Even the most optimistic Bronco backers will tell you there is some concern over the state of the tackles this season. Elway made it clear how he views Garett Bolles when he did not pick up the 2017 first round pick’s fifth year option. Elijah Wilkinson’s only starting because JaWuan James opted out.
I spent a few weeks studying both of the Broncos’ starting tackles this past off-season and came away unimpressed. Barring a huge jump from both, match-ups against good to elite speed rushers are going to be huge problems. For this reason, I’m anxious to see how the Broncos handle Harold Landry.
A third year pro and former first round pick, Landry has 14 and a half sacks in his NFL career to date. The way he can bend the edge from out wide will put pressure on Bolles’ kick slide and Wilkinson’s foot speed. That’s problematic.
While Landry himself is one scary opponent, what really makes the Titans terrifying is how they’ve shown they can manufacture pressure with different stunts and blitzes. Under former defensive coordinator Dean Pees the Titans usually sent four rushers, but blitzed their defensive backs more than all but six teams. Like Fangio, Tennessee tried to confuse opponents into seeing ghosts while playing sound coverage behind the rush.
Fortunately for the Broncos, Pees retired after the Titans were bounced from the playoffs last year. Unfortunately his style of defense looks like it will continue with Mike Vrabel and his assistants. Every week is a bad one for Courtland Sutton to miss time, but if he can’t play there’s going to be a ton of pressure on Drew Lock to make the correct pre-snap read and adjust on the fly to late rushers in time to find the open receiver.
Complicating things even further is the addition of Jadeveon Clowney. A former first overall pick, it should come as no surprise he’s a freaky combination of size, strength, and athleticism. Standing at 6’5 and 255 lbs with a very good burst, he’s going to demand a ton of attention from the Broncos’ pass protection whenever he’s on the field.
When he first signed with the Titans, there was a lot of hope in Broncos’ Country that covid-19 testing and joining the roster so late would put him behind. That does not appear to be the case. Vrabel and Clowney worked together when both were with the Houston Texans, and it sounds like he’s already working into a similar role.
“He knows football and how to put guys in position to make plays. That’s what he did in Houston and when I got here. He is already lining me all over the place, and I get to keep making plays. He believes that I am a playmaker. With Mike Vrabel, I made way more plays [than] I did when I was in Seattle.”
Among the criticism that’s been levied at Clowney in the NFL is how he doesn’t have the kind of gaudy sack numbers someone like Von Miller puts up. One reason for this is Clowney doesn’t have the same level of ankle flexion and bend around the edge other top tier speed rushers possess.
For Clowney to maximize his pass rush snaps, he needs to get a real jump outside to blow by a tackle, win with a move, or attack inside. I took a look at the 2017 Texans to see how Vrabel helped him reach a career high in sacks and found Clowney doing all these things.
There were a number of plays where Clowney lined up inside the tackle. Vrabel liked to do this in order to isolate the guard against a far more athletic pass rusher. Clowney is quick enough off the snap that most guards are at a disadvantage. I’m eager to see how Dalton Risner fares, as he had some trouble with the Packers’ Z’Darius Smith in a similar role last season.
Clowney won’t just line up across from the guards either. He’ll also routinely line up on the edge and work inside at the snap with the defensive tackle working outside. This can be devastating for a guard who has to respect the tackle until it’s clear his gap is safe, only to turn and see a sprinting Clowney ready to put him on skates.
In Houston, Vrabel could line Clowney up next to J.J. Watt in order to force one-on-one match-ups. As I mentioned to TreJean Watkins on this week’s episode of Cover 2 Broncos, one of my concerns on Monday night is how the Titans could use Jeffrey Simmons to create similar issues. The second year defensive tackle has ridiculous power and will draw attention on his own.
Bolles does a better job handling power than pure speed rushers, but his handwork is inconsistent and he’ll give up his chest to more savvy players. Clowney is one such opponent and brings a nasty swim move that he’s quick to use if he can force an opponent off balance.
It isn’t as though he’s a bad run defender. Quite the contrary, in fact. He’s stout at the point of attack and capable of chasing runs down from behind. He even schooled Kansas City’s Mitchell Schwartz.
I’ve seen some Broncos fans take solace in Clowney’s performance last year. To get some insight into the decline as well as Clowney’s most recent play, I reached out to Field Gulls’ Alistair Corps. I made a point to ask him about the sack total as well as his impression of Clowney’s time with Seattle.
Corps reminded me how Jarran Reed was suspended and then hurt, while Ezekiel Ansah was a free agent disappointment. This led to a situation where Clowney was part of the weakest front of his professional career. This forced him to face more double teams than all but two rushers in the NFL.
Despite playing nearly half the season with a serious core injury and acting as a one-man show far too often, Clowney posted the second-highest pressure rate of his career (11.7) in 2019, per Sports Info Solutions. (His highest rate, 12.2, came in a season in which he had 9.5 sacks, further emphasizing the idea positive regression is coming in 2020.) Clowney’s highly disruptive season came with him being double-teamed at the third-highest rate—on over a quarter of his rushes—among edges in the entire NFL, per ESPN.
Every member of the defensive line in 2019, with the exception of Ansah and Jarran Reed, set career highs in pressures, sacks, or both. It may have been a relatively talent poor group, but they benefited from Clowney’s presence nonetheless. Seattle’s win over the 49ers in Week 10 perfectly exemplified just how impactful Clowney can be with adequate talent around him, even if it isn’t he himself who is finishing plays.
All told, I don’t know if there’s a single X-factor that matters more than how the Broncos handle the Titans’ rush.
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When education is not determined by where we reside, and we have the means to purchase what the doctor prescribed and you fight for prison reform and innocent lives, and you repair the communities that were tossed to the side, and you admit you gained from it and you swallowed your pride, and when greed is not the compass but love is the guide and when the courts don’t punish skin color but punish the crime, until then we’ll just skip the long production and stay inside. For centuries, we’ve been trying to make you aware. Either you’re in denial or just simply don’t really care. It’s not a black, white thing. Or a left, right thing. Let’s clean the whole bird and stop arguing about which wing.”
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