Broncos in real danger of wasting impressive defense
As he danced around the story most wanted to hear, Aqib Talib stumbled on a fair point.
Three days had passed since frustrations boiled over in the Broncos’ locker room, when Talib and offensive tackle Russell Okung engaged in a shouting match after last Sunday’s loss to the Patriots. The postgame tiff wasn’t “too big of a deal,” Talib said, not unlike many others that have unfolded in that same locker room.
“It’s football,” Talib said with a sly grin. “(The media) is just doing (their) job and I respect it. You all needed a story. You didn’t want to talk about Tom (Brady) and his 180 yards and no touchdown, so you all figured you would talk about that.”
The Broncos’ defensive performance last Sunday didn’t go unnoticed, but the potential sign of a fraying locker room trumped the bigger and more concerning story line: Brady was held to 188 yards passing and no touchdown passes, and the Patriots scored only 16 points, and yet — yet! — Denver’s offense could not score enough to win.
After leading the way to the Super Bowl in February, the defense can’t do enough to help a lagging offense. It could play savior last year, but not this year.
Since Week 1 of the 2015 season, the offense has lacked cohesion and a true identity. Coach Gary Kubiak tried to blend his system with Peyton Manning’s strengths a season ago, but that was a patchwork disaster. The five starters on the offensive line hadn’t played together even once before the season opener and it underwent numerous shifts to account for injury and inefficiency as the season progressed.
The run game arrived late and thrilled at times, but also disappointed. Tight end production was minimal and magnified in a Kubiak offense that typically thrives off multiple-tight end formations.
And in their final outing a season ago, Super Bowl 50, the Broncos set a dubious record for fewest total yards (194) gained by a winning team. Looking back, the Broncos’ biggest offensive weapon a season ago might have been Manning’s mind. What he couldn’t do physically he could often overcome with his knowledge of the game.
But there’s no debating the fact the Denver defense starred.
Although first-year starting quarterback Trevor Siemian has performed well this season given the circumstances — averaging 300.2 yards passing in his last six games — he’s operating with no run game and a shoddy offensive line. He has weapons around him, but few will remember 2016 as the year Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders topped 1,000 yards receiving for the third consecutive season.
Most will remember that loss to Atlanta that ended with Kubiak being hospitalized, and that demoralizing loss four days later in San Diego with Joe DeCamillis as interim head coach. They will probably remember that crushing overtime defeat at home to Kansas City and that lousy 18 yards rushing performance in Tennessee. They will probably remember the Broncos’ confounding inability to score early, their insane number of threeand-outs and that glaring problem at right tackle.
And they will especially remember that 16-3 loss to New England that epitomized the offense’s 2-year-old mess.
Through Week 15, Denver’s defense is holding opponents to a league-best 183 yards passing per game — nearly 17 fewer than last season when it finished as arguably one of the greatest defenses in history. It has also held opposing quarterbacks to an NFL-best 67.5 passer rating this season (78.8 last season), is tied for the league lead with 40 sacks and has the most quarterback hits, with 105.
“The way I’ve always approached it is, our defense has to play better than the other team’s defense. It’s not about our offense,” said Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. “If their defense holds our team to 10 points, then we need to hold them to nine in order to play better than the other team’s defense. It’s not what our offense does, it’s what we do and what their defense does.”
But if the Broncos’ season ends with a thud on New Year’s Day, Talib will be right. Talk will be about not what the defense did but what the offense failed to do.