Gregory LB 68% 64% 47% 46%
Jonathon Cooper LB 64% 71% 75% 86% 86% 66% 69% 61% 65% 80% 68% 78% 74% 85% 78% 69% 79%
Nik Bonitto LB 25% 62% 64% 67% 74% 77% 63% 52% 46% 58% 44% 35% 13% 62% 32%
Justin Strnad LB 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
Drew Sanders LB 5% 60% 79% 18% 6% 7% 4% 0% 29% 22% 47% 17% 22% 38% 20%
Thomas Incoom LB 3% 14% 1% 11%
Baron Browning LB 45% 59% 65% 66% 67% 72% 71% 91% 67% 79%
Mike Purcell NT 36% 30% 42% 43% 51% 53% 16% 43% 57% 48% 59% 19% 58% 47% 38% 56%
Tyler Lancaster NT 18% 17%
Kareem Jackson SS 93% 48% 100% 90% 91% 99% 77%
Delarrin Turner-Yell SS 40% 100% 97% 2% 63% 0% 1% 0% 1% 2% 0% 0%

Defensive tackles

The Bronco run defense was one of the worst in the history of the league in terms of YPC allowed. While this can’t be laid SOLELY at the feet of DJ Jones and Mike Purcell, it’s not like they were destroying the interior of opposing offensive lines during the season and getting TFL’s. Jones finished the season with five TFL and Purcell with one. Jones had more TFLs (10) in his final season in San Francisco than he has in his two years in Denver (8). In 2020 and 2021 combined, Jones had 17 which is twice as many as he had in two seasons in Denver. He has not been as effective as a run stuffer while in Denver and if he’s not stuffing the run, he has little value for the defense because he provides almost nothing in terms of pass rush.

Of course it could be that his TFL numbers are down because he has been facing many more double teams while in Denver than he did in SF, but I really don’t know. Stats on run defense are almost as hard to come by as stats on run blocking.

Defensive ends

Zach Allen was the workhorse of the group and the only DE that could be relied upon for any kind of pass rush. According to PFR, he led the Broncos with 27 pressures (PFR is stingy with pressures). Jonathan Harris was second among the DEs with three. SIS is much more willing to give out pressures. They show Allen with 54 and Harris with 12.

DE/DT DEF Snaps PFR Pressures SIS Pressures
Zach Allen 911 27 54
Jonathan Harris 529 3 12
Frank Clark 36 0 0
Matt Henningsen 224 1 2
Elijah Garcia 31 1 1
D.J. Jones 568 4 10
Mike Purcell 462 4 7
Tyler Lancaster 42 0 0

Jonathan Harris provided less than Purcell and Jones though. He was literally just taking up space. It’s a sad statement that the Broncos couldn’t find a DE who could provide something either as a run stuffer or a pass rusher. Harris is neither. When he have two supposed run-stuffers at NT, you really need both of your starting DEs to provide some kind of pass rush.

Outside linebackers

The 2023 defense needed a healthy Baron Browning and a healthy Nik Bonitto. Unfortunately they didn’t have that very often. Randy Gregory was doing nothing early in the season and so he was jettisoned.

Jonathan Cooper can dominate bad offensive tackles, but he struggles against any OT who can neutralize his quickness. He is also a liability against the run. Both he and Bonitto still don’t have the mass to set the edge in the NFL. This allowed teams to get about five yards per carry against the Broncos this season.

The Broncos defense this season gave up 100 or more yards rushing in 10 of 17 games. In nine of those seventeen, that was 122 or more. They allowed 175 or more five times with the Dolphins running for 350.

The fault for this falls mainly on the front seven who too often got pushed around in the run game, or overran plays.

Inside Linebackers

Alex Singleton and Josey Jewell had what might appear to an outside observer as a good/great seasons. According to PFR they had 177 and 108 combined tackles on the year. In terms of TFLs they had six and two. In terms of pressures, PFR credits Singleton with six and Jewell with five. Jewell had three sacks, while Singleton had two. According to SIS, Singleton rushed the passer 74 times and got pressure on 13 of those (17.6%) while Jewell rushed the passer 63 times and for 10 pressures (16.4%). While neither pressure rate is terrible, ideally you want your ILBs to get pressure on a much higher rate of their blitzes.

Because our down linemen were not very good at getting pressure this season, Vance Joseph called for our ILBs to blitz fairly frequently. Singleton rarely left the field on defense and he was in the game for 621 passing plays in 2023. That means that 23% of the time he was blitzing when the other team was passing the ball. Elite pass rushing ILBs/MLBs generate pressure on 25% or more of their pass rushes, but some get numbers that high because they blitz fairly infrequently. Surprise helps.

Cornerbacks

Patrick Surtain was great again this season and he deserved to be named All-Pro. Damarri Mathis was terrible in Vance Joseph’s scheme. He looked decent in 2022 as a rookie, but regressed terribly in 2023. Maybe the previous defensive coordinator was just better at hiding him. Essang Bassey was so bad early in the season that he was jettisoned like Randy Gregory and Frank Clark. Ja’Quan McMillian was a great find as a slot CB with K’Waun Williams out for the year. Fabian Moreau was a replacement level CB. He was ok, but teams with two good WRs were able to tear up the Broncos because he was forced to cover a good WR. Tremon Smith and Riley Moss hardly played on defense.

Safeties

The loss of Caden Sterns for the season during the first quarter of the first game of the year was a big loss because Turner-Yell is not ready to play and he may never be. PJ Locke stepped when he was called on to play in the absence of Kareem Jackson and Caden Sterns. Justin Simmons was a solid as ever. It saddens me that he has never made the playoffs during his career and has only been on a winning team once (his rookie season).