It’s been a while since I’ve examined how the Denver Broncos measure up in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, but looking at the standings now, it’s become clear which area has really been the biggest issue.
It’s easy to look at the offense, given the Broncos’ recent struggles, and the special teams, given the big returns and scores given up earlier this season.
However, DVOA reveals that the biggest problem this season is the area that lots of people assumed would be the Broncos’ strength: the defense.
Strength? No, Weakness
The Broncos currently sit 26th in defensive DVOA at 9.1 percent. Because defensive DVOA is better when it’s negative, the Broncos are not in a good position here.
The Broncos’ run defense is at -4.9 percent, but before you raise your eyebrows at that number, two things to keep in mind. First, the Broncos are ranked 26th overall in run defense, and second, 19 teams have a run defense DVOA of at least -10 percent.
In other words, the Broncos have been decent, but not good enough against the run. The Week 7 game against the Cleveland Browns was certainly a bad night for the run defense, but the Broncos have fared better in other games.
When it comes to pass defense, though, there’s no way to sugarcoat it: the Broncos are bad. They rank 24th overall with 18.7% DVOA.
While just 10 teams have negative pass defense DVOA, that’s to be expected in a passing league. However, you would expect that if the defense was truly the Broncos’ strength, the passing defense would be negative DVOA, not a high positive number.
What about the offense, then? While the offense has not been without its faults, it’s not the weakest link, either. The offense ranks 14th overall at 1.8 percent DVOA.
With that said, context is needed here. The Broncos’ DVOA number suggests the offense is strictly average. When you’re looking at great offense, you’re looking at teams who have at least 20 percent offensive DVOA. Right now, the L.A. Rams, Dallas Cowboys, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are those teams.
The Broncos are more comparable to the New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts, and San Francisco 49ers, who all have between 1-to-2% offensive DVOA and would be considered average offenses at this point.
One can argue about what coaches or coordinators are doing with the offenses, but DVOA doesn’t measure whether or not a play call was a good idea. It’s about measuring how well a unit does each play, considering the down, distance, and time in the game.
Still, it’s clear that the offense, while not that bad, isn’t in a position to carry the load for the team.
As for special teams, the Broncos are 24th overall at -2.2 percent DVOA. Again, negative numbers are only good for defenses, not offenses or special teams.
Special teams isn’t good, but it hasn’t been as bad as some make it out to be — and certainly not as bad as the defense.
What it’s Costing Denver
If the defense was living up to what many believed it could have been this year, the Broncos would at least have a couple more wins, because it could have forced turnovers or three-and-outs and given the offense more opportunities, possibly with good field position.
To compare, the Buffalo Bills and the Arizona Cardinals aren’t above 20% for offensive DVOA — in fact, they are below 10 percent. However, there are two things to note — one that rushing is what really brings their offensive DVOA down, while their passing has been great.
But the second item is both are playing very well defensively. The Bills are at -30.1 percent DVOA and the Cardinals are at -21 percent. Both have great defenses, which have taken some pressure away from the offense.
Obviously, expecting the Broncos to get the offense up to 20% DVOA may be asking too much, but better defensive play would mean less weight on the offense’s shoulders. As it is, the Broncos’ average offense is now having to pick up the slack and is unable to do so.
What’s really affected the defense are the injuries to Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson, the ineffectiveness of Kyle Fuller and Kareem Jackson (Ronald Darby, who played well in the opener, hasn’t been good as of late, too), the poor play of Malik Reed (who is clearly a backup, not a starter), and Vic Fangio not doing enough to adjust his scheme.
Only time will tell if the Broncos’ acquisitions of Stephen Weatherly and Kenny Young will help, or if Darby can get back on track. It might help to give more snaps to Caden Sterns and for Fangio to turn over defensive play-calling to Ed Donatell, too.
Regardless, what was supposed to be the Broncos’ strength has turned into a weakness, and the other units, though not the biggest problem, haven’t been good enough to compensate. If the Broncos don’t get better on defense, it’s hard to see them turning things around.