Both our own Jeffrey Essary and Broncos Country’s own Steve Atwater gave the same opinion on recent episodes of Broncos Country Tonight.
And that is, if you want a ball-hawking secondary able to get takeaways, you absolutely have to get pressure on the quarterback first.
Speaking to Ryan Edwards and Benjamin Allbright last week, Essary pointed out that Vic Fangio’s defense has always tried to send as few people as possible to get QB pressure, but last season he was forced to do more blitzing just to get the results he needed.
And while there weren’t a lot of turnovers on the defense’s part, there were a lot of stops. Particularly in the red zone.
Hence, the Broncos’ D finishing No. 1 in red zone defense by the end of 2020.
But as far as Essary’s concerned, Vic Fangio really hasn’t gotten to do his true defense here in Denver yet because of the unlucky state of the pass rush - Bradley Chubb out in 2019 and Von Miller out in 2020 has put a cramp in his style.
“We saw them change up the structure and blitz more just to get some pressure,” Essary said of the past season, noting the early loss of Miller plus season-ending injuries to Jurrell Casey and Mike Purcell. “Because you’re light on the defensive line, you have to do different things on the backend. Add in their inexperience in the secondary and you kind of get the result that you saw.”
Noting the stellar pass rushers Fangio had in Chicago and even his days in San Francisco, Essary believes Denver has yet to see the defensive mastermind’s true genius.
“I really think a solid pass rush up front set things up for Vic Fangio to do what he wants to do to start disguising coverages and things like that,” Essary added. “It’s less telegraphed, so you’re able to confuse quarterbacks and that’s where you force takeovers because you put guys in uncomfortable positions.”
Atwater has a very similar view of how important that pass rush is.
As in ... it’s basically everything to a defensive back.
“Cornerbacks don’t have to cover forever. You’ve got to have some guys up front putting pressure on the quarterback,” Atwater said, adding that there are times to put the defensive backs on an island, but that only works if they have the confidence that the linemen and edge rushers “are going to get there.”
Even as a Hall-of-Fame safety, Atwater knew he had his limits in coverage.
“I knew I didn’t have to cover very long because our guys were getting pressure on the quarterback,” he said. “If I didn’t know when they were going to get to the QB, I’d have gotten scorched up. There would have been some problems back there.”
Allbright asked Atwater if he thought that would be the key to the Broncos’ defense getting back to dominance.
For No. 27, it was an obvious answer.
“You look at any dominant defense, they have dominant guys up front. If you don’t have dominant guys up front, hey man, you’re going to be waddling in the middle of the pile,” Atwater said.
“We have some guys that do things well, but when you put them all together, we don’t have that dominant four that can get pressure even when they’re keeping guys [contained],” Atwater said. “It makes it difficult because when you don’t get pressure, you’ve got to bring extra guys and then if your cornerbacks and safeties aren’t great man-to-man cover guys, you get exploited. Fortunately we did great in man-to-man most of the time, especially when everybody was healthy.”
And that’s why Atwater would also like the Broncos to be taking some hard looks at defensive linemen.
“It will be interesting to see if they put any focus on our interior defensive line,” he said. “Mostly everyone is talking about corner, linebacker and even safety. I don’t hear many talk about we need a dominant interior lineman.”
Rank order your preference of filling holes on defense:
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Cornerback, interior lineman, linebacker
Interior lineman, cornerback, linebacker
Linebacker, cornerback, interior lineman
A different order or combination ...