It’s no secret the Broncos run defense has struggled the last few weeks. Naturally, when you give up two back-to-back 200 yard rushers, something is going terribly wrong.
I have discussed some of the things that have gone wrong in my game recap from week 6, and we will get more in-depth over the next week on what was going on, but Thursday night’s game was a step in the right direction.
The Broncos held David Johnson, a very talented and dynamic back, to 39 yards on 14 carries, and held the Cardinals backfield as a whole to 2.5 YPC on 19 carries. Now, the Cardinals don’t exactly have an incredible rushing attack, but neither did the Jets. Isaiah Crowell entered his contest with Denver with a couple of 30 yard, 3 YPC games under his belt. So this was definitely a positive for the Denver defense.
So what was it that Denver did?
First, let’s look at where Denver was getting beat on the ground. As I pointed out in my recap of the Jets game, and saw after watching the Rams film, the biggest problem Denver had over the last few weeks in run defense was with adjusting their run fits to shifts and motions, poor tackling, and their nickel defense being exploited.
According to @PFF, the Broncos missed only 3 tackles at Arizona. They missed 10 and 6 in their previous two games.— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) October 19, 2018
Well, they shored up their tackling, which, as I have said, is a completely fixable problem and isn’t typical of this Denver defense who led the league in YPC given up on the ground last year.
The bigger issue against the Jets and Rams was Denver’s nickel defense being exploited. The biggest plays of the Jets game happened against nickel personnel, and nearly every Rams play did, as they stay in 11 personnel (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB) for 95% of their plays.
The most-used defensive personnel package in the #NFL is NICKEL, which has 5 defensive backs- it has been used on 62% of ALL SNAPS this season!#RavensFlock #Texans #FightForEachOther #GoBills #DUUUVAL #DallasCowboys #HereWeGo #BroncosCountry #RaiderNation #GoBucs pic.twitter.com/ndoJv51ADk— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) October 17, 2018
Those two teams would spread out with 11 personnel, which forced Denver to counter with 3 corners, putting them in nickel and taking away a defensive lineman from their front. This, by design, gives the offense light boxes to run against and makes stopping the run that much harder for the defense.
Vance Joseph mentioned this when asked about the run defense last week leading up to Thursday’s game:
“The first three weeks, we gave up 3.2 [yards] a carry. We’ve had really two bad weeks, and it’s really with our nickel defense. We have to fix that and obviously play in more fronts and fix it that way. It comes down to players fitting and tackling.”
So, we recognize this is a problem, but what can be done about it? There are a couple of things that Denver has done in the past that have worked well. They both involve playing your base defensive front 7 even against 11 personnel.
In 2015, Wade Phillips orchestrated the destruction of the Packers in a game that saw them gain 140 total yards by running a base front against Green Bay’s 11 personnel, but swapping Bradley Roby out for one of the safeties. So you are still able to matchup man to man with the WRs, but have a better front to stop the run.
The other option is one that Joe Woods used last year, and what Denver used on Thursday. For the entire game, Denver stayed in their base defense on non-3rd and longs against any 11 personnel look the Cardinals showed.
How they covered it, was by shifting Justin Simmons into the slot over Larry Fitzgerald. Woods used this last year against Miami as well, and Simmons fared pretty well against Jarvis Landry in the slot most of the game.
Here’s the first play from 11 personnel of the game. Simmons starts out in a two-high look, then slowly walks down into the slot, and Denver switches to a cover-1 look.
This is a great move by Joe Woods, in my opinion, and something I had been calling for in the MHR chat room after the Rams game. Tim mentioned this in a piece last week as one of the options for helping the run defense.
This allowed Denver to play with favorable fronts against the run, while also defending the pass pretty well. Simmons allowed only 2 catches for 18 yards to Fitzgerald when matched up against him.
Here’s what happens as a result. You get plays like this.
Here’s another one.
And Denver didn’t just run cover-1 out of this look and have Simmons man to man on the slot. At times, they would drop into a cover-4 shell, so it wouldn’t get predictable for Arizona.
Now, will this work against every team? I don’t think so. However, I think it is something Denver should utilize more, as Simmons has shown good cover skills from the slot, and it has proven to be an effective strategy.
We’ll take a deeper dive later this week into the run defense, so consider this part 1, but it is nice to see adjustments being made to fix glaring weaknesses, and those adjustments working.
Another thing I would love to see is swapping out Brandon Marshall with Su’a Cravens once he is healthy. This would give a little bit more of a dynamic cover element, while still maintaining the extra defensive lineman for the run.
Hopefully there’s more to come on this package over the next few games.