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Stats all she wrote - final Denver Bronco defensive snap review for 2021

How many inside linebackers did the Broncos play on defense in 2021?

Denver Broncos v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Ed Donatell and Vic Fangio worked magic with the 2021 Denver Broncos defense.

The most important stat is points allowed and the Broncos finished third in points allowed (322). The team allowed 36 touchdowns but only 31 were against the defense, the offense allowed three and the special teams allowed two. In terms of defensive points allowed, the Broncos defense was second only to the Patriots. The Patriots allowed 303 points and five of those touchdowns were not against the defense (four on the offense and one on special teams). Compare that to the Bills who allowed 289 points with only one score not directly allowed by the defense (blocked punt). In other words, the Bills offense did not directly allow any touchdowns.

They Broncos were to finish third in points allowed despite having eight different inside linebackers take 60 percent or more of the defensive snaps and despite having the worst pass rush win rate as a team in the league. Pass rush win rate = PRWR. More about this later.

For those who like footballoutsiders.com, the Broncos finished 20th in overall DVOA on defense and 21st in weighted DVOA; 20th in pass DVOA and 21st in run DVOA. Neither changes the fact that team allowed the third fewest points in the 2021 regular season. But how?

The defense finished eighth in yards allowed (5544), sixth in passer rating allowed (85.0), fifteenth in average yards allowed per carry (4.29) and third in red zone TD percentage allowed (48.8). The red zone defense is the critical thing here. The 2021 Bronco defense had a fair amount of bend, but fairly little break. The pressure percentage that PFR shows they were able to generate on opposing QBs was not too bad - 25.9 percent which was tenth - but we had to send five or six pass rushers in most instances to generate that pressure (at least that is what ESPN’s PRWR stat would suggest). Couple that with ESPN’s run stop win rate, RSWR, as a team - Denver finished 27th - and you have to wonder how the team finished third in points allowed. According to ESPN, we couldn’t stop the run and we couldn’t get pressure on the opposing QB.

So let’s dig a little deeper into this before we get to the snap counts for the individual defensive position groups. The Broncos defense only faced four teams that finished in the top ten in scoring (DAL, LAC, KC and CIN) and while Dallas finished the season with the number one scoring offense, the Broncos faced the Cowboys with Dak Prescott coming back from an injury (he was not playing very in that game nor were his receivers). The Broncos held the Cowboys to sixteen points, the Bengals to fifteen points and the Chargers and Chiefs averaged 23.5 and 25.0 respectively for their two games against Denver. Both the Chargers (27.9) and the Chiefs (28.3) were held below their season averages. But the fact remains that they only faced “good” offenses in six of seventeen regular season games.

The Broncos allowed 18.9 points per game and that was fairly consistent throughout the season with only two games allowing more than 30 (34 both times - Raiders at home and Chargers on the road). Compare that the Pats who allowed more than 30 three times (and then allowed 47 in the playoffs) and the Bills who also allowed more than 30 three times. Both teams finished above the Broncos in total points allowed but were less consistent on defense despite having a much healthier group, by and large, then the Broncos did. The Patriots had fifteen players take 25 percent or more of the defensive snaps while the Bills had seventeen. The Broncos had nineteen. If we shift that to fifty percent, the Patriots had eleven and the Bills had ten while the Broncos had eight. I did not look at how often the Bills and the Patriot defenses faced top ten offenses.

Playing good defense week in and week out with an almost constantly changing group of starters at different positions speaks highly about Donatell and Fangio’s ability to coach-up back-ups. So let’s now see how that played out over the course of the season.

Defensive Line

Dre’Mont Jones finished the season as the most used defensive lineman logging 56.5 percent of the snaps. He played the most of the D-line group in nine games this season. That being said, he did seem to disappear for long stretches this season . He played 616 defensive snaps (358 pass rush snaps) yet was only able to generate 30 pressures (pressure rate of 8.4 percent) - data from SIS datahub. He was our best pass rusher on the D-line and he wasn’t even in the top 50 among starters (Agim was better but in only 58 total pass rush snaps). If you follow that link and sort by minimum of 200 pass rush snaps, you’ll find Jones on page two of three. Trey Hendrickson (17.3 percent) and Myles Garrett (17.1) finished first and second among defensive lineman. Not surprisingly both made first team AllPro.

Below is a table of the pass rush numbers for our D-Line. SIS includes Stephen Weatherly and Jonathon Cooper as defensive ends, while I call them outside linebackers, so they will be with the OLBs in this study. Again - all data below is from SIS.

Player PR snaps Sacks Hurries Qbhits Knockdowns Pressures Batted Passes Pressure %
Shamar Stephen 175 0 5 4 3 6 2 3.4%
Mike Purcell 127 0 3 1 1 4 0 3.1%
DeShawn Williams 192 0.5 8 6 3 13 2 6.8%
Shelby Harris 312 5 17 10 5 24 1 7.7%
Dre'Mont Jones 358 5.5 22 14 5 30 1 8.4%
McTelvin Agim 58 1.5 4 2 1 6 1 10.3%

The upshot is that none of our defensive lineman were very good at getting pressure on the QB in 2021. This backs up what ESPN had to say about our pass rushers generally having very little success on pass rushes (PRWR). So let’s shift the focus to the edge defenders (ostensibly the outside linebackers).

Outside Linebackers

Malik Reed was really the only constant in this group and even he missed three games. Despite that he still managed to play 67.8 percent of the defensive snaps. He was the only linebacker with more than fifty percent of the defensive snaps.

While he only played in five games for the Broncos in 2021, Von Miller finished fourth on the team in terms of defensive snaps at linebacker with 330. Only Reed, Baron Browning and Jonathon Cooper had more. Bradley Chubb finished another injury-plagued season with 24.6 percent of the defensive snaps.

In terms of pass rush, Von was third on the team in total pressures despite only playing those five games. The data is copied as shown from the SIS website, except where obvious errors were corrected by me.

Player PR snaps Sacks Hurries Qbhits Knockdowns Pressures Batted Passes Pressure %
Kenny Young 21 0.0 4 4 0 3 0 14.3%
Alexander Johnson 36 2.0 2 1 0 5 0 13.9%
Aaron Patrick 30 0.0 4 1 0 4 0 13.3%
Justin Strnad 23 0.0 2 2 1 3 0 13.0%
Von Miller 175 4.5 15 10 3 21 0 12.0%
Stephen Weatherly 138 2.5 4 1 0 14 0 10.1%
Baron Browning 32 0.0 2 3 0 3 0 9.4%
Malik Reed 334 5.5 18 9 4 28 0 8.4%
Bradley Chubb 111 0.0 6 6 3 8 1 7.2%
Jonathon Cooper 239 2.0 10 8 3 16 0 6.7%
Andre Mintze 32 0.0 1 0 0 1 0 3.1%

Our most effective pass rushers were Kenny Young, Alexander Johnson and Von Miller and Young and Johnson combined to only rush the passer a total of 57 times (mainly because they player 325 and 261 total defensive snaps for us respectively). Of the “high volume” pass rushers on the 2021 Broncos, only Miller and Weatherly generated pressure on ten percent or more of their pass rush snaps.

According to SIS, among linebackers with a minimum of 200 pass rushes, Reed’s pressure rate of 8.4 percent was second worst in the league. Only Quincy Roche of the Giants (6.6) was worse. Micah Parsons was the best in the league from the edge with a sick 24.0 percent pressure rate. For what it’s worth Von Miller was better at rushing the passer for the Broncos than he was for the Rams. He generated 21 pressures on 175 pass rush snaps for Denver and only 19 pressures on 193 pass rush snaps for LA.

Also for what it’s worth, SIS lists Cooper as a defensive end, but I list him as a linebacker. With the defensive ends his pressure rate of 6.7 is decent. With the edge rushers his pressure rate of 6.7 is atrocious. If you drop the minimum to 100 pass rushes, only Roche, Justin Hollins (6.3) and Brandon Copeland (5.2) were worse than Cooper. I should note than in Cooper’s two good pass rushing games this season (vs Cleveland and Dallas), he was mostly facing backup offensive tackles (Terrence Steele for the Cowboys and Blake Hance for the Browns). When he faced regular starters he was much less effective as a pass-rusher.

PFR credits Cooper with fifteen pressures and nine of them came in those two games. I have no doubt that if he had faced Jack Conklin and Tyron Steele (both former first team All Pro), he would have had few if any pressures in those two games. Let’s hope that Cooper can develop a secondary pass rush move this off-season so that he can be somewhat more effective when facing decent offensive tackles.

Inside Linebackers

After the Broncos saw Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell take almost every snap at ILB during the 2020 season, the Broncos lost both to injury relatively soon into the 2021 season. This led to ten different players taking snaps at inside linebacker for the Broncos and eight taking sixty percent or more of the defensive snaps in a game. Those eight were:

Johnson, Jewell, Justin Strnad, Micah Kiser, Baron Browning, Curtis Robinson, Kenny Young and Jonas Griffith. Browning finished the season with the most total snaps at 528, but that was only 48.4 percent. Johnson’s 29.8 percent was second and he only in six games. For comparison, Johnson played 97.7 percent in 2020 and Jewell played 92.9.

According to www.overthcap.com the Broncos only have two ILBs under contract for 2022 - Strnad and Browning. Strnad played so poorly as the starting ILB spot, that after playing every defensive snap against the Browns, he played a grand total of 26 defensive snaps for the rest of the season (the Broncos played the Browns in week seven). Or, to put it another way, multiple ILBs were signed and coached up in a matter of days to do a better job than Strnad who had an entire “red-shirt” year and an off-season to learn the defense.

Cornerback

So the cornerback group was significantly healthier in 2021 relative to 2020, despite what the above chart might show. The Broncos had three cornerbacks play sixty percent or more of the defensive snaps - Patrick Surtain (82.8 percent), Kyle Fuller (66.1) and Ronald Darby (62.0). In 2020 the Broncos only had two above sixty percent (Michael Ojemudia - 78.3 and Bryce Callahan at 60.2). The CB with the third most snaps in 2020 for the Broncos was A.J. Bouye at 37.7 percent.

In terms of pass coverage the defensive secondary was led by Surtain who allowed a team best passer rating of 61.3 (not counting the guys who hardly dropped into coverage - Reed and Chubb). This data is from pro-football-reference.com. Among qualifiers, Surtain had the tenth best passer rating allowed in the league. Three of the nine guys ahead of him either made the Pro-Bowl, AllPro or both (Jordan Poyer, J.C. Jackson and Trevon Diggs)

Player Pos G GS Int Tgt Cmp Cmp% Yds Yds/Cmp Yds/Tgt TD Rate DADOT Air YAC
Patrick Surtain II CB 16 15 4 96 49 51.0% 545 11.1 5.7 3 61.3 11.4 382 163
Michael Ojemudia cb 2 1 0 13 7 53.8% 45 6.4 3.5 0 61.4 10.1 24 21
Ronald Darby CB 11 11 0 70 38 54.3% 470 12.4 6.7 2 84.8 12.6 371 99
Bryce Callahan cb 11 6 0 37 21 56.8% 296 14.1 8.0 1 91.7 11.3 190 106
Mike Ford cb 13 0 0 5 4 80.0% 32 8.0 6.4 0 93.3 10.6 20 12
Nate Hairston cb 16 1 0 15 8 53.3% 79 9.9 5.3 2 108.1 7.3 34 45
Kyle Fuller cb 16 10 0 67 43 64.2% 553 12.9 8.3 6 119.8 9.1 342 211
Justin Simmons S 17 17 5 53 31 58.5% 431 13.9 8.1 3 64.3 9.2 200 231
Caden Sterns s 15 2 2 22 17 77.3% 246 14.5 11.2 1 90.3 6.3 96 150
P.J. Locke s 16 0 0 1 1 100.0% 8 8.0 8.0 0 100.0 2.0 2 6
Kareem Jackson S 15 15 1 36 28 77.8% 343 12.3 9.5 2 113.3 9.6 203 140

How well Ojemudia played in his limited time should not be lost. He allowed a passer rating of 61.4. While he was not generally facing the opponents WR1, he was still very good in his 85 defensive snaps. From a passer rating standpoint Darby and Callahan were still better than average, but this was a down year for Callahan who was one of the best in the league in 2020. Nate Hairston and Kyle Fuller were bad in terms of passer rating allowed.

Oddly enough SIS has slightly different stats on Hairston and with a sample size as small as his, it makes a huge difference. SIS shows Hairston as one of the best in the league at yards allowed per target (3.6), but it also shows he allowed two touchdowns on only seven catches. It also shows him with 4 pass breakups on those 13 targets. That’s the same number of PBUs that SIs credits to Fuller on 720 total defensive snaps (51 targets). SIS has a stat that PFR does not - dropped interceptions. They say that Simmons dropped three and Surtain dropped one. They don’t “credit” any other Bronco defensive back with a dropped INT.

Every defensive back with more than 85 snaps allowed at least one touchdown catch. Fuller allowed a team-high, six. The team allowed a total of 22.

Safeties

The safety snaps were dominated (as usual) by Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson although Jackson’s injuries paved the way for Sterns to play extremely well in his 28.5 percent of the defensive snaps.

Sterns ended with the highest yards per target value on the team (and yards per completion), but still played better in pass coverage than Jackson - at least by passer rating allowed. Sterns’ man was only targetted twenty-two times, but he must have been in coverage on some really long passes (in terms of yardage allowed). His YAC allowed per target was worst on the team at 6.8. Compare that to Darby who allowed a team best 1.4.

P.J. Locke, again, played very sparingly (27 snaps). He was the fourth safety on a team with two safeties that played almost every snap and where the defense rarely used three safeties on the field at the same time (heavy nickel).

I should also point out that while the Bronco secondary players were rarely used to rush the passer, they were very effective when they were called on to do so. Bronco safeties and cornerbacks rushed the passer thirty times (from SIS, 25 shows PFR) generating thirteen total pressures (5 hurries, 2 QBhits and 5.5 sacks). Bronco defenders rushed the passer 2418 individual times and generated 36.0 sacks and 202 (via SIS) pressures. So the secondary generated 15.0 percent of the team’s sacks on 1.0 percent of the team’s pass rushes.