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Tale of the Tape: Making adjustments on defense

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We dive deep into the film from Week One to see what went wrong and how Denver can fix it.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Oakland Raiders Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I wish the first regular season film review was under better circumstances, but alas. Here we are. I spent a lot of time this off-season studying Vic Fangio’s defense in an attempt to better understand what we would potentially see on game days, and to hopefully help everyone here as we learn this new defense together.

What to Expect

I want to circle back to a couple principles I talked about in my first piece on Fangio’s defense when breaking down the core tenets that I have observed.

  • Limit big plays
  • Rally to the ball
  • Pressure with four man rush
  • Flexibility/Adaptability

These are not just principles on paper, but they affect how the plays are called and inform the overall design of the scheme.

It means we’re going to continue to see DBs playing off, because it allows them to identify route concepts, pass them off to help, and break downhill and rally to the football. Now I know what you’re thinking, “that didn’t happen Monday night!” and you’re absolutely right.

The defense also didn’t limit big plays very well, get much pressure with four man fronts, or show a ton of disguise that I was expecting and would have liked to see.

These tenets don’t mean they’ll always happen, but they are aspirational principles built into the design of the defense. Meaning, when things are clicking and working well, you should see the above happening.

This doesn’t mean it can’t adjust and play tighter at times, or blitz more to get pressure or any other myriad of options, but as a whole, the above is what you’re going to see and what the defense is working towards.

I want to level set on those expectations so we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater when the team doesn’t play well, or have this conversation about zone and off coverage every week.

Give it some time

There’s nothing wrong with the overall scheme of the defense. The players have been praising it all camp and telling us what to expect. I and others on here have been telling us what to expect: Here, here, and here. I don’t share those so you’ll go read my stuff, but to hopefully help us all be on the same page when we talk about this defense.

I said on Twitter this week if you are surprised by what you saw on the field design-wise, you haven’t been paying attention to Fangio’s defenses.

However, I was off on that statement in two areas: 1) I expected more disguise than we saw this week, and think Fangio can and should improve there. 2) I expected better execution and communication from the players. Both of these factors are likely outcomes of starters being hurt and players still learning the system.

The latter was naive of me. This is a defense that is complex and requires all 11 players dialed into their responsibilities and seeing the field the same way. Chicago in 2018 featured only two new faces on their entire starting squad (Kalil Mack and Roquan Smith). The rest were multi-year starters in Fangio’s system.

Denver was down two starters and even the starters still need some more time in the system. All that to say, I’m hopeful and expect improvement in the next few weeks.

Thank you for your patience. I’ll climb down from my soapbox so we can talk some football. I hope your internet connection is solid because we have a lot of content to cover from this game!

Issues

Right out of the gate we saw that Oakland was going to attack Denver with the short passing game and try to run the ball. The two formations they used to do this were stack formations and 3x1 sets (or trips).

Stack formations like the below prevent the defense from pressing and playing too close to the line of scrimmage because they will get hung up in pick/rub routes.

Play #1

Here Oakland, instead of going inside/out like you typically see from these looks, tries to stretch the defense vertically and slip underneath with an out route.

This is on 3rd and 4, the first 3rd down of the game.

What you will typically see from Fangio’s defense is they’ll switch these routes and whoever is inside takes the most inside route, and whoever is outside will take the outside route.

I would have liked to see them do that here, but they stay locked in on their man and it costs them because Jackson (#22) is out-leveraged to the outside.

Below is what I would have liked to have seen, and what I expected them to do. You always need to know where your help is in this defense. Von Miller is dropping inside, and Simmons has you coverage vertically, so there’s your help.

This means that Harris and Jackson need to play outside leverage and rely on help inside or over the top, or play this as a cloud read where Harris jumps out and traps the outside route, and Jackson takes the vertical/corner.

It’s probably either miscommunication or the Raiders did a good job declaring the routes late. So by the time the slot broke on the out, Harris had already taken the vertical route.

As it shook out, not a huge gain and Jackson did a perfect job closing out for the tackle, but it converted a 3rd and short. Something they’ll learn from in the future, and I expect they will start trapping this concept. We have seen Kyle Fuller get a couple interceptions this way in this defense.

Not the end of the world, but something to learn from.

Play #2

This next one is indicative of an overall issue that plagued Denver Monday night and drove fans crazy all game. Isaac Yiadom was consistently late on breaking towards these short routes that completed right in front of him. It’s how Oakland’s quick passing game kept humming.

Now, most folks I saw were upset at how far off the line of scrimmage he was lined up. I’m less concerned about that, because that’s how Fangio typically plays it and Harris does the same on the other side, and it works. It works because Harris recognizes and breaks on the routes quickly, limiting the damage.

Yiadom, however, was not confident in what he was seeing, or was just slow to react and the results were multiple balls completed right in front of him.

Contrast the above image, and the below. Check out how Harris is already uncoiling and exploding downhill the second he sees the receiver’s hips turn. Yiadom is flat footed and doesn’t start coming downhill until the ball is already out.

Contrast Harris above, and Yiadom below. Above is how you are supposed to play it, and how you can get away with playing off to have a better chance at preventing the big play, but also mitigate the quick passing game.

Below is another example. This one is even more infuriating because Yiadom has help from a safety if it’s a double move or goes vertical. He needs to be aggressive here and explode downhill to break this up.

I think it’s a combo of mental and physical. I just don’t see the foot speed and explosiveness from Yiadom that I would like, but he is also reacting late. Not sure if he’s just being too cautious, or not seeing the routes, but this is a major area for improvement for him.

Now I said above that I am less concerned with where he’s lining up, as the way he is playing it is the main issue. That doesn’t mean, however, that Denver can’t improve their calls to get the corners closer to these receivers to help counter the quick passing game.

This is what everyone was calling for on Monday night, and it’s totally valid, I just don’t think it’s the silver bullet that some folks think.

Play #3

Case and point. Below you’ll see Yiadom in press coverage. This is a great place to park for a second and talk about press. There are certain formations and alignments by the offense that it is not a good idea to press - stacks and bunches are examples, like in play #1, because it will get your corners picked and leave guys wide open.

So the answer can’t always be “more press coverage!!”. However, one area where Fangio does like to press, and is a great place to do it, is the backside of a 3x1. This is one of the formations that gave Denver some issues the other night.

If you want some really deep dive resources on defending trips, Coach Alexander, who we had on the the site earlier this week, has some great resources on this.

There are a lot of different options to defending Trips, all based on what the offense is trying to do to you. Below, Fangio plays it like he did a lot with the Bears. It essentially locks up the backside corner in man coverage with the #1 on the backside, so the rest of the secondary can focus on all the other stuff offenses like to throw at you with Trips.

So Yiadom has to play this like he has no help, even though he technically has a safety on his side, the current coverage call has Parks watching for the vertical of the #3 on the frontside, or watching for over routes, etc. first.

He could also potentially help on a dig or post, but he’s not in help over the top here.

Yiadom actually plays it pretty well and gets a decent press on the TE Waller here and he takes an outside release so there’s really no way Parks is coming from there to help out based on his initial coverage responsibility.

Again, the coverage isn’t bad from Yiadom, it’s just a perfectly thrown ball and a huge mismatch physically with Waller checking in at 6’6” and running a 4.4 40.

This is a good reminder that press coverage isn’t necessarily always the answer, because as soon as you do that, the offense just attacks you a different way.

So the next thing you’re probably thinking (I know I was) is “well then get Yiadom some help!”. It’s clear he was being picked on. This was on the first drive of the game, and the first time he found himself on the backside of a 3x1.

Adjustments

Which brings us to adjustments. There was a lot of criticism of the coaching staff that they weren’t adjusting during the game to what the Raiders were doing. I thought the same thing, until I dug into the tape a few days ago and realized some of the tweaks they made in game.

The first thing they immediately did after that big play to Waller was roll coverage to Yiadom’s side anytime he was isolated on the backside of a 3x1. Below is an example. The safety isn’t looking at the trips side at all. He’s focused on help over the top so Yiadom can play up and feel confident.

It backfires a bit here as the Raiders drag across the field, and either Von Miller or someone on that side needs to pick up the crosser.

But those are the trade offs you make on defense when you have to hide or protect a player that is struggling. You’re essentially taking two guys to cover one, so you have to make it up by winning somewhere else, and they didn’t do it on that one.

Here’s another example. Denver checks to a coverage called Special (I think Nick Saban calls it Stubbie). It’s a split field coverage that allows flexibility on the calls on the backside, so Fangio and Donatell can do a variety of things to help Yiadom.

https://matchquarters.com/2017/03/17/defending-trips-special-coverage/

This is a good time to remind everyone that if you have been following along, Fangio doesn’t play a straight spot dropping zone coverage. How we think of “zone coverage” traditionally, is not how the defense works. I dig more into it here, but wanted to reiterate that.

These are split field coverages where one side is able to operate independently of the coverage on the other, which gives a lot of flexibility in adjusting.

This is another example. Denver essentially switches to playing a cover-2 style coverage on the 3x1 side, so Yiadom can press and pass off deep responsibility to Jackson.

https://matchquarters.com/2017/03/10/defending-trips-stress-coverage/

The Raiders run the backside #1 on a corner, and the RB is going to hook up shallow.

Yiadom presses, and then sits down to squat on the shallow route.

This puts all the responsibility on Jackson who makes a beautiful play. This is how much ground he had to cover when the ball was being thrown.

This is open, but Jackson does an excellent job closing, and the press threw off the timing at the beginning.

Last adjustment example in the press department. This is Harris on the backside of a 3x1 immediately getting his hands on the receiver.

I know when we were watching the game go along it didn’t seem like Denver was doing anything about these short routes, but they moved up and starting adjusting and pressing pretty early on and it continued throughout the game.

More Issues

The problem is that there were other issues that overshadowed their adjustments and kept the Raiders rolling. It felt like a leaky boat watching this tape, as soon as one area was addressed, another leak would spring up.

Play #4

This one was particularly egregious. Denver is going to bring a blitz by Josey Jewell, and Chubb will drop to replace him in the shallow zone.

The blitz works perfectly and Jewell gets a free path to the quarterback.

Derek Carr, however, does a really nice job at scrambling away from the pressure long enough to extend that play to find his slot receiver over the middle.

The problem is there are three Broncos that are responsible for him in coverage. Parks is up high, which I hate. I hate the call, single high safety in the red zone is worthless, and I hate how he covers it. Jackson releases the inside route, I guess assuming Chubb will pick it up underneath and Parks will come down.

It feels like all three of them are at fault as Chubb doesn’t come follow the receiver underneath so he’s able to get behind him, and Parks, my gosh don’t stand there like a statue, man. He needs to be breaking downhill now. There is no other route or receiver in his vicinity. He has to see this and cut it off.

I would put this about 80% on Parks. Completely flat-footed and recognizes and reacts way too late.

Play #5

That was from the first half, Denver really only had one bad drive defensively in the second half, and that featured the two plays we’ll cover below.

Chubb and Nelson have to be better about rallying to the ball. Not only finishing and making the tackle, which is table stakes, but recognizing and breaking on this sooner. There is no way this should have been a 28 yard gain.

Contrast this with Roquan Smith breaking on the ball last year for the Bears.

That’s what this defense requires. Recognize, rally to the ball, and make the #%^@ tackle.

Play #6

This is the last bad example, I promise. This is the big play that led to the final Raiders touchdown in the second half.

We’re in a 3x1 again, except this time, Harris is on the backside. Simmons is the safety on the backside, but based on the call, he is responsible for the vertical of #3 on the frontside.

Harris has to know this and know he is essentially 1-on-1. The way they were talking after the play, it looked like there may have been confusion on the call, because Harris plays this as if he has help.

Not sure it’s really anyone’s fault, just communication they need to iron out, and Harris just has to win these battles when he’s 1-on-1.

For Yiadom, I am all for rotating his way and using split field coverage on 3x1s, but with Harris, I would just as soon leave him and let him go to work, and gain a numbers advantage to the Trips side.

Obviously that can change based on what the offense is calling, but I like the call here. He’s a top shelf corner, utilize him in that way in these situations.

Bright Spots

Before we wrap up, I want to highlight a few bright spots I saw because it wasn’t all bad.

Shelby Harris came out of the locker room ready to play in the second half and absolutely bodies the guard here.

Kareem Jackson had a really good game overall and was as advertised. Here he shows a textbook example of shutting down the short passing game. This was on a 3rd and short, and he had enough of those quick passes.

Lastly, because we have been pretty hard on Yiadom (for good reason), it wasn’t all bad. Below, he does a nice job attacking the screen and fighting through for the stop. Denver was outnumbered 3-to-2 here, but Yiadom shut this down before it got going.

Whew. That was a lot. Thanks for sticking with me as we dissect our first game action of the season.

I really am hopeful for this week’s match-up and the defense as a whole because these issues are mostly all fixable. If Yiadom continues to see significant time, he is going to need to improve his recognition and processing, and he needs to be careful of double moves this week since team’s now know he’ll likely be focused on coming hard downhill.

I also think that due to Davis and Callahan being out, Fangio kept it pretty simple in terms of disguise and the coverages he was calling. I want to see them up the ante there and open the throttle up some more as all of these guys get more comfortable in the scheme.

Comment below with your thoughts!