The defense is now the Denver Broncos' biggest problem

2RXRJ55 Miami Dolphins wide receiver River Cracraft (85) gets to his feet after a tackle by Denver Broncos cornerback Damarri Mathis (27), during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

• A massive drop since the Bradley Chubb trade: Through eight games of the 2022 season, Chubb led the team in sacks (6) and had racked up 26 total pressures, good for a 79.2 pass-rush grade. Since the trade, the Broncos’ pass rush has been nonexistent. In that span, the team ranks in the bottom three in sacks, pressure percentage, pass-rush win percentage and pass-rush productivity.

As the pass rush has deteriorated, so too has the coverage: Since Week 9 of last season, the Broncos have allowed nearly 73% of passes to be completed. They’ve allowed 25 passing touchdowns, most in the NFL, and they rank in the bottom three in passer rating allowed and yards allowed per coverage snap.

Dig into the numbers for yourself: PFF's Premium Stats is the most in-depth collection of NFL and NCAA player performance data. Subscribe today to get full access!

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes


Sean Payton’s priority as the new Denver Broncos head coach was to make something productive out of the 2022 version of quarterback Russell Wilson. He appears to have succeeded, but now Payton has an even bigger problem on his hands.

The defense was supposed to be Denver's strong suit coming into the season, but the entire football world saw the group allow 70 points and 726 yards to the Dolphins in Week 3. The Dolphins are spectacular, but this was not merely a fluke performance for the Broncos defense.

Broncos overall defensive grades, 2023

Week/Opponent Team Defensive Grade
Week 1 vs. Raiders 59.0
Week 2 vs. Commanders 60.4
Week 3 at Dolphins 28.1

Obviously, the Week 3 results were atrocious, but the Broncos defense didn’t play well in the first two games, either. They pressured Raiders quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo just four times in Week 1 and then allowed 35 points to Sam Howell and the Washington Commanders in Howell’s third career start.

After three full weeks of the season, their 40.4 defensive grade is the worst in the NFL by a mile. They also rank dead last in yards allowed per play (7.3), expected points added (EPA) allowed per play (0.313) and success rate allowed (51.6%). 

There’s likely a school of thought that new defensive coordinator Vance Joseph doesn’t have a handle on his unit. However, this season’s horrid start is a culmination of issues that began midway through last season.

2022 Week 1-8 Metric 2022 Week 9-present
79.6 (2nd) Defense grade 57.9 (29th)
77.0 (6th) Pass-rush grade 56.1 (31st)
90.5 (1st) Coverage grade 55.6 (31st)
63.3 (14th) Run-defense grade 64.0 (18th)

While the run defense has been consistent, Denver’s pass defense has dropped off a cliff at every level. 

So, what happened after Week 8 of last season that changed everything? They traded edge defender Bradley Chubb — ironically, to Miami.

Through eight games of the 2022 season, Chubb led the team in sacks (6) and had racked up 26 total pressures, good for a 79.2 pass-rush grade.

Since the trade, the Broncos’ pass rush has been nonexistent. In that span, the team ranks in the bottom three in sacks, pressure percentage, pass-rush win percentage and pass-rush productivity. The only pass rush that is definitively worse than Denver's is Chicago's. 

Consequently, as the pass rush has deteriorated, so too has the coverage. Since Week 9 of last season, they have allowed nearly 73% of passes to be completed. They’ve allowed 25 passing touchdowns, most in the NFL, and they rank in the bottom three in passer rating allowed and yards allowed per coverage snap.

On the rare occasion that the Broncos have gotten pressure, their coverage grade is a similarly poor 52.9. They aren’t getting it done at any level. What was supposed to be a sterling secondary has suddenly become a bottom-three unit, and far too many explosive plays have been allowed.

Last season was a nightmare on offense for Denver. They were the lowest-scoring team in football, and their defense was forced to carry the load en route to a five-win season.

While Denver acquired a first-round pick for Chubb, it was turned around and traded to acquire Sean Payton. Now, Payton is left with a severely diminished unit that is allowing the most points in the NFL.

If this pace continues, the Broncos will likely suffer through another hopeless year.

Subscriptions

Unlock the 2023 Fantasy Draft Kit, with League Sync, Live Draft Assistant, PFF Grades & Data Platform that powers all 32 Pro Teams

$31 Draft Kit Fee + $8.99/mo
OR
$89.88/yr + FREE Draft Kit