PHOENIX — **There's far more right than wrong with the Broncos' defense. Vance Joseph knows that.
The team's new head coach inherits a unit that is one of the best pass defenses in NFL history, leading the league in consecutive seasons against the pass — and doing so when the aerial game is more prominent than ever before.
But two things went askew last year: the Broncos' work against the run and their performance on the first series of games. This is where their potential for improvement lies — and where Joseph believes he can take an elite defense to new heights.
As Joseph scrutinized last season's game film, he realized the two shortcomings were connected — not by personnel, but by tactics and alignment.
"We've got to help those guys with different looks," Joseph said at the NFL Annual Meeting on Tuesday morning. "When you play a certain front all the time, and an offensive football team has a chance to practice all week, and they show up on Sundays and it looks the same, then they're going to move the ball on you."
Adding Domata Peko and Zach Kerr in free agency helps the effort, particularly because of Peko's proven ability to draw double-teams up front.
"His job is to sit in the A-gap and hold a center and guard off the 'backers — to keep those 'backers clean," Joseph said. "And he enjoys that job. He's a big man."
But it's not just about personnel and alignment.
It's about the Broncos' offense, too.
With the offense struggling to score points, teams didn't fall into the kind of deficits that forced them to pass. Thus, foes could avoid testing the dominant pillars of Denver's defense: Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller and perennial Pro Bowl cornerbacks Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib.
As a result, teams ran the football 482 times against the Broncos. Only the Browns and 49ers — who spent most of their games playing with deep deficits and finished a combined 3-29 — saw more rushes attempted against them.
"Overall, big picture, when you don't score points on offense, the opposing offenses feel no pressure to throw the football. So you get more runs," Joseph said. "If you're behind as an offense, you can't run the ball 65 percent of the time.
"That's what they saw last year, because they were so good on defense and they weren't scoring points on offense. So it affects the big picture. If a team's behind by 10 points, you won't see that many runs. So it's a big-picture issue. It wasn't just a defensive issue. It's the big picture."
And game after game, the first brush strokes on the big canvas frequently went against the Broncos. Opponents stymied their offense early in games, and the defense couldn't get off the field, despite its talent. The Broncos' first-quarter point differential of minus-54 was the second-worst in the NFL, and a league-best differential of plus-93 in the final three quarters wasn't enough to overcome it.
Few teams adjusted better than the Broncos, and on a per-possession basis they had the league's stingiest defense — after the first series. But by allowing more than two and a half times as many points per possession on the opening series (3.43) as the rest of the game (1.29), the Broncos led in just 35.8 percent of the time they played, while being tied or trailing 64.2 percent of the season.
Denver's first-possession woes never fully faded, despite a stretch in November and December when the Broncos did not allow an opening-series score in three consecutive games.
Joseph believes the path to changing that is to utilize different looks right away.
"You have to throw out your curveballs in the first 15 [plays], right?" he said.
After that, he and Defensive Coordinator Joe Woods will settle back into the basic packages that are the foundation of Denver's defense — knowing that an opposing coach could try and adapt to counter the alterations they cooked up.
From Phoenix, Joe Ellis, John Elway and Vance Joseph participate in the the NFL's annual league meeting to discuss league-wide topics. (photos by Andrew Mason)
"Now [the opposing coach] has to go back to the drawing board and say, 'What was that?' Then you come back with your bread and butter. The game slows down, and now you're back in the groove."
Joseph learned this philosophy while working under Mike Nolan with the San Francisco 49ers from 2005-08.
"He would always tell me, 'In the first 15 plays, whatever you put in new that week, give it to them early, because now [the opponent's] film study [and] game plan is out of whack,'" Joseph said. "Then you come back to your bread and butter. But you can't show them your hand in the first 15 [plays], because he's also worked 90 hours, so [the opposing coach] is ready for what he saw in practice.
"So if you show up with those same looks, guess what? It's NFL football. They're going to have success no matter how good you are on defense."
The Broncos know that well. Their defense, elite as it is, is not immune to gashings from opponents. The 2016 season proved that. Success in 2017 will be in large part defined by how well Joseph and the Broncos can use the concepts he noted Tuesday to fix it.