I’m sure you’ve seen the stats by now. The Denver Broncos’ defense has allowed a score on every opening drive this year. While they have done a decent job adjusting as the game goes along, this is not a trend you want to continue.
Every Broncos opponent except the Bucs has scored on their opening drive against Denver this season. Bucs scored on second drive.— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) October 14, 2016
It has specifically come back to bite them in these last two games as it put them in a hole of which the offense could never quite climb out.
We’ll get to the offense in another post, but for now let’s take a look at what’s going on defensively and some possible solutions.
Man coverage and match-ups
This team’s claim to fame is it’s ability to man up and cover anyone, anywhere. Except, now, teams are using that against us.
The NFL is much like playing the cheesy 13 year old in Madden online. They find something that works and do it over and over until you stop it. For us, that has been to play man coverage and dare teams to beat us at it.
Well, opposing teams aren’t dumb. If they have the choice between throwing against Talib, Harris, and Roby, or Todd Davis, who do you think they’re going to pick on?
Here’s a fun stat. In the last two games Todd Davis was on the field for 75% of defensive snaps, while the previous four, he averaged 60%.
Teams are specifically scheming to keep us in our base defense, while exploiting the favorable man coverage match-ups on their RBs and TEs.
Catches for Falcons RB/TE/FBs: 8— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) October 9, 2016
Catches for Falcons WRs: 1
If you wanted to know some of the staples for beating man coverage, just watch our last two games, because it has had everything in the book.
Here’s one from the Falcons game that has two of these concepts.
Here is how it looks at the beginning of the play.
Pre-snap the Falcons motion Tevin Coleman out of the backfield into the slot, where he is being covered by Todd Davis. There’s one tactic.
All the other routes are essentially clearouts to get Coleman in space. The TE is going to “run a route” straight into Marshall and clog up Davis’ path to get to the WR. Beyond one yard of the line of scrimmage, these pick plays are technically illegal, but if teams sell them well enough, it won’t get called. (and I’m not going to complain too much because Denver set records using these tactics in 2013).
Here’s a shot at the time the ball is thrown. Look how wide open Coleman is. Davis never had a chance to keep up with him in the first place, but now that he’s hung up with the TE it gives Coleman room to turn this into a huge gain.
Now, the Chargers aren’t dummies. They saw the tape from the Atlanta game, and did the exact same thing on Thursday night. Split the RB out wide, “block” with the TE, and exploit Davis and Marshall in space.
Again, wide open RB.
Now fortunately, this one actually got OPI called on the play, but only because Bronco players were lobbying for it all drive.
This play it wasn’t called.
This is even Roby in coverage who played a really nice game against SD. But look at how much distance he has to cover and the traffic he has to wade through. Marshall is in position, but he’s watching the RB coming out of the backfield.
If this were a zone coverage, Marshall would be in perfect position for a pick, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
So we’ve seen pick plays with some favorable match-ups embedded. But these plays are just straight up not fair, me and my brother playing Madden level stuff.
This doesn’t require a ton of breaking down. Coleman gets motioned out into the slot on Brandon Marshall and Tevin Coleman is just too fast, and Ward is cheating toward Julio Jones (rightly so) over the top.
The Chargers, again, watched tape on this game and decided to replicate some of this.
Isolating Todd Davis on a TE. The stutter and go burns him.
The last tactic is stacks, bunch sets, and man-beater route combos. The Chargers used these all game.
Here’s another one, before motion.
Here it is after motion. So instead of the bunch set on the right, you now have two stacks on either side. This makes the corners play off and wait to read the WRs and allows the WRs to cross up and try to get the defenders tangled up.
Below isn’t a stack or bunch set, but it’s a similar concept. Hunter Henry, the TE is in the slot to the left. He and the outside WR are going to cross routes.
Now Harris and Stewart play this correctly with Stewart taking the inside guy and Harris taking outside. But what this does is create a mismatch with 5’10” Harris on the much larger Hunter Henry, and not only that, he also has inside leverage since Harris was playing the outside WR.
It’s just pitch and catch from here. Even great coverage from one of the best corners in the game can’t stop it.
Now I know this has been mostly a negative post, and if you’ve watched the last two games, you can see why! But there are some bright spots even as these teams are scheming against us.
Here Talib plays this bunch set perfectly and explodes for the big hit, stopping the receiver short of the 1st down. Our guys are typically pretty good at communicating and handling these concepts. It just seems to be taking them a little bit to warm up to stopping these.
Outside of playing these correctly in the secondary, the quickest way to shutting down any passing attack is pressure.
Here’s the Falcons in a bunch set. The inside slot receiver is going to run a hook route which sucks TJ Ward up while the TE slips in behind him.
He’s wide open.....
Meanwhile, Von Miller is being Von Miller.
Matt Ryan never has a chance to see the open guy because Von Miller is in his face right away.
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations. I know this has been long!
Here are my recommended solutions for shoring up the defense, especially on opening drives.
Mix up coverages more
Teams know we’re going to be in man coverage 80% of the time. Use this against them, especially on opening drives. These teams are coming out and scheming specifically to take advantage of our man coverage, so we should mix in more zone at the beginning of the game while getting them to tip their hand.
This defense is excellent at adjusting to what’s thrown at it, it’s just the first few drives before they adjust that we need to fix.
I love Wade Phillips and think he’s one of the most creative play callers out there, but these last two games the play calling has looked lazy and dry. I can look at the defense pre-snap and know exactly what they’re doing, which isn’t typically a problem because our guys are so talented, but with people scheming to specifically target our coverage, we have to mix it up or else we hang our players out to dry.
Now some of this can be attributed to being in our base defense. There is just not as many creative looks and things we can do in it, which is what teams are counting on.
Which brings me to my next one.
Stop the freaking run
In addition to more base defense, we have been running more straight nickel as opposed to our big dime. This keeps Todd Davis on the field more. We have also been using our three down linemen (DE, NT, DE) in nickel with Von Miller off one edge as the fourth linemen as opposed to having both DEs kick inside and another edge rusher come in.
Both of these tactics point to a desire to keep more beef on the field in order to stop the run. Even in our base defense we haven’t been successful in stopping the run. The talent and effort on the defensive line has been absolutely horrendous. I’m not sure if it is worse than our O-line but it’s pretty dang close.
This is a pretty brilliant play design by the Chargers, but also terrible execution by Denver. We have 9 men in the box for those keeping score at home.
It’s a split zone concept with the TE coming across the formation to block the backside. This causes Stewart to hesitate and look at him since he has him in coverage, Stewart then doesn’t see the WR (#15) come block him from the side.
Since Harris is responsible for covering #15, he starts to run with him because it looks like he’s going across the field on a route. This gets Harris out of position and kills two birds with one stone.
Everything is sealed up because Sly got driven 5 yards back by the double team and Marshall was slow to react and got caught in all that traffic.
On the left, Crick gets absolutely embarrassed by Orlando Franklin.
Broncos former guard, Orlando Franklin, rag-dolling Jared Crick. Denver misses Malik Jackson and Vance Walker. pic.twitter.com/aNv5Fo5ye0— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) October 19, 2016
That play epitomizes our run defense so far this year.
Until we can consistently stop the run, I’m afraid we’ll continue to see teams load up their heavy sets to keep us in our base defense. One solution could be a package that we ran successfully against Carolina in the Super Bowl, and Green Bay last year.
I broke it down earlier this year. If we were to utilize that package more and match-up the extra corner on the RBs or TEs who could hurt us the most, it could free our LBs up to spy, blitz, or play underneath zones.
I’d much rather leave our talented corners on islands, than to leave our ILBs on islands against superior athletic ability.
Let’s hope we can straighten this up before the New England game. I hear they have a few good TEs and RBs.