Broncos burning question: Is defense good enough to carry them past AFC's best?

The Denver Broncos don't have a quarterback. Sure, technically they have two quarterbacks competing for one starting job, but unless Paxton Lynch turns out to be the next Dak Prescott , or unless Trevor Siemian undergoes a massive transformation, the Broncos will essentially enter the season without a quarterback -- in the sense that they won't have one they can depend on to actively contribute to a winning effort.

That's the reality of the Broncos' situation. They're not going to win because of their quarterback. When they do win, it could well be despite their quarterback.

But that doesn't mean the Broncos can't be one of the AFC's best teams. The pieces, besides quarterback, are in place. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders form one of the game's best receiver duos. C.J. Anderson still has loads of potential.

But the most important piece -- the one that can carry them all the way into the postseason -- is the defense.

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The Broncos' defense is good enough to get them back into the playoffs. Don't forget: Two seasons ago, the Broncos won a Super Bowl despite trotting out the corpse of Peyton Manning and at times, the very tall, but very bad Brock Osweiler .  

It could happen again.

Still dominant

Despite the fact that the Broncos missed out on the playoffs with a 9-7 record last year and despite the fact that they got gutted in free agency following their Super Bowl win, their defense didn't really decline all too much. They were still awesome, if not historically dominant. 

Yards allowed

Points allowed

Takeaways

DVOA

Broncos D (2015)

4,530 (First)

296 (Fourth)

27 (T-seventh)

First

Broncos D (2016)

5,507 (Fourth)

297 (Fourth)

27 (T-seventh)

First

That's two years in a row they finished atop the league in DVOA. Keep in mind: The Broncos lost Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan before the season.  Brandon Marshall missed five full games. 

Once again, the Broncos got gutted, losing defensive coordinator Wade Phillips this offseason to the Los Angeles Rams . There's no way to know how much Phillips' absence will impact the Broncos -- new head coach Vance Joseph was a highly respected defensive coordinator, which could minimize the impact -- but I'm betting it won't result in a catastrophe. The Broncos simply have too much star power on the defensive side of the ball. Most coaches could have success with this group. 

The pass rush

Speaking of star power, it starts with the Broncos' pass rush, which starts with Von Miller . We all already know how dominant Miller is, but let's run through a few examples from this past season, when he racked up 13.5 sacks (second in NFL). According to Pro Football Focus, Miller was the second-most productive pass rusher among all 3-4 outside linebackers, totaling 79 total pressures. Only Khalil Mack finished with more. 

But he's not the only dangerous pass rusher on the Broncos' roster. Shane Ray , who is expected to take over for future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware , began to thrive in his second season. 

"And Shane's been ready," Miller said in April, via ESPN.com. "He's been ready for a long time."

In 2016, Ray doubled his sack total after a four-sack season as a rookie. According to PFF, he was the 12th-most productive pass rusher among all 3-4 outside linebackers with 45 total pressures. The bad news is that Ray suffered an injury at the end of July and is expected to miss 6-8 weeks. The good news, of course, is that he'll only miss 6-8 weeks, which means he won't miss most of the season.

And then there's Derek Wolfe , their defensive end who notched 5.5 sacks for a second straight season. He's still only 27. As a team, the Broncos finished with 42 sacks last year, tied for third-most in football. 

There's no doubt that the Broncos will miss Ware, one of the most consistent pass rushers in the history of football. But consider this: In 2016, Ware appeared in just 10 games and registered only four sacks. It's not like he was a dominant presence last year. And the Broncos did just fine without him. Assuming Miller maintains his current level of production (elite), Ray continues to grow (he's only 24), and Wolfe continues serving as a complimentary option, the Broncos' pass rush should be one of the league's best. 

And let's not forget that they drafted defensive end DeMarcus Walker in the second round of this year's draft. During his final season at Florida State Seminoles , he had 16 sacks.

No Fly Zone

Just as important as the pass rush is the secondary -- specifically, Chris Harris , Aqib Talib , and Bradley Roby . The trio forms the league's best cornerback group.

Last year, Talib was the best of the bunch. Though he notched just three picks last year, he allowed the second-lowest passer rating when in coverage (49.5) among all cornerbacks -- only Xavier Rhodes of the Minnesota Vikings pieced together a lower passer rating, per PFF. Talib didn't allow a touchdown all year.

Harris, generally considered as the best of the group, was ranked lower than Talib, but that doesn't mean he was bad -- far from it. He finished with the league's ninth-lowest passer rating (68.5) when in coverage, three touchdowns allowed, and two interceptions.

Roby isn't on either's level, but he isn't that far off. He allowed an 80.1 passer rating in coverage, per PFF, which ranked 20th. For a third corner, that's not too shabby. Neither were his two picks and just three touchdowns allowed. 

As a team, Denver allowed the fewest passing touchdowns (13) and lowest yards per attempt (5.8).

The recipe to beat AFC's best

Here's why this matters: To win the AFC, the Broncos will have to take down more than a few high-flying offenses. The conference is run by the top offenses.

First, there's the New England Patriots -- easily the favorites to wind up in Minneapolis as the AFC's Super Bowl representative. Then, there's the Pittsburgh Steelers , who are regarded as the best threat to the Patriots, which makes sense given their offense features Ben Roethlisberger , Le'Veon Bell , Antonio Brown , and Martavis Bryant . Finally, the Oakland Raiders , a team with an outside shot at being among the AFC's best, boast the league's top offensive line, a fresh Marshawn Lynch to run behind that line, one of the best receiver duos in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree , and Derek Carr -- who was considered to be an MVP candidate before he suffered a season-ending injury last year.

Combined, those three teams averaged 26.2 points per game last season. The Broncos averaged 20.8 points per game. So how can the Broncos keep pace with those offenses when they're trotting out Siemian or Lynch behind a shaky offensive line?

They don't have to, because the Broncos' defense is almost guaranteed to turn those games into low-scoring contests. Over the past two seasons, the Broncos have played those three teams nine times -- including the playoffs. In those nine games, they allowed an average of 18.8 points per game. 

They can beat the Patriots because they have the formula to do so. For the The Players' Tribune in June, Ware broke down how it was possible to beat Brady:

The way to beat Tom Brady is to hit him. As many times as you can, hit him. And even then, it might not be enough. In the AFC Championship Game a couple of years ago, we sacked Tom four times and we hit him 20 times.

He's right. We all remember that AFC Championship game. Brady still does too.

This bronco seems to like me more than Von Miller does...

Posted by Tom Brady on Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Earlier that season, the Broncos beat the Patriots in overtime by sacking Brady three times. Last year, despite losing to the Patriots, the Broncos held them to just 16 points. Brady posted one of the worst stat line of his career in that game, going 16 of 32 for 188 yards (5.9 YPA) for zero touchdowns, zero interceptions, and a 68.2 passer rating. In Brady's past three games against the Broncos, he completed 50.8 percent of his passes for 778 yards (6.0 YPA), four touchdowns, two picks, and a 73.2 passer rating. 

That's why the Broncos can beat the Patriots. They've figured out how to turn him into Blaine Gabbert . That's largely due to their insane pass rush, but it's also due to their secondary, which can handle all of the Patriots' weapons. 

The same recipe will be need against the Steelers and the Raiders. And it'll work. According to PFF, both Roethlisberger's and Carr's passer rating placed in the middle of the pack when they were under duress. 

Roethlisberger's 70.2 passer rating under pressure ranked 14th in the NFL. He posted a 5/4 TD/INT ratio on 109 attempts under pressure, which means his touchdown percentage was 4.6 under pressure and his interception percentage was 3.7. Compare those splits to his actual numbers over the course of the season: a 5.7 touchdown percentage and a 2.6 interception percentage.

Meanwhile, Carr's 70.0 passer rating under pressure tied for 15th in the league. He posted a 3/3 TD/INT ratio on 116 attempts, which means both his touchdown percentage and interception percentage under pressure were 2.6. Compare that to his actual numbers from the entire season: a 5.0 touchdown percentage and a 1.1 interception percentage. 

Like most quarterbacks, both Roethlisberger and Carr become prone to mistakes when they face pressure. And the Broncos can certainly generate pressure.

That doesn't meant the Broncos are going to have their way with those teams. Some things you just can't stop. Rob Gronkowski represents a mismatch for every team regardless of defensive personnel, it's impossible to commit extra defenders to all three of the Steelers' playmakers (Bell, Brown, and Bryant), and the Raiders' offensive line is going to make it awfully tough for Carr to feel the pressure.

The Broncos shouldn't be favored over those teams. But they shouldn't be written off either.

If there's one defense in the AFC that has the best chance to take down all three teams, it's the Broncos. That's why no one should write them off due to their inferior quarterback play, even if their margin of error is smaller than other teams due to their quarterbacks. Defenses can still win championships. And the Broncos still have a championship-caliber defense.

CBS Sports Writer

Sean Wagner-McGough joined CBS Sports in 2015 after graduating from UC Berkeley. A native of Seattle, Sean now resides in the Bay Area. He spends his spare time defending Jay Cutler on Twitter. Full Bio

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