There is little doubt that the Denver Broncos quarterback situation is a large question mark entering the 2021 season. Having this sizable uncertainty in an otherwise solid roster has led many to opine that the defense will need to carry the team.
It makes sense because Vic Fangio is a very good defensive-minded coach and there are several impact players on that side of the ball. The first half of the season, based on this analysis, also bodes well for the defense.
Many people are hoping that the defense can carry the team just as the 2015 unit did with an aging Peyton Manning, who, at the time, was a shell of his former self. If the defense can be so elite in 2021, it renders the quarterback situation moot.
Some are even suggesting that this 2021 defense can be as good as 2015. It is understandable because fans have seen too many consecutive disappointing seasons and can only hope that something turns it around. The defense is the safest place to start.
However, comparing this defense to one of the greatest defenses in NFL history is unfathomable. Furthermore, placing faith in a great defense to carry a poor offense to a championship is not recommended.
Of the 55 Super Bowls all-time, only four teams have won with a top-5 defense in points against and an offense that ranked in the bottom half of the league. The old adage that defense wins championships is not entirely correct, because most teams that have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy have had a good team on both sides of the ball. It's rare that a defense alone can bring home that elusive hardware.
In other words, for those hoping the defense can carry the Broncos to the Promised Land, don’t bet your life savings, even if this defense is as good as one of the best all-time. To be honest, this team does not stack up against the Broncos' 2015 defense. It becomes obvious when the personnel groupings are compared.
Let's do the side-by-side analysis and put to bed the notion of Fangio's contemporary squad equaling that of the Super Bowl 50 champions.
In 2015, the Broncos had a starting lineup of Derek Wolfe, Sylvester Williams, and Malik Jackson. The 2021 squad projected starters are Dre’Mont Jones, Mike Purcell, and Shelby Harris.
Jones looks to be poised for a breakout season with his interior pass-rushing skills. Wolfe was also a good interior pass rusher and was solid against the run. Jones is not better than Wolfe in 2015, but his projected production could make it an even contest. A projection is no certainty.
Purcell is superior to Williams. Williams played fairly well in 2015, but needed two good players next to him to succeed. When Purcell entered the starting lineup, his presence was obvious. He gets the nod over Williams.
Finally, Jackson versus Harris. Harris has shown steady improvement and is a beast at batting down balls, but Jackson was on another level in 2015. His interior pass-rushing presence was key in making that defense so good. 2015 Jackson was superior to Harris.
The depth of that 2015 defense was very good. When Wade Phillips rotated the players on the defensive line, it rarely missed a beat. The depth on the 2015 defensive line is much better than the projected depth on the 2021 counterpart and when it comes to the D-trenches, good depth is extremely important.
The 2015 defensive line was better than this year’s counterpart.
Even though Von Miller is still on the team, it's tough to say he could be better than he was during that championship run. He was on a mission and it was evident to anyone watching the games.
However, he is still Miller and was very focused and in shape for the 2020 season before he suffered the ankle injury that ended his campaign before it started. It's not a stretch to believe that he is still going to play at an elite level in 2021.
DeMarcus Ware is a first-ballot Hall-of-Fame player the second he becomes eligible and he was a tremendous leader. His contributions in 2015 were good, but he was battling the injury bug and was at the end of his career.
Bradley Chubb is a terrific edge rusher coming into his prime. The sky is the limit for him. It is tough to imagine giving the edge to Chubb over a soon-to-be Hall-of-Famer, but comparing what stage each of their careers are/were, is warranted.
The depth at the edge rushers this season is not as solid as it was on that all-time great team. Shaquil Barrett and Shane Ray coming off the bench is flat-out better than Malik Reed and a bunch of unknowns vying for that fourth spot.
The edge (no pun intended) goes to the 2015 team.
If anyone claims that Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson are a better duo than Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall, they need their head examined. On an individual basis, Johnson has better instincts than Marshall, but not the athleticism. Trevathan was far superior to Jewell. The 2015 duo was ]also are better in coverage.
The projected depth on the 2021 team looks to be superior. In fact, Baron Browning may wrestle the starting spot away from Jewell or Johnson before the season is over and Justin Strnad could be a huge surprise if he has recovered from his injury in 2020.
The 2015 off-ball linebackers are better than this year’s squad, but it could look a lot closer if Browning and Strnad fulfill the promise they show.
This is the only position group that has a shot at supplanting the 2015 players in talent. Darian Stewart had the best seasons of his career while wearing the Orange and Blue, but Justin Simmons is a better player all around. Simmons already has a second-team All-Pro accolade under his belt and he can ascend to being one of the best safeties in the game.
T.J. Ward was an enforcer and was surprisingly good a matching up with tight ends. He was an integral piece of that championship secondary.
However, moving Kareem Jackson to safety was a wise move by Fangio. He has excelled at that position. He is a hard hitter and can cover. Ward versus Jackson is fairly even.
The depth was decent, but not spectacular on the 2015 defense. The 2021 team has two rookies that look good, but are obviously unproven.
The 2021 safety group could prove to be better when the season is over, but they're about even right now.
This is where the biggest gap appears. There is no way that the 2021 cornerback personnel is better than the trio of Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, Jr., and Bradley Roby, regardless of what combination of Pat Surtain II, Ronald Darby, Bryce Callahan, and Kyle Fuller is put out there on the field.
Talib is one of the best play-making cornerbacks of all time and will have a bronze bust in Canton if voters can get past his unsavory antics. Harris is arguably the best slot corner in history. That duo is hard to beat and Roby, although he did not quite live up to his first-round pedigree, was an opportunistic player who could hold his own in coverage.
Surtain could become a great player, but he is a rookie and will have his growing pains. The others in no way stack up against Talib and Harris. They're good, but not elite and there are injury concerns.
The depth this year could be better than the 2015 team, but that cannot outweigh the talent of Talib and Harris.
The 2015 cornerback group is easily superior to the 2021 group.
The 2015 team is superior at each personnel group except at safety. All of Broncos Country would be pleased as punch if the 2021 defense becomes one of the best ever, but it's unlikely.
More likely, it will be a very good defense. It will carry the Broncos, but if one of the quarterbacks doesn’t step up, it will be a similar finish to 2016. Good enough to challenge for the playoffs, but not elite enough to get the team to the Super Bowl and maybe not quite good enough to qualify for January football.
Follow Thomas on Twitter @ThomasHallNFL.
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