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Three reasons the Broncos defense will make a big leap forward this year

Denver has addressed their three biggest issues from last year’s defense.

It’s clear from the Broncos draft strategy and offseason coaching hires that the #1 goal of the offseason was to overhaul yet another anemic offense that has plagued Denver for the last several years. This has rightly been the focus of much of our coverage, particularly with the excitement over Drew Lock.

However, I think the defensive side of the ball has the potential to make an even bigger leap from where they were last year, and could become the dominant force we’re used to seeing here in Broncos Country.

Joe Rowles and I have set out to do a series of deep dives into the defensive side of the ball over the next several weeks on the Cover 2 Broncos podcast. A few weeks ago, we got the football rolling in what was potentially our most depressing episode to date as we looked at how Denver can stop Mahomes and the Chiefs.

This week, we’re back to breaking down the defense, specifically trying to reverse engineer the potential of the defense by looking at the areas where they struggled the most last year.

The logic being, if you fix or improve those areas without adding new ones, they should be a lot better than what we saw last year, which was about a middle of the road defense.

Before we get to issues, let’s set up where Fangio inherited the defense, or what the Denver defense looked like heading into 2019.

Injuries and Newcomers

Between players getting hurt, and new players stepping into unplanned roles, Fangio pulled off a mini-miracle just getting the defense to where they finished last year.

Every player was obviously new to Fangio’s system but the Broncos also shifted Kareem Jackson after the first four games in the slot to safety, brought in Duke Dawson and Davontae Harris right before the season started and had them play 30% and 45% of defensive snaps (respectively), and started Alexander Johnson in week five after he had been out of football for years.

Add on top of this the fact that key free agent signing, Bryce Callahan, didn’t play a down and Bradley Chubb went to IR in Game 5, and it’s easy to be excited about the defense’s potential just due to them all coming back healthy with an offseason in Fangio’s system under their belt.

Which leads us to the three major issues we found on tape from the Broncos defense.

#1 - Miscommunications/missed assignments in the secondary

This was the number one issue that repeatedly stuck out on film when watching the Broncos defense, and led to the majority of their big plays. Aside from Isaac Yiadom getting picked on in the Raiders games and in Kansas City, it wasn’t necessarily a talent issue in the secondary from what I saw. It was assignment and communication issues.

Now, if that continues this year, Denver will need to look at upgrading talent who can handle it, but for now, it feels like this is a very fixable problem.

Let’s take a look at an example. This concept was the one that gave Denver the most trouble last year - the deep over route, often paired with two verticals on the other side as clear-out routes, which is very common across the NFL.

Below is a tweet thread I did on the subject back in December when it was happening to Denver week in and week out.

Each time the issue is either poor communication of someone not picking up the signal from their teammate alerting them of the crosser, or they’re just out of position.

Fangio addressed the play to Kyle Rudolph above directly after the game during the season:

“We needed to back up there with our DB that was down and had no releasers,” Fangio said. “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.”

Speaking of the Vikings game, there was another big miscommunication on a Diggs touchdown where Chris Harris was expecting safety help and never got it, as Jackson was out of position.

The thinking is that these miscommunications will be solved with more time together, and that the missed assignments will go down with greater familiarity in Fangio’s scheme. Again, several of the secondary players missed camp, and Kareem Jackson for as good as he played, is still new to the safety position and practiced all camp at two different positions.

#2 - Bland defense/predictable coverages that offenses exploited

This one stems directly from the first one, I believe. And before I go further, I’m not saying it was all the time, but there were a few of the big plays given up because it seemed like the offense knew exactly what coverage Denver would be in, or how they would play a certain look.

I know Fangio and Donatell’s defenses are more than capable of adapting a gameplan to fit an opponent and disguising their looks. This was a key piece the players kept talking about last offseason during camp as something they were excited about.

I just think all the injuries, new players, and shuffling around of the secondary caused Fangio to simplify and not get too crazy, since they were dealing with almost a new secondary combination every couple of games.

I expect this to improve drastically next season as players become more familiar with the base scheme, so the coaches can then build off of that, and they’ve had a chance to self-scout and continue to dial things in this offseason.

The biggest key I am looking for is a very specific gameplan tailored for the Chiefs. Even if you only use it twice all year, I think that needs to be a priority for this coaching staff, and will be one of the things I’m really watching this upcoming season.

#3 - Pass rush

This is another thing Fangio addressed during the season, particularly their depth at edge rusher. With Bradley Chubb going down, Malik Reed and Jeremy Attaochu had to shoulder a large portion of the edge snaps opposite Von Miller.

While they filled in admirably, the lack of a secondary pass rush threat was evident all season as Von Miller carried the team with 63 pressures and a 15% pressure rate on pass rushes.

The next closest Broncos in that category were Shelby Harris with 24 and Derek Wolfe with 20, both with 7% pressure rates. Bradley Chubb was the only other Denver rusher with a double digit pressure rate, as his was right in line with Von’s before he went down with injury.

So Von Miller logged over 100 more pass rush snaps, had double the pressure rate, and triple amount of total pressures of the next closest Bronco. Despite all this. Von Miller still finished top 6 in the NFL in total pressures and top 6 in pressure rate (keep these numbers in mind the next time you hear about Von having a down season).

However, help has certainly arrived this offseason for the Broncos star pass rusher. The return of Bradley Chubb alone would be enough of a boost to Denver’s pass rush, but add in the acquisition of Jurrell Casey and the beleaguered unit from last season looks downright scary. Joe Rowles wrote a great piece about Casey here that you should check out if you haven’t seen it.

This moves Shelby Harris from being the 2nd best rusher to the 4th, which is the role you’d like to have him be in, and that’s not even factoring in potential growth from Dre’Mont Jones, which I think we’ll see.

Too often when reviewing the defense last year, the pass rush was stagnant and allowed quarterbacks way too much time to pick on an injury riddled secondary. The pass rush improving raises all boats and helps both points #1 and #2 above tremendously.

Lastly, aside from the above issues that look to be either already fixed or on their way to being fixed, I don’t see any new issues, at least when reviewing this defense on paper.

While we all hope the offense takes a big step forward this season, don’t overlook this defense, who has addressed their major deficiencies from last year, and I think has the potential to be scary good if everything pans out.

Be sure to check out our whole conversation on the topic on this week’s episode of Cover 2 Broncos.


What’s your prediction for the Broncos defense this upcoming year?

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  • 5%
    Average again like last year
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  • 57%
    Top 10
    (782 votes)
  • 37%
    Top 5
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