Minus so many key players, it was a reach to think the Broncos’ defense could enter November playing at the level they showed for parts of September and October.
Through five games, the Broncos were tied for 11th in fewest points allowed (17.4 per game).
In the last three games, though, the Broncos have allowed 35.7 points per game (albeit including a special teams touchdown) to sink to 22nd.
Six projected Week 1 starters are out or have missed significant time: Outside linebacker Von Miller (ankle), nose tackle Mike Purcell (foot) and defensive end Jurrell Casey (biceps) are out for the year, and defensive end Shelby Harris (COVID-19 list) and cornerbacks A.J. Bouye (concussion) and Bryce Callahan (ankle) missed the loss to Atlanta. Bouye has played only three games.
The cracks weren’t visible when beating the Jets’ Sam Darnold/Joe Flacco and New England’s Cam Newton, but they have appeared in games against Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, the Chargers’ Justin Herbert and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan. Too many key players on the sideline. Too many young players/journeymen being counted on.
“To put it all into one (thing), it’s consistency and being able to play the whole game,” inside linebacker Josey Jewell said. “We’ve had good games in the first half and we’ve had some terrible games in the first half. At this level, everybody is talented and everybody is good at what they do.”
Consistency will be critical in the season’s second half because the Broncos will face offenses that rank second (Kansas City), fourth (New Orleans), ninth (Miami) and 11th (Las Vegas) in most points per game.
Here is a review of the defense through eight games:
1. ILBs Jewell/Alexander Johnson. Johnson (64) and Jewell (57) are the Broncos’ top two tacklers and may be showing coach Vic Fangio that his long search for inside linebacker help can be halted.
2. S Justin Simmons. Playing on the franchise tag, he has a team-high three interceptions.
3. Callahan. Until his current injury, he was the Broncos’ best coverage player, intercepting two passes and showing the versatility to play inside and outside.
1. Casey. The injury wasn’t his fault, but he played only three games (156 snaps), important because he has a 2021 cap number of $11.87 million and this year was going to be an audition to see how he fit into the Broncos’ scheme and plans.
2. OLB Jeremiah Attaochu. Again, health-related, but Attaochu was carving out a regular niche until a quad issue cost him three games, allowing Malik Reed to emerge.
3. CB Davontae Harris. Kept around to play special teams, he got his first shot on defense against Atlanta and gave up a 51-yard touchdown, committed a pass interference penalty and missed a tackle before he was benched (and eventually put back in).
By the numbers
League rankings. Points allowed — 27.1 (22nd); yards — 360.4 (16th); rushing — 119.5 (18th); passing — 240.9 (17th); third down — 37.2% (fifth); red zone — 48.3% (second); sacks — 22 (tied for eighth); and takeaways nine (tied for 20th).
Playing time leaders. Simmons hasn’t missed a snap in 2 1/2 seasons, playing all 557 this year. Johnson and safety Kareem Jackson are next at 556, followed by Jewell (521) and cornerback Michael Ojemudia (517).
Statistical leaders. Tackles — Johnson 64, Jewell 57, Simmons 49, Jackson 48 and Callahan 32. Sacks — Bradley Chubb 5 1/2, Reed 2 1/2, defensive end Shelby Harris 2 1/2 and defensive end Dre’Mont Jones 2. Interceptions — Simmons 3, Callahan 2 and defensive end DeShawn Williams 1. Tackles for loss — Chubb/Reed 6.
Defending the run. The Broncos have 49 run “stuffs” — gain or one of fewer yards not including short-yardage conversions or goal-line touchdowns. They had eight apiece against Tennessee and the Los Angeles Chargers. The leaders are Johnson 7 1/2, Jewell/S. Harris 6 1/2, Simmons 5 and Reed 4.
Pass rush breakdown. The Broncos have rushed five or more players on 95 of the opponent’s 331 drop-backs (28.7%). Their high rate was 44% at New England and the low rate was 21.4% against Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay. The Broncos have totaled 72 “disruptions” — 22 sacks, 25 knockdowns and 25 pressures. Their high was 15 against the Jets and the low was three at Pittsburgh. Chubb leads with 17 disruptions, followed by Reed (11) and Shelby Harris/Johnson (10 apiece).
Possession by possession. The Broncos’ defense has been on the field for 95 possessions. Opponents have scored 20 touchdowns and kicked 19 field goals and posted 16 drives of at least 10 plays, seven of at least five minutes and 12 of at least 75 yards. The Broncos have forced 17 three-and-outs.
In the red zone. Opponents have scored 14 touchdowns in 29 red-zone trips. The Broncos have one red zone turnover (Callahan interception against the Chargers) and four red zone sacks. Only Tennessee (2-of-3) and Tampa Bay (3-of-4) were better than 50%.
On third down. Opponents have converted 42 of 113 third-down chances. Broken down by distance — 1-3 yards (21 of 34); 4-7 yards (14 of 38) and eight or more yards (7 of 42).
Allowing explosive plays. The Broncos have allowed 55 “explosive” plays — 18 rushes of at least 12 yards and 37 completions of at least 16 ytards. The most allowed were 11 to the Chargers. The longest rushing and passing plays from scrimmage were by Pittsburgh — 84-yard touchdown pass and 59-yard run.
Takeaways. The Broncos had only two takeaways in the first four games, but seven in the last four games. The offense has turned those takeaways into 32 points.
Missed tackles. The Broncos have been booked for 39 missed tackles. The most were seven apiece against Pittsburgh and Kansas City and the fewest were two against Tampa Bay. Ojemudia has a whopping 12 missed tackles, the only player with more than six (Johnson). Ojemudia and Johnson are the only players with more than three missed tackles.
Penalties. The Broncos’ 41 accepted penalties are tied for seventh-fewest in the league. Chubb (four), Ojemudia (three) and Jewell (two) are the top two in enforced penalties.
1. More turnovers. The Broncos’ offense needs help … lots of it. The defense needs to create more takeaways than their current 1.1 per-game average.
2. Return to aggressiveness. Once he gets Bouye and Callahan back, Fangio should call more pressures, such as he did against the Jets and Patriots (combined 32 rushes of at least five players).
3. Discover contributors for 2021. If the season falls off the rails — which is very possible — the Broncos should use December to find out if Dre’Mont Jones can play the run well enough to start next year, decide if DeMarcus Walker merits a second contract and see if Essang Bassey can play the nickel spot.