Year In Review: 2016 Denver Broncos Defense

With the 2016 season in the books, Adam Uribes breaks down the Broncos defense, from the most valuable player to the biggest disappointments.

The 2015 Denver Broncos defense was a unit for the ages. Mentioned along side other greats like the 1985 Chicago Bears or the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, Denver rode a dominant front seven and a ball-hawking secondary all the way to a Super Bowl title last February.

Residing among such lofty company, it’s hard for the team’s performance to go anywhere but down. While this season’s defense was stout in several areas, it didn’t measure up to the magical group that left it's fingerprints all over last year’s Championship season.

By no means were the 2016 Broncos a group of slouches. They still compared favorably against the other elite defenses around the league. With another season in the books, let’s take a look at some notables.

Most Valuable Player: Von Miller, OLB

Did you really think it could be anyone other than the Vonster? Miller led the team and the AFC in sacks with 13.5. If that sounds like a low amount for him, he also placed third on the Broncos with 78 total stops, 62 of which were solo, proving that Miller was a force all over the field. 

While AFC West counterpart Khalil Mack is considered a front-runner for the Defensive Player of the Year award, Miller boasts better numbers in all those key statistics, while only two behind Mack in forced fumbles. Seeing the evolution of Miller — going from being known as a pass-rusher to an all-around elite defender — has been truly special. Despite demanding constant double and even triple-teams, Miller found other ways to impact a football game.

Miller can be split out wide on tight ends or running backs in coverage, force fumbles in the run game and dictate to opposing offenses the need to defend the rest of the Denver pass rush one-on-one.

To some, there will always be questions surrounding the mega-deal that he signed last offseason that made him the highest-paid defender in the NFL. While he doesn’t play the quarterback position on the field, he is by far the most irreplaceable asset on the defense and on the team as a whole. 

Miller was elected to his fifth Pro Bowl this year, and named as a first-team All-Pro for the third time in his career. He's been a dual accolade guy (Pro Bowl/All-Pro) in every season as a pro, with the exception of his suspension and injury-plagued 2013 campaign. 

Honorable Mentions: CB Aqib Talib (Pro Bowl/All-Pro), CB Chris Harris, Jr. (Pro Bowl/All-Pro, SS T.J. Ward.

Most Disappointing Player: Todd Davis, ILB

The biggest drop the Broncos defense experienced this year was in stopping the run. Yes, the No Fly Zone proved to be top shelf again, finishing first in the NFL in passing defense, allowing just 2,972 yards through the air.

But, a big reason for those numbers were teams choosing to run the ball against a unit that gave up yards by the chunks, especially in losses to Oakland and Atlanta.

One of the most notable differences between the 2015 Broncos and their 22016 counterparts was the inability to keep the team out of third-and-short situations. A group that excels at rushing the passer was forced to sit on the hands for large sections of games simply due to the inability to slow down the run. Losing ILB Danny Trevathan hurt, but Davis was considered to be a capable replacement. Davis did lead the team in tackles in his first season as a starter but failed to crack triple digits in that area, an evident drop-off from Trevathan.

And to Davis' credit, he did not miss a single tackle in 2016. Opposing teams also targeted the run-stuffer in the passing game and any team with running backs who could catch the ball out of the backfield, frequently exposed Davis' weakness in coverage.

Free agency forces teams to cut costs when they can and Davis showed why he’s incapable of being a three-down ‘backer in a pass happy league. Look for Denver to address this in free agency or the draft.

Dishonorable Mentions: NT Sylvester Williams, DE Adam Gotsis, CB Bradley Roby

Player On The Rise: Justin Simmons, S

GM John Elway uncovered another gem when he selected Justin Simmons out of Boston College last spring. Initially thought to be a bit of a tweener — too slow for cornerback, too small for safety — Simmons still lends tremendous raw physical gifts to the safety position, as his 40-inch vertical jump and his 126-inch broad jump would indicate.

A wrist injury cost Simmons playing time in the middle of year, but upon his return, had one of the best plays of the season in a Week 10 win against the New Orleans Saints. After Drew Brees completed a long touchdown pass to tie the game up late in the fourth quarter, the Saints looked to take the lead with an afterthought extra point.

That was until Simmons literally jumped into action, leaping over a wall of Saints blockers to get a hand on the attempt and deflecting the ball into the hands of fellow rookie safety Will Parks, who would take it  back for a walk-off two-point conversion that helped Denver take home the win.

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Simmons finished the year strong with two picks in the final two games against the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders, to go along with 30 total tackles and a sack. As if the Denver secondary needed any more talent added to it's ranks, Simmons appears to have a bright future ahead of him.

Honorable Mentions: SS Will Parks, ILB Zaire Anderson, OLB Shane Ray

With defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' status up in the air, questions loom ahead. Will Phillips be back for another season and if so, how long will he continue coaching at almost 70 years old?

Do the Broncos take another step back in performance with a different coordinator? Too many questions and not enough answers create uncertain times when it comes to football in Broncos Country.

Still, John Elway has done a masterful job in building a defense through the draft and free agency. With money burning a hole in his pocket and another bevy of draft picks soon at his disposal, Elway will have ample opportunities to return his defense to it's prior prestige. 

Adam Uribes is an Analyst for Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @auribes37.

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