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Tale of the Tape: Who’s to blame for Denver’s struggles covering tight ends and running backs?

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Denver led the league in touchdowns given up to tight ends and running backs in 2017.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

I saw an interesting stat the other day on Twitter from one of our former writers, Julie Dixon, that got me thinking.

According to Football Outsiders, Denver ranked 2nd in the league in DVOA against #1 wide receivers, and ranked 9th in the league against #2 wide receivers. Pretty darn good.

However, after that it gets ugly. Denver ranked 31st against #3 and #4 receivers, 29th against tight ends, and 20th against running backs.

I’ll dig into the 3rd and 4th WRs at another time. For now, we’ll focus on TEs and RBs.

In addition to that, Denver gave up the most touchdowns in the league to running backs (6), and ranked 4th in touchdowns given up to tight ends (9). Combined, Denver was tied with Miami and the New York Jets for the most receiving touchdowns given up to TE/RBs at 15.

Being the football nerd that I am, I couldn’t let that rest without digging deeper into each play. So I broke down each touchdown given up this year to a running back or tight end by the Denver defense, and charted it to assign “blame”.

Now, this is my own subjective assignment of blame. Most plays it’s obvious based on who’s in coverage but there are a few plays where it could go a different way based on the defensive assignments. After reviewing the tape, this is my best shot at assigning blame on each touchdown given up.

Receiving touchdowns allowed to tight ends and running backs

Week Opponent Receiver Primary Defender Fault (total) Defense Summary
Week Opponent Receiver Primary Defender Fault (total) Defense Summary
1 Chargers RB - Melvin Gordon LB - Todd Davis LB - Todd Davis (2) Base Arrow route. Davis beat in man coverage.
2 Cowboys TE - Jason Witten S - Justin Simmons S - Justin Simmons (2) Big Dime Out and Up route. Simmons beat in man coverage. Bit on the out.
3 Bills TE - Charles Clay N/A CB - Aqib Talib (1) Base Interesting one. Confusion on the defense. They switch routes in man coverage and no one picks up Clay. Talib stays on his side and lets his man get picked up by Stewart, and never re-locates Clay.
6 Giants TE - Evan Engram S - Justin Simmons S - Justin Simmons (2) Base Engram in the slot. Simmons gets picked by slant and is behind on the quick out.
7 Chargers RB - Austin Ekeler LB - Brandon Marshall LB - Brandon Marshall (2) Base Motioned the RB right before the snap and threw a quick swing pass. Marshall couldn't get there in time.
8 Chiefs TE - Travis Kelce S - Darian Stewart S - Darian Stewart (3) Nickel Kelce split out to the sideline, slant and go route. Stewart was 1v1 in man coverage and bit on the slant.
9 Eagles RB - Corey Clement LB - Brandon Marshall Defense (Roby and Harris) (1) Big Dime Screen pass. Roby an Harris miss key tackle opportunities.
9 Eagles TE - Trey Burton LB - Brandon Marshall LB - Brandon Marshall (2) Base Burton split out to sideline, slant and go route. Marshall 1v1 bites inside.
10 Patriots RB - Rex Burkhead S - Darian Stewart S - Darian Stewart/Todd Davis (3/2) Base Burkhead split out on the sideline, runs over route. Stewart beat in 1v1, Davis had inside help and was late coming over. Ironically Denver was triple covering Gronkowski which led to this.
10 Patriots TE - Dwayne Allen LB - Von Miller LB - Von Miller/Darian Stewart/Pass rush (1) Base Allen runs corner route. Miller is 1v1 in man coverage and holds him all the way down field. Stewart is manipulated by Brady's eyes and loses help over the top. Pass rush let Brady sit there all day. Was his 3rd or 4th read.
10 Patriots RB - James White S - Will Parks S - Will Parks (4) Big Dime Whip route. 1v1 coverage out of the backfield. Parks bit inside.
11 Bengals TE - Tyler Kroft S - Will Parks S - Will Parks (4) Goal Line Corner route from Kroft. Parks caught peaking on play action. Drops him in coverage
12 Raiders RB - Jalen Richard S - Will Parks S - Will Parks (4) Big Dime Hook route from the backfield. Parks seems to be in 1v1 coverage, but gets distracted with WR. Possible miscommunication.
13 Dolphins TE - Julius Thomas S - Will Parks S - Will Parks (4) Base Thomas split wide, fade route. Parks beat 1v1.
15 Redskins TE - Vernon Davis S - Darian Stewart S - Darian Stewart (3) Base Corner route off PA. Stewart gets sucked down on PA and Davis gets behind him.

Blame Game Results

As the tweet above shows, here is the tally after the breakdown.

  • Will Parks - 4 TDs
  • Darian Stewart - 3 TDs
  • Brandon Marshall - 2TDs
  • Todd Davis - 2TDs
  • Justin Simmons - 2TDs
  • Aqib Talib - 1TD
  • Von Miller - 1TD
  • Roby/Harris - 1TD

The majority of these touchdowns came as a result of 1-on-1 match-ups created while Denver was in their base defense, or the offense intentionally isolating Will Parks in man coverage.

Joe Woods spoke to this last year when asked about the team’s inability to defend tight ends, which I wrote about mid-way through the season:

“We’re a man-free team because our corners. We have three corners that can play man-to-man against anyone in the league. That helps your pass rush and it helps the run game to load the box. Teams know that to find a soft spot in our pass defense, it’s not through those corners, it’s through our linebackers and safeties, which we all have watched this for three years, even when [Rams Defensive Coordinator] Wade [Phillips was here. It’s no secret. We have to do a better job of helping those guys versus the special tight end and special backs out of their back field.”

While Woods mentions giving the linebackers and safeties help, there is only so much you can do, as the offense will always try to scheme favorable match-ups.

I talked some more about this with Joe Woods while at the Senior Bowl and he said the biggest key to defending when teams spread you out and make you play 1 on 1, is to win those match-ups. That what Denver did not do a good job of last year.

Darian Stewart

1 on 1 was an area that Darian Stewart particularly struggled in last year. I wrote at the beginning of the year that he should assume the SS role vacated by Ward, and that Simmons should take over as FS, playing mostly single-high.

After watching this year, I’ll admit I was wrong. Stewart is much more comfortable in a single-high, half-field, or zone robber role than being matched up in man to man coverage out wide on a running back or a tight end.

By the back half of the season, really after the Philly game, Denver began to move Stewart back into that role, and play Justin Simmons as more of the SS/matchup guy, which is a much better fit, in my opinion.

We’ve talked about this one before, but it just illustrates how Stewart should not be left alone out wide against a tight end, especially one like Travis Kelce.

This next one against the Patriots is one that I credited to both Stewart and Todd Davis.

Stewart is matched up in man coverage against the running back who has been split out wide to the bottom of the screen. Gronkowski is lined up in the slot left and is going to run a corner route.

This draws all the defense’s attention, which goes to show how difficult it is to cover the myriad of weapons in the NFL. If you pay too much attention to stopping one, another will beat you, especially with New England.

Burkhead has already started his cut at the 10 yard line and is gaining separation from Stewart, while Barrett and Davis have turned to run with Gronkowski up the field with Simmons closing over the top.

Now Todd Davis shouldn’t have turned his back to the quarterback as he was in a zone over the middle, and needed to break off of Gronkowski’s route to help Stewart over the middle.

Without him, there is a gaping hole over the middle for Burkhead to run through for the touchdown.

By the time Davis realizes this, it is too late.

Brandon Marshall

Marshall struggled this past year in pass coverage, and didn’t fare any better than his teamates when isolated 1 on 1 against running backs or tight ends.

Here the Eagles split out Trey Burton wide, and Marshall is left to cover him all alone. Again, notice the safety up top. Denver is in man free coverage, which means, Marshall is essentially one on one. He has Stewart to help inside potentially, but with this route, Stewart is not in a position to help.

It is all over at this point as Marshall opens his hips to the inside. As soon as he does this, Burton bends the route back outside, and Marshall is beaten.

Will Parks

Parks was routinely picked on in the back half of the season, especially after Justin Simmons was injured. He suffered from both lack of man coverage skills, as well as poor eye discipline.

On two of his four allowed touchdowns, he was looking at the wrong assignment or peaking in the backfield, and his man broke free. The other two touchdowns, he was just beat 1 on 1.

Here’s an example:

The Patriots ran White in motion from the backfield, and Parks traveled with him, signaling he was in man coverage. They then motion him back into the backfield, and he runs a whip route.

Poor Parks didn’t stand a chance against this route. Granted, it is difficult to defend a back out of the backfield with a two-way go. Especially one as quick as White.

Solutions?

As we’ve said before, there are a few options Denver can do scheme-wise to limit these plays in the future, but at some point, they have to have guys that can win one-on-one battles. Currently, I don’t trust either linebacker to do this, and only one of our three safeties.

This is likely why Denver is actively pursuing Sua Cravens from Washington as a dime linebacker. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them add another safety in the draft either. Whether it is from current players improving, or adding fresh talent in the mix, Denver has to be able to win some one-on-one battles against tight ends and running backs next year.