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Tale of the tape: Secondary is the primary culprit

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The Denver Broncos usually sound secondary had some issues in the second half that led to their loss to the Minnesota Vikings.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Minnesota Vikings Ben Ludeman-USA TODAY Sports

Any time a team gives up 27 points in one half, and 20 points in a quarter, there is typically something that went horribly wrong on defense. After examining the tape, this game is the secondary’s version of the second half collapse of the run defense against Jacksonville.

Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota offense had picked up just two first downs throughout the first half, before picking up two more in a last minute drive at the end of the game that went nowhere, as Denver was essentially giving them short routes.

In the second half, however, the Minnesota Vikings offense exploded with four straight touchdown drives, not punting once.

So what happened to the Denver Broncos defense? Justin Simmons summed it up pretty well this week when he met the media after practice:

“I think a lot of it is due in part to in the second half a lot of what they did was a lot of tempo”, Simmons said. “A big part of what we do is communicate. It’s not just like one word, everyone’s set and ready to go. There are multiple things that have to be said, multiple pieces of the puzzle on our back end that have to be I place in order for the whole thing to operate well. You see it in spurts. One of the biggest things for us is not letting up the big play and we gave up a couple of those in the second half. It’s not taking anything away from what they did because obviously they came out in the second half, adjusted and executed what they talked about. A lot of it was self-inflicted as well where plays that we kind of easily took off the board in the first half, but in the second half lack of communication and lining guys up and doing our basic fundamental assignments. You saw what happened.”

On if it was more missed assignments than guys getting beat

“I wouldn’t say we really got beat. Obviously, they get paid too. They make plays. Those are going to happen, but it wasn’t just them willing their ways to win. I felt like a lot of it—you go back and you watch the film a lot of it was, like I said, missed communication and guys thinking they’re in one thing when we’re in another. We just have to be better. That starts in the back end. Safety—I take ownness in that. Setting guys up, we talk about it every week. There’s a lot on [DB] Kareem [Jackson] and I’s plate, but we can get that done and that’s something that we have to get done.”

Communication and “basic fundamental assignments.” That’s exactly what you see when you turn on the tape.

Play #1

It’s important to look at these plays in sequential order as they build off of each other in terms of what the offense is seeing from the defense, and how the defenders are playing certain concepts.

One of the areas the Vikings game Denver some trouble was vertical concepts from 3x1 sets.

Here, this is very reminiscent of the Raiders game in Week 1. The defender on the backside of trips is usually going to be isolated to a degree, and at times may just be plain one-on-one.

Here, Denver is playing a version of Cover-3 Mable, a Nick Saban staple. The key in this coverage is that the weakside safety plays robber on vertical or over routes from #3, which means Kareem Jackson has his eyes on Rudolph’s route over the middle.

This also means that Davontae Harris doesn’t have help over the top. He either doesn’t recognize this, or just gets a little overzealous to stop the short route and lets Diggs get behind him.

Diggs nods to the out, which gets Harris to bite and it’s all over from that point.

This one is either miscommunication on Harris understanding his coverage, or he just plays with poor technique and gets beat.

Play #2

Similar play on the next drive. This is the 3rd and 14 Denver gave up. Another four verticals from a 3x1 set from Minnesota.

This time, since it is 3rd and 14, the secondary are all playing back to keep everything in front of them, so Jackson is extremely deep and isn’t robbing any routes from the #3 receiver. They’re essentially spot dropping into zone coverage here.

The issue is Alexander Johnson doesn’t get deep enough in his drop and doesn’t feel the seam route from the tight end. He is eyeing the underneath route and passing it off to Davis, and as soon as Davis breaks off from the TE to take it, Johnson needs to be underneath this route.

Johnson has no reason to drift to the numbers here. He needs to be tight on the hashes and squeeze that window, so Cousins can’t make this throw.

Fangio mentioned this play in his news conference on Monday:

We had our chances in almost all those drives to get off the field and we just didn’t execute. We had a third-and-15 that we had a poor drop on and they got a first down. We had a third-and-10 and we got called for holding—the receiver at the 5-yard mark, which was the correct call. That’s just poor there and we had some others, too. We had our chances, but when you give an offense with their good quarterback and the guys that they have those many opportunities when you have a chance to get off the field, that’s not a good thing.”

Another example of poor execution.

Play #3

Directly after the play above, Minnesota again rolls out a 3x1 set and attempts to isolate Davontae Harris on the backside. The have vertical concepts, with the tight end coming across to Jackson.

Jackson who had just watched a play get completed to a tight end over the middle on a vertical route the play before, immediately jumps down to cut it off this time, and Harris is all alone.

However, Harris plays this one much better than the first play and stacks his man perfectly, recognizing that he is on an island here.

He still nearly gets beat and a better placed ball might have turned into another play like the one above, but it’s also important to note how Jackson is play the over route on these.

Play #4

Because that is important in this play. This isn’t a 3x1 set, but it’s another vertical concept with a receiver coming across the field. Up until this point, Minnesota has been targeting the tight end and the X receiver on these routes.

However, this time, Jackson assumes his normal role of watching for the tight end coming across and hanging around to Harris side, and misses the call to come back to the middle of the field.

Chris Harris was signaling for Jackson as soon as the play started, as he could tell they were testing the post. However, Jackson is paying attention to the tight end and the vertical route on the opposite side and doesn’t come back to the middle until it’s too late.

As a veteran guy, Jackson knows he has to be back there and was likely being influenced by all the plays leading up to this one where the Vikings were targeting the X receiver and the over routes for much of the game.

This isn’t anything new they haven’t seen, heck, this is a very similar play to what Denver has run several times this year.

Just miscommunication on coverage, and/or a mental error by Jackson.

Play #5

This last one is probably the most egregious error. The Vikings run a classic play action, clear out the corner, and bring the tight end across the formation.

Justin Simmons who is initially in coverage on the tight end is trying to signal across the field for someone to pick him up, when he sees Rudolph break that way. Duke Dawson is over there and his initial responsibility stayed to block, so he should be the one to pick up Rudolph.

You can also see Jackson is in no place to break on the tight end coming across the middle, like he has been doing most the game, as he is up playing single high and helping Harris on Diggs, which is key since they just got burned by not doing that a few plays ago.

Here you can see Dawson. He is kind of hanging out in no man’s land and according to Fangio, needs to be much deeper in his drop in order to see and pickup Rudolph, to cut off this over route.

He’s free at this point because no one on his side released for a route. He has no one to cover, and Rudolph is running free behind him.

Here’s the end zone angle.

Fangio said postgame about this play: “We needed to back up there with our DB that was down and had no releasers. He needs to get depth. They ran that same play in the first half, and we had told them about it, but it didn’t quite register.”

I’m not sure if this is the exact play Fangio is referencing, but it works as a coaching point. Justin Simmons plays this textbook and does what Fangio is talking about in the quote above.

Good on the coaches for calling out and coaching this up on the sideline during the game. I’m sure it will be an even bigger emphasis in practice this week, since it didn’t stick during the game. Definitely a learning opportunity for Dawson.

That’s all we have for this week. It was tough to go back through this tape as it felt like the defense was playing so well up to this point, and this was definitely a bit of a regression. However, it’s been the same Achilles heel for the secondary all season - when teams get in the hurry up/final two minutes, etc. on them, they’re coverage or communication breaks down.

They’ll need to bounce back on the road against Josh Allen and the Bills, and prove they can stop a hurry up style offense if given the opportunity on Sunday.