On the surface, the Denver Broncos defense in 2011 would appear to have been a below average group, allowing the ninth-most points per game (24.4) and forcing the fourth-fewest turnovers per game (1.13).
However, the problem with the defense may have stemmed from problems with the offense.
The Broncos offense, led by Tim Tebow for most of the season, punted after three plays on 31 percent of their drives. Only the 2-14 Colts had a worse three-and-out percentage (32 percent).
From 2001 to 2011, 19 teams went three-and-out at least 30 percent of their offensive drives, and none finished over .500 for the season. The 2011 Broncos were the third team to go .500 and the first to make the playoffs with such a rate.
This trend didn’t last the entire game for Denver though.
During the first three quarters, the Broncos went three-and-out nearly 37 percent of the time, forcing the defense to be on field over eight minutes per quarter on average.
In the fourth quarter, or “Tebow Time”, that rate dropped to 17 percent, with the defense on field for an average under seven minutes. Not surprisingly, the Broncos defense was at its best in the fourth with more rest.
Broncos Defense by Quarter
The Broncos picked up four of their nine interceptions in the fourth quarter last season, and made the jump from the fourth-worst completion percentage allowed in the first three quarters to the eighth-best in the fourth.
The pass rush was the biggest benefactor from the extra rest last season. The fourth quarter sack rate for Denver matched the rate of the first quarter, when the defense would be at its freshest.
Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller combined for 9.0 sacks in the fourth last season, each picking up 4.5 sacks, tied for 10th-most in the league. The duo combined for 12.0 sacks in the first three quarters.
ManningWith Peyton Manning now taking the reins at quarterback, Denver’s offense should be able to give the defense more consistent rest.
From 2001 to 2010, the Colts went three-and-out just 17 percent of the time, the best rate in the NFL over that span, and finished in the top 10 in the league every season. Without Manning last season the Colts went three-and-out 32 percent of the time, finishing last in the NFL.
If Manning can extend drives for Denver, the defense could produce at a high level.