There’s no nice way to say it: Denver’s defense is a mess.
Among AFC teams, only Houston, Oakland and Jacksonville give up more points per game than Denver’s 26.6. Fortunate for the Broncos, then, that Houston and Oakland are the final two opponents on Denver’s regular-season schedule.
The Texans, Sunday’s opponent, surrender 26.8 points a game; a nightmarish number for a team about to face Peyton Manning and — statistically, at this point in the season, at least — the most potent offense in NFL history. Houston’s 2-12, have fired head coach Gary Kubiak, and are playing only for the top pick in next spring’s draft. They’ve lost a dozen straight games, have injury problems up and down the lineup, and they’re clearly playing out the string.
In other words, as long as the Broncos can keep all-world pass rusher J.J. Watt away from Manning’s tender ankles, a Denver win is as close to certain as things can get in the NFL.
Which is exactly why Denver’s defense needs to dominate.
Thanks to injuries, the Texans won’t have running backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate; they might not have wide receiver Andre Johnson, and they won’t have quarterback Case Keenum — the displaced and disgraced Matt Schaub will take his place. Houston doesn’t look like a team that’s capable of doing much damage at this point, so if they manage to score anywhere 26.6 points, the Broncos’ defense should be ashamed of themselves.
The Broncos’ coaching staff, sensing that the defense’s woes aren’t simply a mirage created by opponents playing from behind, have started to tweak and tinker; rarely a good sign this late in the season. In the last few weeks, the Broncos have inexplicably turned away from linebacker Wesley Woodyard (81 combined tackles) and safety Duke Ihenacho (68 combined tackles), the Nos. 2 and 3 tacklers on the team, and if those were moves meant to send a message to the rest of the defense, they may have backfired.
Last Sunday, former NFL linebacker Chad Brown was a guest on my NFL pre-game show on Denver’s 104.3 The Fan, and we discussed the changes in the Broncos’ defense of late. Brown’s assertion was that after the benchings of Woodyard and Ihenacho — players became more concerned about making highlights; getting noticed by the coaching staff so their own jobs wouldn’t be at risk. Brown noted that’s not how good defenses work. At times, a player’s job might be to direct a play toward a different part of the field, allowing a greater number of teammates to make the safer tackle. Instead, too many Broncos have been over-pursuing, trying to make the big play themselves — but even a single missed tackle can lead to big plays like the ones that doomed the Broncos in their losses to the Patriots and Chargers.
Instead of being confident as the playoffs loom, the Broncos’ defense is in disarray, with players shuffling into and out of the lineup pell-mell. It’s not a formula for success, even if they weren’t still dealing with injuries to cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Kayvon Webster and defensive end Derek Wolfe.
Bailey’s expected to play on Sunday, and perhaps Woodyard and Ihenacho will find their places in the packing order restored. The Broncos don’t need to have the league’s best defense, but with the playoffs starting in weeks, their defense needs to at least become serviceable; no longer a glaring liability.
They have two weeks to get there, and as fate would have it, their upcoming two-game road trip against a pair of the league’s doormats provides them with the perfect opportunity to dramatically improve. All season long, the Broncos have told anyone that was listening that their defense will round into form.
It’s past time to put up, or… well, you know the rest.
Shawn Drotar is in his 20th year as a national sportswriter and editor, and his work has appeared on ESPN, CBS Sports, Fox Sports, Yahoo! Sports and in the USA Today, among others. He’s appeared on television on ESPNEWS and the Altitude Sports Network, and can currently be heard on Denver’s KKFN-FM/104.3 The Fan as a sports-talk radio host.
Follow Shawn on Twitter: @sdrotar
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