Just looking at stats for the run defense in each of the first four games is pretty salivating:
Broncos have faced four Pro Bowl running backs in each of the team’s first four games - Chargers’ Melvin Gordon, Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott, Bills’ LeSean McCoy, Raiders’ Marshawn Lynch - and have held the all-star group to a collective 95 yards on 50 carries.
To show off my math skills - and the Run D's awesomeness - that's 1.9 ypc allowed through four games.— L.Lattimore-Volkmann (@docllv) October 2, 2017
And defensive end Derek Wolfe pointed out that it’s no joke trying to tackle Lynch.
“Trust me, He’s gotten me. He got me my rookie year. Knocked my helmet off...I said, ‘that ain’t never going to happen again.’ He’s a powerful runner, man. You’ve got to be ready for him. You can’t come in there messing around, joking around thinking you’ll get him to the ground. I popped him another time, and he didn’t go to the ground. He’s a great running back.”
Run defense was the weakest spot in the defense last year, and it is currently a major strength behind Wolfe, Adam Gotsis and Domata Peko, Sr.
But the irony for this defense, of course, is that the pass rush and secondary coverage may be suffering a bit as safeties need to stack the box and linebackers need to come in. Adding to that the fact that Broncos are using more zone coverage versus man has contributed to the secondary getting burned on big pass plays more often.
Coach Vance Joseph noted this scenario today.
“Defensively, obviously stopping the run was a goal of ours and that’s happening,” Joseph said. “Our pass coverage is pretty tight, but we’ve given up too many explosive passes that have led to points. It’s some good and bad there.”
Joseph agreed that doing more zone contributes to this issue, but he’s using zone to help give guys a break.
“When you’re a zone team, you have to be really focused and detailed on your keys,” Joseph said. “When you’re a man team, you just play your man. That’s easy to do from a mental standpoint and hard physically. We’re trying to give these guys a break and not play so much man, but we have to continue to train it.”
In Sunday’s game, safety Darian Stewart got burned by Johnny Holton on a 64-yard touchdown pass from Derek Carr in the second quarter. Another 28-yard pass play eventually led to a field goal for the Raiders. In both cases, Joseph noted, the Broncos had had the Raiders offense backed up, but one explosive play lead to points.
“Defensively we’re playing pretty good, but we could play better, especially in two-minute defense,” Joseph said. “We’ve been really soft there. We have to improve there.”
One of the telling stats hinting at this slightly weaker performance is the turnover ratio, which is now at -2 (thanks to one touchdown pass and no interceptions from Siemian yesterday).
But what this stat tells, say Eric Goodman and Les Shapiro of The Afternoon Drive, is that the ball-hawking, aggressive secondary - and even the pass rush for that matter - are not as explosive as they have been.
“Run defense has been terrific but haven’t been able to play as honestly as in 2015 because they didn’t necessarily need a T.J. Ward to go up there to stop the run,” Goodman said. “Now they do sell out a little to cover the run, which is one reason it is so good and effective.”
Although Justin Simmons’ pick was game-winning, Goodman and Shapiro agree that the Broncos’ defense hasn’t had too many game-changing turnovers - interceptions or forced fumbles - through these first four games. And though the pass rush has been pretty good so far with 10 total sacks, it hasn’t been as dominant as the previous two seasons.
Goodman argues the Broncos “need to find a way to generate a pass-rush that’s a little bit more effective,” and force more turnovers because it has been a “real challenge for a defense that considers itself electrifying.”
Simmons’ pick was a start.
“The mentality we have is blade of grass - whether offense has a turnover or there’s a missed field goal or a mishandle on the punt, when we hit the field, we keep them where we are,” Simmons said. “If we’re in the red zone, we hold them to a field goal or we push them back. Those are the kinds of things Joe Woods and all our leaders in the defense talk about.”
Joseph is particularly concerned about working on that red zone mentality. Considering this to be mostly a practice issue, the coach says he will move Thursday’s red zone work to the beginning of practice to get more energy there.
“Defensively, we’ve had two games where we weren’t in the red zone at all,” the coach noted. “But the two games we were, we were just average. We have to fix both sides.”
For more on Goodman and Shapiro’s interviews with Derek Wolfe (1:30) and Justin Simmons (25:12), give a listen:
What do you think - is the secondary and pass rush suffering in production a little to help the run?
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