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2020 Broncos defensive snap count review

Who played for the Denver Broncos on defense in 2020 and how much playing time did they each get?

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NFL: JAN 03 Raiders at Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The defense was similar to the offense in that they also used a great number of players because of injury. While the offense used 403 different groupings of eleven players, the defense used 405 which was 9th most in the league. The Ravens had the most at 511 unique defensive lineups while the Bucs had far and away the least at 217. They had 7.7 percent of their defensive plays come against/from their most common lineup which was also a league high. The Broncos had 2.9 percent which was was 14th lowest. The Lions had only 1.4 percent.

Data: 2020 Snap count spreadsheet with game-by-game data and other analysis

The Broncos defense allowed 76 plays of 20 or more yards. That was second worst in the league. Only the Bengals (77) were worse at allowing 20 yard plays. League best was the Rams with 38. At the same time the Broncos D was one of the better teams at NOT allowing plays of 40 or more - allowing only nine which was tied for 12th with three other teams. League worst was 18 (HOU) and league best was 4 (LAR).

Of the nine really long plays our defense allowed in 2020, six were passes and three were runs. NFLGSIS.com allows me to see who was on the field on defense for each of the nine. On many of those nine long plays we had a player that played fairly little on defense for us in the game.

Those plays were passes on 84, 57, 55, 51, 47 and 42 yards and runs of 59, 51 and 46. Michael Ojemudia was in coverage of Chase Claypool on that 84 yard TD pass. Our base (starters) were in on the 59 yard run we allowed to James Connor.

On that 57 yard pass - Parnell Motley was in the game. For the 55 yard pass we had De’Vante Bausby and Will Parks on the field; the 51 yard pass - Alijah Holder; The 47 yard pass - P.J. Locke; the 42 yard pass - Devontae Harris; the 51 yard run - McTelvim Agim and Nate Hairston; the 46 yard run - Anthony Chickillo and Duke Dawson. You get the picture.

So if you are looking for reasons why a guy might play only a few defensive snaps in one game and then not get many more (or any more) for the rest of the season - look no further.

With only nine plays allowed of 40 or more, this was easy to pick apart. It does not mean that the guys listed above were at fault on those plays, but if I were to rewatch each play, I’d bet that they all screwed up on those plays and got punished for it.

Now on to the graphs.

Interior Defensive Line

Losing Mike Purcell for the season in game six was a big blow to the run defense, but oddly enough both of the 40+ yard runs we allowed were in the first five games - the 59 yard run for James Connor and the 46 yard TD run for Sam Darnold. Over the first five games we allowed 553 yards rushing on 130 carries - 4.25 yards per carry. In addition to the two long runs mentioned above, we also allowed a 38 yard scramble by Cam Newton. So on those other 127 runs we allowed 430 yards - 3.22 yards per carry. For the season the Bucs led the league allowing 3.60 yards per carry. As a team our defense finished 29th in ypc allowed. Only the Cowboys (5.0), Bengals (5.1) and Texans (5.2) were worse.

In the games after Purcell was lost for the season, the Broncos allowed 5.02 yards per carry - 1527 yards on 304 carries. As you will see in the next section, losing Jurrell Casey at about the same time probably also contributed to the drop-off in run defense.

Of these five players interior defensive line players, only Sylvester Williams is a free agent. It’s hard to gauge how effective Sylvester Williams was. He only played 173 snaps for us and had two passes batted down and nine total tackles (four solo). He was trying to fill the role that Mike Purcell had been filling - block-eating run-stuffer. He did not do that very well. For comparison, Mike Purcell, in 218 snaps in 2020, had 15 total tackles (10 solo), 2 TFL, 1.0 sack and one QBhit and that was a fairly down year for Mike relative to what he did in about twice the snaps for us in 2019. In 416 snaps he had 48 tackles (28 solo), 8 TFL and 2 QB hits. If Purcell makes a full recovery, Sly will probably not be brought back for next season.

Defensive Ends

Dre’Mont Jones and Shelby Harris both had really good seasons. Unfortunately, we didn’t have them on the field together very often. Only 5 games this season saw both of them getting 50 percent of the defensive snaps or more.

PFR calls Jones a DT and Bradley Chubb a DE. I call Jones a DE and Chubb and OLB. These are really distinctions without a difference, so please don’t get bogged down by them.

DeMarcus Walker’s 384 snaps is more than he had in his previous three seasons combined. He now has 725 career defensive snaps for his career and an impressive sounding 10.5 sacks on those snaps (4.5 in 2020). However, he is only credited with 16 total pressures over the last three seasons (data on PFR only goes back to 2018). A pressure can be a hurry (just forcing the QB to throw sooner than he wants but not touching him), a QB hit, or a sack. Over the past three seasons Walker has 9.5 of his 10.5 career sacks, so he only had six pressures that did NOT result in a sack over the past three seasons. His sacks are misleading. He is not good at rushing the passer in the NFL.

Let’s compare him to Shelby Harris. Harris played 441 defensive snaps for us this season. He got 15 pressures but only 2.5 sacks. Over the past three seasons he has 34 pressures and 10.0 sacks. So while Harris has almost the exact same number of sacks, he has four times as many pressures. Harris also has 20 passes batted down over the last three seasons. Walker has one.

This is why Shelby Harris should be getting a nice free agent deal this season (hopefully to stay in Denver) while Demarcus Walker will most likely end up getting a veteran minimum deal somewhere to prove he has value as pass-rush DE. Both Walker and Harris are unrestricted free agents.

Walker might get an inflated deal from a team that thinks they are getting a good situational pass-rush DE, but I think we should let some other team waste their precious cap space on Walker next season. In the the NFL he has never realized the potential that he showed at Florida State when he led the nation in sacks his senior year.

Outside Linebackers

Malik Reed and Bradley Chubb played 785 and 741 defensive snaps for us in 2020. Malik Reed proved that he belongs as a starting OLB in this league, but, because of his size, he will always be a liability against the run. If you follow the playing time, you can see that the defense of the run getting worse coincides to the confluence of three things - losing Casey, losing Purcell and Reed playing ~80% of the defensive snaps. Jeremiah Attaochu is better against the run mainly because he is 20-25 pounds heavier than Reed. Reed is better at rushing the passer - but it’s not like Attaochu is a bad pass rusher.

Chubb had 32 pressures and 7.5 sacks according to PFR. PFF had him with significantly more pressures - 57. Either way, he and Reed were our best pass rushers. By PFR, Reed had 31 pressures and 8.0 sacks. Attaochu had 18 pressures and 5.0 sacks in his 414 snaps. The only other Bronco defenders with double digit pressures in 2020 were Harris and Jones who had 15 and 16 pressures respectively - according to PFR.

League-wide sacks were down this year. Only ten players reached double figures in sacks. In 2019 there were 18. In 2018 there were 22.

Both Attaochu and Anthony Chickillo are unrestricted free agents.

Inside Linebackers

Finally an easy graph to read. Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell both hardly left the field when we were playing defense. Johnson was on the field 97.7 percent and Jewell 92.9 percent. Both played well and both were constants in year when the Broncos had defensive linemen and cornerbacks dropping like flies.

Johnson and Jewell combined for 234 combined tackles which was 23.6 percent of the team total. They also combined for six passes defended, two forced fumbles, fifteen QB pressures, 3.0 sacks and nine TFLs. They also only missed a combined total of 11 tackles.

Joseph Jones and Josh Watson combined to play nine total defensive snaps. Austin Calitro played zero.

Jones is an unrestricted free agent. Johnson and Calitro are restricted free agents.

Cornerbacks

I apologize in advance for the eyestrain that this is going to cause.

The Broncos used 10 different players on defense at CB in 2020. By the end of the season four of them had been lost for the year with an injury, another to suspension and another to another team signing him after he was released/waived. The CB who took the highest percentage of defensive snaps for us in 2020 was rookie, Michael Ojemudia, who took 78.3 percent. Ojemudia had two games where he got zero defensive snaps despite being game-day active and playing on special teams - games 9 and 10. Bryce Callahan took 60.2 percent. No other CB took more than 38 percent of the snaps on defense. A.J. Bouye finished his suspension-shortened season with 37.7 percent of the defensive snaps.

What’s even scarier is that seven of those ten CBs played 75% or more of the defensive snaps for the Broncos in at least one game. It’s easier to list the guys who DIDN’T: Kevin Tolliver, Nate Hairston and Duke Dawson.

The free agents from the CB group are Devontae Harris, De’Vante Bausby and Kevin Tolliver. Tolliver is a restricted FA.

And now onto something that is much more soothing to look at - the safety graph.

Safeties

Justin Simmons did not miss a single play on D. Kareem Jackson played 99.5 percent missing a grand total of five snaps and on one of those we only had 10 players in on defense. On another three of the other four we went heavy in a goal line situation with a 4-4-3 (pulling Jackson for a defensive lineman). There was only one play this season where Alijah Holder was the other safety with Justin Simmons and that was in the final game of the season because it was also one of Derrick Tuszka’s 27 snaps and one of Parnell Motley’s 82 snaps.

Generally when we used Trey Marshall, P.J. Locke or Alijah Holder it was as the third safety. For example, on all six of Locke’s snaps this season both Simmons and Jackson were on the field as well.

I debated whether to put Will Parks in with the safety group or the cornerbacks as he was used in both roles, but I saw him running as a safety more often so I included him with the safeties.

All three of the safeties that played were/are versatile enough to play in man coverage where they start near the LOS. This gave our defensive coaches some flexibility even with the hodgepodge of guys taking snaps at CB. As mentioned above, all of the snaps that Parks got on defense where with Simmons and Jackson on the field, but with Simmons and Jackson both being versatile like Parks, all three could play the role that you would typically have your CBs play on the snap.

Simmons is currently an unrestricted free agent and if you read the tea leaves, it would appear that our new GM wants to resign him. Will Parks and Trey Marshall are also free agents although Marshall is an exclusive rights free agent.