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Denver Broncos

Broncos offense will oddly affect how defensive nucleus is remembered

04 October 2015: A Denver Broncos helmet rests on a cooler in action during a game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver, CO. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire)
Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire

Regardless of the Denver Broncos’ defensive quality during the Jack Del Rio years, those units will perpetually be overlooked due to what the Peyton Manning-led Bronco offenses accomplished.

Although a few players were present throughout the Manning era and played essential roles once the Broncos transformed into a defensive powerhouse, the Del Rio defenses (2012-14) and Wade Phillips’ subsequent stoppage assemblies aren’t really mentioned together.

One performed a supporting role, albeit largely well, while the other created one of the most dominant defensive showings in NFL history.

This separates the Broncos from some of the NFL’s other revered defenses, which played similar roles during their respective years of prominence. By this measure, what transpires this season will play a bigger part in defining this defense’s legacy than what occurred before the group’s historic run.

The Broncos still have the nucleus in place from Super Bowl 50. Missing the playoffs for a second straight season would threaten to slide them into the one-off category regarding historically successful defenses. While this is a grouping most teams would love to be in, it might slight the Broncos’ collection of talent — perhaps unfairly — since defenses without January appearances aren’t held in the same esteem as those which earned them consistently.

If Denver is to have another postseason chance, more offense will be required. Quarterbacks that didn’t even play in 2015 and some linemen who were not part of the Super Bowl 50 celebration will have a say in how this defensive era is remembered.

The Broncos’ defensive follow-up effort involved just 185.8 passing yards allowed per game in 2016, an effort that doubled as the seventh-best pass defense DVOA showing in the metric’s 28-season history. Viewed through traditional stats, the 2015 Broncos led the league in aerial deterrence but at 199.6 yards allowed per game. The 2015 defense, however, had the opportunity to craft a legendary playoff run while 2016’s group — with mostly the same cast — had to stop after 16 games. A 27th-ranked offense had something to do with that.

Modern defenses in the all-time conversation — like the 2010s Seahawks and early-2000s Buccaneers — peaked during their Super Bowl championship slates, but they also added adjacent playoff success centered around their defensive performances. Tampa Bay rolled to four straight postseasons (1999-02) on the strength of its defense, and Seattle is riding a five-season run around its own defense.

The Steel Curtain outfits had it easier in the 1970s prior to free agency breaking up teams, but they’re also remembered for a dominant stretch rather than one apex season.

These teams’ defenses may have been the primary reasons they are revered historically, but they received enough complementary help from their offenses to keep booking playoff berths. The Steelers’ offense became one of the league’s best, a multi-faceted juggernaut. Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch’s dual-threat attack gave the Seahawks’ defense sufficient support. The Bucs produced middling offenses, but they did enough to consistently get those teams into January. Although overshadowed by the Steelers, the Cowboys’ Doomsday defenses of the 1970s may have had the best offensive support.

The Broncos represent a strange historical outlier in pivoting immediately from offense-driven teams to defensively geared outfits. This makes this span harder to gauge.

Despite Von Miller and Chris Harris playing on every Bronco defense since 2011, their responsibilities became more intertwined with team success after Peyton Manning’s skills diminished. After his retirement, defensive success became more important.

These Bronco defenses’ reputations could suffer historically if Paxton Lynch or Trevor Siemian cannot guide this year’s iteration into the playoffs.

Denver Broncos quarterbacks Trevor Siemian (13) and Paxton Lynch during drills at the team's mandatory minicamp session Thursday, June 15, 2017, at the Broncos' headquarters in Englewood, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Even though the Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears are renowned for one transcendent season that secured a Vince Lombardi Trophy, those defenses helped their teams to the playoffs in future years — the Bears venturing to three straight from 1986-88 and the Ravens becoming involved in January journeys after the 2001 and ’03 seasons. Those defensive nuclei never went consecutive years without playoff berths.

Unless you’re keen on placing the Lawrence Taylor- and Bill Belichick-led Giants in there, no defense in the conversation for the best of the Super Bowl era has missed the playoffs in two straight years. That’s what the 2017 Broncos will try to avoid this season.

Perhaps there isn’t anything these Broncos can do. Maybe the 2015 team’s work will be celebrated solely, thereby isolating the brilliance to that one season. That’s an accomplishment few teams can match, with most Super Bowl champions not being mentioned as among the best to ever do it.

But missing the playoffs the following two years after such a dynamic championship statement could weaken the Broncos’ argument. It might not have much to do with their own performance.

A Steeler offense that gained an explosive aerial component in the late ’70s strengthened those defenses’ arguments historically — just by providing more opportunities to showcase their greatness. Wilson’s work puts the Seahawks’ defense in a better position to pad its numbers.

Denver might not advance to a second Super Bowl behind this defense, and Manning’s excellence in the years prior may provide a strange line of demarcation for the Broncos’ historical place. After all, the 2013 Broncos booked their Super Bowl with only two starters from their ’15 unit (Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan) healthy enough to play by season’s end. The second-ranked 2012 defense featured only Miller, Harris and Derek Wolfe from the title outfit.

That’s too much turnover to be grouped together, making the successors more relevant to the cause than the predecessors.

The 2017 group will have the entire secondary, along with Miller and Wolfe, back from Super Bowl 50. There is enough talent to make a case for a Bronco return to the AFC bracket if even a middling offense shows up. That would give the defense a chance to add to its legacy.

The 2016 team’s attack was definitively worse than the Manning- and Brock Osweiler-piloted offense. It could knock the group down a tier through little fault of its own.

While more nuance should be injected into these debates — the DVOA warriors comprising the 1991 Eagles’ defense would approve — that doesn’t exactly exist in television rundowns and various ranking programs, making team achievements paramount.

Denver’s 2017 offense shouldn’t have a say in how its defensive nucleus of this period will be remembered, but it will.

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