Bron­cos in real dan­ger of wast­ing im­pres­sive de­fense

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - Nicki Jhab­vala: njhab­vala @den­ver­post.com or @Nick­iJhab­vala

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.

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