It’s both callous and undeniably true to call Bradley Chubb’s sophomore season a bit of a disappointment. The man they call “astronaut” got off to a rocket start to his NFL career, with 12 sacks through his first 13 games. While some in Broncos’ Country were disappointed he could not keep up that remarkable pace and take the rookie sack record to finish 2018, others considered his rookie season very impressive.
After Vic Fangio was hired to replace Vance Joseph, the hope was Chubb and Von Miller would combine to form a more terrifying pass rush duo than Chicago’s Khalil Mack and Leonard Floyd. Three games into the experiment, the two combined for as many sacks as my dog and I. In the fourth game, Chubb’s two sack performance was overshadowed by a crippling penalty that led to a devastating loss and a partial tear to his left ACL that ended his 2019.
It’s rare for a fifth overall pick to produce like Chubb did as a rookie and become something of an afterthought heading into year three, but that’s where things stand in 2020. The Broncos defense found their stride after Fangio overhauled the defensive personnel following Chubb’s injury, and moves like Jurrell Casey and A.J. Bouye have overshadowed his return to health.
What can a healthy Chubb add to the Broncos this season?
If you can ignore the injury for just a minute to simply compare the start of Chubb’s career to every other pass rusher since 1982, he’s in some good company. Here are just some of the other players who finished with 13 or fewer sacks through their first two seasons in the NFL: Frank Clark, Whitney Mercilus, Matt Judon, Sam Acho, Bruce Irvin, Trent Cole. Only one reached 13 in 20 or fewer games through his first two seasons.
So long as Chubb can regain the form he displayed across the first 20 games of his career, his return is a massive infusion of talent back into the defense. He’s a very good athlete with the kind of motor and rush move repertoire to give Fangio’s defense a real bite.
Von Miller finished 2019 with eight sacks and notched over 50 pressures by Sports Info Solutions’ charting. He did this without the benefit of a second rusher who could draw attention for the better part of the season. In fact, Miller had more than double the pressures any other Broncos’ defender had last year.
Chubb should help that.
While Malik Reed, Jeremiah Attaochu, and Justin Hollins performed admirably in their expanded roles, none draw the sort of attention to free up others like Chubb does. It’s an impact that goes beyond the individual stat sheet, but is an important factor in isolating favorable matchups for other players.
When a pass rusher demands extra blockers or the protection to slide towards him, it means less players out in routes and blitzers like Alexander Johnson have space to work on an overmatched guard.
Jurrell Casey should also benefit. Among the strongest parts of Chubb’s game is his ability to convert speed to power as a rusher. He displays very good burst off the snap and has the athleticism to threaten an opponent outside, which then allows him to work back against the grain and get the inside angle. One obvious way to maximize this is to scheme the 6’4, 276 lb edge plays on end-tackle stunts.
Casey’s also a very good interior pass rusher who utilizes a variety of moves such as the swim, rip, and club to make his way to the quarterback. I’ve also seen him utilize a spin move. He displays very good footwork and will use his lateral mobility to create a false step before working back against his opponents leverage. Because he’s good at cornering for an interior linemen, these kind of movements create space for him to slip into cracks and disrupt the pocket. When asked to rush the passer from a five or wider technique, Casey looks solid.
I’ve mentioned this a few times on Cover 2 Broncos, but one area where Vic Fangio may weaponize Casey is on stunts.
Reasons for pause.
As good as Chubb could be for the pass rush, there are a number of concerns that remain unresolved. First and foremost is the surgically repaired left ACL, as it’s the same knee he tore in high school. In and of itself the durability question is out there, but add to that Chubb’s only adequate lateral mobility and it isn’t hard to imagine the injury sapping him of some of his bend and quickness. That would be very bad, obviously.
A four game slate is a tiny sample size to paint with broad strokes, but it’s also notable that Chubb did not fully address any of the knocks I had for him coming off his rookie season.
Chubb could improve at neutralizing blocks at the point of attack without giving up ground, shedding opponents quicker to chase, and tackling in space. I do wonder if the latter will always be a bit of a question, as Chubb’s so-so lateral mobility numbers suggest he’ll have some trouble with evasive ball carriers.
While Corey Nelson, Josey Jewell, and Adam Gotsis were among the primary culprits for Jacksonville’s rushing explosion in week four, John DeFilippo made a point to go after the right edge and found success. In doing so, it exposed how Chubb needs to do a better job of taking on and squeezing blocks.
What’s good is how Fangio transformed the defense to survive Chubb’s absence may help to hide his deficiencies, even if he never grows into a good run defender. Inserting Johnson and Mike Purcell into the starting lineup while moving Kareem Jackson and Shelby Harris to full-time roles at safety and end transformed the Broncos’ run defense in Week 5 last year. So long as they’re able to pick up where they left off as a group, opposing coordinators will have a harder time attacking the edge.
Overall, I am very excited to see what the future holds for the North Carolina State product and think his work ethic, mental processing, and tools will help him transform the Broncos’ defense this season.
There are a number of areas I hope to see Chubb improve at in year three. His ability to play in space and work as the force player could still use work from when we saw him last, but I remain cautiously optimistic that Vic Fangio will have an elite pair of edge rushers, so long as there’s a 2020 season.