Denver defense deserves recognition for growth this year

Alexander Johnson. Credit: David Berding, USA TODAY Sports.
Alexander Johnson. Credit: David Berding, USA TODAY Sports.

Without a doubt, this season has been difficult for Denver Broncos fans. But, there has been a bright spot, in the defense and their growth as a unit.

Back in August, a new coaching staff brought high hopes, but those were quickly dashed by an 0-4 start. And during that sorry September, what was most shocking was the lack of execution by the defense.

Zero sacks and zero forced turnovers through the first three weeks, a dubious NFL record for awful play. On top of that, the Broncos run defense was 30th in the league, allowing an alarming 149.3 yards per game on the ground.

But then, it happened.

Alexander Johnson and Mike Purcell were inserted into the lineup, simultaneously injecting life into the middle of Denver’s defense. Johnson enjoyed an interception in the end zone in his first game at the NFL level, and Kareem Jackson saved a pivotal touchdown just before halftime in the team’s first win of the year against the Chargers.

The next week, Denver’s defense built off the momentum and enjoyed their first shutout since 2017 while forcing their most turnovers (3) in a game this year.

Unfortunately, that momentum died with the worst defensive performance of the year, a 30-6 loss at the hands of the Chiefs, but that unit again bounced back.

The defense did enough to hold on and beat the Browns, and even though they were burned on big passes late, they played great football against a tremendously talented offense in the Minnesota Vikings. Denver held the great Dalvin Cook — the NFL’s leading rusher — to a mere 26 rushing yards and 2.5 YPC.

Going back to Week 4, the Broncos were 30th in run defense. Now, thanks to allowing keeping teams under the century mark on the ground in five of the last six games, Denver has catapulted to 11th-best run defense (100.5 YPG).

And, that growth isn’t just reflected in the ground defense, but in the defense overall.

The Broncos currently rank in the Top-10 in total yards (310.8, 4th), points allowed (19.7, 7th), passing yards and touchdowns (both 5th-best), rushing yards per attempt (3.9) and more.

Maybe their most impressive stat is their 2nd-best red zone percentage (41.38) while Denver’s defense is allowing opponents to convert on 3rd downs a mere 34.88 percent (7th-best).

So, what happened to create this great jump in defensive play?

Certainly, Johnson and Purcell have something to do with it.

Denver desperately needed an inside linebacker to step up and start dominating; Johnson was their man. After missing out on the first three years of his career due to rape allegations, Johnson plays with a reckless abandon. He plays with his hair on fire, like he missed the game and is just happy to be out there on every, single play. Johnson has started only six games but his 45 tackles are fourth-most on the team and he’s done just about everything a linebacker can on the field.

Purcell has brought a lunch-pail mentality to the field and his big body has helped Denver fill holes on the interior of the defense.

But, we’d be remiss to fail to mention the superstar-like growth of safety Justin Simmons this season. Simmons currently leads the team in interceptions (2) and passes defended (9) while opening eyes all across the country that he’s a Pro Bowl caliber player. His safety partner Jackson may have been out of position on those deep passes by the Vikings — which he owned up to — but those mistakes were the outliers on an otherwise great season from the newcomer.

Back closer to the line of scrimmage, DeMarcus Walker has finally come to life (4 sacks), Justin Hollins has shown flashes of brilliance and Shelby Harris was electric in the Minnesota game.

And, while he may be enjoying a slow season by his standards, Miller has been playing better as the season has gone on while Derek Wolfe (5 sacks) is enjoying a career year.

All told, Denver’s loaded with talent on the defensive side and they’re getting great performances from some players who were previously unheard-of.

Yes, this may be another failed season, as the Broncos won’t make the playoffs, but the future is bright on the defensive side in Denver with Vic Fangio and Ed Donatell calling the shots.

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