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Denver D: First in red zone, but nearing record for fewest takeaways

With one game remaining, the Broncos have only generated 12 takeaways. The record for fewest is 13 set in 2008.
Credit: AP
Denver Broncos free safety Justin Simmons covers against the Los Angeles Chargers during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Whoever first applied “bend but not break” to football should have waited until Vic Fangio became the Broncos’ head coach.

Fangio has become the archetype of the oft-used term. In the 31 games since Fangio became in charge of the Broncos, their defense ranks No. 32 in the league with a mere 29 takeaways. They have just 12 this season with one game against the Las Vegas Raiders this Sunday at Empower Field at Mile High remaining. The team record for the fewest takeaways is 13 set in 2008, Mike Shanahan’s final year as head coach.

To think that in 1984, Denver's D compiled 55 takeaways.

Yet, also during Fangio’s two-year stretch, the Broncos rank No. 1 in red zone defense, allowing touchdowns on just 43.8 percent of opponents’ trips to inside the 20.

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In general, opposing offenses move the ball between the 20s on the Denver D at little risk, then slam on the brakes when the available field of operation gets condensed.

It could be the Broncos are dead last in taking the ball away because they lost star pass rusher Bradley Chubb for most of last season and another star pass rusher Von Miller for all of this one. Pressure on the quarterback can incite interceptions and the Broncos only had their two Pro Bowl edge rushers together for just four games the past two seasons.

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos outside linebacker Bradley Chubb (55) as Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jesse Davis defends during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Or it could be that after the Broncos strongly considered acquiring Devin Bush and Patrick Queen in the draft and Christian Kirksey in free agency they never did get an inside linebacker with the type of closing speed Fangio covets for his defense system. The Broncos only have four fumble recoveries this year. Their record low for a full season is 5, set in 2014 and tied last year. They recovered 24 fumbles in 1984.

Or it could be that the Broncos couldn’t keep one of their best cornerbacks, Bryce Callahan, healthy in either season or their other top cornerback, A.J. Bouye, this season.

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A case could also be made the Broncos' inefficiency in generating takeaways and prowess in the red zone is tied to Fangio’s style of defense. After all, the same players who cannot get their fair share of interceptions or fumbles are the same players who stand so tall and strong in the red area. Fangio has a reputation for playing zone on the back end and not blitzing up front.

But then again, in 2018, the year before Fangio became the Broncos’ head coach, who led the NFL in defensive takeaways? Fangio’s Chicago Bears with 36.  

"I think a lot of things play into that,'' Fangio said. "To say there's one thing or one reason only would be wrong. I think it's an accumulation of a lot of reasons, one of them being we've played a lot of good quarterbacks that haven't thrown a lot of interceptions.

"But we've got to do better at that, there's no two ways about it. We've got to be able to take the ball away at a much higher rater than we have. It's held us back."

Fewest takeaways Broncos history

Year … INT … FR … Total

2020 ….. 8 ….. 4 …… 12*

2008 ….. 6 ….. 7 …… 13

2010 … 10 ….. 6 …… 16

2011 …. 9 …… 7 ……. 16

1995 …. 7 …. 10 ……. 17

2017 .. 10 …… 7 ……. 17

*One game remaining.

To avoid tying or setting a dubious team record, the Broncos need two takeaways Sunday against the Raiders. Justin Simmons would likely have to be involved. The Broncos safety has five of the team’s 12 takeaways – four interceptions and a fumble recovery. But even he has gone five straight games without a takeaway.

Defensive takeaways have been half the Broncos’ problem in their 5-10 season. Offensive turnovers have been the other. The Broncos easily have the worst turnover differential this season with -20. Next worst, San Francisco, is -10. Makes one wonder how the Broncos won five games. Must have been forcing opponents into so many field goals.