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Take it away now. Turnovers define Broncos' remarkable rebound

Defense delivers 16 takeaways during five-game winning streak
Browns Broncos Football
Posted at 3:26 PM, Nov 27, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-28 14:37:31-05

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Since the Broncos became the AFC’s hottest team last month, it has been fascinating to see the explanations for Denver’s startling transformation.

Ozempic is the easy answer in Hollywood. For the Broncos, it is a little more nuanced.

The Broncos woke up Monday morning snugly in the playoff race with a 6-5 record because they know who they are. Denver has evolved into a physical team, willing to win more gritty than pretty. The Broncos are flying around defensively, limiting mistakes offensively and winning in the special teams margins. However, the five-game winning streak — the team’s first in the regular season since starting the 2015 season 7-0 — is rooted in one statistic: takeaways.

Denver leads the league with 22 takeaways and 12 fumble recoveries.

They should play Jane’s Addiction’s “Been Caught Stealing” when they introduce the defense. The Broncos have produced 16 takeaways over the last five games, and 15 over the last four, the most since 1989. The turnover margin is +13 during the streak and +12 over the past four games. For the past seven years, the Broncos continued colliding with history for all the wrong seasons — six straight losing seasons, 16 straight defeats to the Chiefs, seven consecutive losses on Monday night. They have been erasing those indignities this month, needing three more victories to secure a winning record and likely four for a postseason berth, the first since belting the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50.

Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph deserves flowers for not panicking after the Dolphins Debacle, a game coach Sean Payton admitted “we are going to be able to reference in a bunch of different ways for the rest of our lives.” The Broncos allowed 70 points on that humid Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium. The defense has yielded 80 over the past five games.

“I appreciate how (Joseph) stuck with us. He said we still could be an elite defense after the Miami game. He kept going with us. And we stuck with him,” outside linebacker Nik Bonitto said. “He believed in us, and we gained more confidence every week and now we are playing at a really high level.”

Talking to players, they relay how Joseph remained calmer than a lagoon amidst the turbulence. He refused to point fingers, other than in the mirror. He told the defenders in meetings that they were close even if the statistics suggested otherwise. So, with simplified verbiage, better communication, and personnel changes – Ja’Quan McMillian took over at nickelback, Mike Purcell played alongside defensive lineman D.J. Jones, Drew Sanders added versatility at outside linebacker – the Broncos defense has found its fangs.

They are playing with swagger, confidence, attitude. They are playing for something bigger than themselves: their team, their coaches, the teammate next to them.

“Oh, it feels great. For us, we are going to take it one game at a time. We can’t look too far ahead, but one week at a time we are going to keep stacking these wins,” said Purcell, who recovered a fumble in Sunday’s win over the Browns. “Winning is fun. Period. We are out there having fun.”

Where adjectives fail to articulate this rocket ride, the numbers succeed.

A look at the first six games compared to the last five:

Broncos record: 5-0
Points per game differential: +7.3
Opponents points per game: 16.0
Takeaways: 16
Turnover margin: +13

Broncos record: 1-5
Points per game differential: -11.8
Opponents points per game: 33.3
Takeaways: 6
Turnover margin: -5

There is flipping the script, and there is turning it on its head and executing a Tombstone Piledriver. The Broncos are allowing 17 points fewer per game. The turnover margin has gone from under water to the best in the league during this stretch. The opportunistic defense has benefited peripheral statistics when making the before and during the streak comparisons. Pre streak, the Broncos allowed 440.3 yards, 172.3 rushing and 268 passing. During the streak, the Broncos are allowing 326 yards and 191 passing.

The Broncos also have limited opponents to a 33% success rate on third down, while their offense is converting at a 38% rate. As the numbers are extrapolated, the story of 6-5 begins to make more sense. The Broncos take the ball away, don’t give it away and make just enough plays in the red zone.

As Denver begins a stretch of three-straight road games, including as underdogs at Houston this Sunday, it’s fair to wonder if this is sustainable. Regardless, the Broncos careened into a ditch to start the season, and nothing can take away this remarkable U-turn.