If I told you Denver would lose Von Miller before the season, but still rank 7th in the NFL in defensive pressure rate, would you believe me? I wouldn’t have believed it, myself.
Last season, without Bradley Chubb, although Von Miller individually ranked near the top of the league in pressures, the Broncos finished 18th in pressure %.
So what is different this year? How is a ragtag front seven without Miller, Jurrell Casey, and Dre’Mont Jones getting after the quarterback?
The answer is Vic Fangio and Ed Donatell. No, they haven’t been lining up to rush the passer, but they have been at the helm of a schematic shift on defense over the last two games - designed to mitigate the loss of Miller and Casey, and put Denver’s current players in their best positions to be successful.
The shift is one I noticed and called out after the Jets game, and it continued on Sunday against the New England Patriots. The Broncos have shifted from a team who ranked 22nd in the NFL with a 24% blitz rate (according to Pro Football Reference), to one of the more blitz-happy teams in the NFL over the last two weeks.
To underscore how big of a departure this is for Fangio:— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) October 8, 2020
In '18 with the Bears, he blitzed ILBs 90 times all year.
In '19 with Denver he blitzed them 75 times
In '20 they've already blitzed 66 times and on pace for 264. https://t.co/kKNesmEK4b
In the game against New York, Denver blitzed Alexander Johnson an insane 22 times, and also brought Josey Jewell 11 times. The trend continued on Sunday as Johnson was brought on a blitz 10 times and Jewell 7.
Johnson has already surpassed his entire 2019 season blitzing total this year, being brought 54 times in 2020, compared to 50 times last year. The Broncos have essentially been using Johnson as a quasi-situational pass rusher, and with great success.
Against the Jets we saw the inside linebackers blitzing and generating the pressure themselves, this time around, the Patriots actually picked up the rushers pretty well, but it created enough chaos in the pocket to make Cam Newton uncomfortable, and allowed another rusher to get free.
Malik Reed had two sacks on Sunday, both coming from inside linebacker blitzes.
This one below was more of a coverage sack, but allowed Chickillo to get a free rush once everyone else was occupied.
This is my favorite wrinkle that Fangio has brought so far because it plays into the defense’s strengths. Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell are savvy blitzers who, frankly, probably have more impact rushing than in coverage so utilizing them in this capacity has been a great move from the coaching staff.
Blitzing the slot
This week, Fangio dialed up the pressure from the secondary as well. Against the Jets, he only sent Bryce Callahan two times. On Sunday, Callahan was blitzed six times.
This play below, Callahan comes off the left edge (right side of the screen) as a free rusher, forcing an errant throw from Newton.
On the interception by DeShawn Williams, Callahan was also brought on a blitz off the right edge, allowing Shelby Harris to work over the guard 1-on-1 to generate the pressure and tip for the interception.
Lastly, Fangio experimented with blitzing the deep safeties as well. The last play of the game for the Patriots offense on a crucial 4th down, Fangio sent the house with both Jackson and Simmons coming from their deep safety spots to blitz.
Fangio said in his media address this week that was a blitz they had never run before and dialed up special.
“Unbeknownst to you and to everybody else, at one time I was the leading blitzkrieger in the NFL. I’ve been calling defenses now for 20-something years but the last few years with the defenses that I had in San Francisco and Chicago we didn’t need to, but it’s there when it needs to be had and obviously it was there today. The final one today was one that we put in for this game. It was one that we had never run before and that I had never run before in my career, but we put it in and I called it there.”
Lastly, blitzing isn’t without it’s drawbacks. It often leaves your corners and safeties 1-on-1 in man coverage. However, Denver’s secondary has answered the call over the last two weeks. Cam Newton was often left holding the ball with nowhere to throw due to the sticky coverage from Denver.
Take a look at the clip below. There is nowhere to go with the ball.
Maybe there is an outlet pass off to the right, but Simmons is all over it.
Below is another play where Denver sent the house and this is what Cam saw.
The post is taken away by Simmons playing robber, and the outside corners have their man locked up, with Jackson taking away a potential out and up on the left.
The Broncos secondary has played more man coverage over the last two weeks than they did at any point in 2019.
This defensive scheme shift and adjustment by Vic Fangio and Ed Donatell isn’t getting talked about enough. People are beginning to catch onto the blitzing, sure, but the back end has to hold up for it to work, and so far it’s worked out extremely well for the Broncos.
With essentially two extra corners in your big time safeties, Jackson and Simmons, this adjustment by the coaching staff plays really well into Denver’s strengths. Callahan in the slot is a great fit, and the outside corners will only get stronger when A.J. Bouye returns.
They’ll likely take some lumps against Kansas City, but I believe this new look defense is here to stay this year, and the coaching staff deserves a ton of credit for once again pivoting on defense a few games into the season to make the most of what they have.