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Tale of the Tape: The real story behind Denver’s poor red zone defense

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The Denver Broncos red zone defense dropped off severely in 2017. We dig into why.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Broncos have spent a lot of time drilling the Red Zone so far in training camp, and with good reason. Andrew Mason pointed out on Denverbroncos.com, that Denver’s offense ranked last in the league in red zone touchdowns per trip and the defense ranked 23rd in touchdowns allowed per red zone trip.

We’ll address the offense in another article, but for now I want to focus on the defense.

The Denver defense took a huge step back in this area in 2017 going from 8th in the league in red zone touchdowns allowed all the way down to 23rd, allowing 24 touchdowns inside the 20 yard line last year.

Chris Harris talked about it a little bit earlier this off-season:

“It was our red zone defense. You see us on the field, you see us on third down, we were tough. We still finished top 5 in a lot of categories, but our red zone was terrible, we gave up too many passing touchdowns, guys weren’t on the same page, we just panicked a lot in that red zone. If we can fix that and continue to play a high level inside the field, like we were first, second and third, and tighten up our red zone we’ll get back to being dominant.”

The numbers back Harris up. Denver was 2nd in the league allowing offenses to convert on 3rd down a paltry 31.5% and ranked 2nd in the league in 3 and outs forced per drive. Yet, when the opposing offense made it into the red zone, they scored a touchdown 58% of the time.

So what gives? I’m glad you asked because I asked the exact same thing, and decided to dig through every touchdown Denver gave up in the red zone in 2017. Here’s what I found...

Red Zone Touchdowns Allowed - 2017

Week Situation Play Fault Previous Offensive Possession
Week Situation Play Fault Previous Offensive Possession
1 2nd & 10 at 11 Texas Route by RB Todd Davis in coverage Touchdown (Opp 25)
1 1st & 5 at 5 Skinny post by Keenan Allen Chris Harris in man coverage. Justin Simmons was supposed to have help inside and bit down on another route. Harris was visibly upset after the play. INT (Den 43) (Siemian)
2 2nd & 3 at 3 Back shoulder to Dez. Talib in coverage Dez pushed off, but he always pushes off on those plays. Tough to stop. Fumble (Den 3) (Siemian)
3 3rd & 2 at 2 Fluke play where ball was tipped off one receiver and into another's hands Inital coverage was good. Fluke play. FG (Opp 26)
3 1st & 6 at 6 Play action leak out to tight end Defense lost track of him. Miscommunication. Think it was Talib's man. FG (Opp 31)
6 3rd & 2 at 5 Pick route with Evan Engram in the slot Justin Simmons in coverage. FG (Opp 25)
7 1st & 1 at 1 Motion RB from opposite side and swing to him in the flat Brandon Marshall in coverage, couldn't get out there in time. Punt (Opp 35)
9 3rd & 10 at 15 Screen to RB Marshall overpursued. Roby missed a tackle INT (Den 15) (Osweiler)
9 1st & 2 at 2 Speed option pitch Von Miller was the primary defender. Great play design by Philly KO (Opp 23)
9 3rd & 3 at 4 Over route by Jeffery off bootleg Talib in man coverage INT (Den 11) (Osweiler)
9 1st & 4 at 4 Hand off starts right, cuts back inside. Zaire Anderson and Brandon Marshall fail to win their gaps. Edabali was also on the field instead of Von Miller Failed onside (Den 48)
10 1st & 10 at 14 RB split out wide, slant route Stewart in coverage, Todd Davis abandonded inside help Opening KO (Opp 25)
10 2nd & 10 at 11 Corner route by TE Von Miller in coverage. Stewart with help over top bites on post route. FG (Opp 25)
10 2nd & 4 at 8 Quick snap shotgun handoff Defense had 10 men on the field, no one lined up, Brady caught them with a hurry up. TD (Opp 25)
10 3rd & 4 at 6 RB motioned out and back, runs an out from the backfield. Will Parks beat 1v1. Had inside help, and still bit inside and gave up the outside. Punt (Opp 6)
11 3rd & 1 at 1 Goaline TE flat off play action Parks got caught peeking on the PA and left Kroft wide open. INT (Den 1) (Osweiler)
11 3rd & 2 at 18 Fade route to AJ Green Roby was in pretty good coverage. Just a great play and throw Fumble (Den 44) (CJ Anderson)
12 2nd & 7 at 9 Fade route to Amari Cooper Brendan Langley got destroyed in coverage INT (Opp 20) (Lynch)
12 3rd & 1 at 1 Run by Lynch Not much defense could do here. Davis almost got the stop behind the line. Punt (Opp 48)
12 1st & 6 at 6 RB curl from the backfield Parks was in some sort of zone and didn't close out soon enough Punt (Opp 34)
13 1st & 9 at 9 Fade route to TE, Julius Thomas Will Parks beat 1v1 in coverage FG (Opp 25)
15 3rd & 2 at 7 QB scramble Not really defense's fault. Brisset saw an opening and took it. Everyone was into man and dropped in coverage. INT (50) (Siemian
16 2nd & 10 at 15 Slant route from the slot Roby in coverage. Gets beat 1v1. Stewart was drifting up top and was out of position for help on the tackle. Fumble (Den 38) (Osweiler)
17 2nd & 1 at 1 Handoff up the middle Inital attempt stopped him, but RB powered in with a second effort TD (Opp 27)

That is a lot, so let’s break this down a little more.

Offensive Turnovers

It was pretty significant. Of the 24 touchdowns Denver’s defense gave up, 9 of them came directly after an offensive turnover. That means, 37.5% of the touchdowns given up were done so with an assist from the offense.

Of those 9 touchdowns given up off of an offensive turnover, the average starting line of scrimmage was Denver’s own 31!

Additionally, the average opponent starting line of scrimmage across all of Denver’s allowed red zone touchdowns was the opponent’s 43 yard line. This means, the offense only had to gain 37 yards to even be in the red zone.

So at first glance, Denver’s red zone defense looks bad, and there are definite areas of improvement we’ll get into. But, upon further examination, it’s clear the putrid, turnover ridden Denver offense had a significant negative impact on the defense’s red zone numbers.

Running Backs & Tight Ends

As I began watching these red zone touchdowns on film, a lot of them started to look really familiar. Then, it hit me: I have already seen most of these before when I broke down every touchdown given up to a tight end or running back.

That’s because nearly half (11) of the 24 touchdowns given up in the red zone were on a pass to a tight end and running back.

I go into it in more detail in the link above, but here are some highlights (lowlights?).

Will Parks here gets beat by the motioning running back.

Darian Stewart gets beat 1-on-1 here by the back, but Todd Davis also fails to be where he should have been to help inside.

Down in the red zone where space gets tight and schemes are limited, it’s all about match-ups and winning 1-on-1 battles. This is why teams regularly succeeded throwing to tight ends and running backs in this area, because Denver just could not match up with them last year.

Miscommunications

The last reason Denver struggled in the red zone is exactly what Chris Harris was talking about - miscommunications and guys not being on the same page.

The above example of Davis missing his assignment inside is a good example of this. There were a few instances where Will Parks got caught peeking in the backfield and just never covered his man, the tight end.

Another where Talib assumed someone would pick up his guy as he went across the formation, and no one did, so he was all alone for the score.

A prime example of guys not being on the same page, and likely the one that was on Harris’ mind when he made these comments, was this play with Harris and safety Justin Simmons.

This is the first game of the season and Simmons has just stepped into a full-time role as TJ Ward left. He is in single high coverage at the top, and both Harris and Roby have receivers breaking inside.

Both corners allow their receivers an inside release, expecting help inside.

Parks right in the middle zone drops off to take away the underneath throw in the middle. At this point, Simmons needs to recognize where his help is needed and stay up top to take away the slot coming in on a skinny post.

However, the wiley vet, Rivers gets him to bite over the middle by staring that route down, and as soon as Simmons takes a step forward, he immediately looks to the slot route has all kinds of room.

Here’s the end zone angle. There are three guys covering the crosser, and no one over the top to help Chris Harris.

Harris is clearly not happy about it and was expecting help over the middle.

This is just one example of the communication issues the secondary experienced in the red zone. Granted, this was Simmons’ first game playing full-time free safety as a second year player, but still, guys not being on the same page allowed several big plays in Denver’s secondary last year.

Summary

Other than a few instances of big-time receivers (Dez Bryant, AJ Green, Alshon Jeffery, Amari Cooper) making big-time plays, these three buckets above are the main issues I found in Denver’s red zone defense.

The good news is, the first two were issues that were overarching themes from last year that the team has been working to address. So, while the numbers don’t look good from last year, it’s not time to panic on this defense because of their red zone numbers.

If Denver’s offense can limit turnovers this year, and the defense can be more effective matching up against tight ends and running backs along with improved communication with more time together, they should see their defensive numbers rise back into the upper echelons of the league.