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Getting defensive about the Broncos defense

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A closer look at the Denver Broncos passing touchdowns allowed this year.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Good defenses limit the big plays that they allow. Sure, even elite defenses will give up an occasional big play, but they general are the result of a great play (or play design) by the opposing offense and NOT the result of missed assignments or missed tackles. Why? Because elite defenses communicate well, know their assignments and don’t miss tackles.

During the bye week, Jeff and I were looking at the big plays that the Broncos’ defense has allowed this year as well as the TD plays that they have allowed. We’ve allowed 16 passing TDs and eight rushing TDs this season. This piece will focus on the passing TDs allowed.

Jeff Essary and I did an analysis of all 16 passing TDs and to see who was to blame - if there was blame (sometimes the offense just makes a great play). Here is the resultant analysis. I will elaborate on some of the more recent ones with screenshots.

Week Situation Play Fault/Coverage - Jeff Notes - Joe Personnel Category of fault
1 1st & 10 at 15 Block then release to fade by TE off of play action Darian Stewart was the safety on that side responsible, and sunk too low and peeked in the backfield and let the TE get behind him. don't know if Chubb or Stewart are supposed to cover TE Base 3-4 Out of position - Beat
1 3rd & 7 at 20 Initially a slant, then the WR turned back upfield on the fade when the play broke down Bradley Roby was matched up 1on1 and was tight in initial coverage, but once WR broke upfield he gained separation. Still pretty tight coverage. Great throw and play. Roby was there just never turned around Big Dime (3 safeties, 4 corners) In position - beat
1 2nd & 10 at 49 Initial route combo looks like smash concept, common out of twins looks. Slot WR fakes the corner and bends back inside for the deep post. Justin Simmons guessed smash concept and drove on the presumed corner route, and left WR all alone for the deep post double move. Simmons jumps the corner route, gets beat on double move Base 3-4 Out of position - Beat
2 2nd & 9 at 20 Four Verts look out of 3x1 set. Seam route by the slot WR right in between slot corner and deep safety. Justin Simmons was late to pick up the seam over the middle as Chris Harris released him to the inside. Four verts stresses the cover-3 look Denver was running. Simmons gets looked off and can't get to his help spot in time to stop deep post Nickel Out of position - Beat/Potential miscommunication
3 3rd & 2 at 12 Slant/flat combo to RB out of shotgun Von Miller was in man coverage and didn't have a good angle to the flat after jamming the tight end. Von Miller in coverage gets beat by good play design Nickel Out of position - bad playcall/beat
4 1st & Goal at 2 Quick screen to TE out of super bunch Not much Denver can do here. Also Gotsis was egregiously held with no call Good play design, quick TE screen. Holding that didn't get called Big Dime In position - beat
5 3rd & 9 at NYJ 24 Stutter & go route by the WR. Bradley Roby and Justin Simmons play inside out coverage at the sticks and Anderson runs right by them. Roby should have played over top since Simmons was playing robber coverage to the inside. Roby just lets him run by, guessed on a route and got burned by 9 route, doesn't have speed to catch Anderson Big Dime Out of position - Beat
5 1st & 10 at 35 Fade route on the outside by the wide receiver. Middle safety was useless and Roby played a little hesitant in 1on1. Still pretty good position, just a dime by Darnold. Roby in good position, perfectly thrown ball by Darnold Nickel In position - beat
5 3rd & 14 at 20 Post/corner route I don't like how Yiadom plays this at all. Bites inside, guessing on an inside route and gets turned around. Yiadom bites on post and can't recover Big Dime mostly in position - beat
7 3rd & goal at 4 square-in on goal-line Backup safety in the game, plays the too far outside and breaks late on the inside route. Chris Harris was clearly frustrated after the play as he released the WR inside expecting help. Shamarko Thomas in coverage doesn't react up quickly enough to stop catch Goal-Line Nickel out of position - beat
8 2nd & 5 at 9 Off-set TE (Kelce) runs good skinny post Great design by KC as the RB flare to the flat took the LB away from the middle which freed up the throwing lane for Kelce. Once again the middle safety was useless. I hate cover-1 or cover-3 on the goal line. Roby needs to get up there and challenge Kelce instead of playing soft. Roby gets beat by head fake, Marshall is too far away to react to pass Base 3-4 In position - beat
8 2nd & 9 at 13 WR runs button-hook + in double move, empty backfield This is just a tough play for Todd Davis. KC motions the RB out wide which creates a mismatch somewhere. He either follows him out wide, which doesn't end well, as we've seen, or he stays put and is mismatched on the slot WR. He does a nice job initially on the route, but Watkins breaks off over the middle when Mahomes starts to move and there's no way he can keep up. Watkins does a hook and in route, Davis has not have quickness to restart Nickel terrible match-up (LB on WR), DEN needed to call timeout to get better matchup
8 1st & goal at 10 WR 5-yd crossing route after TE clears out I think this one is a bust. Some guys look like they think it's man, while others are playing like it's zone. Roby passes off the drag route, but doesn't flare out to pick up the RB on his side so is essentially useless on this play. Jewell vacates his zone to stay on TE who he should pass off, Watkins is left uncovered Nickel out of position - blown coverage/miscommunication
8 4th & 1 at 23 Shovel pass to RB from 2RB set, pulling guard This play should not have been a touchdown. Clever design by KC caught Denver by surprise, but poor tackling turned it into a touchdown "pass". Roby and Hunt both miss tackles here Base 3-4 In position - beat/missed tackles
9 3rd & 2 at 7 inline weakside TE fade route from trips right Tough cover here by Jewell. He tries to get his hands on the tight end and ends up giving up a step in coverage. This has to be an alert for this play when it's trips to the other side and the TE is inline with all that room outside to work. Not bad position by Jewell, just needs to anticipate this better. Jewell in good position, gets beaten by good throw Base 3-4 In position - beat
9 3rd & 4 at 17 Slot WR over route from trips left Simmons is guessing here for the short sticks route since it's 3rd and 4 and it bites him. He sinks too low in his robber coverage. He should have been in position to intercept or take this play away had he played the route better. Simmons blows the coverage, he's supposed to have underneath on Hopkins Nickel out of position - beat

Play #1

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Joe: This is a screenshot from Travis Kelce’s TD reception in the second KC game. The announcers have highlighted the open area. Patrick Mahomes does a good job of looking to his right to hold Will Parks long enough so that he can’t get to the spot before Kelce does. Notice in the shot below that it appears Parks is closer to the spot where the ball will be than Kelce is, but that is a trick of the camera.

Parks is three yards deep in the endzone and the ball is moving laterally away from him giving him no chance to make a play on the ball. The most worrisome thing to me on this play is that we have seven defenders in coverage in the redzone and there is still a gaping hole in the defense.

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Jeff: This is a great design by KC (we’ll say that a lot in this post). The RB flares out to the flat causing Todd Davis to follow him, which opens up a massive throwing lane for Mahomes.

Roby bites on the outside step by Kelce and gives up the inside. Which is potentially understandable as he maybe assumes he has help inside with the safety up top, but Will Parks is cheating to the strong side and is way too far away to give any help.

I absolutely hate a single high safety in the red zone. Time and time again they are useless in that position as they are too easily moved without enough room to recover and give adequate help. Parks was covering no one on this play. Wasted coverage.

Before we go away from this play, I actually want to call out something I really like on the other side of the play.

Take a look at Chris Harris and Justin Simmons. They do a great job communicating before the snap and just playing inside/out on the drag/corner combo.

This is man coverage and has opportunity to get Chris Harris in trouble trying to run through the traffic to stick with the drag route, so he signals to Simmons and they each just stay put and match the receivers once they declare their patterns.

Obviously there was leaky coverage on the other side, but this was a positive that stuck out and a great way to play this by Denver.

Play #2

Joe: This next TD catch was just a horrible matchup. Todd Davis should never be covering an elite (or close to elite) WR like Sammy Watkins. This type of double move is usually good to defeat decent CBs, LBs have no chance against this. With two timeouts still in the first half, we should have just burned a timeout here to avoid having Davis cover Watkins. Observant QBs are going to exploit LBs covering WRs every time that they can.

I also want to note the play design here. KC is able to effectively block our four pass rushers with there five offensive linemen so they have five receivers running routes, yet two of them are literally standing at the line of scrimmage, essentially forcing defenders to stay relatively close to avoid the “de facto” WR-screen. What this does is creates the big vacant area for Watkins to run through after he makes his second move and catches the ball.

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Note that there is literally no Bronco defender between him and the goal-line, 10 yards away, when he catches the ball.

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Jeff: This one is a really tough play. I agree with Joe that a timeout here is probably what should have happened, but this is something KC does all the time, you can’t call a timeout every time it happens. This is something the Chiefs have done all the time, so Denver should have been prepared for this from film, but look unprepared for it.

The problem this presents is you don’t want Todd Davis splitting out wide in man coverage following the back, because he’s shown he can’t handle that. So, they leave him in a short zone where he ends up covering the slot WR, but that’s a massive mismatch as well.

Denver checks out of man when they see Kansas City goes empty, but it still isolates Davis over the middle, but if you leave him in man on the outside it’s likely a big play, too. Just a tough play as Davis has been improving some in coverage this year, but KC picked on him here.

Play #3

Joe: This next TD catch is Watkins second TD of the day. This is another well-designed play by Andy Reid (or Eric Bienemy, if you think he is actually calling the plays instead of Reid). The TE coming from the offense’ right may or may not be running a “pick” route, but the effect is the same. Josey Jewell stays with him and we end up with two LBs covering the TE and then Will Parks, who had Watkins in his zone initially, covering no one.

This route concept floods the right third of the field with three receivers and stresses match-up zone-man concepts that the Broncos defense employed so successfully during the first meeting with the Chiefs.

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Jeff: This is just a busted coverage. Roby is all alone on the left side covering no one, and no one follows Watkins across the formation. Half of the players are playing this like it’s man, while some are playing like it’s zone. Harris and Brock on the right side both carry their receivers and don’t come off to crash to the flat like they are in man, but Roby releases Watkins across the field as if he expects someone to pick him up.

Perhaps, it should have been a similar situation as the first play where Simmons and Harris switched responsibilities, but Roby and Simmons don’t do that so Simmons jumps out to cover the RB.

Just an ugly play by Denver.

Play #4

Joe: This last play was just a matter of the offensive player making plays and two of our defenders not making the play. In the first shot you can see that Todd Davis is being double teamed by offensive lineman. Shelby Harris is not quite quick enough to grab Kareem Hunt and Bradley Roby, who is in perfect position to stop this play for a three or four yard gain, whiffs on the tackle.

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In this next still Parks is position to stop this play for a gain of roughly 10 yards, but he gets hurdled and is he unable to lay a finger on Hunt. Two big missed tackles on this play lead to the TD.

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Jeff: Speaking of ugly plays. This one should have never gone for a touchdown. Good design by KC once again, but even worse execution by Denver.

Wrap Up

Jeff: I expected to go into these touchdown breakdowns seeing more blown coverages or miscommunication on the backend of the secondary, but mainly it was lack of execution by the players and guys guessing and getting out of position.

I know people have been down on the coaching staff as a whole, but I am still confident in Joe Woods, I just don’t think the players have executed well this year and the talent drop off is very noticeable. Simmons has stalled after his upward trajectory last year and is out of position too often, Stewart has been hurt and wasn’t great when he was healthy, Parks is sub-par as a replacement, and the corner situation outside of Chris Harris has been a disaster.

I think Woods shoulders some of the blame, but I would put the majority of the secondary issues on lack of talent/execution by the players right now.

Joe: Like Jeff I expected to see more blown coverages in leading to touchdowns than there ended up being. Our defense has been in position on many of the big plays, but players have failed to make plays. If the season continues to trend downward, I’ll probably reprise this with a view of big plays that our defense has allowed (but that did not lead to TDs).

Here are a few stats to keep in perspective. Out 2016 pass defense (when we still had the No Fly Zone) only allowed 13 passing TDs in 16 regular season games (and had 14 INTs). We’ve already allowed 16 in 9 games. We are on pace to allow 29 passing TDs this season. That would match what our secondary allowed in 2013, 2014 and 2017. The key difference is that in 2013 we allowed 399 points and in 2017 we allowed 382 points (we allowed significantly less in 2014-2016). We are on pace to 379 this season, so the defensive results are not that different from what we saw last year with Joe Woods and Vance Joseph running the show.