Oh hey, Von Miller's back this week. Seems like as good a time as any to remind you that Denver has been this dominant with one of the best pass rushers in the league sitting on his ass.
There's a dumb storyline floating around regarding whether or not Miller's teammates will forgive him for landing a six-game suspension. This is, of course, stupid. There's no sport more mercenary than football, and few positions as easily quantified as a pass rusher. They create pressure—and god knows the Denver secondary could use the help.
Champ Bailey's season debut was supposed to help improve Denver's pass defense. Instead, sophomore receiver Justin Blackmon had the second-best game of his career, catching 14 receptions for 190 yards. Not all of Blackmon's receptions came on Bailey—Champ allowed eight catches for 95 yards on 12 targets according to Pro Football Focus—but enough to be sure that help won't be coming in the form of a 35-year-old cornerback. If Miller can keep Bailey and the rest of the defensive backs from having to cover longer than they're realistically capable, no one in Denver will give a damn if he's doing lines out of Roger Goodell's tighty whities in a few months.
Miller's return to the front seven should be especially impactful, because he fits the need. Denver has actually been superb at stopping the run—69.8 allowed rushing yards per game, best in the league, and a DVOA of -18.8% (5th) in its first five games. It's the pass rush that's the problem. Through six games, the Broncos have sacked the QB 17 times, tied for ninth-best in the league, but that sounds better than it really is since its Adjusted Sack Rate—which incorporates grounding intentional grounding penalties and adjusts for sacks per pass attempt, down and distance, and opponent quality—is significantly lower than average. Its overall pass defense DVOA was 28.9% through five games, sixth worst in the league—and that probably won't improve following the game against the Jaguars. It isn't faring any better with traditional metrics either, giving up a league-worst 337.7 passing yards per game.
Last year, when Miller played all 16 games, the defense held a nearly identical -18.1% rushing defense DVOA, but its pass defense came in at -10.5%. That is a massive difference. It's hard to pinpoint exactly how much is due to Miller's absence, but it's safe to say that regaining a player who accounted for 18.5 sacks last year will help correct that number.
To be fair to the rest of the defense, the passing defense breakdown is partly because the Denver offense has had the Broncos playing from ahead so often. Through six games, the Broncos have led their opponents about 19 out of 24 quarters of game time. Denver's average lead when starting a defensive drive has been a ridiculous 9.79, best in the league by far. (Kansas City, in second, has a 7.55 average lead.) Peyton Manning's touchdown factory forces teams to throw more often in an attempt to catch up, which explains the brevity of opponents' drives. Incomplete passes stop the clock. The time of possession per drive against Denver's defense is 2:17, fifth-shortest in the league. If Denver continues to force teams into trying to recover from early deficits, you'll see Von Miller crashing into opposing quarterbacks a lot over the rest of the season.
Think about that for a second: Denver's biggest vulnerability right now is exposing itself to the pass when it gets a lead. Now an elite, transformative pass rusher is about to materialize out of thin, mile-high air.
This season's Broncos are in the mold of 2012's Patriots: an explosive offense filled with talent, a virtually non-existent pass rush and a defense that yields yards but not points. With the offense scoring early and often, limiting opponents' play options, the Broncos' defense has less to worry about. Teams will throw more often, and Denver already knows that. But remember when Jacoby Jones broke its secondary last season? A repeat of that shitshow is a lot more likely if it doesn't get its pass rush together. But if it does, man, Denver looks like one scary sonofabitch.
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