Can a good but not elite Broncos pass defense still handle Tom Brady?
The Broncos have shut down Tom Brady before, but this year's Broncos pass defense isn't quite as strong
Over the last several seasons, the Denver Broncos have consistently had .
From 2013 through 2016, the Broncos ranked second in total yards allowed, and second in yards per play allowed. They ranked seventh in points allowed, seventh in first downs allowed, third in passer rating against, and fourth in yards allowed per rush. They pressured the quarterback at the highest rate in the league and sacked the quarterback more often than anyone else as well. Denver finished in the top five in yards allowed during each of the last three seasons, and let all NFL teams in defensive DVOA (Football Outsiders' measurement for defensive efficiency that adjusts team performance for down, distance, and opponent) in both 2015 and 2016.
The strength of that defense (and, in the earlier years, the sparkling play of Peyton Manning) led the Broncos to top-of-the-division finishes in 2013, 2014 and 2015. As such, they played the Patriots every year instead of just once every third year based on the league's divisional rotation. Add annual games from 2013 through 2016 to two playoff contests, and the Broncos and Patriots squared off six times over the last four seasons.
With the two sides meeting once again this coming Sunday in Denver, it's a good time to look back at how that Denver defense has fared against the engine that powers the Patriots' explosive offense: Tom Brady.
It should come as no surprise to interested observers that the Broncos defense has fared quite well against Brady over this period of time, and especially in more recent seasons as the defense got even stronger. The Broncos held him to a 57.9 completion percentage, far lower than his 64.4 percent mark against all other teams (including playoffs). His 6.39 yards per attempt figure was considerably worse than his 7.48 mark against everyone else, just as his 87.1 passer rating fell far short of the 98.9 mark he posted against non-Broncos opponents. All of that likely had something to do with the fact that the Broncos pressured him more often than anybody else, recording a sack, hit, or hurry on 35.8 percent of Brady's drop backs, compared to the 31.1 percent average compiled by other defenses. (Of course, that figure was also considerably higher in 2015 and 2016, when the Broncos ascended to being the clear best defense in the NFL. Those groups pressured Brady an incredibly 45.7 percent of the time.)
Given that information, one might expect that it would be similarly difficult for Brady to find success against the Broncos this Sunday. However, this year's Broncos defense is not like the ones of the last few years. The team's run defense has bounced back to 2014 and 2015 levels (second in DVOA after ranking 21st a year ago), but the pass defense has dropped off considerably.
Some of this drop-off is due to the fact variations in their pressure rate. The Broncos have recorded a sack, hit, or hurry on 38 percent of opposing quarterbacks' drop backs this season, per Pro Football Focus, not that much worse than the 39.6 percent rate they hit last season when they had the best pass defense in the league. Their pressure rate when rushing four has dipped to 34.6 percent this season, down slightly from 36.6 percent last season. Their pressure rate when sending five men after the quarterback is down six percentage points, though, from 43.8 percent to 37.8 percent. In order to get more pressure on the quarterback, they've had to resort to sending six rushers or more. That's been successful, but having to do it more often has left them slightly more vulnerable over the middle and, especially, on deep passes than they have been in previous seasons.
The Broncos were the best team in the NFL at defending passes to the middle of the field last season, per Football Outsiders. This year, they're 11th. The Broncos were also the league's best team at defending the deep pass, but this year, they're second-worst. Having to send an extra linebacker or a safety after the QB has its drawbacks, and leaving pockets of space open inside and over the top are chief among them.
Aqib Talib, Chris Harris and Bradley Roby are having their usual strong seasons (if not quite as stingy as last year), but interior defenders like linebackers Brandon Marshall and Todd Davis have been picked apart in coverage, and the safety help from Darian Stewart and Justin Simmons has not been up to par with what the Broncos have gotten out of their safeties in recent seasons.
On Sunday, all of these minor downturns should play right into the hands of the Patriots. A pass defense struggling on throws over the middle and against tight ends (25th in DVOA after ranking fifth last season) sounds like one that is going to get torn apart by Rob Gronkowski. Linebackers that have been vulnerable in coverage likely don't stand a chance against James White, Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis. And a team that has been getting beaten on throws down the field has a lot to worry about when going up against Brandin Cooks, the NFL leader in catches on throws 20 yards or more downfield.
Of course, we've also seen Patriots offenses that were seemingly designed to beat the Broncos struggle against them before. If the Broncos can take away New England's short crossers and quick outs (an easier feat with Julian Edelman watching others run those routes from the sidelines instead of doing it himself), forcing Brady to hang onto the ball while his receivers try to shake open, they can batter and bruise him in the pocket, just like they did during the 2016 playoffs. If, however, the Broncos allow Brady to deliver the football in rhythm at the top of his drop -- like Carson Wentz was able to a week ago -- they could be in for a long afternoon.
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