As the preseason predictions abound, one point seems to come up repeatedly. Can Denver stop the run? Khaled Elsayed talked about it over at Pro Football Focus:
The unquestioned star of the Broncos defensive line (if you ask me anyway) in 2011 was Brodrick Bunkley. The wrecking ball of a defensive tackle has moved onto the Saints had our highest run defense grade of the year for any defensive tackle (+28.4) and he did it while being limited to base packages. With Bunkley now gone the lineup is going to consist of Ty Warren, Justin Bannan, Kevin Vickerson and Derek Wolfe, none of whom can do what Bunkley was able to do.
Take Warren, he’s a talented player but hasn’t played a snap since the 2009 season. Justin Bannan is a solid rotational player coming off a good year, but nowhere near as destructive as Bunkley. And, even if rookie Wolfe takes the league by storm he’s a different type of tackle, so it’s hard to see how Denver will replace that production. Considering it’s an area they need to improve, letting Bunkley go could prove costly.
This is an interesting question, and the answers won’t come before the season starts. There’s been a lot of talk about the potential problems for the Broncos in stopping the run due to the loss of Bunkley. I have a somewhat different perspective on this issue. Given the roster changes, I’m not sure that losing Bunkley is the tragedy that some have suggested.
Elsayed’s theory is based on the idea that one player needs to replenish Bunkley’s run defense. The reality is that the team needs to replace and upgrade Bunk’s impact, across the line and at linebacker. That puts things in a different light, and Denver has taken some good steps in that direction.
Last year’s defense was different than this year's in several ways. The front seven was still very much a work in progress, with a paper-thin DT group and Joe Mays as a first-year middle linebacker, unfamiliar with the position. Von Miller was a monster in pass rushing, but still needed work on his run defense. So did Elvis Dumervil: run D hasn’t been his forte.
Bunkley’s role was simple and limited - stop the run on first and second down from the nose guard slot. He had a single sack in the Wild Card game and one QB hit with only five hurries all year, including the two playoff games. That’s not much of an impact on the passing game, and that cost the Broncos. On the other hand, Bunk seemed about the only consistently effective defender against the run.
I don’t see that as the same problem this year - the roster is far too different..
Kevin Vickerson was missing last year - he had come in very light to training camp and then was lost for the year to injury. He’s returned healthy and he’s also back up to around 320 lb.; from all reports, it’s muscle weight. He was a very athletic player at that weight in the past, and there’s no reason that he can’t be again.
Ty Warren has essentially taken two years off and says that he feels better for the rest. That wouldn’t surprise me, since by his age (31) most players are dinged up here and there. He’s tossing guys around in camp, and that’s promising.
Mitch Unrein has been getting consistently better and has outplayed Sealver Siliga in the rotation. I look forward to seeing how his run stopping skills match up.
Justin Bannan is sort of a lesser Bunkley - he’s a good two-down nose who can stop the run. If he can’t go, Siliga would get a shot in the rotation. I don’t have an opinion on him - I haven’t seen enough of his work.
But the joker in the deck is second-round pick Derek Wolfe, who’s going to be on the field most of the time. He’s playing DE on first and second downs and DT with the nickel unit. His long-term playing position was loosely defined by DL coach Jay Rodgers, who said,
He's got a bigger body than most ends do and he's got a chance to play a little more inside. Now, as time goes on and he learns the defense, he'll have the ability to play any place he wants to play.
That was one of the things that drew Denver to Wolfe - in college, he played everywhere along the line, and did well at all of them. There’s no reason for him to be a liability against the run. That bigger body is a big advantage against the run from the DE slot. Wolfe is taking first and second down right DE snaps, which may settle what the team will do with Doom, whose run-stopping isn’t his best skill.
Jason Hunter had been fighting - literally, as often as not - for the starting left defensive end spot against 2011 starter Robert Ayers. Hunter has been a good run stopper who can also get after the QB, although today's bad news makes it sound unlikely he'll have an impact this season.
Von Miller is working on run support and coverage this year; if anyone wants to bet against him, I’m open to it.
I don’t know who will be at Will, but Danny Trevathan looks to be one of the nickel LBs, and Nate Irving played with him on some downs in the preseason opener. Wesley Woodyard has a chance at Will. However they go, they’ll have to replace and hopefully improve on D.J. Williams’s team-leading tackling production, but I think that they can.
The DL looks stronger this year than last, Bunkley or not, and that will let the linebackers run free more often. Mays has impressed people with his improvement and will benefit from having a better DL/DT group in front of him.
Ben Garland, Malik Jackson, and Jeremy Beal are hoping for a final slot or a practice squad invitation. Beal’s two sacks in meaningless time still showed his potential - he’s very strong and effective at the point of attack, and he covered Bears TE Evan Rodriguez effectively from the RDE position on some plays. He has excellent hand skills, leverage and strength - he could use more explosion, but if he’s on the team, he’ll be solid against the run. Jackson and Garland seem to me to be developmental players. Jackson might make the 53-man roster and is another big guy who can eventually handle DE or DT roles.
All in all, it’s a very different group than the 2011 squad. There’s more power on the front line, and there’s more aggression being channeled into the linebackers by Jack Del Rio. Given all of these factors, I would have liked to keep Bunkley, but I don’t see the dropoff that some are predicting. JDR’s fiery fury floats all players. That and the difference in this year’s roster should also keep the run game in check. Denver plays some good running teams - we’ll know soon enough.