2013 Team Preview: Denver Broncos

Denver Broncos

  • 2012 Record: 13-3 (1st in AFC West, lost AFC Divisional Round to Baltimore)
  • 2012 Point Differential: +192 (2nd out of 32)
  • 2012 Strength of Schedule (per PFR’s SRS system): -1.9 (28th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 5.45 (9th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 4.17 (3rd)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 4.10 (29th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 4.92 (19th)

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Offensive Projection: 469.11 points

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Defensive Projection: 307.32 points

It’s important to separate the 2012 Broncos regular season performance from their ensuing playoff loss against Baltimore – they’re their own distinct entities and have to be treated as such. Because, remember: at this point of training camp last year, nobody knew if Peyton Manning could even adequately throw a football anymore. John Elway had agreed to pay Manning $18 million for 2012 based almost solely on the logic of, hey, if Peyton Manning ever becomes available for any reason, you have to pick him up.

Beyond that, Elway and John Fox were basically going on blind faith that Manning would work his way back into shape and replicate the same Forehead performance we were accustomed to seeing in Indianapolis. Given that the Broncos felt compelled to trade only the biggest breakout player of the 2011 season in order to sign him, we forget how big of a limb they were stepping out on two springs ago. Never forget that John Elway has brass cajones.

And, of course, the signing couldn’t have possibly gone much better than what Elway and Fox envisioned. After mildly struggling in the first five weeks en route to a 2-3 record, Manning turned a corner in the second half of the Monday Night game against San Diego, in which he led the Broncos back from a 24-0 halftime deficit to a 35-24 victory and essentially ended the AFC West race in the middle of October. The Broncos won every regular season game from there on out, Manning wound up with the second most passing yards in a single season in his career and, more importantly, his most efficient season since the last year of his arguably Greatest of All Time stretch, 2006. The Broncos benefited from the Texans’ late collapse to earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and seemed destined to face Manning’s old nemesis, Tom Brady, and the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game one last time.

If we stop the story here, the 2012 Broncos season is an unquestioned and unabashed success. Not only did Manning develop great chemistry with his young receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, but former Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio took over as defensive coordinator and improbably molded the Broncos defense into one of the top five units in the league. Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil provided the same elite pass-rushing off the edge that Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis had for Manning in Indy and Champ Bailey played the shutdown corner Manning never had with the Colts. In 2011, the Broncos won the AFC West but were one of the seven or eight worst teams in football and relied on some truly freaky occurrences to squeak their way into the playoffs. In 2012, the Broncos again won the AFC West – but this time, inarguably ranked either #1 or #1a in the conference and had one of the best all-around teams in football. Is there a scenario in which last regular season could have gone better for the Broncos? Tough to find one.

Now the playoff game, on the other hand, is another story and deserves its own separate treatment. Because as much as the Broncos’ regular season was an unquestioned success, their divisional round home loss to the Ravens was just as much of a bitter disappointment. Less than a month before, the Broncos had blown out the Ravens in their home stadium but in this game were thoroughly outplayed at the line of scrimmage. Manning threw three touchdowns but also two interceptions and generally looked uncomfortable playing in a wind chill that hovered around zero for most of the game. And, of course, Rahim Moore’s botched coverage happened as the Ravens miraculously tied the game on a virtual Hail Mary and wound up winning 38-35 in double overtime.

The loss reopened discussions of Manning’s playoff credentials, as his teams have now gone 9-11 in playoff games he has started with eight one-and-dones. And while the “Manning isn’t clutch” arguments haven’t held much heft in several years (his career playoff Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, after all, is a half-yard higher than Tom Brady’s), there is some reason to think that Manning’s predictable play calls in response to certain pre-snap defenses he sees – one of the greatest factors in his rise to becoming the greatest regular season quarterback ever – could be holding his teams back, especially in two of the last three playoff losses he’s helmed at quarterback.

Throughout his Colts career and into his first year in Denver, Manning has typically limited the number of formations and plays his offense runs to a select handful so he can easily diagnose what the defense plans to do and call an easily-recalled play in response to what he sees. It’s rather amazing that, in a league whose offensive playbooks are usually thicker than a Merriam Webster’s dictionary, the greatest quarterback in regular season history has accomplished what he has while helming probably the most simplistic offense in the league. But that’s simply a testament to how well Manning typically executes his play calls. If internet writers have been noticing him run the same plays over and over again for a few years now, defensive coordinators have probably been seeing this crap since 1999. And yet none (save for 2003-04 Bill Belichick) have really found any lasting success against him.

Still, Manning’s 9-11 playoff record hangs there as an asterisk for anyone who wants to remove the “regular season” portion of his title in the previous paragraph and just call him the greatest quarterback ever. One of my theories on why Manning’s teams have (relatively) underperformed in the playoffs is that their predictable nature (on both sides of the ball – Tony Dungy was a great coach who perhaps deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, but you could hardly call him a master game-planner defensively) has probably come back to bite them against playoff opponents who are relatively as skilled as they are and have had spent much time preparing for them during the week.

The biggest play of Super Bowl XLIV came when Tracy Porter read that Manning was going throw to Reggie Wayne on a dig route for the 10,000th time in their careers and jumped the pass for a game-clinching 74-yard interception return for a touchdown. The next year against the Jets in the Wild-Card Round, Manning overall played very well against one of the best defenses in the league but ran conservative running plays in the Jets’ side of the field whenever New York showed they were backing off into coverage, leading to three field goals compared to just one touchdown and a 17-16 loss.

Last year’s loss against the Ravens didn’t have any such glaring issues with predictability – Manning threw for 293 yards and three touchdowns but it took him 43 attempts to accrue those numbers and he also, of course, threw two huge interceptions. One of them should have been called defensive pass interference on Chykie Brown, but the other came on a reprehensible Favre-ian decision to throw back across his body into the middle of the field. And it’s certainly possible that the Ravens’ extensive history playing against Manning helped force him into a relatively inefficient day.

Those are issues Manning will likely have to rectify if he wants to break his own personal three-game losing streak in the playoffs and lead Denver to their third Super Bowl title. Fortunately for Forehead and the Broncos, they may not have any issues before the postseason. Predictive Yards per Play has them ranked #1 overall headed into the season and also thinks they’re going to play the second-easiest schedule in the league this year. The result is the projection system has them winning on average – repeat, on average – 12 games this year, which is a rather high total for a statistical model largely designed to minimize extreme records in one direction or another. Given New England’s turbulent offseason, though, it’s tough to even make an argument that any other AFC team is on the same level as the Broncos.

Thus, unlike the beginning of the 2012 season, 2013’s dawn finds the Broncos being met with perhaps the highest expectations in the league. Also unlike 2012, this of course means that any 2013 finish not resulting in a Super Bowl victory will likely leave Broncos fans with little satisfaction.

Offense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Scored
5.318856 7.425 1.017815 -1.18166 469.1141

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: RB Willis McGahee, WR Brandon Stokley, C Dan Koppen

2013 notable offseason additions: RB Montee Ball, WR Wes Welker, G Louis Vasquez

The addition of Welker may not make as much of an impact on the Broncos as his loss could to the Patriots – remember, Brandon Stokley played remarkably well in the slot last year for the Broncos to begin with – but he may very well give Manning the best 1-2-3 group of wide receivers in the league. On paper, their skills should all mesh together extremely well: Welker will probably largely run underneath routes from the slot (where he is as tough to cover in short spaces as any receiver in the league), Eric Decker is the type of precise route runner on the outside Manning tends to put a lot of trust in and Demaryius Thomas will play the role of physical beast who’s as talented as any receiver not named Megatron (get ready to hear that disclaimer a lot)…Second-round draft pick Ball could wind up leading the team in carries, but since this is a Manning offense the running back who winds up being on the field the most will probably be the one who’s best in pass protection. Willis McGahee’s offseason release means that role is currently up in the air…Possible fifth MVP alert: one reason it might not be a bad idea to lay some greenbacks down on Manning-for-MVP odds (if it were at all legal to do so) is the fact the Predictive Yards per Play thinks the Broncos are going to face the easiest slate of defenses in the league. You don’t need to do any complicated equations to figure out that an easy schedule probably equals a huge year for Forehead.

Defense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Allowed
4.452746 3.6375 0.982185 -0.50029 307.3212

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: DE Elvis Dumervil, DT Justin Bannan, ILB D.J. Williams, ILB Keith Brooking, CB Tracy Porter, S Jim Leonhard

2013 notable offseason additions: DE Shaun Phillips, DT Sylvester Williams, DT Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton, ILB Stewart Bradley, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB Quentin Jammer

Here’s the area of the Broncos that experienced some offseason turbulence. The team had to cut Dumervil after his agent sent in his agreement to a restructured contract seven minutes too late via fax, meaning the Broncos will no longer have the services of a player who made the Pro Bowl and averaged 12.5 sacks the last three years he was healthy. The Broncos also parted ways with Bannan and Brooking, who were key aspects of the team’s stout run defense last year but had the unfortunate problems of being in their mid-to-late 30’s. Worst of all, the team may be without Von Miller for four games after Miller reportedly violated the league’s substance-abuse policy. The first three guys, the Broncos all have replacements for: the former Charger Phillips remains a solid pass-rusher and Pot Roast and Bradley are younger (and possibly better) replacements for Bannan and Brooking. Losing Miller for even four games, however, would be a big problem: the second-year player could be the best edge rusher in the league and the best pass-rusher overall not named J.J. Watt…The additions of Rodgers-Cromartie and Jammer mean the Broncos are absolutely loaded at cornerback, as Champ Bailey, Tony Carter and Chris Harris all performed very well in 2012. Jammer’s 34 and may not have anything left, but DRC still has #1 corner talent and, on the right day, can shut down just about any receiver in the league, Of course, on a lot of other days he can also make any receiver in the league look like a #1, which is why he’s already on his third team at age 27.

Special Teams/Schedule/Miscellaneous

1 September 5 Baltimore Ravens
2 September 15 @ New York Giants
3 September 23 Oakland Raiders
4 September 29 Philadelphia Eagles
5 October 6 @ Dallas Cowboys
6 October 13 Jacksonville Jaguars
7 October 20 @ Indianapolis Colts
8 October 27 Washington Redskins
9 Bye Week
10 November 10 @ San Diego Chargers
11 November 17 Kansas City Chiefs
12 November 24 @ New England Patriots
13 December 1 @ Kansas City Chiefs
14 December 8 Tennessee Titans
15 December 12 San Diego Chargers
16 December 22 @ Houston Texans
17 December 29 @ Oakland Raiders

2013 Projected Strength of Schedule: -1.68 points per game harder than average (31st-toughest)

Trindon Holliday scored two return touchdowns during the regular season and then two in the playoff game against Baltimore after getting picked up on waivers in October. Britton Colquitt also had one of the top five net punting averages in the league, but having a good punt unit when Peyton Manning is your quarterback is kind of like bringing chips and salsa to a five-star restaurant: nice, but ultimately unnecessary…The Broncos schedule may very well end up being one of the easiest in the league, but it’s still probably loaded with more must-see games than any other team’s. There’s the season-opener rematch against Baltimore and their first game against Elvis Dumervil, the third Manning Bowl, matchups against the Cowboys and Redskins, another Manning-Brady matchup in Foxboro and, yes, Manning’s return to Indianapolis in mid-October. That one might get a few people to tune in.

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Wins Projection: 12.0 wins (1st in AFC West)

The best team in the league + one of the easiest schedules in the league = a whole lotta wins.

2013 Subjective Prediction: 12-4 (1st in AFC West)

Brock Osweiler relieves an ineffective Manning in the second half of Week 1 and goes on to lead the Broncos back to the playoffs and cause Osweilermania across Colorado. Just kidding! Peyton’s probably going to play well.

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