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Tale of the Tape: Don’t panic on the Broncos’ run defense

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The stout Denver run defense of a year ago was nowhere to be found on Saturday night.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

While there’s been a lot of talk about the quarterbacks and the slow start to the offense on Saturday night’s preseason game, the first team (sort of) defense struggled as well, especially against the run.

The top 5 ranked run defense from a year ago that once held Ezekiel Elliot to 8 yards on 9 carries and denied Melvin Gordon a touchdown on four straight attempts at the 1 yard line looked downright porous as Latavius Murray ripped off two consecutive 20 yard runs early in the first quarter.

I dug into the tape to see what went wrong and if Broncos Country should be worried about the run defense this year.

Before we dive in, two major caveats - neither Von Miller nor Todd Davis played in this game, arguably our two best run defenders. This should definitely be taken into account when assessing the damage.

Play #1

The first play, the Vikings overload the right side of the line with two tight ends. The RT and one of the tight ends will combo block Wolfe, and the center and RG will combo Peko. Everyone else is 1-on-1.

From what I can tell, these are the defensive gap assignments. The back will come through the D-gap which has Chubb (55) and Wolfe (95) as the closest defenders.

At this point I would like to extend an apology to Zaire Anderson. I called him out in my post-game recap a few days ago, and although he still didn’t play extremely well, he was not at fault here as I supposed. This is why going back and watching/re-watching the tape is so important, you are able to correct errors and clear up misconceptions - I admit mine.

Anderson is doing just as Denver’s linebackers have been coached to do since last year when they see a double team - shoot the gap immediately to force the O-lineman to chase you, or risk you blowing up the play. This frees the defensive end of a double team and now they are 1-on-1.

Todd Davis did this all the time last year with great success. I have written about it multiple times in this series. So Anderson is executing the technique exactly how you want him to.

It works exactly how you draw it up, the tackle peels off the double team to chase Anderson, leaving Wolfe 1-on-1 against a tight end. Chubb is also 1-on-1 against a tight end. These two guys are the ones who should be making this stop. Stewart is also there, but he plays the edge hard, indicating that he is the force defender.

Lastly, Marshall misses a tackle once Murray has been sprung, but I’m less concerned about that because the back should have never gotten past the line.

I said on Twitter that Wolfe and Chubb should be embarrassed that they didn’t stop this play. Wolfe was left alone on a tight end. Chubb was alone the entire play on the tight end. Each of these guys should have been able to defeat their blocks easily.

Now, after talking through this with some friends from Mile High Huddle on Twitter, some additional info helps us make a little more sense of this play.

Vance Joseph said after the game that one of the big plays, they didn’t fit the run correctly - essentially, that they didn’t play their gaps right.

Apparently, the original call had Anderson slanting to that gap, while the D-line slanted to their right, but a shift was called by the coaches prior to the snap. The linebackers and Stewart got the shift call, but the D-line did not, so they were out of sync. Chubb and Wolfe were holding their blocks expecting Anderson to take that gap, while Anderson was operating under new information and executed accordingly.

After hearing this explanation, I am more apt to give the defense a pass on this one as this is what the preseason is for, cleaning up communication and getting on the same page. However, I still would have liked to see Wolfe or Chubb shed their blocks or at least get an arm on the runner to slow him down.

Play #2

Second one is a little harder due to the pre-season footage available. No end zone angle makes it hard to fully see what’s happening, but I took a stab at it.

Looks like a zone stretch to the right with a fullback leading. Denver is in their base personnel again with Marshall playside this time.

Everyone takes a step towards the playside at the snap.

Now here Wolfe and Ray get a lot of penetration. Wolfe probably has a chance to shed and step back into the running lane to blow this play up if he isn’t wrenched down by his face-mask by the guard.

With Wolfe unable to disengage, it’s an easy cutback lane for the back, and unfortunately the backside pursuit get all tangled up in a pile of bodies as Anderson hits the turf and trips up Peko.

This leaves Marshall in the hole with the fullback.

He is able to shed just in time as the back comes through, but misses a second arm tackle attempt in as many plays.

Bottom Line

Is it time to panic over these two plays? Not at all. Do you want it to happen? Not at all, and they better clean it up. But this is the same personnel who were absolutely dominant against the run last year, and they were also missing key pieces on Saturday night so I am not worried at all about this signaling some looming drop off in run defense.

Are Marshall’s missed tackles slightly concerning, yes, but he wasn’t the only one at fault and I trust the team as a whole will review the tape and learn from these early mistakes. My guess is we’ll see a fired up first-team defense against the Bears that is eager to prove they are better than what they put on the field on Saturday night.