Part 26 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 25 here: Los Angeles Chargers. Part 27 now available: Kansas City Chiefs.
|Eff. Rating||Adj. Rating||Rank|
|Pass EPA||Rush EPA||Adj. Pass Rate|
After failing to entice Aaron Rodgers in the off-season, the Broncos opted for Teddy Bridgewater to lead their team, who has proven over the years to be a capable but unexciting NFL starter. He was a clear upgrade over Drew Lock, and helped the Broncos by delivering the 13th-best on-target percentage on his throws despite a respectable average depth of target of 8 yards. He made some nice throws in key moments to his talented receivers, but lacked consistency and suffered several in-game injuries.
The Broncos running backs performed at a very high level despite poor run-blocking. Javonte Williams led the league in broken tackles and watching him plow through defenders for extra yards was the highlight of watching Broncos games last year. Even Melvin Gordon did a good job creating yards. They finished with the 9th-most yards per carry despite gaining only the 19th-most yards before contact. Most of the damage was done after they got hit.
The offensive line deserves some blame for this disparity, but I also blame the play-calling. They were fairly predictable and ran a lot on early downs. They did not work to create open-space opportunities for skill players; even the check downs often went to players who were easily covered up. They lacked explosive plays in the passing game, which allowed defenders to crowd the line of scrimmage. It was much easier for the Broncos offense when they played a bad run defense, as shown in Chart A, which measures the Broncos’ offensive Adj. Eff. in each game, ranking opponents by rush defense efficiency:
Every time the Broncos put on an above-league average offensive performance (KC, DAL, DET, and NYG), it came against a team in the bottom half against the run. But this team was not only about the run. I also think Teddy Bridgewater played better than perception. The Broncos allowed the 2nd-most pressures of any NFL team, so Bridgewater was constantly under fire. Jerry Jeudy came out of college highly touted but has not really put it all together yet on the NFL field, and Courtland Sutton can make impressive catches but does not routinely create separation. It felt like, all year, this offense had the potential to be good. But it never reached that potential.
Broncos fans argue that this team was just one quarterback away from being a Super Bowl contender. Before the season, when people believed Rodgers was going to Denver, Denver sports radio called the Broncos Super Bowl favorites. Now they got their wish – or close to it – by trading for Russell Wilson. Surely an elite quarterback will solve this offense’s problems?
I’m not so sure. This is not a situation like the Rams, where Sean McVay had long established a successful scheme that made even Jared Goff look good for a while. With an elite defense and a successful scheme, the Rams traded for Stafford and he plugged right in and filled the role perfectly. The Bucs had a similar situation with Tom Brady. With an elite defense and an established, successful offensive scheme led by Bruce Arians that made a 5,000-yard passer out of Jameis Winston, the Bucs instantly became Super Bowl contenders.
By contrast, Denver has a brand new coaching staff and scheme, and a below-average offensive line. Russell Wilson has been at the top of the league in both pressure rate allowed and sacks per pressure in each of the last four years, leading to him getting sacked more than any NFL quarterback during that time. Nathaniel Hackett helped Rodgers get rid of the ball quickly, but it didn’t happen right away. We have never seen Wilson operate that kind of offense, so it’s very uncertain how this plays out. He definitely has the talent to make it work, but it’s a question of putting it all together after a very disappointing season by the Broncos offense in 2021.
|Eff. Rating||Adj. Rating||Rank|
|Pass EPA||Rush EPA||Blitz Rate||Pressure Rate|
Vic Fangio was a great defensive coach and routinely implemented complex coverage schemes that made explosive plays in the passing game difficult. When people talk about the two-high safety shell that is becoming the predominant way to defend the elite quarterbacks like Mahomes, it’s basically shorthand for what Fangio has been doing for years. The way he disguises coverages out of the shell has always made his defenses better. It’s not just about sticking two safeties deep. It’s about what his players did from there.
This defensive scheme focuses on taking away big passing plays, and the Broncos did that. Despite a high average depth of target on throws, opposing quarterbacks had the 4th-lowest completion percentage against the Broncos and the 6th-fewest percent of passing yards allowed through the air. So quarterbacks who were patient and took the short stuff that was available had more success than those trying to beat this defense deep.
The Broncos also had the fewest missed tackles of any NFL team, so they wrapped up pass-catchers quickly on the short passes. They were solid against the run, which can be a weakness when you sacrifice up front to commit to defending the deep pass.
But despite a good framework and decent talent on paper, the Broncos were just an average defense in 2021. Part of that was schedule. They played the 5th-most difficult schedule of opposing offenses. They also suffered some injuries and obviously Von Miller left for the Rams mid-season. But this secondary, anchored by Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby, and rookie Patrick Surtain II, was hyped as arguably the best cover unit in the league. They were supposed to be an elite defense. But they were not.
They had some chemistry issues, which can happen when pieces come together from outside and try to fit into a complex scheme. They certainly had good moments, but overall it was a disappointment. Now Fangio has been fired (he was a better defensive coordinator than head coach), and there’s a new scheme in town with Ejiro Evero running the defense and Nathaniel Hackett running the team. I won’t pretend to know exactly how this is going to turn out.
On one hand, they have talent. And Evero has been part of several successful defenses, most recently with the Rams. This could be one of those instances where the pieces add up. But on the other hand, we saw Brandon Staley struggle with his defense last season despite having talent on the roster because the new scheme did not gel right away. Evero is unproven as a defensive co-ordinator. Hackett is unproven as a head coach. The long-term range of outcomes is strong, but it’s a lot to ask for everything to come together immediately on this side of the ball as well.
When to bet on the Broncos: Given the uncertainty on both sides of the ball, it’s difficult to have strong opinions on the Broncos early. But I think the Wilson hype might be a little early with how many adjustments this team needs to make. Early disappointment could lead to value later in the season when they start to click.
When to fade the Broncos: I’m likely fading the Broncos early on, but that doesn’t necessarily mean betting against them. It’s okay to recognize uncertainty and not bet into it. But too much has to happen quickly for me to back them with confidence.
Evaluating the off-season: They sold out for Russell Wilson. This cost them a ton of draft capital, which impacts their team-building a little. But they arguably made up for this with some key signings, particularly on defense. But this off-season was all about Wilson, which is a gamble that can pay off if they immediately become Super Bowl contenders.
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