Even though it’s a cliche to call the NFL a “Next Man Up” kind of league, the reality is that no team on the Broncos’ schedule will go easy on them because Von Miller’s inactive and Bradley Chubb is on a pitch count.
Week one is only days away and the Titans are too busy trying to make their way to a Super Bowl to show pity. Even without their Hall of Fame Edge rusher, the defense will need to find a way to both slow down Derrick Henry and make Ryan Tannehill uncomfortable.
To get some insight into how Vic Fangio may do just that, I took a look back at Denver’s second 2019 game against the Los Angeles Chargers. The game took place in Week 13 and Miller didn’t play in the contest after he missed most of the week’s practice due to knee soreness. I figured Fangio had some time to try to plan for what life without Von would be like and adjust, which could give hints as to what’s coming Monday night.
With Bradley Chubb limited, expect to see plenty of Jeremiah Attaochu and Malik Reed. The former is a better run defender than pass rusher, though he’s capable of surprising tackles when he dekes inside. Reed has good lateral mobility, burst, and quickness. Both are capable and willing to bang inside, which Fangio used to his advantage against Philip Rivers.
One of the biggest losses Tennessee suffered over the 2020 off-season was the defection of Jack Conklin to the Cleveland Browns. Jon Robinson took Isaiah Wilson in the first round of the draft to replace him, but it looks like Dennis Kelly will start at right tackle on Monday.
Next to Kelly is 2019 third rounder Nate Davis, who was unquestionably the weakest member of last year’s starting line. In the games I’ve watched, Davis had the worst of his issues in pass protection. He was beat far more than I expected and wound up on the ground a number of times.
Before Miller’s injury, I was excited to see how 58 and Jurrell Casey could exploit this mismatch. Losing Miller dampens that some, though aligning Reed or Attaochu out wide to start could create similar issues as what the Broncos did to the Chargers’ right side last year.
Among the loudest complaints Broncos’ Country had about Fangio early last year is how he seemed to favor 3-man rushes over bringing extra heat. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. When Fangio called plays for the Bears defense in 2018, they rushed 5 or more defenders just 18.8% of the time. Only six teams rushed three defenders more than Chicago.
The Broncos did rush five+ more often than Chicago did, in part because they had no choice after the Bradley Chubb injury. Fangio preferred “safe” pressure to sending the house though: only two teams rushed six rushers less than the Broncos did. Still, this doesn’t mean the Broncos won’t bring the blitz. Often times Fangio brought a linebacker or defensive back and replaced him with an edge player, as he did on this Will Parks sack.
When Bradley Chubb went down last year, the Broncos began to mix in more looks where Von Miller played one edge spot while Derek Wolfe played the other. It didn’t happen too frequently and the Broncos still played more than 60% of their snaps in nickel personnel, so don’t expect a wholesale overhaul of the defense. That said, I do think it could be sprinkled into the game plan against the Titans, as they’re at their best in two tight end and heavier sets.
It didn’t really show up in the Chargers game, but I do believe heavier fronts could be a factor in the Titans game. Depending on Bradley Chubb’s pitch count, the Broncos may only have two outside linebackers who are healthy enough to play all game. Mixing Jurrell Casey, Dre’Mont Jones, or Shelby Harris into some heavy end looks will be a way to give Reed and Attaochu a spell while still holding stout at the point of attack.
I don’t think it’s being pessimistic to admit neither Reed or Attaochu can step in and be Von Miller. Vic Fangio said as much on Wednesday:
“I have confidence that they’re going to be able to play to their ability. Neither one is Von Miller, but they are who they are. All we need is for them to do their job to the best of their ability. If they do that, we’ll be fine.”
When Reed is on the field, I’m very curious to see how he does setting the edge. At a listed 235, he’s a good bit lighter than every other Edge on the roster. I’m also anxious to see how he holds up on the backside of runs, as the Titans will try and get him to over-commit so Henry can bounce back against the grain into the vacated space.
It will be fascinating to see what Fangio does with Bradley Chubb. He’s already said Miller’s injury will not impact his plans to keep the former fifth overall on a pitch count. I’m very intrigued by how the Broncos will utilize Chubb to maximize his effectiveness and compliment the other pass rushers.
In the end, no single player on the roster will replace Miller. He’s one of the best pass rushers of all time and an elite run defender who can hold his ground at the point of attack and run things down from behind. Instead, the Broncos will need to adjust as an organization from the top on down. Fangio sounds confident they can do just that.
“The whole team has to pick up the void. It’s not the player that ends up playing for him. It’s not the defense, it’s not the offense, it’s not the special teams, it’s everybody. When you lose a player of that caliber, everybody has to pick up the slack in all facets—on the field, off the field and in the locker room. We have a good enough team to do that. If you’re a good enough team, you can overcome these injuries.