First-year coach Josh McDaniels was widely panned for trading Jay Cutler(notes) in the offseason, but his rebuilt defense has helped put the Denver Broncos in position for their first 5-0 start in 11 years.
To get his team its fifth win this week, McDaniels will have to defeat a familiar face in New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
In McDaniels’ first head-to-head battle with his mentor, the surprising Broncos face a major test Sunday when they host the Patriots, also riding the success of a new-look defense.
The 33-year-old McDaniels spent eight seasons under Belichick with New England, including the last three as offensive coordinator. His success in helping the Patriots to three Super Bowl wins made him a highly desirable coaching candidate and the Broncos (4-0) hired him in January.
McDaniels’ tenure in Denver got off to a rocky start with his controversial trade of Cutler, a Pro Bowl quarterback in 2008. The Broncos got quarterback Kyle Orton(notes) and three draft picks from Chicago in the deal, prompting criticism from fans and experts.
After the Cutler drama unfolded, McDaniels was set on revamping a defense that finished as one of the worst in the AFC, allowing 146.1 rushing yards per game and 228.5 through the air while creating a league-low 13 turnovers.
In an effort to address those problems, McDaniels brought in Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator. Nolan installed a 3-4 scheme that has paid significant dividends for the Broncos, who have allowed 26 points and two touchdowns - both league bests. The unit also ranks atop the AFC in yards allowed (239.8), sacks (15) and turnovers (10).
“I was on the field a lot, giving up big plays, everybody running around on us,” linebacker D.J. Williams(notes) said of the defense’s issues last season. “Now we’re on a defense like this, everybody’s making plays and stopping people.”
“To come out and do it against a great team shows we are a great team,” said Williams, in his sixth season with Denver.
The Broncos are also getting efficient play from Orton, who has completed 59.0 percent of his passes for 906 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions. He went 20 for 29 for 243 yards and two TDs against Dallas.
Denver is in position to improve to 5-0 for the first time since setting a franchise record by winning its first 13 in 1998 en route to its second Super Bowl victory.
The Broncos will try to keep this year’s undefeated start intact as they face perhaps their toughest test in the Patriots (3-1).
New England, which is facing an unbeaten team for the fifth time in a row, has been renowned for its superb offensive play centered on quarterback Tom Brady(notes), but its defense has been just as valuable this season.
The unit lost safety Rodney Harrison(notes) and linebacker Tedy Bruschi(notes) to retirement and cornerback Ellis Hobbs(notes), linebacker Mike Vrabel(notes) and defensive end Richard Seymour(notes) were traded. Star linebacker Jerod Mayo(notes) has also been out since hurting his knee in the first quarter of a season-opening win over Buffalo.
Despite those losses, the defense is fourth in the conference with an average of 287.5 yards against, and it’s held opponents to six touchdowns.
The unit’s latest success came in last Sunday’s 27-21 win over Baltimore. Cornerback Leigh Bodden’s(notes) interception late in the first half foiled one threat and a stop on fourth down in the fourth quarter ended another.
One of Baltimore’s touchdowns came on a recovery in the end zone of Brady’s fumble.
“You only give up 14 points on defense, there’s something to be said for that,” Belichick said. “We’d like it to be less. We would have liked to convert on more third downs and tackled better, and there were a lot of things we could have done better.
“But, at the same time, giving up 14 points on defense, that’s not bad defense.”
Brady went 21 for 32 for 258 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score against the Ravens. He hasn’t had much success in four games at Denver, throwing seven touchdowns and seven picks with the Patriots winning only one of those meetings.
The Patriots lost their last trip to Denver 27-13 in the divisional playoffs on Jan. 14, 2006.
In last season’s meeting in Foxborough, however, the Patriots accumulated 404 yards and forced five turnovers to beat the Broncos 41-7.
New England could have a hard time putting together a repeat performance against a defense featuring a re-invigorated Elvis Dumervil(notes), who is tied with Cincinnati’s Antwan Odom(notes) for the NFL lead with eight sacks. Dumervil, who is being used as a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker, had five sacks last season after getting a career-high 12 1/2 in 2007.
“I’ve been blessed to be in this situation,” Dumervil said. “The defensive scheme is excellent.”