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Defensive deep dives: Defensive line

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Zooming in on the trenches to preview what Denver’s starting lineup could look like.

Last week kicked off a series of conversations around Denver’s defense for this upcoming season as I wrote about the three biggest defensive weaknesses from a season ago, and how the Broncos look as though they have improved upon them.

Joe Rowles and I covered this at length on last week’s Cover 2 Broncos podcast as well. This week we start zooming in on various position groups, and first up is the big boys in the trenches.

Last Year

Stats

A couple things of note from last year’s defense. I said last week that pass rush, particularly on the interior was one of Denver’s key weaknesses in 2019. To add a little context, some of that was exacerbated by their situation.

The Broncos suffered from not only poor pass rush outside of Von Miller, but also from a lack of true pass rush opportunities, namely 3rd and longs, where the defense can pin their ears back and rush the passer.

In 2019, Denver was 5th worst in the league in average yards to go on 3rd down. The league average was around 7.5 yards to go on 3rd downs, and Denver’s was 6.9. Which leads directly into the next stat - Denver was 4th highest in the league in total number of 3rd and short (1-5 yards to go) situations.

When they did get teams in 3rd and long, they were pretty effective at closing out, checking in at 10th overall in stops on 3rd and long, and 12th overall on 3rd down stops in general.

Given that 40% of NFL sacks last year happened on 3rd down, and 75% of them happened with more than 7 yards to go, regardless of down, Denver was near the bottom of the league in high propensity sack situations.

That’s hopefully something that will come back towards the center, and also be mitigated by better coverage, and less easy chunks of yardage given up on early downs.

Techniques

After watching a lot of Bears tape prior to last season, I wasn’t exactly sure how some of that would translate over onto Denver’s roster, but now that Fangio has a year with Denver’s players under his belt, we got to see how he deployed them, which gives us some insight into this upcoming season.

If you need a quick refresher on defensive line techniques and assignments, Joe and I did a 101 intro last offseason. Here’s a quick cheat sheet as well.

Gap Diagram 1

One of the things that surprised me a little about how Fangio deployed the Dline was just use of Tite fronts. If you want a deep dive on those, check out this piece here. Essentially a tight front attempts to keep all 3 down linemen between the offensive tackles to clog up the A and B gaps, letting the linebackers and secondary clean up the outside once the play bounces.

Tite fronts are also sometimes referred to as 404 or 303 fronts, since as you can see above the two ends are in a 4-technique, with the nose tackle head up over the center in a 0-technique.

Here’s another variation with the nose slightly tilted, and one of the ends in a 3-technique.

Everyone is still inside the tackles, and will look to clog the A and B gaps.

From here, we saw Fangio really ask his linemen to do a little bit of everything. I think if there’s one thing I would say that Fangio values in a defensive lineman, it’s versatility. Not just versatility up and down the line, but also with the things they’re able to do.

Mike Purcell is a great example of a guy who is in a niche role at nose tackle, and isn’t going to venture too far out of that, but even within that role, he’s not just playing everything the same way.

Here you’ll see him stack/shed as he is two-gapping - notice how he absorbs the double team, controls the guard, peeks in one gap, and then sheds to the A-gap to make the play.

Contrast that with the very next play, and this time he’s shaded to the playside and immediately shoots upfield to make the play in the backfield.

This is just a small example, but a good one of the variety that Fangio asks of his defensive linemen, and this is true of both the nose tackle, as well as the defensive ends.

This Year

This coming year, I think we’ll continue to see Tite fronts being deployed in run stopping packages. We also have to remember that last year Denver faced 11 personnel over 60% of the time, and will likely only see that number increase, so when we talk about “base” defense, nickel or some form of sub-package is really going to be the main base package being used. Three down fronts like what we talked about above, I’ll refer to as “beef” packages or run stopping packages, as we’ll likely see those less than 50% of the time.

When they are on the field, my bet for starting linemen would be:

Jurrell Casey - Mike Purcell - Shelby Harris

With Dre’Mont Jones rotating in.

When we move to our new “base”/sub looks like the below, I think we’ll like see Casey and hopefully Dre’Mont Jones primarily playing the 3-technique, with Shelby Harris playing as more of an anchor in the middle.

My goal would be to see Casey and Jones be the two main down linemen in pass rush situations, since they can both be moved all over and can each play anywhere on the interior from a pass rushing standpoint.

Dre’Mont Jones impressed me last year with his ability to command a double team at times, giving his teammates 1-on-1 opportunities. I think between Casey/Jones inside, and Von/Chubb on the outside, the sky is the limit to what can be cooked up.

In Joe Rowles’ breakdown of Casey, he showcased how adept he is at stunts and twists.

Casey's very good on stunts whether he's shooting or looping because he's both quick and relentless.
Casey’s very good on stunts whether he’s shooting or looping because he’s both quick and relentless.
Joe Rowles - Mile High Report

I expect we’ll see plenty of these this coming season, and also a concerted effort made to win on early downs to put the defense in favorable pass rushing situations on 3rd down. When you have Ferraris in your garage, you want to put yourself in a position to unleash them as often as possible.

Bonus Question: Check out the podcast and see if you agree with Joe and I’s take on who one the defensive line will make the roster this year, and who won’t. Who do you think the final group will be?