The 1995 Carolina Panthers finished 7-9, impressive considering they were an expansion team that started with five consecutive losses. The Vic Fangio-led defense was top 10 in fewest yards and points allowed and fifth in takeaways.
The next year, the Panthers’ defense took off thanks in part to the veteran additions of outside linebacker Kevin Greene and cornerback Eric Davis. Carolina went 12-4, losing in the NFC title game, and improved in each key statistical category.
The Year 1-to-Year 2 comparison for Fangio’s defenses is appropriate because he is entering his second season as the Broncos’ coach/defensive play-caller.
A spike will be necessary because of the offensive youth that may require time to find their collective stride and imperative because of the quarterbacks on their schedule.
Entering Monday night’s opener against Tennessee, the Broncos’ defense can’t predict what their statistics will look like, but they should guarantee a repeat of last year’s start (no sacks or takeaways in the first three games) is unacceptable, even without injured outside linebacker Von Miller.
The general consensus for expecting the Broncos’ defense to improve: The additions of cornerback A.J. Bouye and defensive end Jurrell Casey, the return to health of cornerback Bryce Callahan and the comfort zone of the returning starters.
“I would expect the Broncos to be even better on defense this season and they were quietly very good last year,” NFL analyst Andy Benoit said. “(Justin) Simmons can be a top-five safety. The cornerbacks are good enough and Fangio will know how to hide and help whoever (needs it) and having the slot stabilized with Bryce Callahan now healthy is a big deal. The front is as talented as almost any and (inside linebacker) Alexander Johnson has a chance to be the breakout defensive player of 2020. There’s a lot to like.”
The Broncos could have as many as six new Week 1 starters compared to last year’s opener at Oakland — Casey, Callahan, Johnson, nose tackle Mike Purcell, Jeremiah Attaochu/Malik Reed at outside linebacker and defensive end Shelby Harris (started at nose tackle against the Raiders).
“For us, defense-wise, we should be the best defense in the league, no question,” Harris said.
“You see the players we have?” Harris said. “We have nothing but dogs on our defense. I’ve been saying this all offseason. I feel like our defense is a dominant defense. We’re such a close-knit group of veterans and young guys mixed together, I see nothing but positive things happening for us.”
Fangio is used to rebuilding (or expansion) projects, when it takes a year for the positive things to arrive.
A look at Fangio’s Year 1-to-Year 2 highlights:
Carolina (1995-96): Won five more games. … Allowed 15.7 fewer yards and 6.7 fewer points per game. … Had one more takeaway but 24 more sacks.
Indianapolis (1999-2000): Won three fewer games (13 to 10), but still made playoffs. … Sunk from 15th to 21st in yards allowed but improved from 17th to 15th in points allowed.
Houston (2002-03): Fangio’s second coordinator post for an expansion team. … Won one more game, but all of the other numbers suffered, including drops of 16th to 31st in yards, 20th to 27th in points and tied for 18th to 31st in sacks. As Fangio said last year, the learning lesson was he had no interest in doing the expansion team deal again.
San Francisco (2011-12): The 49ers advanced to the Super Bowl in ’12. … Allowed 13.8 fewer yards and remained second in fewest points allowed (14.3 to 17.1). … Produced 13 fewer turnovers and had four fewer sacks in ’12.
Chicago (2016-17): The Bears went from 6-10 to 3-13 … The Bears fell to last in takeaways. … Fangio’s defense didn’t take off until 2018, which he parlayed into the Broncos’ job.
“Fangio has, in my opinion, one of the 2-3 best schemes in football,” Benoit said. “It is a subtly-complex, highly nuanced scheme especially for linebackers and doubly so for safeties.”
The Broncos have the safeties — Simmons and Kareem Jackson — in place. But at linebacker, Miller is injured, Bradley Chubb is coming back from an ACL tear and Josey Jewell has replaced the released Todd Davis.
When trying to project the improvement, which of Fangio’s previous teams mirror the Broncos?
Maybe Carolina despite its expansion status. The Panthers started 0-5, the Broncos 0-4. Both teams finished 7-9. The Broncos were 12th and 10th in fewest yards and points allowed per game, respectively. And the Broncos used the offseason to acquire two key veterans in Bouye and Casey.
The ’96 Panthers started 3-0 (allowing 33 total points) and won their final seven regular-season games, never allowing more than 23 points and forcing 22 turnovers. Greene and Lamar Lathon combined for 28 sacks. Sam Mills had 122 tackles. And they were healthy — 10 players started at least 14 games.
If the Broncos can avoid last year’s start and build leads to unlock the rush-and-cover game, maybe they can make the same kind of leap Carolina did for Fangio 24 years ago.
“Last year was a great year for a lot of guys, but there’s still so much room for growth,” Simmons said. “That’s kind of what I think about for Year 2. I feel like we could be something really, really special.”
The Broncos are coach Vic Fangio’s sixth stop as a defensive play-caller and improvement is expected in key areas like points, yards, sacks and record. A look at the Year 1 vs. Year 2 comparisons from Fangio’s previous teams as coordinator:
|* Made playoffs|