Examining how Denver has turned it around, and whether it can be sustained

The Broncos are the NFL’s hottest team, a sentence that over a month ago would’ve been describing the heat of the flame inside the dumpster fire in Denver, now that the club has won a league-high five straight.

After Week 6, the Broncos were 1-5 with an epically embarrassing 70-20 defeat to the Dolphins on their resume and a lone win coming by three points against the Bears. Things couldn’t have gotten worse.

And they didn’t.

Because in the parity-driven NFL, every game is an opportunity, and Sean Payton’s squadron took full advantage.

They squeaked past the still-finding-themselves Packers 19-17, then bamboozled the previously unbamboozleable Patrick Mahomes to the tune of three Mahomes-inflicted turnovers in a convincing 24-9 win. An absolutely bananas 24-22 win in Buffalo out of the bye proved the throttling of Kansas City wasn’t a fluke. Then a one-point win to halt the Josh Dobbs train and now a comfortable handling of the Dorian Thompson-Robinson led Browns, and Russell Wilson and Co. are tied in the win-loss column with the currently No. 7 seed Colts.

October’s NFL laughingstock is squarely in the playoff hunt. Heck, they’re only two games back of the Chiefs for the AFC West crown.

How has it happened?
Somehow, after trading 2022 prized free-agent signing Randy Gregory, the Broncos went from the NFL’s third-worst pass rush from a pressure perspective (28.8% pressure rate), to the 12th-best at 39.5%. Every Gregory-less snap has been meant more opportunity for youngsters Nik Bonitto, Baron Browning, and Jonathan Cooper, and that trio has rocked with a hefty collective pressure-generation rate of 17.7%.

And the secondary has worked in tandem beautifully with the pass rusher, as the last five quarterbacks Denver’s faced — two of which were Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen — have a combined passer rating of 71.7.

Baked into the stunning defensive turnaround has been a philosophy shift from coordinator Vance Joseph. His unit was blitzing at the 15th-highest rate (28.4%) from Week 1 to Week 6. During the five-game win streak, the Broncos have blitzed at the fifth-highest rate in football at 37.4%. With that shift has come striking success.

Is it sustainable?
However, after a reprieve the past two weeks against a career backup — who is playing well — in Dobbs and a rookie in DTR, the next three opponents crank the intensity once again at the quarterback spot, on the road against C.J. Stroud, Justin Herbert, and Jared Goff.

I don’t foresee a collective quarterback rating of 71.7 against that trio — particularly because Stroud and Herbert have been awesome against the blitz — but it might not matter. Why?

The Broncos’ offense has slowly but surely started to resemble Payton’s vaunted Saints attacks as the season has progressed.

Frankly, the quarterback-coach fit with Payton and Russell Wilson seemed strange at the outset of this experiment in Denver. With Drew Brees, Payton deployed a pass-happy spread that required lightning-quick decisions and surgical accuracy underneath from its quarterback. That’s not even remotely close to how Wilson operated in his illustrious Seahawks career.

But Wilson has adjusted. While his time to throw is still astronomically high, his 7.2 average depth of target (aDOT) is easily the lowest of his career. His adjusted completion rate is over 80% for the first time as a professional, and his turnover-worthy play rate is the lowest it’s been (under 2.5%) for the first time since 2019.

During the five-game heater, Wilson has completed over 71% of his throws with eight touchdowns and no interceptions. Wilson is playing as close to Brees-ian football as is possible for Wilson, who naturally has a diametrically opposed style to the future Hall of Famer who flourished in Payton’s system for over a decade.

Like the defense, I do think Wilson will come back to Earth a bit because the now trusty ground game will have stiff tests against two top-tier run-stopping units in Houston and Detroit on the road. Essentially, the Broncos are going to need more than the 26.8 attempts Wilson has averaged during the five-game winning streak. Given his propensity to get sacked — 9.5% sack rate during the win streak — the more drop backs for Wilson, the more chances for opposing pass rushes to take him to the turf.

But even a slight regression over the next month won’t necessarily mean all will be lost in the future for the sizzling Broncos.

The AFC has more parity than ever, with a whopping 12 teams at five or more victories entering Week 13, so unless Denver’s streak screeches to an abrupt halt, Payton’s club will almost assuredly be at the very least squarely in the playoff hunt entering the final day on the calendar in 2023 — which is Week 17 — before the regular-season finale in Las Vegas against the Raiders.

And for the Broncos to be squarely in the hunt after Year 1 of the Russell Wilson era and the cataclysmic 1-5 start to Payton’s tenure, fans in Denver should be thrilled.

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