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What do the Rams tell us about the Broncos’ 2021 needs?

Brandon Staley’s running the closest thing to a Fangio defense in the NFL. It’s also one of the best in the league.

Even as the Broncos barrel their way through a second straight losing season under Vic Fangio, I’ve never once thought he should get the axe. I’m happy to debate the locker room, clock management, offense, and every other issue that cropped up. I won’t give a whole lot of thought to any complaints about the Broncos’ defense.

In 2019 the Broncos defense lost Bradley Chubb, Kareem Jackson, and Derek Wolfe while they rotated a number of corners opposite Chris Harris Jr. This year Von Miller didn’t play a snap. Jurrell Casey and Mike Purcell were lost for the year. As I write this Michael Ojemudia is the lone survivor from the original corner depth chart. What really stands out to me is how even through all the losses, the Broncos defense has been the clear backbone of the roster in part because they’ve performed heroically in the redzone. In 2019 the Broncos allowed opponents to score touchdowns just 39% of the time. Without Miller they allowed a whopping 47% through 16 games this season, but they’re the only team to prevent a touchdown more than half the time.

My faith in the Broncos defense has led to a passing interest in the Los Angeles Rams as it’s hard to ignore the similarities between Staley’s defense and Fangio’s. If you remember, Sean McVay poached a linebacker coach from last year’s staff. Since then Brandon Staley’s laid out a blueprint that most teams in the league will steal from this offseason. So Robert Mays’ piece at the Athletic caught my eye. In it, Staley shares how long he’s studied Fangio’s defense and some of the key differences between the Rams’ system and most of the NFL. It also shines a light on what the Broncos are looking for at two important position groups.

Denver will weigh Safety traits differently than many teams.

Most of the league’s defense are currently built out of a Seattle type of structure and most snaps have a single high safety and an extra player in the box. This is to ensure gaps are accounted for to shore up the run defense as much as possible. It’s a front to back approach with an emphasis on stopping the ground game. It’s an area where both the Broncos and Rams differ from the league with the frequency of their two high safety looks. While most of the league zigged to build the defense front to back, Fangio and Staley zagged.

This fundamental difference is going to be fascinating to watch this offseason as Elway faces contract situations with both Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson. Simmons’ leadership in the locker room and efforts in community should make him a priority resigning. He also happens to be the kind of elite safety who’s adept playing deep and against the run, so he won’t be cheap. Extending him with a market rate deal and holding onto Kareem Jackson could lead the Broncos to allocating almost $30 million to the safety position. With so many rookie contracts on offense, there’s an argument to be made for doing just this. Even if they do so, Jackson will turn 33-years old in April. I expect Elway to keep an eye on the upcoming safety class.

With the Broncos defense built out of two high looks with a light box, they routinely ask their safeties to play in the alley. Mays’ also illuminated how Staley and Fangio’s defense will ask their safeties take on a huge burden against the pass. They’re asked to both read the distribution of routes and read the quarterback’s eyes. Even more than you’d expect, mental processing is a priority to survive at this position.

The Broncos need a Star in the secondary

Cornerback is an area where the Fangio defense has continued to mystify me a bit. The rub on Vic coming from Chicago was he didn’t need premier corners, even though the Bears had both Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller. In 2019 the Broncos elected to let 2014 first rounder Bradley Roby walk in free agency and moves Kareem Jackson back to safety. With Chris Harris Jr. the only constant at cornerback, the Broncos finished 26th in DVOA against opposing WR1s. What’s struck me at the time peculiar is how the Broncos were a top eight defense against every other pass catcher. The Broncos and Fangio clearly didn’t attribute this to Isaac Yiadom and Davontae Harris, as both saw their time in Denver come to an end this year.

This year the Broncos closest thing to a constant at corner is Michael Ojemudia, who has 130 more snaps than Bryce Callahan even after he did not log a defensive against the Dolphins or in the first matchup with the Raiders. The Broncos will close the season with Will Parks, and either DeVante Bausby or Parnell Motley across from him. On this side of the Raiders’ game, they remain the 6th best team in the league against WR1s.

At least from the macro dataset level, the previous two paragraphs should illicit some confusion. The difference lies in how Fangio used Harris, which has philosophical overlap with Staley’s use of Jalen Ramsey, who plays what the Rams’ coach calls the “Star” position. He’s an inside/outside corner, which provides a hint at the type of corner Elway ought to target this year.

“It’s just getting him where the action is,” Staley said. “Where he can impact the game, whether it’s pushing the coverage away from him, or whether it’s getting him closer to the action and make more plays from the slot, impact the game that way by being literally closer to the action. We feel like that’s where we start normally.”

Final Thoughts

One last thing that I got stuck on the first two offseasons with Fangio is how he built his defenses with the Bears. While I think there’s definitely lessons to be learned from them, Staley’s interview reminded me that Fangio’s flexibility will continue to influence the roster building process. Maybe it’s because I’m a nerd who loves the roster building process, but I’m pretty excited to see where the Broncos go from here.

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