In less than two seasons, the NFL has seen the Denver Broncos go from champs to chumps. After thrashing the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50, the Broncos missed the NFL Play-Offs in 2016 going 8-8. They now sit 4th in the AFC West at 5-9, and have been mathematically eliminated from the Play-Offs. This is a team that won a championship with a run of the mill offense and an elite defence, yet with essentially the same defence, they now resemble a team not nearly good enough to repeat such feats. This begs the question: how much does a team’s defence rely on its offense to get to where it needs to be?
NFL has two ways of categorizing who has the number one defence, and they are the metrics of: 1) yards-per-game (YPG), and 2) points-per-game (PPG). Both of these stats do not reflect the defence alone, as how many possessions the other team gets is reflected by how long your offense can stay on the field, but YPG is certainly more reflective of a team’s defence’s performance, as field possession and bad turnovers by your offense affect PPG totals more drastically.
If you look at the defensive totals this effect becomes obvious. The Broncos have the fifth best defence in YPG, and the second worst in PPG, as well as the second worst turnover differential. What this shows is that although teams are struggling to put together long drives against this strong Denver defence, the defence is constantly put into situations where it is nearly impossible to stop the other team from scoring, no matter how good the defence. In contrast, the New England Patriots – a rival of Denver for many years who ranks 5th in turnover differential and who’s offense ranks 1st in YPG – have the 28th ranked D in YPG, but the 9th in PPG.
While YPG is an important measure of a team’s defensive capabilities, when it comes to winning games, PPG is what really matters. So without the offense pulling its weight, the defence gets ‘hung out to dry’.
The decline we see in Denver’s offense, and eventually the team as a whole, is one that you see all the time in football teams, and it starts with the offensive line. The offensive linemen on a team are the most underappreciated players, because every play on offense relies on their performance. Denver’s line problems began last year, and they have still not shown major improvements of yet.
Bad play by the offensive line stops a team’s run game from getting going, which in turn puts added pressure on the quarterback, who is already struggling with poor pocket protection.
With a bad offensive line and no run game you cannot develop a young quarterback, which is why we are seeing Paxton Lynch and Trevor Siemian struggle so much. Because this is such a bad situation for a quarterback, you also cannot entice a veteran to come join your team. There was a lot of speculation that Tony Romo would sign with the Broncos this summer, but it’s unlikely that an injury prone quarterback would ever choose a situation like Denver’s. So now you have a carousel of quarterbacks in Paxton Lynch, Trevor Siemian and Brock Osweiler; all undesirable options, along with an offense that is not clicking, and a team that is not winning.
From all this we learn two lessons. First, don’t ignore the offensive line. They may not be the best known of players, but a quarterback’s success is dependent on them, and an offense’s success is based on the success of a quarterback. Second, for a defence to dominate, they need to get at least some help from their offense; if the offense can extend drives, and start the defence in decent field possession, the right defence will take care of the rest.
The old saying about offense and defence is actually backwards, the best defence is a good offense, not the other way round.