By Collin Brennan
Memories are always made in the grand spectacle that is the Super Bowl. Every year the Super Bowl serves as a snapshot of Americana and cements moments of the greatest players and teams to ever play America’s game. The fact that the big game turned 50 lends spectators to be even more sentimental than usual.
What needs to be remembered most from Super Bowl 50 is not Peyton Manning’s walk off into the sunset, or Cam Newton’s abysmal performance and subsequent poorly handled press conference, or even Beyonce’s backup dancers controversial wardrobe choice.
What Super Bowl 50 was about and what should stand the test of time is the 2015 Denver Broncos’ Defense.
With 6:34 left in the first quarter, facing a third and ten from their own 15, Cam Newton and the vaunted Panthers’ offense were already in jeopardy of facing their second consecutive three and out to start the game. They only had four three and outs in their last two playoff games combined.
In shotgun formation, Newton gets the snap and within two seconds is smashed face first by defensive end, and eventual Super Bowl MVP, Von Miller. In one violent motion, Miller rips the ball out of Newton’s giant 9.875 inch hands, letting defensive tackle Malik Jackson fall on the football in the endzone.
Broncos 10. Panthers 0. From that moment, the Denver Broncos defense was in complete control of the game. And for that matter, history.
Led by Miller, the Denver defense shut down Carolina’s number one ranked high powered offense and made the smooth, and at times unstoppable, Newton look lost and uncomfortable.
Going up against a 17-1 team with the number one scoring offense and the league MVP, Denver’s defense flat out bullied the heavy favorites and the self proclaimed “dabbing team of destiny” into submission. While Peyton Manning appears to grab most of the narratives and historical significance from the Super Bowl, it is this Denver Broncos defense that should go down as the heroes.
Looking back and going forward, we need to put the 2015 Denver Broncos with the likes of the 2013 Seattle Seahawks, 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers, 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2000 Baltimore Ravens, and yes, even the 1985 Chicago Bears as teams defined by their defenses. With his incredible schemes in the playoffs against the Patriots and Panthers, Denver’s defensive coordinator Wade Phillips should be in the conversation with Buddy Ryan and Dick Lebeau, as one of the best defensive play callers in modern day football.
When looking at the numbers, this Broncos defense is clearly one of the greatest ever assembled.
Before diving into the statistical evidence and comparisons that suggests this Denver defense is one of the greatest of all time we should take a moment to appreciate the way this defense played when it mattered most-in the playoffs- and the caliber of the opponents it played to get to and win Super Bowl 50.
In consecutive games, the Denver Broncos faced the fourth (Steelers), third (Patriots), and first (Panthers) ranked scoring offenses in the league. Facing two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks- in Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady- and this year’s league MVP in Newton, the Broncos defense would have their way in all three matchups.
Against Pittsburgh, Denver forced two fumbles (recovered one), sacked Roethlisberger three times, and held the Steelers to one touchdown and 16 points. Keeping in mind the Steelers were missing their top target in wide receiver in Antonio Brown, this performance will likely be the least memorable of the Broncos’ run to the Super Bowl.
Still, that is saying a lot when only allowing 16 points to the fourth ranked offense is the worst of the bunch.
Going up against the defending Super Bowl champs New England Patriots, the Denver defense literally crushed Tom Brady and the Patriots high powered offense. In 61 drop backs, the Broncos sacked Brady four times, hitting him another 16 times.
To put that in perspective, no quarterback had taken that many hits in any game this NFL season. Denver forced two interceptions and held the Patriots to 18 points- their second lowest total of the entire season.
“Denver did a good job defensively,” said New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick after the game. “Wade [Phillips] does a good job. He’s an excellent coach. He’s got a good scheme, does an excellent job of defending the team he plays against. He’s done that throughout his career.”
Former New England Patriot great Rodney Harrison said he’s never seen a defense take it to Tom Brady like the Broncos did in the AFC championship game.
“I felt really bad for Tom [Brady] because I had never seen him really get his butt kicked like that,” said Harrison. “I was sitting at home watching the game and I was just shaking my head. It’s crazy, because it just seemed like Wade Phillips really did a great job of scouting them and coming up with a great game plan.”
On the biggest stage, facing the number one scoring offense in the league in Carolina, the Broncos had their best performance of the year. Denver’s defense forced four turnovers, recorded seven sacks, scored the game’s first touchdown, and held the Panthers to ten points and 315 total yards. In other words, complete and total domination.
In the playoffs, against three of the best NFL offenses the Broncos defense allowed 14.6 points per game, and averaged 2.3 turnovers, 4.6 sacks, and allowed only four total touchdowns.
Here is how the Broncos playoff run stacks up against the averages of the other aforementioned greatest championship defenses.
Clearly the 1985 Bears and 2000 Ravens had the best performances in the playoffs and should be considered one and two, respectively, as the best defenses of all time. But compared to the other greats, the 2015 Broncos have every right to be in the conversation.
Denver averaged more sacks in their playoff run than every team except the Bears, and were nearly identical in points allowed to the Seahawks and Buccaneers.
When taking into account offensive opponents faced in the playoffs, the Broncos run is even more impressive. By looking at the offensive production of the opponents these defenses faced in the playoffs we can see that the Denver defense faced the second toughest matchups, only behind the 2013 Seahawks.
Below is a chart that averages the offensive points scored by the opponents these top defenses faced in the playoffs.
(For example, the 2013 Seahawks played the New Orleans Saints- 25.875 PPG, the San Francisco 49ers-25.375 PPG, and the Denver Broncos- 37.875 PPG. Add up the opponents offenses PPG and divide by three- for the divisional round, championship game, and Super Bowl- and you get the opponent’s point total average of 29.7.)
What this shows is how good the offenses were that these teams faced on the road to the Super Bowl.
Ironically, Denver would have had the most impressive run against top offensive opponents if Seattle did not play, off all teams, the 2013 Denver Broncos offense that scored a record 606 points and averaged 37.87 points per game in the 2013 regular season- which inflated the total point average of the opponents the Seahawks faced in the playoffs.
Of all these great defensive teams, the 2015 Denver Broncos is the only team to face opponents in the playoffs that were in the top five in scoring offense during the regular season. As great as the 2000 Ravens and 1985 Bears were, they did not play against offenses of the caliber that Denver had to play this postseason.
Not only were the offenses that Denver faced elite, but they were playing with their own offense that was statistically one of the worst to win a Super Bowl.
Despite having Peyton Manning as their starting quarterback and weapons like Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders on the outside, the Broncos offense did no favors for their defense in the Super Bowl- and for that matter, most of the year. The Broncos offense in 19 games only scored a total of 36 touchdowns, which is tied for the lowest touchdown total of any Super Bowl Champion with the Trent Dilfer led 2000 Ravens’ offense. Yikes.
And in the biggest game of the year, Manning and Denver pretty much laid an egg. The Broncos only managed one touchdown and 194 total yards- the lowest output in Super Bowl history. In short, Denver was literally carried to victory by their defense and that was the case all season long.
Michael Rosenberg of Sports Illustrated summed the Broncos season and Super Bowl victory:
They finished No. 1 in total yards, yards per play, yards per rush and yards per pass [in the regular season]. The only reason they did not finish No. 1 in scoring defense is that they had to play so much: the Denver offense couldn’t control the ball. Peyton Manning was not the reason Denver won the Super Bowl.The reason was defense. Simple, simple, simple.
When asked if Denver’s defense belong in the conversation as one of the greatest defenses of all time, hall of fame quarterback and current Broncos’ General Manager John Elway has no doubts.
“They kept getting stronger and stronger as the playoffs wore on,” said Elway. “I couldn’t be more proud of them. That is best defense I have ever seen.”
“We proved we’re the No. 1 defense,” Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe told the Denver Post. “If you ask me, or anybody else on this defense, we’re the best to ever do it.”
Joe Mahoney, a Broncos reporter for SB Nation, sums up Denver’s defense place amongst the all time best:
To hold the #4, #3 and #1 scoring offenses in the league to 14.6 ppg is a remarkable feat. That feat coupled with how anemic our offense was in the playoffs definitely qualifies our defense to be talked about with the 85 Bears, 00 Ravens, 02 Bucs and 13 Seahawks. All four of those teams won the Super Bowl on the backs of their elite defenses and in two of the five cases despite their weak offenses.
While most sports pundits and casual sports fans will focus on Peyton Manning’s’ legacy, any true football fan should recognize and appreciate witnessing one of the greatest defenses of all time.
Through an analytical lens, the 1985 Bears and 2000 Ravens still look to be one and two all-time, but the 2015 Denver Broncos can certainly compare to the 2002 Buccaneers and 2013 Seahawks.
In an age of football where rules are bent to help the offense, referees go out of their way to protect quarterbacks, and scoring reigns supreme, the 2015 Denver Broncos proved that yes, defenses do in fact win championships.
All stats were gathered from http://www.pro-football-reference.com/
Disclaimer: I did not compare this Denver team to defenses that played before 1980. Apologies to the 1970s Steelers Iron Curtain, but it is unfair to compare a 2015 defense to those before the game drastically changed to favor offensive production. Non-championship defenses were also excluded.