ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – There wasn’t one moment where the Broncos’ defense started to click as it was intended. But the Week 6 bye stands as a clear demarcation point dividing the defense’s season into two chapters: porous (Weeks 1-5) and powerful (Weeks 7-11).
The first step was getting all the parts in place. One by one in early October, Elvis Dumervil, Champ Bailey, D.J. Williams and Marcus Thomas returned to the field. But combined they missed 12 man-games among them, and the result was a domino effect down the depth chart.
“When you have all your bullets, it gives you a better chance,” said Bailey, who sat out the Bengals, Titans and Packers games from Weeks 2-4. “We love the guys that back us up, but you know that when you’ve got all the bullets — those guys (backups) can play their traditional role of special teams and concentrate on that. It’s just more bullets.”
But even then it took a while for the defense to find its form. Williams and Thomas had been sidelined since training camp by the time they returned to the field in Weeks 4 and 5, respectively.
“Not having the time with OTAs and stuff — and I don’t want to blame it on the lockout, but you’d usually be spending that time together learning the system, and we didn’t have that,” admitted linebacker Von Miller, who himself endured a bumpy moment when he was pulled out of the base defensive package in the second half of the Week 5 loss to San Diego.
Two weeks later, after the bye, the defense was at its healthiest point of the season — and held the Dolphins to just one touchdown after conceding 2.8 touchdowns per game in Weeks 1-5.
“I think the thing we were doing early is just making a lot of mental mistakes,” said safety Brian Dawkins. “We’re not doing those things now.”
“We’re starting to figure each other out and gel a little bit,” Miller said.
Each practice and game brings a few more tweaks to the repertoire. Early in the season, the corner blitz was used effectively by street free agent pickup Jonathan Wilhite. In recent weeks, the Broncos have substituted more liberally from play to play, incorporated rookie cornerback Chris Harris in a variety of roles and even used Miller on the inside, lining him up in the A-gap.
“We know the base packages and ‘D’ (defensive coordinator Dennis Allen) is adding more things to do attacking-wise,” Dawkins said.
“Every week we’ve tried to have just a little different wrinkle — whether it’s a pressure deal, a coverage deal, whatever the case may be,” Allen said. “Every week you’re just trying to look at how you can attack different teams. Obviously you try to put your guys in the best position to be successful and we’ve got a few tools that we can do that with.”
And they go beyond the obvious ones like Bailey, Dumervil and Miller — the latter two of which have combined for seven sacks (3.5 each) in the last three games.
“I think the coaches do a good job of mixing blitzes in — D.J. Williams, Joe Mays, those guys get in there,” said Dumervil. “You can’t double both outside guys, if you do, then it creates a lot of opportunities inside.”
The improvement has been profound:
TOTAL YARDAGE ALLOWED:
Weeks 1-5: 385.8 yards per game (would be 28th in the league if measured over an entire season)
Weeks 7-11: 327.0 yards per game (would be 9th in the league)
YARDAGE ALLOWED PER PLAY:
Weeks 1-5: 5.8 (would be 27th)
Weeks 7-11: 5.0 (would be 8th)
YARDAGE ALLOWED PER CARRY:
Weeks 1-5: 4.0 (would be 11th)
Weeks 7-11: 3.8 (would be 8th)
YARDAGE ALLOWED PER PASS PLAY (INCLUDING SACKS):
Weeks 1-5: 7.33 (would be 29th)
Weeks 7-11: 5.88 (would be 9th)
Weeks 1-5: One every 14.9 pass plays (would be 13th)
Weeks 7-11: One every 12.6 pass plays (would be 6th)
TOUCHDOWNS ALLOWED PER GAME:
Weeks 1-5: 2.8 (would be tied for 27th)
Weeks 7-11: 1.8 (would be tied for 7th)
FIRST DOWNS ALLOWED PER GAME:
Weeks 1-5: 21.2 (would be 25th)
Weeks 7-11: 19.2 (would be 16th)
THIRD DOWN CONVERSION PERCENTAGE ALLOWED:
Weeks 1-5: 44.9 pct (would be 31st)
Weeks 7-11: 25.4 pct. (would be 1st)
A year ago, the Broncos had the league’s worst defense. Now, they have one of its best. The improvement isn’t yet as dramatic as the one John Fox crafted in his first Carolina Panthers season (from 31st to second in 2002), but it’s on its way.