Home > NFL > An important part of the Tim Tebow debate: the strength of the Denver Broncos defense was a myth

An important part of the Tim Tebow debate: the strength of the Denver Broncos defense was a myth

The Denver Broncos accomplished far more this season than anyone could have imagined without some scenario where Kyle Orton would have challenged for pro-bowl consideration.  Not only did that not happen, but Orton actually BEAT the Denver Broncos this season as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs.  Despite that, the Broncos overcame everything including a 1-4 start to beat the odds and capture their first AFC West crown since 2005.  Not only that, but they went on to win their home playoff game against all odds, matching the accomplishments of the best post-Elway Broncos team in everything but total wins (Mike Shanahan won 11 games twice after Elway).

The Broncos season really can’t be viewed as anything but a massive success.  Sure, the ability to make the playoffs ended up coming entirely from out of their control after Week 14 (San Diego, Oakland a combined 3-3 in those must-win weeks), especially for the team that had by far the easiest schedule down the stretch of any AFC West team.  And had the Broncos missed the postseason, we would never have had the opportunity to use a playoff victory as a grounds for team success.  So yes, they got lucky along the way.  Plenty lucky, actually.

The Broncos-luck relationship often gets framed as a struggle between offense and defense, where Tebow and the Broncos offense is considered to be extremely fortunate to be playing for the win at the end of every week with a point total typically around 10.  And while there are individual examples of games the Broncos could not have won without exceptional defensive effort, they proved to be the exception, not the rule.

Statistically speaking, the Broncos defense finished 19th in total DVOA this year, 18th in weighted DVOA (which completely discounts the Kyle Orton games), and 24th against the pass despite a pass rush that improved over the course of the season.  On a down by down basis, the Denver Broncos actually had a worse defense against the pass than the putrid Oakland Raiders, who would have won the division with even a modicum of end-of-season defensive discretion.  This is a defense that was just bad on the back end most of the year.

How did the Broncos keep scoring defense under control in the regular season?  Look at their opponents.  In the NFL, points come out of the passing game.  That doesn’t mean all good offense comes out of the passing game (we’ll get to Tebow in a minute), but that’s how you score points.  The Broncos beat these teams this year: Andy Dalton’s Bengals, Matt Moore’s Dolphins, Carson Palmer’s Raiders, Matt Cassel’s Chiefs, Mark Sanchez’ Jets, Philip Rivers’ Chargers, Christian Ponder’s Vikings, and Caleb Hanie’s Bears.  They gave up points in excess of 20 in two wins, against the Raiders and Vikings.  That’s not exactly the record of a great passing defense.  Sure, the Chargers can go off against any team, and the Bengals had a decent year throwing the football, and the Raiders were at times this year a good passing offense, but that is an awful record.

And Tebow, with some timely special teams help, manged to win 2 of his 5 starts (plus 1 and 2 in the playoffs) in which the Broncos defense surrendered 24 or more points to the opponent.  If that’s what Tim Tebow actually was in year two, a 40% winner in games where everything else was equal, he’d be a strong candidate for a year 3 breakout.  But that’s not what Tebow actually was.  He was a 40% winner in starts where his defense got torched.  Tebow won six of his seven starts where the other team’s offense simply failed to perform at an adequate level for 4 quarters.

So yes, Tim Tebow had a lot of help all year long.  When he got it, he was practically unbeatable.  When he didn’t get it, he still won between 40-50% of his starts.  If the Broncos don’t improve as an organization (or a defense) heading into 2012, Tebow may struggle to produce another 8 win season.  He and the Broncos caught plenty of breaks this year, more perhaps than they deserved.  They weren’t great at any one thing.  They were consistently above average at running the football.  They made timely plays.  This was a much improved Broncos team.

But to perpetuate the myth that the Broncos were a great defensive team that kept their offense in the games all season would not be accurate.  They were a 4th place team playing a 4th place schedule in a league that believes any team can win 8 games in any year.  In 2011, the Denver Broncos did not feature a special defense.  They could be better described as the “any team” of 2011.

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