Denver Broncos fans were clamoring for John Elway and Co. to draft a defensive tackle inside to stop the run and generate pressure up the middle on opposing quarterbacks. All last season the team struggled against stopping the run, especially in the middle of the defense.
In a pre-draft press conference, John Elway told reporters that defensive tackle, a most obvious need, appeared to be the most likely spot to use the team’s first draft pick.
This year's draft was flush with talent at the defensive tackle position. In recent years, despite the risks involved, top prospects like Ndamukong Suh, Geno Atkins and Marcell Dareus have changed the game with their run-stuffing abilities and pushed up the middle to get to the quarterback.
In the 45-year history of the modern NFL, the Denver Broncos have drafted just two defensive tackles in the first round. Neither panned out, so it seemed like a reasonable move to pass on defensive tackles this season.
The Broncos chose Ted Gregory with the 26th selection of the 1988 draft, and he didn’t make it out of training camp. A decade earlier, the Broncos selected Don Latimer with the 27th overall pick in the 1978 draft, and he made just seven starts in six seasons in the Mile High City.
However, all last season, head coach John Fox could always point to the injuries during training camp as the reason for their struggles. Arguably the Broncos’ two best tackles were lost for the season, in Ty Warren and Kevin Vickerson. Both were healthy this offseason, and Warren started at defensive tackle alongside newcomer Justin Bannan in the second week of the preseason against the Seattle Seahawks. Even the Broncos’ front office chief, John Elway, was blaming last season’s woes on the absences due to injury this offseason:
"We don’t feel as bad about our tackles as everybody else does," Elway said in a pre-daft news conference. "I think that we feel OK there and Ty Warren will be back coming off an injury and (Kevin) Vickerson is coming back and then we have some young guys in there where we feel like we’ll be OK. It’s not nearly the need in our minds that people think it is."
The Broncos did use the team’s top draft pick of 2012 on a defensive tackle, but Derek Wolfe out of Cincinnati figures to make a bigger impact at defensive end, rushing the quarterback instead of on the interior stopping the run. Wolfe started at left defensive end, a position he has assumed since Jason Hunter tore his triceps this past week.
Last season’s struggles against the run had them ranked 22nd in rushing yards, averaging 126.3 yards per game. Their issues were more pronounced against the pass, where the team was consistently victimized against spread-type offense that got vertical or employed oversized tight ends (think New England).
The team got lots of help beefing up the secondary by adding Tracy Porter, Mike Adams and Drayton Florence, and drafting Omar Bolden. The only pickup to upgrade the offensive line included Justin Bannan, the 33-year-old, late-blooming defensive tackle who Denver is trying out at nose tackle this offseason.
Derek Wolfe as the team’s second-round pick doesn’t improve the middle of the line in specific. Not only did the team not add any major upgrades at defensive tackle this offseason, but the team lost Brodrick Bunkley, probably the only bright spot on the defensive line last season, to the New Orleans Saints in free agency.
The Seattle Seahawks’ 228-yard rushing display on 44 attempts was a huge red flag for the team. Marshawn Lynch averaged 6.2 yards per attempt on his six carries (a total of 37 yards). If you take out the three kneel downs by third-string quarterback Josh Portis, the Seahawks averaged 5.6 yards per carry.
Will the Broncos' Run Defense Be Better or Worse than Last Season?
Six of the 44 carries by the Seahawks went for over 10 yards. Big ground gains like that are deflating for a defense and hard to recover from when a back gets out in the open. Kregg Lumpkin seized the lead against Denver with a 16-yard sprint around the left end of the Broncos defense, where he went untouched into the end zone on the Seahawks' opening drive of the second half.
In the press conference after the game, John Fox addressed his displeasure with the team’s failings against the run.
"I thought we were a little shoddy," Fox said. "We came in the game a little light on defense as well, and that kind of showed as the game progressed, but I think it’s fairly evident we have a lot of work to do in that area."
Continue to monitor the team’s progress against the run this offseason, as huge numbers like this past week’s showing is not going to cut it during the regular season.