As we approach the mid-point of the season, the Denver Broncos are still in the midst of trying to find the right balance on defense.
For the first three games of the season, Denver’s defense averaged only 3.2 YPC given up on the ground, but they were one of the worst teams in the league at giving up yardage over the middle and on play action.
Thus, in an effort to stop the bleeding through the air, Denver shifted their tactics, and in turn gave up two 200 yard rushers in back to back weeks.
So where is the middle ground?
I joined the folks over at Orange and Blue 760 yesterday (starting at the 15:00 mark) and discussed this storyline, among other topics, to try and see what has gotten us to this point, and where Denver goes from here.
Let’s take a look at it.
If you have followed my stuff over the last few seasons, I have been talking about the initial adjustment Denver made to their run defense when Vance Joseph and Joe Woods took over.
In 2016 under Wade Phillips, the run defense struggled mightily, finishing in the bottom half of the league and having several games where it seemed impossible to stop anyone on the ground.
In 2017, Vance Joseph and Joe Woods got together and made adjustments to how they were playing the run. I documented this change and its effects back in January, check it out for a full breakdown. And it worked - really well. Denver finished 2017 with the #1 YPC given on the ground, and top 5 in overall yards allowed. I say this mainly because people like to pile on Vance Joseph and Joe Woods (rightly so at times) without giving them credit for the positive things they have done.
So without getting too in-depth here’s a quick recap of the main adjustment. Denver had been struggling against long developing runs with their linebackers slow to read and react, causing them to get caught in the trash on running plays.
So Joe Woods, being a student of Wade Phillips and his philosophy of keeping things simple and letting players go play, implemented this adjustment.
The linebackers, in certain situations, whenever they saw a double team on a defensive lineman, they would crash into the open gap, like Todd Davis does here. This would throw off the timing of blocks, cause disruption, and allowed either the linebacker to make the TFL, or cause the offensive line to break rank and come off the double team, leaving the defensive lineman 1-on-1.
This worked well in 2017, and into the beginning of 2018. However, offensive coaches are no dummies and saw the film from 2017. So, they did the natural thing to counter this.
Here is week 3 against the Ravens. Brandon Marshall sees the double team on Derek Wolfe (above) and crashes, like he has been coaches to do.
Well, while Marshall was doing that, the tight end slipped out behind him and became wide open, as Todd Davis was peeking in the backfield as well and was much too shallow.
The result is a receiver running free down the middle of the field.
Now there’s a lot of things going on here. The safeties are giving extra help to the corners because the corners had been struggling so they were absent from the middle of the field.
Additionally, the crashing linebacker isn’t a bad strategy, but it requires communication and recognition between the linebackers. If Marshall is going to crash, Davis needs to drop to fill in the hole in coverage, but without abandoning his gap entirely in case it is a run.
Swing and a miss
Thus, like every fan and media member was calling for, if you recall, Denver adjusted to try and stop the bleeding over the middle of the field and being burned on play action. This led to them playing more nickel defense, and the linebackers being less aggressive.
It also completely switched up their run fits and the way they were attacking the run, since they had been practicing and playing it a certain way for so long. That’s why we saw such terrible miscommunication against the Jets and Rams, and the run defense paid the price.
Here’s a play against the Rams that demonstrates the timidness Denver was exhibiting in the run game, to avoid being burned on play action. Check out Todd Davis circled above.
Davis is trying to avoid what happened against the Ravens, especially since they are playing against a team who is the best in the league at play action. So he drops back into the passing lane. Leaving an alley the size of Texas on the backside for Gurley.
Now, again, this isn’t all that’s going on as Denver was having problems adjusting their run fits to the Rams’ motion, and McVay did some of the exact same things the Jets did the week prior to exploit Denver’s nickel defense, but this is clearly a primary issue for Denver’s linebackers.
So where do they go from here? We began to see a shift in Denver’s strategy on Thursday night against the Cardinals, as I wrote about after the game, where Denver met in the midle a bit on run defense. The linebackers weren’t crashing as heavily against the run, being aware of the passing lanes, but they stayed in their base front so as not to be gashed too heavily like they were in nickel defense.
Essentially, they’re putting more pressure on their defensive line and outside linebackers as opposed to the inside linebackers, which is the place to put the heaviest load, given the talent they have on the defensive line, in my opinion.
So that’s a brief history of how we got here, Broncos Country. We’ll see how it plays out against the Chiefs, and if Denver can find that happy medium to be able to slow down their attack on Sunday.