Broncos will field familiar, formidable defense vs. Packers
Third in a 13-part series on the opponents the Green Bay Packers will face during the 2019 regular season
GREEN BAY – Matt LaFleur’s offense likely will face its toughest challenge immediately out of the gates this fall.
In the first two weeks, the Green Bay Packers must deal with Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings defenses that are projected to be among the NFL’s best. Even if LaFleur’s scheme might be shrouded in mystery, these defenses know the Packers’ offensive personnel well.
Things might not get much easier in Week 3. While the Denver Broncos are fully entrenched in rebuild mode, their defense is capable of being one of the staunchest in the league. After a bruising first two weeks, the Broncos should be a formidable opponent for Aaron Rodgers & Co.
The Broncos defense will also have a chip on its shoulder. After ranking in the NFL’s top five in total defense for four straight seasons, the unit dipped to 22nd last year. Their 365.1 yards allowed per game was 66.5 yards more than their four-year average from 2014-17.
Injuries played a part in the Broncos defense’s decline. Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. missed the final four games with a hairline fracture of his fibula, and the Broncos lost all four games. But while the organization focused on improving its quarterback play this offseason, it also made a concerted effort to improve its defense.
The Packers will see firsthand this September whether that effort paid off.
Here are three things to know about the Broncos:
A familiar opponent
The Packers play the Broncos only once every four years, but they’ll be plenty familiar with their defensive scheme. After firing head coach Vance Joseph in January, the Broncos hired longtime Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to replace him. Fangio has long been entrenched in a tug of war with the Packers, dating to his time as the San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator at the start of the decade. In 12 games since 2012, the Packers have averaged 25 points and 348.4 yards per game against Fangio’s defenses. His defenses have held the Packers to less than 300 total yards as often (twice) as they’ve allowed more than 400. In 11 games, Aaron Rodgers has a 97.99 rating against Fangio’s defenses, which have twice held him under a 70 rating. The Packers probably didn’t mind seeing Fangio leave the NFC, let alone their own division, this offseason, but they’ll be reunited quickly in 2019.
Same ol’ Von
Fangio left one generational pass rusher (Khalil Mack with the Bears) for another (Von Miller) this offseason. Despite the Broncos defense’s regression in 2018, Miller was as good as ever. Miller had 14.5 sacks and tied a career high with three fumbles recovered, earning his fifth straight Pro Bowl selection and second-team Associated Press honors. Miller, the second overall pick in 2011, turned 30 in March and should have at least a couple of good seasons left. It helps that the Broncos drafted Bradley Chubb last season. Chubb had 12 sacks as a rookie and, together with Miller, forms one of the league’s top pass-rushing tandems, preventing opposing offensive lines from focusing too extensively on either. It’s a luxury Fangio should enjoy utilizing.
A case for Flacco
The Broncos drafted Missouri’s Drew Lock in the second round to be their quarterback of the future, but they won’t be in a rush to get him on the field. Lock will start his career behind Joe Flacco, the longtime Baltimore Ravens starter and Super Bowl XLVII MVP. Flacco replaces Case Keenum, who was unable to build on his magical 2017 season with the Minnesota Vikings. Keenum’s passer rating dipped to 81.2 in 2018, down from 98.3 the previous year, when he led the Vikings to the NFC championship game. The Broncos traded for Flacco in February, then traded Keenum to Washington in March. It’s debatable whether the Broncos are getting a clear upgrade in Flacco, whose career passer rating of 84.1 is almost identical to Keenum’s career 84.5 mark. Either way, Lock is the hopeful future in Denver, but Flacco will be the likely starter Week 3.
Packers schedule glimpse
Sept. 22 vs. Broncos, noon, FOX
Week before: vs. Vikings, Sept. 15
Week after: vs. Eagles, Sept. 26
On the horizon: at Dallas, Oct. 6
Coach: Vic Fangio (first season with Broncos).
2018 record: 6-10, third in AFC West.
Scoring offense: 20.6 points per game (24th in NFL).
Total offense: 350.1 yards per game (19th).
Scoring defense: 21.8 points allowed per game (13th).
Total defense: 365.1 yards allowed per game (22nd).
Series: Packers trail, 7-6-1.
Last meeting: The Packers and Broncos don’t play each other often, but when they do, it tends to be in Super Bowl seasons for one of the storied teams. In fact, in their last six meetings, three came in or around a Super Bowl season. Everyone remembers their meeting in Super Bowl XXXII, but the two teams also played the following year (1999), when the Broncos went on to win Super Bowl XXXIII. They also met in 2011, the season after the Packers won Super Bowl XLV. Their last meeting came at Denver in 2015, a Sunday night showdown between Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning. By then, the Broncos defense that would lead its charge to a Super Bowl 50 victory was in full form. The Broncos throttled the Packers 29-10, limiting them to just 140 yards. Rodgers was held to 14-for-22 passing for 77 yards and a 69.7 rating while being sacked three times. Manning was 21-for-29 passing for 340 yards, no touchdowns, an interception and a 96.9 rating, but the real star was receiver Demaryius Thomas, who had eight catches for 168 yards.