Beast of Burden: Denver’s Defense

For much of Peyton Manning‘s incredible career, his offenses have been tasked with carrying the team to victory. Depending on your definition of success, those offenses were either very successful, pretty successful, or frustratingly disappointing.1

The problem with being too reliant on one group is that, if that group struggles, the team typically cannot find a way to overcome the adversity. Smaller players built to rush the passer while playing with double-digit leads aren’t usually quite as effective at stopping opponents from running the ball. If a Manning offense misfired, most of the Indianapolis squads lacked the balance to bail him out.

An all too common face

Now, things have changed. Manning is an old man who has clearly experienced significant decline in his physical skills.2 His mental prowess remains the standard by which all quarterback brain processing is measured, but his ability to translate that into many throws – especially deep throws, but even the intermediate ones with which he used to kill defenses – is visibly lacking.

When Manning missed the 2011 season, he had to work very hard in his time away from the formalized game just to get to know and understand his own body. Anecdotally, this may have been a prime factor in his dominant 2012-13 seasons. However, as the sickle of career death swings ever closer, Manning may benefit from taking the time to re-learn how his aging body works.

In the meantime, his defense can continue carrying the team.

Manning’s struggles have been evident since week 9 of the 2014 season (a somber blowout loss to “rival” Tom Brady and the New England Patriots). Because of that, we’ll start there and look at the offensive and defensive performance of the Broncos over the subsequent eleven games.

The chart below displays Denver’s offensive output, as well as the output they allowed from their opponents, as measured by total adjusted yards per play. The straight blue line represents the 2014 NFL average of 7.52 TAY/P.3

Denver's last 12 games

In game 1 (week 9 versus New England), Denver’s offense was actually above average, while their defense was below average. If you recall, Manning and Brady combined for 107 pass attempts, which sounds like much more excitement than the game delivered. An early interception by Rob Ninkovich proved to be the turning point, as New England quickly scored and never relinquished the lead. Not a good day to be a Bronco.

Game 2 was a 41-17 victory over the Raiders. The offense played well, and the defense had a dominant game (which happens when you play the Raiders these days).  Denver picked up more than twice as many yard and first downs as they allowed, and Manning led the charge with 5 touchdown passes.

Game 3 was an upset loss to the St. Louis Rams. The Broncos were able to consistently move the ball against the stout St. Louis defense, but they were unable to turn that movement into points. Their only score came on a long pass play to Emmanuel Sanders. The defense allowed Shaun Hill to gain 8.3 AY/A, while Tre Mason topped the century mark on the ground.

Game 4 was a late afternoon shootout victory over Miami. It was Denver’s best offensive performance during this twelve-game stretch, resulting in 39 points and 10.4 TAY/P.4 The Broncos defense, on the other hand, allowed Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins to gain 8.2 TAY/P. This was the last game in which Denver’s defense permitted a significantly above average performance by an opposing offense.

chris harri

Game 5 was a Sunday night game against the Chiefs, with high winds and wind chill around 14 degrees.  Manning wasn’t his usual self, completing on half his passes (though he did pick up two touchdown throws). With 4.97 NY/A, the Denver passing game was less effective just handing off to Anderson (5.25 YPC). Their ball control approach, in concert with 3 Chiefs turnovers, limited Kansas City to just 44 plays on offense. The Chiefs were unable to maximize the plays they were given, and Denver rode its defense and running game to victory.5

Game 6 was yet another sub par offensive showing for the Broncos. Of course, it didn’t help that they were playing arguably the best defense in football – the Buffalo Bills. Manning again failed to crack 200 passing yards and threw 2 interceptions on just 20 attempts. Anderson picked up the team’s only touchdowns, and the defense picked up 4 sacks and three turnovers on the way to trumping Kyle Orton and company.

In game 7, the Broncos won a low scoring affair in San Diego. Manning was efficient, especially when targeting Demaryius Thomas, and Anderson was an effective workhorse. The defense held an otherwise quality Chargers offense to 10 points, and they had two big interceptions: one on San Diego’s 38 to give them great field position, and another on their own 5 to prevent a likely score.

In game 8, the Broncos offense scored 21 points in a 28-37 loss to the Bengals. Denver lost 4 turnovers, all Manning interceptions. Their defense played the pass decently, but they were ill-prepared to stop Jeremy Hill, who picked up 147 yards and a score on 22 carries. Not a good day for either side of the ball.

Game 9 was just what the doctor ordered: another game against the Raiders. Their offense was responsible for 40 of the 47 points they put up (Tony Carter‘s fumble return touchdown makes up the rest); Anderson pumped out another three touchdown game, and Connor Barth added four field goals. Once again, the defense held Oakland to just 10 first downs and under 200 total yards. Defense could have easily carried the Broncos in this game, but they didn’t have to with the offense having a great game of its own.

Game 10, the dismal playoff loss to the Colts, was the bout that had many wondering if we had just heard the swan song of one of the greatest players in NFL history. Manning looked old and tired, and he looked like he lacked confidence in his own arm (his uncharacteristic overthrows probably cost Denver the game, and they were indicative of a man just heaving and hoping; not the mechanical precision we’re used to seeing from a master craftsman like Manning). The defense played well, holding Andrew Luck‘s explosive regular season offense to 7.2 TAY/P and just 24 points.

Game 11 was just last week against the Ravens. Under new despot coach Gary Kubiak‘s offensive scheme, Manning looked uncomfortable and nearly lost. The most obvious moments of consternation came when Kubiak called rollouts or bootlegs that required Manning to thrown without his feet properly set. Even when he was a spry whippersnapper, he was never particularly great at throwing on the run; thinking he’ll magically get better at it as an immobile 39 year old is the worst combination of coaching hubris and naivete. Fortunately, Denver’s defense swarmed Joe Flacco and the rest of the Ravens, holding them to an embarrassing 3.2 TAY/P. This was, by a large margin, the clearest case of the defense carrying the team triumphantly on its shoulders.

Game 12 was just last night, and it was a tale of two Mannings. After five drives that resulted in three punts, a turnover on downs, and a pick six, the Broncos seemed to eschew Kubiak’s incoherent playcalling in favor of a more simplified, Manning-esque approach. The result was two quick touchdown drives (with some great defense to help out). The novelty wore off for a little while, and the offense were unable to turn the game into a blowout the way, say, the 2004-06 Colts may have. However, they looked in tune on their final touchdown drive, and they benefited tremendously from both superior defensive play and a little fumble luck.

The change we saw in the Denver offense was palpable; not only were the rollouts floods replaced with the levels concepts Manning loves, but also – and perhaps more importantly – Manning was given the opportunity to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage. Previously, his leeway to make such calls under Kubiak was rather limited (I say this from a sample size of only 5 quarters, of course). Effectively, this took arguably the greatest weapon any quarterback in the history of the game has ever had (Peyton Manning’s brain) and willfully neutered it. It was easy to look at all the sacks he was taking and say he is taking time to learn a new offense, and he’s too slow to avoid the sacks now, but the primary reason is that he was unable to make protection calls at the line.6 In countless games, both as a Colt and as a Bronco, you can see Manning make protection checks, or even motion a slot receiver into a wingback position in order to pick up a blitzing defender. Manning does these things because he studies defenses and knows how to combat them. However, if he isn’t given more philosophical freedom during games, he’ll have to learn to start riding them to victory as well.

Bad HC, great DC

They don’t need 2004 or 2006 Manning to bound into action. Heck, if he can be as effective as a healthy Chad Pennington, the Broncos could win the Super Bowl. Under Wade Philips, their defense should be dominant enough to carry the weight – if not the whole team.7 Teaming up with his old pal DeMarcus Ware and his new freak pass rusher Von Miller, Philips can scheme pressure from either side or use their presence to bring pressure from the middle. Their starting line comprises athletic tackles Malik Jackson, Vance Walker, and Sylvester Williams. None possesses the prototype nose tackle frame, but they are quick and strong, and Phillips can scheme around the rest.8 Speedy linebackers Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan are adept against both the run and (more importantly) the pass. Giving Denver incredible flexibility in what calls in can run on defense are Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib. Harris is arguably the best current cornerback in football, equally versed at playing outside or in the slot, and Talib is a big, physical corner with generally good instincts. The Bronco safeties are decent enough to play well within a great scheme and alongside several star caliber players.

  1. Personally, I am in the first group. The ability to maintain that kind of consistency, from year to year, on offense is incredible. It’s easier to win a Super Bowl when you get to the playoffs every year, and Manning-led teams generally always had a shot at a title.
  2. The kind of physical skills that would allow him to run a bootleg play and not throw a pass two yards in front of his running back’s feet.
  3. Because the average offense gained 7.52 TAY/P, the average defense, by default, allows 7.52 TAY/P.
  4. This was the first game C.J. Anderson saw heavy usage, picking up 167 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries.
  5. Statistically, this was the first time this happened during the stretch of games we’re currently examining.
  6. Unless he suffered multiple, undisclosed concussions recently, Manning isn’t having trouble picking up a playbook. And athleticism is not what helped him avoid sacks better than just about anyone in history.
  7. I mean, he almost turned Shawne Merriman into the defensive player of the year. Watch the tape and you’ll see a significant portion of Merriman’s sacks are scheme sacks. Jason Taylor deserved the award that year.
  8. Jeremiah Ratliff wasn’t that big either, but he was never better than he was under coach Phillips.