After finishing fourth-best in points allowed for both the 2015 and 2016 seasons, the Denver Broncos have come back to earth in a hurry, ranking 25th in points allowed per game for 2017. Has the once-great Broncos defense finally regressed and will the New England Patriots offense finally have an easy game at Mile High?
Not so fast, head coach Bill Belichick says. The Broncos defense is still one of the best in the league.
“We're obviously pretty deep into Denver here, had a couple of extra days to get started on them which we've needed,” Belichick said. “It’s a really talented team. They have a lot of great players and I think Coach [Vance] Joseph has implemented his style into the team. They're very good defensively, at the top of the league in almost every category, or every category I should say.
“They're very good against the run. That’s been much improved from last season. They have a strong pass rush. They cover as well as any team in the league. They have great players at all three levels of the defense. They're very disruptive, a tough team to move the ball against.”
Despite being 25th in points allowed per game, the Broncos are still atop the league in most other defensive categories. They’re 2nd in yards allowed per game, 2nd in rushing yards allowed per play, 4th in yards allowed per play, and 12th in passing yards allowed per play. They rank 2nd in first downs allowed per game and 1st in third down defense. They’re 3rd in goal line defense, too, so the Patriots offense will have a tough time scoring points. They rank 6th in DVOA and were actually 2nd prior to their destruction at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles.
So how are the Broncos allowing so many points if their defense is still so good?
Well, just look at their atrocious offense and special teams units, where they rank 25th on offense and 28th on special teams in DVOA.
The Broncos have faced a league-high 9 drives of 20 or fewer yards that resulted in a score, meaning that the opposing team barely needed more than a first down to put points on the board. Five of those drives have come in the past two weeks alone, including four drives that gave the opponent the football already in the red zone.
Opponents of the Broncos start their average drive on the 35-yard line, by far the best field position in the NFL, with the New York Giants second-worst at the 31-yard line. By comparison, opponents of the Patriots start their average drive on the 24-yard line, the worst field position in the NFL.
And despite that great field position, the Broncos are allowing just 23.5 yards per drive, the second-best mark in the league. By comparison, opponents of the Patriots gain an average of 39.7 yards per drive, the best in the league. So whatever advantage the Patriots have over the Broncos in starting field position is wiped out by yards allowed per drive, and then some.
So the points allowed by the Denver defense is partially inflated by some atrocious play on offense and special teams giving opponents the football already in scoring position.
The New England defense is going to have to keep forcing the Broncos offense into difficult situations and get the ball back to Tom Brady and the offense in favorable field position to score. Because while they’re give up more points, the Broncos defense is still one of the best in the league and they won’t give up yards without a fight.