Any Given Sunday
The weekend's biggest upset goes under the Football Outsiders lens.

Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Andrew Healy

On Sunday night, the Broncos did much more than beat an undefeated Packers team to remain undefeated themselves. They turned in the best single-game overall performance of the 2015 season, with the defense leading the way. That defense held the best quarterback of the last five years to just 77 yards passing, barely half of his previous low in the 108 games he has started and finished. It was the equivalent of a team holding Michael Jordan to 8 points in a playoff game when his previous career low was 15 points. And Jordan putting up single digits in the playoffs sounds only slightly less likely than seeing Aaron Rodgers look as completely hopeless he did against the Broncos.

The game said much more about a now-great defense than it did the Packers' not-quite-so-potent offense. Like the Seahawks at their peak in Super Bowl XLVIII, the Broncos on Sunday seemed to play with 13 swarming defenders. Chris Harris was everywhere and often in Randall Cobb's hip pocket, Brandon Marshall flew around ruining screens that always seem to work against other teams, and DeMarcus Ware consistently created one end of a quarterback vise with Von Miller providing the other.

The 29-10 score misses the extent of Denver's defensive domination. They recovered none of the Packers' three fumbles. They forced another Packers fumble on a great strip by Harris that was incorrectly ruled down by contact. So even their advanced stats for the game could have been even a little bit higher. As it was, the Broncos' single-game defensive DVOA (-62.8%) ranks second this season (behind only Arizona's 47-7 stomp of San Francisco in Week 3).

Sunday's performance pushed the Broncos' defense further towards a pace among the best of any defense in the past 25 years. Denver currently has the No. 4 defense ever measured by DVOA through Week 8. The Broncos' pass defense is even more extreme, with a defensive DVOA of -50.3%. Only the 2002 Buccaneers (-51.9%) have ever put up a better pass defense DVOA over an entire season.

BEST DEFENSIVE DVOA THROUGH
WEEK 8, 1989-2015
YEAR TEAM W-L DVOA
1991 NO 7-0 -44.9%
2002 TB 6-2 -43.0%
1991 PHI 3-4 -42.6%
2015 DEN 7-0 -36.0%
1996 GB 6-1 -34.6%
2012 CHI 6-1 -33.4%
2011 BAL 5-2 -33.3%
1997 SF 6-1 -31.0%
1992 WAS 5-2 -30.6%
1998 OAK 5-2 -30.3%
1992 PHI 5-2 -29.2%
1993 PIT 4-3 -28.7%

Like most of the defenses on that list, Denver's will likely fall back a little bit over the rest of the season. But here is one important reason why they are likely to end up somewhere on the list of the greatest single-season defenses: the Broncos are younger on defense than many people realize. By snap-weighted age, the 2014 Broncos had the second-youngest defense in football. By age adjusted for Approximate Value, they ranked fourth. Recent high-profile signings DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib are long-time veterans, but the Broncos are young almost everywhere else. Standouts Chris Harris, Von Miller, and Brandon Marshall are all 26. Defensive end Malik Jackson is just 25.

With most of the core players returning from last year, growth from young players is one big reason the Broncos have taken a big leap from the defense that was already very good in 2014 (-13.2% DVOA, ranked fourth). The other big reason is 68-year-old defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who arrived in Denver this year and has continued an uninterrupted pattern of sprinkling magic dust on all the defenses he encounters.

Wade Phillips Improves Defensive Performance
Year Team Prev DVOA Prev Rank DVOA Rank
1995 BUF 3.8% 19 -6.5% 10
2002 ATL 11.8% 26 -4.1% 12
2004 SD 12.0% 30 -4.2% 13
2011 HOU 17.5% 31 -9.5% 6
2015 DEN -13.2% 4 -36.0% 1

Comments

82 comments, Last at 06 Nov 2015, 10:00am

3 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

I don't like this analysis at all.

Denver's offense is as putrid as we saw it in the first 6 weeks, it looked good this week only because the opponent was Green Bay. Green Bay can't stop the run and has absolutely no defense against crossing routes. Furthermore they are terrible against the #1 WR of the opponent. So Denver only saw film, and exploited a defense that always has the same problems.

And there's nothing to say about Denver's defense either. Denver didn't held Rodgers to 70 yards, Rodgers held himself to 70 yards.
It turns out defending against Rodgers is very simple: you just put a defender in the vecinity of the WRs and the ball is not going to go there.

So the real analysis should be about what is real and what is not about the Packers. You did everything backwards in this article.

5 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

I was disappointed in the Packers' offense. They seemed to have no ideas once the Broncos went into their cover-heavy defense. I would say the coaches held Rodgers to 77 yards. Often they ran when they should have passed, and vice versa. They'd have a great first down play, get 2nd and short, and then slam Lacy into the pile twice, failing to get a 1st down. GB is not a power running team, and they're certainly not a team that will succeed doing that against Denver. Coaches have to be realistic about matchups and go with what works. That's why the Pats passed 90% of the time against the Jets and then turned around and ran a lot against Miami.

6 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

Well shit, if only we had known before this past Sunday that all you have to do to defend Rodgers is put someone on his receivers! He'll be out of the league in no time.

Rodgers is as willing as any QB I've ever seen to make not necessarily contested throws (he definitely tends to avoid those), but throws where receivers have little to no separation and the timing of both the throw and the WRs cut or turn back for the ball has to be absolutely perfect. That he has struggled to hit those this season, and barely even attempted them Sunday night, does say something about the state of the Packers offense and their WR corps, but there's no doubt that Denver had them completely locked down.

20 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

Before making fun of my post think there's some truth even in the most insane comments.

What I meant was that Denver specifically instructed their CBs to stay with the WRs a little longer than usual and that worked very well because the Packer's plan in the first 6 weeks was exactly the same: let Rodgers extend the plays, let the WRs get open with slow developing routes and then just throw to the open guy.

Is not about no one being open because Denver's defense is the greatest, it's about no one being open because Denver's defense just noticed Rodgers won't throw a contested ball, he hates it. So if your DBs stay near the target for just a little longer Rodgers will just eat the ball.

The complete lack of adjustment by both Rodgers and McCarthy is puzzling but it was exactly what happened.

Now granted you need good DBs for this to work but you can't do this against any other team . So while we can say Denver's defense was terrific against GB I think this was because of GB and not because Denver can do this to any other team.

45 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

Me thinks this guy is a P*ts fan, who is trying to convince himself Denver is not a threat. Maybe a Cinci fan who wants Fear the Ginger to actually mean something. Could be an NFC-North-team-other-than-GB fan who desperately wants to believe GB is on their way down. Or maybe a Packers fan fooling himself that their loss was about bad planning, not plain being beat mano a mano. Talk about clutching at straws...lol

If he thinks the Denver offense, including OL, RBs, TEs, and WR-DT played the same as they did the first six weeks, he hasn't been watching Denver games very closely. It's called growth, progression, learning and becoming more comfortable in a new offense, and DT finally getting serious about cutting out drops. Sunday's game was a complete beat down, and if GB were as terrible as he says, surely another team would have beaten them by now.

His simple defensive strategy of DBs covering WRs for 4-7 seconds at a time, sure any team can do that, and do so every week, don't they? If not, why haven't the other coaches around the league thought of that? Bugs Bunny had a saying about geniuses like this, involving a shade of dark red-purple.

Keep fooling yourself Ivan Ivanovich. Nov. 29 will he here before you can say P*ts cupcake schedule.

19 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

You have a good point.
Denver is not the only team, but Denver is a very smart and well coached team.
San Diego also got some of the GB defense problems well spotted, as you can see Rivers didn't throw for 500 yards in every game he played yet he could have thrown for 700 against the Packers.

Some teams are not good preparing for a game, some teams don't have the talent they need to execute the plan and the Packers can certainly work to fix these issues. So what will happen next I don't know but I do know this game was not about Denver but about how bad the Packers planned the game and how smart Denver was to exploit the weaknesses in GB offense and defense.

14 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

@lrargerich: You're out of your mind. Chew on this for a second... if not for two easily avoidable mental mistakes by Denver that turned what otherwise would have been Green Bay punts into 1st downs, the Broncos would have SHUT OUT Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. To be honest, your post really doesn't merit a response because you clearly don't understand the game but I was looking for an excuse to post this very impressive fact.

18 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

So you think the first 6 games played by Denver were just "bad luck" and they have such a wonderful team they can hold the best QB in the league to 70 yards.

I don't think so.

I think this game was an exploit. The Broncos exploited a weakness in the Packers defense and offense. The analysis can't be around how good Denver is, it should be on how SMART Denver was against GB.

You might think my post is ridiculous but analyzing how great a team is because how they played ONE game is even more ridiculous.

23 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

I'm not trying to win anything, it's just an opinion.

If you think Denver's first 6 games should be dismissed and this is the real team then the argument would be as weak as mine.

You have two powerful spaceships one of them has a hole in its hull if you put a missile in that hole there's not much to be analyzed you just exploited a weakness. And I'm claiming Denver did just that, we can conclude Denver is well coached, we can conclude Denver is a smart team and that they have the talent needed for the exploit. But that's it, next game will be different.

36 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

Perhaps your comments hold water referring to the Broncos' offense, but over the first seven games of this season the Bronco's defense has played better than any other defense of the last ten years, including the last two Seahawks teams, the 2009 Jets, the 2008 Steelers and Ravens. The gulf between Denver and the second best defense in the league is enormous; witness what Derek Carr did to the Jets on Sunday, whereas he torched the Broncos' defense to the tune of 6.3 yards an attempt, 1 touchdown and 10 total points. The Bills had a pretty good game against Rodgers last year, but they didn't hold him to 70 yards, and discounting what the Broncos just accomplished is absurd.

46 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

None of Denver's previous games should be "dismissed", the defense has been balling out in every one of them. This was a team pissed at being dissed, playing at home for only the third time this year, wanting to show America what they're all about, and winning one for their owner.

It was also an offense that had a bye to work on timing, since they switched offensive approach in week 2-3, get a few players healthy (CJ Anderson, and several OL), and all practice together for the first time in weeks. It takes time for a new OL to gel, and they need to be able to practice. Knowledgable football people know this.

You can take the average, I'll take the trend line. Average will always trail trend.

32 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

*I* think Denver very well may have the best defense of the past thirty years (the '85 Bears falling just outside of that window) and it shouldn't be surprising when they stone cold blank an opponent, even one with an excellent QB. They've given up more than 300 yards precisely once this year. They've held opponents under 200 yards twice.

64 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

I think the offensive climate is different today than even 13 years or so ago. I feel like modern passing concepts would force the bucs to at least diversify away from tampa 2. We can make reasonable arguments about how well they'd do implanted in todays nfl(Probably still be one of the best defenses ever).

71 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

The Bucs were great. I was rooting for the Raiders (Bo Jackson fan with lingerning Raiders fandom) over the Bucs in 2002, but my money was heavily on the Bucs in the Super Bowl. I've never been more sure of a blowout between good teams and apparently so were many others. It was no surprise. With that Bucs defense and Gruden being the former coach of the opposing offense and the Bucs' defense excelling in stopping what made the Raiders offense great the Raiders destruction was inevitable.

72 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

The '02 Bucs defense and '00 Ravens defense, unfortunately for them, will be small footnotes in history. Probably because they play in Tampa and Baltimore. The '00 Ravens seem to have a bit more of a footprint in NFL history because of the points record and that the Ravens defense remained strong for over a decade.

That all being typed, QB rating is a bad stat. It places too much importance of completion %, not enough on turnovers, none on yardage gained via running, and ultimately is arbitrary and doesn’t use enough data (and properly weighed data) to produce accurate gauge of a passer’s performance or the performance of a group of passers against a defense.

15 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

Denver looked this putrid against bad defenses prior to this game. As for the Packers, defenses like the Seahawks didn't stymie Rodgers to that degree.

I mean, hell, it's hard to hold Blake Bortles to 77 yards on 22 attempts.

Yes, this game also brings up questions about the Packers, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't question previous reasoning about the Broncos as well.

16 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

Well, then, we can certainly expect the Packers to go 0-9 from this point on, as every opponent guts them for 6 yards per carry, in between 100% completion rates on crossing routes, as Rodgers is held to 80 yards passing per game, when opponents take your sage advice, and thus cover the Packer receivers! Would you say the average spread on Packer games from here on out should be -20, or -30? Should Mr. Discount Double Check immediately open a insurance agency in Sheboygan, so grim are his prospects for future employment by tossing a pigskin?

22 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

Of course not, your comment is even more funny than mine!

First we can assume that after going 6-0 with the same plan and failing miserable in game 7 the Packers will make some changes.
Second not all teams have the talent Denver has to nullify the Packers. GB can send their gameplan to Detroit, Chicago, Minnesotta and many others before each game and still those teams won't be able to do much.

Third not all teams have two weeks to prepare and a smart coach like Denver.

This game was a very strange coincidence of a team with weaknesses that repeats the same script for 7 weeks and a smart team that has 2 weeks to prepare for those weaknesses. It was a exploit, a hack.

Denver is what we saw in the first 6 weeks.

59 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

Second not all teams have the talent Denver has to nullify the Packers.

This game was a very strange coincidence of a team with weaknesses that repeats the same script for 7 weeks and a smart team that has 2 weeks to prepare for those weaknesses. It was a exploit, a hack.

Aren't you contradicting yourself? Denver has great talent, no they don't, they're just smart?

66 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

Could it be that what he's really saying is something like this?

Green Bay is generally talented enough to expect to either overwhelm or at least smother an opposing defense. Because of this, they didn't install an adequate backup plan for when their initial efforts failed.. If they had, they could have countered what Denver was doing and not looked so inept.

This seems to get all the points in. It credits Denver's talent while also recognizing talent alone doesn't fully explain the disparity between the teams. I'd say that hypothesis even has a whiff of plausibility to it, though we obviously can't draw any conclusions at this point.

I'll leave it up to the OP to confirm whether that was what he was trying to say.

67 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

His remarks feel completely after the fact though. Also, what exactly was GB supposed to do? They were losing and had to pass. They actually pass protected ok, but the routes were covered. Unless he specifically watched the gb offenses run a bunch of go routes over and over, its impossible to say it was purely a game plan issue. Frankly, there's nothing anyone can learn about stopping GB purely by watching the Denver game.

75 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

I think you don't understand what Denver actually did to the Packers. Rodgers' big plays most often come when he he evades the rush, gets outside the pocket, gets the DB to commit to stopping his scramble up the sidelines, and then hits the receiver who having finished his route, now comes open when the D-back commits to Rodgers. But Rodgers he had zero big plays off scrambles vs. Denver. Why? Denver's pass rush was intentionally designed to contain Rodgers in the pocket. How do I know? Besides the fact that you could see Denver's rush collapsing the pocket over and over, rather than taking inside routes or stunting, you could hear Vonn Miller and D Ware talking about it when Ware was micc'd in the first half. With Rodgers unable to get outside the pocket, Denver's truly excellent corners were able to stay on the receivers. This happened because of Wade Phillips' defensive game plan, discipline on the part of Denver's D line, and Denver's stellar personnel's ability to execute, not because Rodgers is unwilling to take risks.

4 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

DVOA does not go back quite far enough, but 1989 was Phillips' first first year as the Broncos' defensive coordinator, and they radically improved that year as well; they went from 22 points allowed per game to 14, a SRS of -3.4 to +5.7, and rank in yards from 22nd to 3rd, per pro-football-reference. Their DVOA in '89 was 4th. Of course, they then gave up 55 points to the 49ers in Super Bowl 24...

11 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

I'm not relaxed about the Packers offense. It hasn't looked consistent in a while; it hasn't looked good on the road since before Rodgers got injured in 2013, with the exception of the big win in Chicago last season. There isn't a lot of versatility: whereas Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson could run every route in the playbook from every formation, James Jones has a much more limited skillset and the young receivers aren't ready. The Other Rodgers – the tight end, Richard – has been a particular disappointment so far. He is being covered easily by linebackers, and not always ones as good as the Broncos'. Next week the Panthers might be able to cover him with a mascot.

The Packers' offense has also had fewer drives per game than any other, and fewer plays than all but one. The longer you can keep Rodgers off the field, the better your prospects, and recent opponents have been able to run on the Packers (Rams, Broncos) and convert with short passes (Chargers). If the Packer offense doesn't have the chance to run many plays, McCarthy and Clements have to burn those second-down runs.

28 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

Green Bay's offensive summary.

1. The Packers have relied far too much on the hard count / free play. It seemed like they have got at least 1 to 2 huge chunk plays per game. On the road, this strategy is a lot less likely to work. Additionally, I think coaches will have their defensive players do what it takes draw a whistle when they jump offsides, either hit a lineman or continue unabated to the QB.

2. Rodgers seems to be overly cautious with the ball, because he's usually able to escape to throw to a wide open WR. Denver applied a contain rush, which I'm sure will be copied.

I think Carolina will give them fits as well.

48 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

I'd rather read this as ...Denver has awesome personnel rather than there being some kind of blueprint to beating Aaron Rodgers. In fact...Seattle didn't put a blueprint on how to beat Peyton Manning either. Cover receivers and rush the passer. When you have that combination, its really hard for any qb or any offense to work.

Asking a qb to make tough throws to covered receivers is asking a lot. Very few qbs can do it. To ask them to do it over an entire game is probably too much for anyone.

17 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

I have no idea whether the Broncos' o-line approximates, for the balance of the season, the productivty it showed on Sunday night. If it does, however, they aren't losing at home, which means they are getting HFA in all likelihood, which means Archie's 2nd son is going to get another chance to catch his 'lil brother in the RINGZZZZZ!!!! bragging rights contest.

29 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

As someone who spent October and part of November shouting that NE's first four games provided no predictive value, I'm not ready to dismiss the idea that Denver's performance was due to tightened some screws during the bye week. I'm *hoping* that isn't the case, and that is something I'll be watching closely during the next couple weeks.

44 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

I don't think looking at schedule differential is generally useful in mid season. Denver's average opponent is 7% better rest of way than previous. That's not nothing... 7% worse would have probably been 2 losses or so for Denver so far. Furthermore, the error bars are big at this point on sos averages, enough so that is pretty hard to predict Denver's future schedule will stay so tough.

For some teams sos should really matter. Minns is unreal, and no's, nyg, and chi have big differentials, but the rest of the league seems somewhat too uncertain to predict much about.

38 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

Proponents want to ignore the first six games of this season, when Manning looked so limited physically

This is about the laziest analysis imaginable. It's literally Bill Simmons-level stuff.

A quarterback doesn't throw the ball to a spot where there is no receiver or directly to a defender sitting under a route because of physical limitations; it happens when, in the midst of breaking in a new offense, he doesn't know where receivers will be or doesn't trust they'll be where he expects and thus stares them down, losing sight of the defense. People who are actually watching the mistakes being made instead of reflexively falling back on the narrative they've expected to come to fruition for four years recognize this.

50 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

You mean like those long completions to DT on Sunday? Denver had 16 plays of 15 yards or more. Many of those were passes, and they weren't 5 yd outs with 20 YAC, either. Manning is not 2013 Manning. But neither is he late 2014 Manning. And something in between with this defense is enough to hoist the Lombardi.

61 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

I actually think he looked similar to this against Cleveland - the only issue there was that may have been the worst game he's played from a mental standpoint ever. Also a few DT drops and a Sanders drop made his stats worse.

I'm holding my breath that this was the beginning of something different, but we don't know yet really until he can string 2-3 games without physical or mental issues.

65 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

People are CERTAINLY underrating this, but of course a 39 year old is still also declining physically. (Even if that is being largely overstated.) It's allowed to be both.

This is why Manning's quote the other day was "I don't put much merit in what you're saying." It's easy enough to point out the differences in the stats and results, but the only people who truly know why it's happening are in that building.

I think it's entirely reasonable that part of the flawed decision making Manning has shown is simply that it's taking his brain a split second longer to figure things out now that the offense is totally [stubbornly, stupidly, whatever you want to call it] different and that with one off-season of learning it he's not showing the same instincts as he did in the previous iterations of his offenses where he had 12 years of Moore and 3 years of the McCoy/Gase E-P/Moore Coryell hybrid. In 2014 when he was hurt and old, he still made fine choices because his brain just knew. Now he's got an extra millisecond or two of extra thinking to do to be as certain of himself as before, and that matters.

But yeah, he's also physically declining.... which doesn't mean he's completely cooked. It never did. He had plenty of fine throws, even deep, in the first six weeks, some of which failed due to timing, defense, luck, and/or just the fact that not all deep throws get completed. Not because he's suddenly crippled. But also, yes, some of the passes, including short ones, looked like they were thrown by a crippled guy.

And some of the picks, like the 1st and 3rd in Cleveland, are some combination of both (plus some credit to Dansby himself on that first one for the leap).

I think if they still had Gase in charge of the offense, we wouldn't have had to hear all this stuff about Manning all year long, but he'd still certainly be worse than he was last year. (But better than the end of last year.) Pretty much everything came together to make this year worse than anyone imagined, but as time passes, they'll get more comfortable, and he'll get more confident and quicker with the decisions, and the goal is that in the end they'll be clicking pretty well in all phases by December. Growing from week 1 to week 19, just as New England tends to do.

Still, just how lucky is it that the defense was THAT good for those first six weeks of the adjustment, to have them so well set up to contend for HFA despite all that worst-case scenario offense playing out...

76 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

You mean besides the fact that when his HC was caught cheating, all he did was call him a schmuck and tell him not to do it again?

When hoodie's protege was caught doing the same thing several years later, that owner fired him...a slight difference in integrity level there. Nor did said owner complain about the lost draft pick.

A man who will leverage buy out his own father-in-law's company , the father-in-law who hired him, isn't one I would hold up as a role model. I think all that talk about the Patriot Way is a publicity spin job designed to make him look more ethical than he is.

41 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

The Packers coaches asked themselves "what would Belichick do?" and then did the exact opposite on both sides of the ball. Make sure we keep Manning clean in the pocket and don't move him off his spot? Check. Make sure we only run our receivers in obvious routes they have to win 1 v 1 against superior defenders? Double check.

43 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

Eh, 23 months ago, Darth Hoodie brought his minions to Mile High, in a high stakes contest. His team, despite Hoodie's machinations, was smoked, losing 23-3 with 12 or so minutes left. The opponent was in turn smoked two weeks later.

The other guys being better players is usually a better explanation

51 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Packers

You know what's great about this? All the P*ts fans posting comments on articles about the Broncos. A little whif of competition and they're freaking out, trying to deny it. How dare the Rebels rise up and challenge Darth Hoodie and his Empire?

They know the force is strong at Mile High, where Hoodie and the Sith have lost many times before.

November 29...The Force Awakens!