Breaking Down the Holes in the Denver Broncos Defense
The Denver Broncos are 5-0, and many feel they are bound for the Super Bowl in 2013. Their offense is on a record-setting pace, having scored more points (230) in the first five games of the year than any other team in league history.
On the other hand, their defense is having some problems in the second half of games. The Broncos will build a big lead in the second or third quarter. That forces an opponent to go into a pass-happy mode in order to attempt a comeback.
It’s one of the reasons why the defensive numbers for the Broncos are somewhat skewed. Denver’s run defense ranks first in the league, allowing an average of only 69.6 rushing yards per game. Their pass defense is at the other end of the spectrum. They rank 32nd in the league against the pass, allowing an average of 347.0 passing yards per game.
The truth about the defense lays somewhere in between—it is not as strong against the run as the numbers indicate. It is also not as bad against the pass as the statistics show.
The Broncos have allowed 45 fourth-quarter points this year, with a season-high 14 coming against the Cowboys in Week 5. Some feel the Cowboys may have drawn up an offensive blueprint for other teams to follow.
So how will opponents try to pick on the Denver defense? Let’s take a look at some problem areas that need to be cleaned up for Denver.
There is a notion that the best defense against Peyton Manning is to have long, sustained drives on offense to keep him on the sidelines. That’s a nice practice in theory, but the reality of the situation is most teams won’t have that chance.
Manning and the offense have gotten off to a slow start in most games this year. However, when the second quarter arrives they seem to find their stride. The design of the Broncos offense is making things look easy for Manning.
The Broncos are building big leads on opponents in what seems like the blink of an eye. This forces the hand of teams, and they must start passing more in an effort to get back in the game.
This means the run defense isn’t much of a factor during the second half. The Broncos need to improve their nickel package, as that’s what they’ll use the most during these comeback attempts.
They also need to stop biting on play fakes in the second half. Sure, it may lead to a big run on a draw play, but it will eliminate the game-changing big passing plays that can energize an opponent.
In the picture below we see safety Rahim Moore take a couple of false steps forward as he bites on the play fake to Giants running back David Wilson. Just these few steps are enough to create a big window in the seam for Eli Manning to throw to. Chris Harris gives a huge cushion to Victor Cruz before the snap, respecting the All-Pro’s deep speed. Cruz is able to easily get behind Harris for a 51-yard gain.
Trouble Defending the Tight End
The Broncos linebackers can struggle in coverage, especially against more athletic tight ends. In the playoffs the Broncos may run into the New England Patriots, stopping talented tight ends like Rob Gronkowski will be a top priority if the team wants to advance in the postseason.
Wesley Woodyard has made great strides as a coverage player during his pro career. When he first started getting more defensive reps early in his career, coverage was a huge problem. Teams would run a crossing route at Woodyard, and he would guess the wrong player to cover most of the time. This led to big plays, and it got him targeted by opposing quarterbacks quite a bit.
Over the last two seasons Woodyard has drastically improved this part of his game. During this year he’s done a good job when asked to cover from his middle linebacker spot. However, against the Cowboys he was getting burned early before having to leave the game with a neck injury.
Danny Trevathan was one of the heroes of the Cowboys game. His late fourth-quarter interception of Tony Romo helped seal the game for the Broncos. Before that play, though, we saw Trevathan get burned more than he has at any point this season.
In the picture below we see Trevathan lose Jason Witten on a seam route. Trevathan tried to jam the veteran tight end at the line of scrimmage, but essentially whiffed. This allowed Witten to easily get by him. The play was an easy pitch-and-catch for Romo and Witten.
Nate Irving is not asked to cover that often. Instead, he’s used mostly as a run defender who can help set the edge to keep containment. If Irving is forced to cover, then it’s a huge advantage for the offense. If the Broncos use more nickel packages defensively, it means Irving won’t be on the field that often in passing situations.
Getting a Better Pass Rush
Yes, a big part of this problem will be cured when Von Miller returns from his six-game suspension. In the meantime, we need to see the other pass-rushers bring more heat, especially when the team only rushes four.
During the Cowboys game we saw Denver only rush four on several snaps. It seemed like Romo had all day to throw at times as the Broncos just couldn’t put him under duress.
In the picture below we see the Broncos send four defenders. Romo has 6.9 seconds before making the throw to the end zone. This touchdown gave Dallas a 41-38 lead near the beginning of the fourth quarter.
In this picture we see the Broncos rush only three on the play. However, this time Derek Wolfe is able to get middle pressure.
This prevents Romo from two things. First, he’s rushed and doesn’t see Demarco Murray wide open underneath. Second, he can’t step into his throw for fear of Wolfe hitting him low. The result of the play is an interception by Trevathan, which helped seal the win for Denver.
We’ve seen this more than once this season. There seems to be some confusion in the secondary at times, which leads to a big play from the opposition. Pictured below is a 73-yard touchdown catch by Raiders receiver Denarius Moore.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Duke Ihenacho run into each other after the busted coverage, giving Moore a clear path to the end zone.
Against the Cowboys we saw a similar play. Pictured below is Dez Bryant splitting the Broncos defense after beating Rodgers-Cromartie down the left sideline.
Once again, Rodgers-Cromartie runs into his own man. This time, it's rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster. If it wasn’t for the hustle of Omar Bolden, this would have been an 83-yard touchdown instead of a 79-yard gain.
The Broncos must communicate better before the snap to avoid any sort of confusion. This will help put players in the correct position before it’s too late to stop a big play.
Make the Tackle!
It doesn’t matter the level, every Broncos defender needs to do a better job of wrapping up. This is something that has plagued them all year.
In the picture below, Webster puts a big hit on Raiders fullback Marcel Reece. Webster has earned praise for his big hits, but he has to do a better job of wrapping up. Reece is able to easily bounce off and gain four more yards after contact.
Lack of proper tackling from Webster has been something John Fox has commented on this season. After the Raiders game Fox said, “A couple of times, I would have liked to see him wrap up a little bit more, but he’s gaining valuable experience.” That experience needs to translate into better tackling moving forward.
This isn’t the only instance where the Broncos defense failed to make the tackle. Against the Cowboys, cornerback Tony Carter failed to bring down rookie wide receiver Terrance Williams, even though he could have easily made the tackle after the catch.
The Denver Broncos have an offense that is built to crush records and lead the way to the Super Bowl. However, the defense must improve their play if the team wants to realize their championship dreams.
The defense needs to get better play out of their nickel package. This includes asking the linebackers to do a better job in coverage.
To help their secondary, the Broncos need to generate a better pass rush when they don’t blitz. The secondary can also be aided by communicating better pre-snap.
All levels of the defense need to do a better job of wrapping up to make the tackle. This will help prevent big plays from an opponent who can change the momentum of a game.
If the Broncos improve these areas, then their pass defense can become a strong suit of the team. It’s the one area that is lacking on what appears to be a team destined to make a championship run.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand.