Broncos DC Vance Joseph Reveals Two Improvements That 'Should Help Us Tremendously'

If Vance Joseph is able to really fix these two areas, the Denver Broncos defense will thrive.
Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Vance Joseph.
Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Vance Joseph. / David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
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The Denver Broncos defense was historically bad to open the 2023 season. All the awkward juju that accompanied Sean Payton's eyebrow-raising decision to hire Vance Joseph as defensive coordinator coalesced early in the season, reaching its zenith in the Broncos' humiliating 70-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins in Week 3.

It didn't get much better in the immediate aftermath of Denver's historic defeat in South Beach, as Joseph's unit relinquished 28 points to Justin Fields and the Chicago Bears the following week, and 31 points to Zach Wilson and the New York Jets in Week 5. Then something curious happened.

In Denver's Week 6 road tilt vs. the Kansas City Chiefs, Joseph's defense suddenly galvanized, holding Patrick Mahomes and company to just 19 points at Arrowhead. The game resulted in a loss, but it was a massive step forward for Joseph and the Broncos defensively.

From there, the Broncos' defense would go on a historic run that seemed polar-opposite to the ignominious distinctions it earned just a few weeks prior. Joseph's unit was pivotal in the Broncos getting the Mahomes/Chiefs monkey off their back in Week 8, defeating Kansas City 24-9 at Mile High, and limiting Andy Reid's offense to a measly nine points.

Denver's 15 takeaways from Week 8 through Week 12 were the most by an NFL team over a four-game stretch since 1989. The Broncos would finish with 26 takeaways on the season, leading the NFL in fumble recoveries, with 15.

Joseph's defense limited opponents to fewer than 20 points in seven of Denver's 17 games last season. There were clear improvements as the season marched on, but the unit came crashing back to Earth down the stretch, which also corresponded with Russell Wilson and the offense hitting a wall, culminating in the veteran quarterback's benching for the final two games.

Joseph redeemed himself, courtesty of that historic takeaway streak. His defense served as Denver's tip of the spear during the team's five-game winning streak.

It wasn't all roses from Week 6 on, obviously, and the Broncos couldn't stop a runny nose on the ground, finishing as the 30th-ranked rushing defense, but Joseph earned back some clout and a modicum of belief within both the fanbase and local press.

So, with that first awkward season back in the Mile High City now in the rearview mirror, what's the primary focus of improvement for Joseph and the Broncos defense?

“Obviously starting fast and not having the slow start we had last year on defense," Joseph said on the final day of mandatory minicamp back in June. "We have to get off to a better start. Obviously coaching better and playing better from Week 1 on. That’s obviously our goal. Once we get rolling, it’s going to be good. But just having a better start.”

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Denver Broncos linebacker Alex Singleton (49) tackles Buffalo Bills running back Devin Singletary (26) with the ball.
Denver Broncos linebacker Alex Singleton (49) tackles Buffalo Bills running back Devin Singletary (26) with the ball. / Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Indeed, starting stronger isn't just about getting off on more solid footing to open the season. It's about starting strong in each game. The Broncos allowed opponents to dig them into a hole early in games because they could not stop the run, relinquishing 137.1 yards per game on the ground.

Early success is also about each possession, which, once again, is linked to rushing defense. If opponents can easily pick up four-plus yards on first and second down, it makes it exceedingly tougher to get them off the field on the third down.

That's why the salary-cap-strapped Broncos budgeted a good portion of their resources to bolster the defensive line. That started by making the decision to let Mike Purcell and Jonathan Harris hit the bricks in free agency, and continued via the Malcolm Roach signing.

When we look back on the 2024 season, the John Franklin-Myers trade during the NFL draft could be viewed as Denver's biggest defensive game-changer. With Roach and Franklin-Myers in the fold, the Broncos now have a legit four-man rotation atop a D-line chart that includes Zach Allen and D.J. Jones.

“Last year with the rush defense, it wasn’t every game, it was just spotty," Joseph said. "I think having those two guys inside to hold a point for us and to change the L.O.S. [line of scrimmage], that’s important. With our run defense, both guys have a history of doing that. So that should help us tremendously."

Throw in promising young linemen like Matt Henningsen and Elijah Garcia, and the Broncos defense is no longer shockingly thin up front. The national perspective hasn't seemed all that impressed by Denver's D-line improvements, but don't let that vex you. The Broncos are significantly better up front, which should, in theory, have a tremendously positive cascading effect on the entire defense.

If the Broncos are able to limit opponents on first and second down, it will put much more pressure on quarterbacks and offensive coordinators on third. When an offense is facing a 3rd-&-short situation, coordinators have full command of the entire playbook.

3rd-&-long situations are much more limiting. It not only minimizes a defense's run/pass guessing game, but it allows the pass rushers to pin their ears back a bit more and get after the quarterback.

Like all things football, it's always a complementary balance. Stopping the run on first and second down is great, and arguably the first objective, but if you don't have the talent in the secondary to hold up in coverage, buying the pass rushers time to get home, it can all be for naught.

Similarly, even if a defense stops the run on the early downs, and even if the secondary holds up its end of the bargain, if a team's edge rushers are unable to win their one-on-one matchups and a quarterback is given longer than 2.5 seconds to make his reads, you're back to square one with a new set of downs. After all, even the best cornerbacks can only hold up in coverage for so long without getting grabby.

Thus, the three levels of defense live and die in a symbiotic relationship. It takes the right combination of coaching acumen, talent, and execution to succeed on defense, especially in a league that so favors the offense.

The Broncos also struggled with tackling consistency in Year 1 of Joseph's return. The middle of the defense, led by the inside linebackers, was as guilty as any. With Josey Jewell now collecting his paychecks in Carolina, it's up to Alex Singleton to lead a sure-fire tackling renaissance in Denver.

"Tackling was our issue with run defense," Joseph said. "So improving our tackling, that’s also going to help us. We gave up some big runs, and it wasn’t because of gap fits, it was missed tackles, so improving our tackling should help that."

The complementary demands of the game also stretch from one side of the ball to the other. Nothing makes life easier on a defense than having an offense that can stay on the field and score points.

That's Payton's side of the street. And the Broncos head coach hopes to have it all cleaned up and looking much tidier this year thanks to the addition of first-round quarterback Bo Nix.

We'll have a better idea of how these issues are shaping up when the cleats hit the grass for Broncos training camp on July 26. Stay tuned.

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Chad Jensen


Chad Jensen is the Founder of Mile High Huddle and creator of the wildly popular Mile High Huddle Podcast. Chad has been on the Denver Broncos beat since 2012 and is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America.