ENGLEWOOD—There is a sharpness to Wade Phillips’ mind that cannot be diminished by age or blunt force.
It was not a broken rib that sent the 69-year-old Phillips to a local hospital for evaluation three weeks ago following a sideline collision with San Diego running back Melvin Gordon. It was a blow to the back of his head.
Phillips’ ribs are still a bit sore if considerably improved.
“They say it’ll take (three) more weeks before they completely heal but I can at least sleep at night,’’ said Phillips, the Denver Broncos’ defensive coordinator. “It was hard to sleep because I couldn’t move around.’’
His brain waves, though, remain perfectly wired as he accurately recited the difference between his historical defensive unit that won Denver a Super Bowl last season and the one that has helped the Broncos to a 7-3 record entering this bye week this season.
“Obviously, we’d like to be first in the league like we were last year,’’ Phillips said. “I think we’re fifth now but we’re No. 1 in pass defense. The run game we haven’t played as well but we’ve played some awfully good offensive teams this year. We’ve played a lot of high scoring teams, the highest-scoring teams in the league and a lot of the top quarterbacks.
“It’s pretty amazing where we are pass defense-wise with the quarterbacks we’ve played against. We’re probably ahead of where we were last year in that area. But we’ve got to shore up the run.’’
Denver’s D last year: No. 1 in total defense, allowing 283.1 yards per game and No. 4 in points allowed at 18.5.
Denver’s D this year: No. 5 in total defense, allowing 318.0 yards per game and No. 9 in points allowed at 18.9.
The scoring defense is slightly misleading as it compares to last year because this year’s Broncos’ offense has been more cooperative. Trevor Siemian’s unit has allowed but 8 points through 10 games this year on a safety and pick six. The 2015 Broncos’ offense was responsible for 22 points allowed on three Peyton Manning sixes (all within the first six games) and a safety.
Then again, this year’s defense has been more active in helping its offense. The Broncos are second in the NFL with 20 tackeaways, or 2.0 per game. Last year’s defense was tied for 7th in the league with 1.69 takeaways per game.
Overall, Denver’s D is slightly better against the pass this year but significantly worse against the run.
The Broncos last year: No. 1 in pass defense (199.6 yards per game), No. 3 against the run (83.6).
This year: No. 1 in pass defense (194.3 yards per game), No. 28 against the run (123.7).
The 5.3-yard per game improvement against the pass is impressive considering, as Phillips pointed out, the Broncos have played against six of the NFL’s seven-most prolific passers this year in Drew Brees, Matt Brees, Philip Rivers, Andrew Luck, Andy Dalton and Derek Carr.
The 40.1-yard retreat in the run game, though, is troubling. But as Phillips’ sharp mind and positive outlook mentioned, the Broncos’ run defense is less troubling following its latest game against the New Orleans Saints.
Pushing stats aside and bringing in the eye test, the swarming element that was evident with the Denver D last season returned for its game against the Saints.
“I think so. We played almost a flawless game in the first half,’’ Phillips said. “I mean it was unbelievable how good we are playing against a really good offense, a really good team. They had rushed for 248 yards (against San Francisco the week before). We had been hurt in the running game (giving up 218 yards against Oakland) and we really shut down their running game so that’s part of the swarm that’s coming back, too, which is what’s good.’’
It may be a coincidence but the Broncos’ defense played much better against the Saints when Phillips was coaching from the sideline than it did the week before when he and his painful ribs tried coordinating from the Oakland coaches’ box.
Phillips downplayed his impact, although there is a reason why he’s coached all but a couple games from the sidelines in his 34 seasons as a defensive coordinator.
“Yeah, because you can communicate with people,’’ he said. “I’m kind of a people person, anyway. I can talk to the secondary if there’s a bad play – or a good play. I can talk to them and then the coaches are right there, too, so I can relate easier. We’re still on the phone upstairs, but we can make adjustments easier.’’
There is realistic hope the Denver defense can return to its dominant play in the final six games even though it plays three combined games against Alex Smith and Marcus Mariota, quarterbacks who can both run and efficiently pass, and two games against Tom Brady and Carr, who are two of the league’s best pocket passers.
So why can Denver’s defense improve? Because its best defensive back, Aqib Talib, and defensive lineman, Derek Wolfe, are expected to return from their injuries this week.
“We coach better with good players that’s for sure,’’ Phillips said. “Especially great players. Those two are really great players.’’