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GIF Horse: What’s wrong with the Broncos’ run defense?

Why is Denver bleeding so many yards on the ground?

While Teddy Bridgewater and the tackle that wasn’t took the brunt of the blame for the Broncos’ 31-13 debacle against the Philadelphia Eagles, the tape reveals glaring issues that could continue to haunt Denver’s efforts at a playoff berth. The Fangio defense allowed Jalen Hurts and the Philly rushing attack to abuse the front seven as they rushed for 216 yards on 39 carries, and running backs Jordan Howard and Boston Scott combined for six carries of 10+ yards on their way to averaging 7.1 yards per tote across 23 carries.

Philadelphia exposed what’s quietly lingered beneath the surface for months now: the Broncos’ run defense is a weakness. They’ve allowed opponents to exceed 100 yards rushing five different times this season and haven’t held an offense under 78 since the New York Jets in week three. Their run defense currently ranks 23rd by Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric that adjusts for opponent strength, which may be generous if the current issues persist.

Given the horrific performance against the Eagles, I thought it made sense to take a look. It’s probably necessary to warn you that it’s ugly.

On the first play, the Eagles are in 11 personnel with their tight end Jack Stoll (89) aligned to the right, Broncos have seven in the box. Philly is running inside zone out of the gun, with the line stepping left. Jalen Hurts’ eyes are on Patrick Surtain II, but he hands off the ball. Baron Browning steps down to leverage the C-gap. The Eagles’ right guard Jack Driscoll walls off DeShawn Williams as Jason Kelce works a double team on Shelby Harris, which creates such a big hole that a semi could drive downhill.

Facing a 1st and 10 from the Broncos’ 47 up 3-0 on their second drive of the game, the Eagles come out in a 3x1 bunch right with the back to Hurts’ right. On the snap, Philly’s line steps in concert to the left while the lone receiver cracks down on the second level, Malik Reed eyes Hurts in case of a QB keep while Stoll blocks down on Kenny Young. The Broncos front from Shamar Stephen down work to defend their respective gaps while Kareem Jackson and Ronald Darby read up to help the run defense. Jordan Howard cuts back. Browning sheds the Eagles’ right guard in time to meet him head on just as help arrives. The back hits Browning with enough force to fall forward and knocks the rookie out of the game.

Following the Broncos’ only touchdown of the day, the Eagles face a 2nd and 10 in a tie game. They set up in a 2x2 spread set with Howard aligned to Hurts’ left in the gun. On the snap, everyone takes a step to block the gap to their left. Howard takes the carry and hugs the backside of his right guard Driscoll who’s successfully blocked Harris out of the play after the defensive tackle shot the A gap. The center climbs to and walls off Curtis Robinson, who’s playing in place of the injured Browning. Right tackle Lane Johnson steps out to meet Reed and uses the edge rusher’s momentum to de-cleat him. This creates enough space for Howard to rumble into the third level.

Leading 20-13 in the third quarter, the Eagles come out on 2nd and 5 in 11 personnel with Jack Stoll lined up next to Johnson on the right side. On the snap Jonathon Cooper attacks the B-gap while Stoll splits across the formation to block Kareem Jackson, who is running the alley to support against the run. This leaves Curtis Robinson in the hole with Boston Scott. The undrafted rookie leads with his head on the wrong side and the squatty 203 lb. back has little trouble breaking an arm tackle.

Fortunately Scott’s 21-yard run didn’t amount to much because Shelby Harris pressured Hurts into an interception to Justin Simmons two plays later. The Broncos spoiled the opportunity when Melvin Gordon fumbled the ball to Darius Slay. Following the 82-yard fumble touchdown that will go down in infamy, the Broncos went three and out. Sam Martin punted the ball back to Philadelphia down 27-13 with about 13.30 left in the fourth quarter.

It’s at this point Nick Sirianni iced the game. The Eagles were able to march from their 35 all the way to the 5-yard line before kicking a field goal. Philly ran the ball eight times on the drive and chewed up six minutes. By the time the Broncos got the ball back, they were down three touchdowns with about seven and a half minutes left in the contest.

On their first run, the Eagles dialed up a pin-and-pull. Kelce kicked out Stephen Weatherly and Johnson took out Robinson while Stoll blocked down and washed out Kenny Young. Scott cut back off the block on Young and gained 15 yards before the Broncos’ defense was able to bring him down.

Philly goes back to the pin-and-pull well on 1st and 10 for a five yard carry, setting up a 2nd and medium. With five yards to the sticks, they run split zone with Stoll once more splitting back and accounting for the overhang: this time it’s Kyle Fuller. Howard sees Curtis Robinson leveraging the B-gap and cuts up behind Stoll and Johnson, who has Reed on skates. Howard gains 25 and Philly’s back in field goal range, all but icing the game.

So what went wrong?

Conceptually, the Eagles didn’t break tendency from the season. They entered the game leaning heavily on inside zone and continued to do so on Sunday. In order to manufacture easy completions for a limited passer, the Eagles made liberal use of screens. To further lean into Hurts’ strengths, Sirianni didn’t hesitate to dial up read plays for his quarterback.

There is no way Vic Fangio didn’t expect any of these things, as they’re all over the Eagles’ previous tape, which makes Fangio’s decision to call cover 0 and 1 more than 40 times a peculiar choice. To be fair, it is typical for the Broncos to call a lot of man coverage, but Fangio tends to mix in cover 3, 4, and/or 6 with regularity depending on the matchup. I expected more quarters, as Fangio had success with this against Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens. It didn’t happen.

The Broncos coverage usage in their week 4 matchup against the Ravens
The Kneel Down / Ryan Weisman

Locking the Broncos’ secondary up in man coverage put stress on the front to bottle up Hurts and the running attack without a lot of help. The callow edge rushers and linebackers had to account for Hurts in the read game while also fitting their gaps in the run defense. This stress exposed the mismatches Denver faced up front against a talented Eagles offensive line, and it only got worse when Curtis Robinson stepped in for Baron Browning.

The Broncos coverage usage against the Eagles
The Kneel Down / Ryan Weisman

Going forward, there’s little reason to expect the run defense to take any sort of monumental strides. With Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell giving way to Baron Browning, Kenny Young, and potentially Justin Strnad or Curtis Robinson, the off ball linebackers have more issues separating from blocks than Broncos Country is used to. DeShawn Williams and McTelvin Agim have trouble anchoring the point of attack, while Malik Reed’s subpar play strength and length leaves him at the mercy of longer tackles who can match his athleticism.

Unless Bradley Chubb’s return has a transformative impact on the whole front, it looks like there are glaring personnel issues that will show up against the better offensive lines on the Broncos’ remaining schedule.