ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Former Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan often used to speak about the combination of “numbers and feel.’’
About the importance of the data, about what the numbers behind the numbers really showed. And the importance of looking up from the page or screen to understand what the human side of things looked and felt like -- “what your gut tells you about all of it after you look at your players and your coaches.’’
That is where the Broncos' defense finds itself in the three games since outside linebacker Bradley Chubb was traded. The numbers still look good, among the league’s best, but the feel, right now, isn’t quite on par with the data.
“I know I’ve kind of spoken about it, but we shouldn’t really care about the stats or the numbers,’’ said safety Justin Simmons.
“It’s about making key plays, getting off the field and getting stops when we need them … you can’t give up explosives, or not stop the run. We’re not playing good enough to win in some situations and it doesn’t matter what is happening anywhere else on the team, our job is to get stops ... I've said we get paid to win and we're not winning.’’
General manager George Paton sent Chubb, as well as a fifth-round pick in the 2025 draft to the Miami Dolphins Nov. 1 in exchange for the Dolphins’ first-round pick next April, a fourth-round pick in 2024 and running back Chase Edmonds. Chubb, the Broncos’ first-round pick in 2018, was in the final year of his rookie deal and slated to be an unrestricted free agent in March, led the Broncos in sacks with 5.5 in seven games.
The Dolphins quickly signed Chubb to a five-year, $110 million contract.
But three games into the post-Chubb era, linebacker Randy Gregory's knee injury has kept him on IR and the core of young pass rushers haven't picked up the slack as quickly as predicted. Gregory, who signed a five-year, $70 million contract in March, has not played since the Broncos’ Week 4 loss in Las Vegas due to a meniscus tear in his knee.
And Chubb is still tied for the team lead in sacks -- with Dre’Mont Jones -- and the Broncos have had just two sacks in the last three games combined and no interceptions. It is their only three-game span of the season when the defense hasn’t had an interception.
Opponents have also had two of three games this season when the Broncos have surrendered at least 20 points over the last three weeks to go with the only 400-yard game by an opponent this season.
“We can do more,’’ linebacker Josey Jewell said. “All of us. We have moments when we keep everything where it needs to be, but we can’t have lapses and we need key stops.’’
Overall, the Broncos, who were once No. 1 in the league in scoring defense, are still No. 3 in scoring defense, total defense, pass defense and lead the league in red zone defense.
But the unit couldn’t close the deal against the Titans despite limiting Derrick Henry or against the Raiders in the first two post-Chubb games -- the Raiders even went 71 yards in the final two minutes for their game-winning kick -- and this past Sunday the Carolina Panthers, who came into the game at 3-8, started their third different quarterback of the season, with an interim head coach on the sideline and pounded the Broncos 'defense for 185 rushing yards on 46 bone-numbing carries.
The Broncos’ defense, even at its best this season, has had some significant bobbles in run defense -- 212 yards rushing by the Raiders in Week 4, 155 yards rushing by the Jets Oct. 23 and 191 yards rushing by the Jaguars in London – but the post-Chubb games have had a different feel.
And with the Baltimore Ravens -- No. 2 in the league in rushing -- and former league MVP Lamar Jackson next on the schedule, followed by the Kansas City Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes, the red flags are up.
The Broncos simply no longer have a presence on the edge like the 275-pound Chubb, not only in the pass rush, but in run defense, and it's showing up more and more. The Raiders and Panthers, specifically, over the last two games have often attacked the edges of the Broncos formation, especially when the Broncos move into the nickel package (five defensive backs) with a five-man front.
Baron Browning, Jacob Martin, Jonathon Cooper and rookie Nik Bonitto are all between 240 and 257 pounds and are also all in their first or second year in the league. Opponents are using motion and certain personnel groupings to gain a numerical advantage with blockers on the perimeter of the formation and the Broncos are having a more difficult time holding the edge to force the ball carriers back inside.
Jewell said in the bigger picture, it’s a tackling issue, in part, given the team’s struggles overall -- seven losses in the last eight games -- to go with the lack of turnovers forced by the defense. Too many Broncos defenders are taking too many chances to make something happen.
“We’re reaching too much, trying force fumbles, things like that,’’ Jewell said. “ … In that respect, it’s getting back to basics.’’
“We have to execute, all the way through,’’ Simmons said. “Get people on the ground, be in the right spots, basic things … we can all look at the numbers or whatever, but that doesn’t matter if you didn’t make the plays to win. And we aren’t making enough plays to win.’’