ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Despite the comeback in Chicago on Sunday, the Denver Broncos are on unsteady ground.
The Broncos seem to be moving swiftly to try and address some of their defensive issues, releasing linebacker Randy Gregory on Tuesday. Gregory, 30, signed a five-year, $70 million contract in March 2022. He was pulled from the starting lineup this past week vs. the Chicago Bears and replaced by second-year outside linebacker Nik Bonitto. Gregory played 33 snaps Sunday and finished with three tackles and one quarterback hit. He has just nine tackles in four games this season and one sack.
Through four games, the Broncos defense is last or near-last in every major statistical category. In Football Outsiders' primary defensive metric DVOA, it's the worst four-game start since 1981. The Broncos have surrendered 150 points and 1,846 yards in four games.
In 2022, the team didn’t surrender its 150th point until Las Vegas scored its first touchdown in the Raiders’ Nov. 20 win over the Broncos and their opponents didn’t top 1,800 yards until a Week 7 loss to the Jets.
It's natural to pile it on defensive coordinator Vance Joseph since he was hired by Sean Payton to replace Ejiro Evero, but two of the team’s veteran defensive players -- safety Kareem Jackson and defensive tackle Zach Allen -- have said there is far more to the struggles and enough blame to around.
“Everybody wants to point the finger at somebody, but you watch that Dolphins tape and you watch the first half (in the win over the Bears), it was guys not tackling or not doing the right assignment, it’s wasn’t a question of the scheme or anything like that,’’ Allen said. “Everybody can say whatever the hell they want to say … I love (Joseph).’’
After the 70-20 meltdown against the Dolphins two weeks ago Jackson said: “We didn’t execute nothing we put in place.’’
So, what happened to the group that held 10 opponents to 20 or fewer points last season? Here are five of the biggest reasons for the change:
The Bradley Chubb effect
Jackson gathered the defense on the sideline in the first half Sunday and delivered some fiery words to the group and has even said, “It’s the same guys.’’
But the truth is, the defense hasn’t been the same since Bradley Chubb got traded to the Miami Dolphins on Nov. 1, 2022.
The Broncos went from allowing 16.5 points per game before the Chubb trade to allowing 25.2 points in the nine games last season after the trade. They’ve allowed 29.0 points per game in the 13 games since Chubb was traded -- and 37.5 points per game this season.
Chubb had missed 32 games over four seasons with his own injuries, so his absence certainly isn’t the sole reason -- injuries, poor tackling and inability to consistently win the line of scrimmage are others -- but he reliably set the edge when he was on the field and the Broncos haven’t fully replaced his impact against the run and pass rush.
In an informal survey of multiple opposing personnel executives and coaches over the past two weeks, many observed that defensive backs are giving far too much ground in “off’’ coverage in their zone looks.
Essentially, those evaluators believe the Broncos are trying to cover for an overall speed deficiency and limit the potential for big plays. But the defensive backs have been lined up off receivers with a significant buffer -- sometimes even beyond the first-down sticks. And while it's common to drop the safeties deep to make that work, the front six has to win more often, defenders have to close on the ball carrier and tackle well, often in one-on-one situations.
Teams have feasted on the catch-and-run room -- the Broncos are last in the league in net yards per pass attempt allowed at 8.9 and one of only two teams over eight yards per attempt in that category.
Lost nickel value
K'Waun Williams’ ankle injury -- he has yet to play since undergoing surgery in training camp -- hurt the unit overall. The nickel cornerback who can play with physicality along the line of scrimmage and enough athleticism in pass defense down the field is one of the most difficult players for general managers to find.
When healthy, Williams is considered one of the best.
The Broncos have played more nickel snaps -- five defensive backs -- including with a four- or five-man fronts, than any other personnel grouping this season.
Opponents, especially Miami and Chicago, which rushed for 350 and 171 yards respectively, repeatedly pounded away at the Broncos’ nickel package in the run game. In two snapshots, the Dolphins’ first four rushing attempts against the Broncos' nickel in their first drive alone went for 47 yards and a touchdown while Sunday in one six-play span alone the Bears’ had a 29-yard touchdown pass from Justin Fields to DJ Moore and a 24-yard run against the Broncos nickel.
QBs in their comfort zone
The Broncos are currently last in the league in ESPN’s pass rush win rate -- 30.5% and by contrast the Cowboys are No. 1 at 60.6% win rate. They sorely miss Baron Browning, still recovering from offseason knee surgery, Frank Clark (hip) is hurt, Gregory had one sack in four games and Allen has half a sack.
The Broncos have seen flashes from Bonitto -- a 2.5-sack day with the game-changing forced fumble is just what the Broncos needed in Chicago -- and Jonathon Cooper, who scooped up the fumble and scored Sunday. The two have 6.5 of the Broncos’ eight sacks.
But opposing passers have worked in relative serenity for 76.9%, 69%, 89% and 80% completion rates and 13 passing touchdowns.
There is a very human element to all of this: when mistakes come, more have followed.
Even former All-Pro and third-year cornerback Pat Surtain II admitted he let a play get away in the Miami fiasco on the 68-yard touchdown from Dolphins backup quarterback Mike White to Robbie Chosen -- “I can’t do that,’’ Surtain said.
The Broncos don’t have just one missed tackle on plays, they often have clusters -- see any of De'Von Achane’s touchdown runs. They take missteps because they desperately want something to go right, part of the reason Jackson blistered his teammates Sunday in Chicago on a day when the Bears' previously dormant offense eventually had scored on three of its first four possessions.
“Just trying to stress to the guys, you know, we’ve got to do it the right way,’’ Jackson said. “Anytime we’re detailed and we do things the right way, we’re pretty tough to beat."