Even with a 25-13 win over the Colts on Thursday night, the Broncos have moved to a lowly 5-9 record under Vance Joseph. Less than two years removed from a Super Bowl win, the Broncos will now endure their first losing season since 2010. While the debut campaign of the Joseph era has elicited nightmarish play not experienced in Denver since that of Josh McDaniels’s tenure, the first-year coach should get a second season at the helm.
Before taking the job with the Broncos this past offseason, Joseph was the Dolphins’ defensive coordinator in 2016 and the Bengals’ defensive backs coach the previous two seasons, so it’s apparent what side of the ball is his specialty. It’s concerning at first glance that the Broncos have allowed 23.4 points per game, almost five points higher than last year.
That same unit, however, came into Thursday night ranked in the top-two in the league in yards allowed, yards per play allowed, first downs allowed per game, third-down conversion rate and penalties. This is still an elite group, so why the large uptick in points allowed?
A lack of turnovers forced—13, which is 28th in the league—is one reason. The sack numbers are in the middle of the pack, a clear drop-off after an NFL-best 94 over the last two years combined.
The major key, though, has been that the Broncos’ have had less of the field to defend compared to any other team. Per Football Outsiders, the average starting field position for opposing offenses against the Broncos through the team’s 13 games was nearly the 34-yard line. That’s more than three and a half yards further down the field than the next-unluckiest defense.
The Colts started their first drive of the game at midfield after a Trevor Siemian interception. That marked the 32nd time this season that a Broncos opponent has started a drive at the 50-yard line or in Denver territory, according to NFL Media. If that seems high, that’s because it is. The next-highest total is 21, which belongs to the winless Browns. The Colts cashed in on that premium field position, capping their only touchdown drive of the game with a seven-yard Jacoby Brissett scramble.
The field-position disadvantage is largely due to a turnover-prone offense plagued by subpar quarterback play. Denver’s 28 turnovers and 19 interceptions are the second-most in the NFL, only trailing Cleveland in both.
It hasn’t been helped by arguably the worst special teams in the league this season. The unit reared its ugly head again on Thursday, starting with taking a delay of game penalty on Indy’s 17-yard line because only 10 men were lined up. That was followed by Brandon McManus not converting from 40 yards out, tying Cardinals kicker Phil Dawson with eight missed field-goal attempts, despite playing half of his games in a kicker haven.
Brock Osweiler replaced an injured Siemian in the second quarter, and actually provided a jolt to a Broncos offense that has struggled mightily for most of the season. Unfortunately, it was a smoke-and-mirrors performance; it came against a lackluster Colts defense and it shouldn’t answer the major question mark Denver has under center.
Elway hasn’t supplied the Broncos with considerable young talent in recent drafts either, which has hurt the team’s depth. No one from Denver’s seven-man 2013 draft class is on the roster anymore. The last Pro Bowler Elway drafted was Von Miller in 2011. 2016 first-rounder Paxton Lynch hasn’t inspired much faith that he’s the future signal-caller when he’s seen the field. Denver’s top pick this past draft, left tackle Garett Bolles at No. 20, leads the NFL by being flagged nine times for holding and has accrued 14 penalties overall.
Joseph wasn’t exactly set up to succeed in his first season given the Broncos’ personnel issues on offense, especially at quarterback. Elway should look in the mirror for why Denver has been a mess this season, instead of opting for a knee-jerk reaction that would create more problems than solve.