by Andrew Healy
Only twice before in the 10-year history of Any Given Sunday has the team that we exalted as the week's best upset winner then been humbled in their own upset the very next week. Last Tuesday, we saluted the Broncos' defense and their current pace to rank with the best units of the last 25 years. One week later, the Broncos had a loss that feels like the kind of day a great defense doesn't have. If the 2015 Broncos defense has a chance to be the 1985 Bears, or 1991 Eagles, or 2013 Seahawks, they shouldn't lose the matchup against a middling Colts offense, right? Those great defenses evoke memories of impenetrable swarms swallowing up helpless quarterbacks. Over time, those defenses have become those memories of dominance. On Sunday, the Broncos bore little resemblance to them.
But bad games happen even to great defenses. No defense in the DVOA era (back to 1989) has run the table and been above average every week. Even the 1985 Bears had a rough day against a mediocre offense. Two years ago, in Week 9, the Seahawks got rolled for a half by Mike Glennon and a terrible Buccaneers offense, posting the fifth-worst defensive DVOA (34.6%) for the week.
On Sunday, the Broncos' rating (7.9%) came in much closer to average than that. And the current weak opponent adjustment for the Colts -- who entered the game ranked 21st on offense -- is the only reason the rating is not almost exactly average. That's much worse than the Broncos have been in previous weeks, when they became the first defense in our data to start the season with seven consecutive weeks of -10.0% ratings or better, but far from an ominous sign.
Moreover, some of the Broncos' struggles were driven by injuries during the game to four of their stars. After the Broncos forced a three-and-out on the Colts' first possession, cornerback Chris Harris left with a possible concussion in the middle of the Colts' next drive, which led to a touchdown. Harris returned in the middle of the next series, but was less dominant than he had been against Green Bay. In the second quarter, linebacker Brandon Marshall also left in the concussion protocol before returning after the half. Later, after the Broncos had forced six straight Andrew Luck incompletions and a fourth consecutive Indianapolis punt, DeMarcus Ware came out of the game with a back injury midway through the third quarter. Safety T.J. Ward also missed a few plays soon after with his own injury.
The Colts scored ten points on their next two possessions before ending the game with some helpful yellow beanbag tosses following mental meltdowns. Most egregiously, Aqib Talib got a personal foul just outside the two-minute warning that prevented the Broncos from getting the ball back with enough time for one last drive. Talib and coach Gary Kubiak are adamant that he did not intend to poke Colts tight end Dwayne Allen in the eye, which seems plausible only if Talib was waxing nostalgic about the Pinewood Derby and got overenthusiastic about the Cub Scout salute.
While the penalties and injuries hurt the Broncos on Sunday, the penalties are unlikely to repeat and the only defensive injury that appears likely to persist beyond this week is Ware's, which should sideline him for about a month. Ware's loss hurts, but the Broncos held up defensively earlier in the year when Ware was out with the back injury, even in the game against the Raiders where he left in the first half. Perhaps more difficult to deal with are the in-game injuries to key players in the secondary, even if they didn't force Harris or Ward from the game for long. So many recent examples jump to mind of defenses being undone by in-game secondary injuries. In two consecutive AFC Championship games, the Patriots' defense succeeded early and then unraveled after losing Aqib Talib. In the Super Bowl, the Seahawks' defense looked very gettable after losing cornerback Jeremy Lane. A defense as dominant as Denver's doesn't need alibis, but we sometimes underplay how much injury luck matters for how well even great units play.
As we talked about last week, some regression was inevitable for a team that got off to a start as good as Denver's. But with Harris, Ward, and Marshall all likely to be at full speed next week and the Broncos young on defense at most spots, let's still call it a blip for now with one below-average game following seven mostly-great ones.
Andrew Luck Beating Blitzes Again
In 2014, Andrew Luck mostly shredded blitzes according to our ratings. When facing four or fewer pass rushers, the Colts ranked just 19th in offensive DVOA (11.3%). But when they faced five or more rushers, the Colts ranked fourth (40.2%). Despite that success against the blitz, opponents blitzed Luck more than any other quarterback.
Through the first seven games of 2015, Luck succeeded much less against the blitz than last year, before breaking out on Sunday. Courtesy of ESPN Stats and Information, here are Luck's numbers this year against the blitz:
|Andrew Luck Beating the Blitzing Broncos|
|Dropbacks||Cmp Pct||Net Yds Per Dropback||TD||INT||QBR|
|Against blitz, Weeks 1-8||100||48.3%||6.61||7||4||36.3|
|Against blitz, Week 9 vs DEN||27||61.5%||6.78||2||0||93.5|