Four games into the 2023 season, the Denver Broncos had a historically bad defense, leading many fans and pundits to call for defensive coordinator Vance Joseph to be fired.
Broncos head coach Sean Payton stuck with Joseph, though, giving him time to turn things around. Payton’s patience in Joseph has seemingly paid off as Denver’s defense has turned a corner in recent weeks.
After being blasted by the Miami Dolphins 70-20 in Week 3, Denver’s defense had another poor showing against the Chicago Bears in Week 4, but the Broncos did manage to win that game 31-28. The Broncos allowed 31 points again the following week in a 31-21 loss to the New York Jets.
Since that Jets game, Denver’s defense has allowed 19, 17 and 9 points over the last three weeks, and two of those games were against the Kansas City Chiefs. So what changed on defense? How did the Broncos go from allowing 70 points in Miami to allowing just 9 points to Kansas City?
We don’t know the ins and outs of Denver’s scheme, but it’s easy to track personnel changes. Here’s a quick look at five big changes that have turned the Broncos’ defense around.
Benched CB Damarri Mathis
After struggling through the first six weeks of the season, Damarri Mathis was benched. The cornerback had some success in man coverage last year, but he was a liability in Joseph’s zone coverage this fall. So the Broncos benched Mathis and replaced him at CB2 with Fabian Moreau. The veteran cornerback has provided an instant improvement in the secondary.
Benched, then released CB Essang Bassey
Another key change in the secondary was the benching of Essang Bassey, who was then released a week later. Bassey began the season as Denver’s slot cornerback before Joseph switched to Ja’Quan McMillian. Over the last five weeks, McMillian has emerged as a key piece in the secondary.
Benched, then traded OLB Randy Gregory
Randy Gregory was underperforming both against the run and as a pass rusher early in the season. The team initially benched him before later trading him to the San Francisco 49ers. Shortly after Gregory’s departure, Baron Browning returned from the reserve/physically unable to perform list. Browning has quickly reminded fans that he is Denver’s best pass rusher, totaling three quarterback hits, two tackles behind the line, two sacks and a forced fumble in the Broncos’ big win over the Chiefs last week.
Benched, then released OLB Frank Clark
Gregory and Frank Clark were expected to begin the season as Denver’s starting outside linebackers, but Jonathon Cooper (a former seventh-round pick) ended up starting over Clark instead. Clark appeared in two games this season and was a big disappointment. The Broncos ultimately decided to cut Clark, and Cooper (4.5 sacks) and Nik Bonitto (5.5 sacks) have proven to be better options on the edge.
Key players returned from injuries
Browning wasn’t the only important member of the defense who was sidelined earlier this season. Broncos inside linebacker Josey Jewell left the Dolphins game with an injury and he also missed the next game. Denver safety Justin Simmons missed those same two games, which were arguably the Broncos’ worst defensive performances of the season. Denver was extremely thin at safety while Simmons was sidelined because Caden Sterns and P.J. Locke were both on injured reserve. Locke returned from IR in Week 6 and he is now starting in the place of a suspended Kareem Jackson. Locke has played well enough to keep the starting job even after Jackson returns, and Jewell, Simmons and Browning are all crucial players on defense. Not having those four pieces available earlier this season undoubtedly hurt the Broncos’ performance.
After making several key changes to the starting lineup and getting multiple starters back from injuries, Joseph seems to have gotten the defense back on track. The unit will face a big test after the bye when the Broncos go on the road to face the Buffalo Bills’ high-powered offense in Week 10.