Five reasons why it’s not as bad as it seems for the Broncos
DENVER — “Talk me off a ledge, Mase.”
I’ve been thinking about those words for the last three days regarding the Broncos. This town needs to take a step back and breathe.
The mini-bye following Thursday night’s humiliating loss to Indianapolis should have offered that.
But alas, the new week began with public pessimism as prevalent as falling leaves in autumn.
The truth is, despite injuries, all is not lost for these Broncos.
You know the reasons why this season is teetering: Early-season game-management snafus. Russell Wilson’s struggles — and now a lat injury, which doesn’t help his ability to get on track. Thirteen dropped passes, which, according to Pro Football Focus, is the second-most in the NFL. The NFL’s worst red-zone offense. A meager 14.6-offensive-points-per-game average.
But it’s not time to raise the white flag yet, and here’s why:
1. A PROMISING DEFENSIVE TREND
In two of their first five games, the Broncos did not allow a touchdown. And in the previous 15 seasons, that usually augured well for success.
Since 2017, 20 teams allowed no touchdowns in at least two of their first five games, including the Broncos and San Francisco 49ers this season. The previous 18 teams had an average winning percentage of .633 — which translates to 10.7 wins and 6.3 losses over a 17-game season. Just one of them finished below .500.
If a team has a defense as stingy as this one appears to be, eventually the wins begin to catch up to its performance.
2. A PUMPED-UP PASS RUSH IS DEVELOPING, AND THAT USUALLY MEANS BIG THINGS
Teammates of Baron Browning speak highly of his potential. None has kinder words than his fellow edge rusher, Bradley Chubb. And the first extended glimpse of Chubb and Browning together last Thursday was breathtaking.
Now, consider what happens when Randy Gregory returns. Denver ought to have its most potent edge-rush collective since 2016. The Broncos’ 17 sacks so far are the team’s most through 5 games since that year.
This is the 14th time since 1982 — when sacks became an official statistic — that the Broncos have opened with at least 15 sacks in their first five games. They had just one losing season in the previous 13 campaigns with 15 sacks in games 1-5 (1999).
Further, 10 of those previous 13 years with 15 sacks in the first five games saw Denver eventually finish with at least 11 wins.
3. HAVE YOU LOOKED AT THE AFC STANDINGS?
Kansas City is two games ahead of the Broncos in the AFC West, but has Buffalo up next. Its schedule softens a bit in the back half, but Denver still has two head-to-head shots.
But let’s say that a division title is out of reach. A wild-card spot certainly is not. The Broncos are one of 13 AFC teams that have two or three losses. And two of the teams currently in wild-card positions are their next two opponents: the Los Angeles Chargers and New York Jets.
4. THIS COULD BE JUST A DIP FOR WILSON, NOT A DECLINE
That said, the dip could last through the season. But one pattern among quarterbacks who played into their late 30s — and even beyond — was a regression at some point between the age of 30 and 36, followed by a second, late-career peak. It happened for Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. Rodgers, for example, had the lowest passer rating of his career as a starter in 2015, his age-32 season.
Sometimes, injuries were a factor — as was the case for Manning in 2010. Mounting neck problems that necessitated multiple surgeries in the following year helped drive his passer rating to its lowest point in eight years. He rebounded robustly in Denver in 2012.
It is difficult and contrary to the immediacy of the social-media age to play the long game. To wait and see. To not fall victim to snap judgements. Yet that is likely necessary here. And if Wilson is more like those afore-mentioned quarterbacks, it might be weeks — or even another season — before we know for certain.
5. COHESION ON THE GROUND
Losing Javonte Williams was a blow. But Nathaniel Hackett has made collective ground attacks work reasonably well in previous play-calling stops in Buffalo and Jacksonville. If his zone-blocking scheme can take root, the Broncos can generate a productive ground game in the aggregate, no matter who totes the football.
The key then becomes to protect the football. Melvin Gordon’s struggles are well-documented, but recent signee Latavius Murray has just one fumble in his last 882 touches.
A consistent running game that protects the football is a snug complement to a stout defense. And if the Broncos are to be successful, it will be through riding that defense and their ground game.
It isn’t what the Broncos planned. But it might be their best path to salvaging the season — or at least staying afloat until Wilson can be more like his old self on a consistent basis.