The Packers will be coming off a well-needed bye this Sunday as they head to the mountains to play the Denver Broncos. The Packers laid an egg in Vegas, and the Broncos just gave the Kansas City Chiefs a moderate scare on Thursday night, so how is Green Bay favored on the road by a point on DraftKings?
It’s impossible to tell the story of the 2023 Denver Broncos without mentioning their horrific defense. Remember that a positive DVOA for defense is a bad thing:
Hard to over-emphasize how terrible this Broncos defense is— Peter Bukowski (@Peter_Bukowski) October 16, 2023
30. Cardinals 17.8%
31. Bears 19.3%
32. Broncos 34.6% (!)
30. Cardinals 33.2%
31. Bears 37.6%
32. Broncos 53.4% (!!!)
Of course, the Broncos were on the losing end of getting absolutely curb-stomped by the Miami Dolphins, who dropped a cool SEVENTY on them in week three. The past two weeks have been better, with Zach Wilson being held to -.21 EPA-per-dropback and Patrick Mahomes held to a more respectable +.18 EPA-per-dropback. It’s worth noting how harmed Mahomes was by an interception where he was hit as he threw it. The Chiefs passing success rate in that game was actually higher (58%) than what the Broncos have been allowing on the season (54.6%). Why is the Broncos defense struggling so much? They have one of the worst pressure rates in the league. Denver only has one player (Jonathon Cooper) who ranks in the top 75 in pressure rate in the league. They just cast off one of their EDGE rushers, Randy Gregory.
On the coverage front, Damarri Mathis has been a mess. Only six corners have been targeted more often than Mathis, Only one of those has allowed more yards and a higher catch percentage. Mathis has also committed the ninth most penalties of any corner in the league at four. For whatever PFF’s coverage grades are worth, Mathis ranks third worst. On the opposite side, Patrick Surtain has been fine, though a meaningful step down from his normal play. Linebackers Alex Singleton and Josey Jewell have both been allowing a ton of production in the passing game. Outside of Surtain and a couple of Kareem Jackson interceptions, this unit has been a mess across the board.
Not only is Denver’s pass defense porous, but their run defense ranks 30th in EPA-per-rush. Now on a per-play basis, their success rate allowed is more respectable at 19th. Tackling is a major issue for the team. EDGE Nik Bonitto has missed 35% of his tackle attempts so far. Damarri Mathis has missed 27%. Alex Singleton has missed 17%. Only including defenders with at least 100 snaps, the Broncos have five players with a PFF tackling grade below thirty. This could be a game where Aaron Jones’ availability could really swing the difference. When Denver is making tackles, their run defense is fine, but if you have an elusive runner, you can bust out for big plays.
The Packers' mediocre offense should be able to put up points on this team, though of course the same was true of a bad Vegas defense. This Broncos defense is even worse, though, and does not have anyone of the caliber of Maxx Crosby to break the game. Jordan Love has been alright when kept clean so far, and a hopefully healthy offensive line should be able to handle this weak Broncos pass rush. The run game will likely depend upon the availability of Aaron Jones, as AJ Dillon does not force missed tackles, which is what really leads to success against this Broncos defense.
On the other side of the ball, the Broncos are... something else. Russell Wilson has just completely fallen off a cliff since his time in Seattle. He still ranks 12th in EPA-per-dropback this season, but it’s just a far cry from what he used to be. In classic Russell Wilson fashion, he has remained accurate, with the ninth-highest adjusted completion percentage and is posting a +1.1 CPOE. Wilson, of course, is drawing his fair share of self-induced pressures, ranking second in the percentage of pressures caused by the quarterback. With Green Bay’s pass rush being very formidable, expect pressure early and often. Green Bay ranks sixth in pressure rate, and while Denver’s offensive line is fine in pass protection, the Packers can overwhelm a team in pressure packages. It’s worth noting how much of Wilson’s production this year has come on scrambles.
Wilson ranks 20th in purely passing EPA, but is third in rushing EPA. He isn’t scrambling as much as he used to, but he is still quite efficient when he does. Neither Courtland Sutton nor Jerry Jeudy have lived up to expectations, with both receivers fitting Steve Smith’s description of JAGs. They’re both fine, but neither is particularly efficient. Similar to his time in Seattle, Wilson rarely targets the tight end as Adam Trautman has just 16 targets this season and the fourth-lowest EPA of any qualified tight end. This passing game is fine-ish, but the combination of Russell Wilson naturally inviting pressure, plus the Broncos not targeting the middle of the field, which is where Green Bay is the weakest given the injuries at linebacker and the worse play of their safeties and slot corner, should provide the defense an opportunity to post some solid numbers on Sunday.
The Broncos' running game has been about as successful as Green Bay’s so far, with both rated as below-average units. Javonte Williams and AJ Dillon both sit at -.09 EPA-per-rush. Williams has the tenth-worst RYOE-per-carry of any qualified runningback despite facing heavy boxes on the fourth fewest carries this season. Teams have been sitting in two-high shells against Denver, and they have not punished them. The Packers' run defense is not a strength by any means, but they put together a very respectable performance against the bad Raiders rushing attack. Injuries at the second level will play a big part in how Green Bay performs against the Broncos' running game, but this is not a unit that should be able to line up and punch Green Bay in the mouth in a way that Detroit and Atlanta were able to.
One new wrinkle that may present a problem is rookie runningback Jaleel McLaughlin. He is posting 6.6 yards per carry and has three total touchdowns so far. McLaughlin ranks sixth in PFF grades amongst running backs. He ranks second in the league in yards-after-contact-per-attempt, behind only the phenom De’Von Achane. He only has 29 carries thus far, but if Denver starts to phase out Javonte Williams and give more carries to the diminutive speedster, that could present a problem for Green Bay, especially given the lack of speed at the second level if Quay Walker is out.
Despite playing on the road and on the back of two quite dejecting losses, I have to agree with Vegas here on Green Bay being mild favorites. Both teams have passing games that operate in fits-and-starts, but the Broncos' defense has been melted butter thus far, and while Green Bay’s is far from elite, a strong pass rush should be enough to carry the day and secure a rare road win in Denver.