On Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills, the Denver Broncos defense looked a little out of sorts. While it wasn’t the only reason they lost (offensive turnovers and red zone inefficiency played a part), the defense did give up an uncharacteristic amount of big plays, which led to touchdowns for Buffalo.
So for this week’s installment of Tale of the Tape, we’ll look at those big plays and see exactly what went wrong, and how Denver can potentially fix it.
Setting the stage
Before we jump right in, I want to point out that Tyrod Taylor had 213 yards passing. Of those, 112 of them came on four plays (which we’ll look at in a minute).
Additionally, the Bills offense as a whole rushed for only 75 yards on 33 carries; good for 2.3 YPC. Star running back, LeSean McCoy, was held to 14 carries for 21 yards (1.5 YPC).
So the Denver defense still played pretty dang good.
They have proven that this year’s improved run defense is no fluke, and for the most part they neutralized the Bills offense, save for those four big plays.
Now, there were other impact plays, but these four plays are really what went wrong for Denver, and have some lessons in them that the defense can take away from this game.
With that, let’s dive in.
Man coverage is obviously Denver’s bread and butter. Everyone knows that, and tries to use man beaters like pick plays and rub routes to defeat their coverage.
Buffalo was no different.
However, Denver typically handles these very well. Here’s an example.
Todd Davis and Brandon Marshall are in man coverage against the RB and the TE. Buffalo uses motion to confirm that Denver is indeed in man coverage. Marshall follows LeSean McCoy into the slot, while Todd Davis is lined up over the TE.
Buffalo runs the TE on a seam route to essentially pick Brandon Marshall while his man, McCoy comes underneath on a crossing pattern.
However, Davis and Marshall play this beautifully and actually switch responsibility mid-play. Davis takes the inside man, while Marshall takes the seam route.
This is really the best way to handle these kind of routes, and Talib and Harris are masters at it, especially near the goal line.
Todd Davis gets ripped for his coverage, but he and Marshall do a great job communicating and switching on the TE pick route. Its Marshall's man, but they swap mid-play due to the pick. Allows Von to get sack. Won't show up on stat sheet, but Von should thank Davis for the sack pic.twitter.com/6jccsx1ez9— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) September 29, 2017
So now that we know what they’re supposed to do, let’s take a look at one that didn’t go so well.
Same concept as before (we’ll actually see this concept several times). This time, however, Will Parks is lined up on the TE with Chris Harris on the slot WR.
Parks should have taken the slot WR once he breaks inside on the crossing route; just like we saw Todd Davis do. Like so.
Instead, he stays on his man, leaving Chris Harris to fight through the pick play, which creates all kinds of separation for the receiver.
Nothing Harris can do here, and everyone else is in man coverage with their back turned. Justin Simmons is actually pretty close, but his responsibility is LeSean McCoy on this play, so he’s doing his job.
Just a tough play that a young player like Parks will learn from.
That sets the stage for the next big play, two plays later.
With their man coverage getting burnt, Denver switches to a cover-3 zone that they ran pretty heavily during this game. This was their answer for stopping the run, and stopping a running QB, while also defending the big play.
Here’s what it looked like. They ran a deep cover-3 shell (2 corners and a middle safety each taking a 3rd of the field to defend) with the corners mainly playing off.
Meanwhile, underneath, the defenders flooded the shallow zones to shut down short throws, and be near the line of scrimmage to stop the run. All this, while keeping their eyes on the QB in case he scrambled.
At times, Denver would even mix in some man concepts underneath the 3-deep shell.
As you can see, it worked beautifully here, and stymied Buffalo for the entire first quarter.
However, Rick Dennison caught on and adjusted in the second quarter.
Here we are again in the deep cover-3 shell and Buffalo runs a classic cover-3 beater.
The fly route is going to occupy Talib in the far right zone and run him out of the play, while two route come across the field into that vacated zone; one a deep crosser, and the other a whip route underneath.
The defense against this is for the linebackers to drop deep enough in their underneath zones to take away the throwing lane to the deep crosser.
However, with play action, they get pulled closer to the line of scrimmage and away from the play, leaving it wide open.
Now here’s where things get interesting. This is one play before the big play. Tyrod has the wide open man, but Von Miller gets close enough to scare him into pulling it down and running for a short gain.
So Buffalo, seeing that this play worked, calls the same concept, and Denver runs the exact. same. defense.
Fly route pulls Talib deep, crosser comes underneath his vacated zone. Again, play action pulls up the linebackers, and the crosser is wide open.
Another option for this coverage would be Talib releasing the fly route to Stewart, who’s over the middle, and breaking on the crossing route. However, that leaves the backside (left) WR open for a post, or to just bend his fly route towards the middle of the field since Roby is playing outside technique, as the coverage dictates he should.
This is a simple case of Denver getting out-coached. The Bills saw the coverage for the first few drives and made the necessary adjustments to attack it. Denver didn’t mix up the looks enough and it came back to bite them.
Joe Woods referenced this when asked about the defense against Bills in his weekly press conference:
For me as a play caller, I had a few change ups early in the game that worked. I think I stayed with them a little too long and it put our guys in tough situations before I settled back down. It was a lesson learned for me...
It’s good to learn these lessons not only early in the season, but also early in Woods’ career as a new defensive coordinator.
One thing to note is that this really was a perfect storm of coaching match-ups for the Bills. Ian Henson made a great point to me earlier this week that Woods used to serve on Bills defensive coordinator, Leslie Frazier’s staff back in Minnesota.
Couple that with Rick Dennison’s experience against the No Fly Zone for two years, and Bills had all the insider info they needed to craft a perfect gameplan to beat Denver.
The only other touchdown drive from the Bills also featured two big plays. The first was showcased something Vance Joseph talked about on Wednesday as a learning from the game.
They had a good gameplan versus our coverage. Most teams, if they play us in normal splits, we can go out there and jam those guys and win our one-on-ones. But they condensed the splits, and forced us to have great eyes on the pass game. We didn’t have great eyes. That lead to big plays in the pass game. Their boot action gave us issue as far as our defensive backs not putting their eyes in the right spots. Seeing the run, it wasn’t a run, it was a pass. They did a great job of game-planning against us.”
These next two plays demonstrate exactly what Joseph means by “great eyes”.
Here Denver is back in man coverage. There’s a run action to the right, and Taylor is going to bootleg back to the left.
Will Parks gets caught peeking in the backfield just a second too long, and his man beats him to the corner.
Darian Stewart also takes a false step towards the run action so he’s in no position to help over the top.
Good design by Buffalo, and just poor execution by Denver.
This one hurts to watch, because I am Vice President of the Justin Simmons fan club, but he absolutely blows his assignment here.
Denver is in man coverage, but this time it’s a cover-1 robber, which means one safety is up top in single-high coverage, and the other lurks underneath.
Simmons is the robber with Stewart playing single high. As a quick aside, I don’t like Joe Woods’ personnel switch here in this game. He had Simmons in the box more and manned up on McCoy (presumably due to his athletic ability) while Darian Stewart played more traditional FS.
I think we’ll see Simmons back in more of the FS role this coming week, as he struggled a bit in the more SS role. I like him up top where he can use his speed to play the middle of the field, while Stewart patrols the box. Anyway, back to the play.
Recognize this concept? Buffalo is again going to pull corner and the deep safety with the fly route and try to bring the deep crosser underneath.
Except this time, Simmons is in perfect position to take this throw away, or even break on it for an interception if Taylor decides to test it.
So right here in the image above you see Harris playing outside leverage (as he should) since he has safety help over the middle and over the top.
When the WR starts to break to the inside of the field, Harris essentially releases him to Simmons because he’s going to come right into his coverage. At this point, Simmons needs to see the route and break from his back pedal to cut it off.
However, Taylor does a nice job with his eyes, leading Simmons up the middle of the field into no man’s land. There’s no routes there, and no receivers in the area; and even if there were, that’s Stewart’s coverage.
Simmons has to stay more disciplined and not drift from his zone. He leaves that area wide open, and hangs Chris Harris out to dry.
Hopefully, this week in film sessions, both Parks and Simmons are able to identify their mistakes, take their lumps, as young secondary players often do, and learn from them.
All in all, not a bad game from the defense; just critical breakdowns and errors in key moments that led to touchdowns. When the offense is struggling and turning the ball over, and again they shoulder a good chunk of the blame, you can’t have these busted coverages in the secondary and expect to win games.
I wanted to highlight two quick bonus plays that check-in on some things we’ve talked about in previous film studies. If you haven’t read them, go check out Week 1 and Week 2’s breakdowns.
Last week we talked about the scheme adjustment in the running game that Woods and Joseph made to allow the linebackers, Todd Davis specifically, to attack the run better.
We showed that whenever Davis sees a double team on the defensive lineman, he immediately shoots the gap either causing the offensive lineman to come off the double team and block him, or he blows up the play.
September 19, 2017
Here’s a reminder of it against Dallas.
Well, he’s still doing it, and it’s still working.
Check out how he identifies the double team on Peko, and shoots inside the A-gap to drop McCoy for a loss. Davis has been a monster against the run this year, and has been a key piece of the run defense’s turn around.
Todd Davis has an 83.5 overall grade on the season, 9th best among LB. His 88.5 run defense grade is the best among LB. #BroncosCountry— PFF DEN Broncos (@PFF_Denver) September 27, 2017
Two weeks ago we talked about some of Trevor Siemian’s growth in the passing game, and the way the offense put him in better situations.
One of the plays utilized quick play action in the shotgun to suck the linebacker up, and then the throw would come in immediately behind him.
Well, defenses have picked up on that.
Here they try the same concept. Play action, and they’re going to run Demaryius Thomas behind him on the slant.
However, the linebacker doesn’t bite, Trevor throws it anyway, and it was almost an interception.
That’s something Mike McCoy’s going to have to watch out for from a play calling perspective, and Siemian needs to be aware of when throwing those.
That’s all I have for you Broncos Country. Hope you enjoyed it. Let’s discuss what you saw in the comments!