Way back on Aug. 14, Broncos safety Trey Marshall and cornerbacks Bryce Callahan and Michael Ojemudia opened training camp with interceptions.
The Broncos should hope that established the foundation for takeaway improvement. Last year, only five NFL teams had fewer than the Broncos’ 17 takeaways. Among their seven interceptions, only one was by a full-time cornerback (Chris Harris, who is now with the Chargers).
Last season fell off the rails when the defense produced no takeaways, which meant no short fields for a struggling offense, no momentum swings and no wins (0-4 start).
Entering Monday night’s opener against Tennessee, the Broncos are counting on improved cornerback play, the return of outside linebacker Bradley Chubb from a torn ACL and a more consistent run defense (which leads to passing downs) to equal more takeaway opportunities.
“It’s one of the things that we preach,” safety Kareem Jackson said. “We didn’t do a great job at creating turnovers last year so we’ve definitely placed a lot of emphasis on getting the ball and creating some more opportunities for our offense with the weapons those guys have.
“It’s all about getting the ball. If we can get the ball, we feel like we can be a pretty good group.”
Seven of the top eight teams in turnover ratio last year reached the playoffs; the Broncos were plus-1 (tied for 13th). Nine of their 17 takeaways came in three games.
A plus turnover ratio leads to winning, period.
Broncos coach Vic Fangio has been a defensive play-caller for 15 years and his teams are 104-29-1 (regular season-playoffs) when winning the turnover battle — a rate of 77.6%.
Carolina (1995-98): The Panthers were 18-3, including 8-0 in ’96.
Indianapolis (1999-2001): The Colts were 19-3, including 0-2 in the playoffs.
Houston (2002-05): The Texans were 13-7.
San Francisco (2011-14): The 49ers were 37-5-1, including 4-0 in the playoffs.
Chicago (2015-18): The Bears were, gulp, 13-9, including 0-1 in the playoffs.
Broncos (2019): The Broncos were 4-2.
So what’s the solution?
“I think just another year in the system will help the guys that were here last year,” Fangio said. “We’ve added some players that could help in that area, also, in A.J. (Bouye) and Jurrell (Casey). Bradley returning to the lineup will help.
“If we can get in the lead more in the second half of games, that will also help.”
Thing is, the Broncos had a plus-48 point differential in the first half last year (eighth-best), but were minus-82 in the second half (third-worst).
The Broncos lost games in which they had halftime leads of 17-6 (Jacksonville), 6-3 (at Indianapolis) and 20-0 (at Minnesota). They went 6-3 when leading at halftime.
Plan A was to have Chubb and Von Miller, reunited after combining for 26 1/2 sacks in 2018, dominating off the edge. Miller, though, sustained an ankle injury last Tuesday that could keep him out the entire season.
“On third down, Vic tries to bring those five-man pressures with Chubb and Miller and make sure they’re singled up,” an NFL player said during the offseason. “It’s not like it’s a hard scheme to figure out. He’s a Cover 4 base guy, but he has some third down stuff that is kind of unique. But he really relies on his defensive line.”
Enter Casey, who arrives from Tennessee to provide an interior pass rush. There is also high expectations for second-year defensive end Dre’Mont Jones. The pressure is on every player on defense to do more. It all must come together … quickly.
“There are many ways to make turnovers,” Bouye said. “Coverage, sacks, strip-sacking. Being top-five in turnovers is going to help our team get to where we need to be and that’s one of our goals.”