Merry Christmas, friends! As I write this opening, it actually is the afternoon of December 25, so, rest assured, I’m not being one of those passive-aggressive “War on Christmas” morons in saying so. I hope you have had a nice holiday season, whatever holiday(s) you may celebrate. By the time you read this, Kwanzaa will be well underway, so accordingly, Happy Kwanzaa!
You know, since I can’t just say Happy Holidays, and include both Christmas and Kwanzaa (and Hanukkah!) into one generic seasonal greeting. Because that oppresses people, or something.
Having just ended the ridiculously busy part of my accounting year (which lasted from July to December), I’ve been meaning to write an article about the Broncos defense for a few weeks, and the opportunity hadn’t presented itself until now.
Note: The original version of this article had a section that made some people upset. I've removed that section, because I decided that I may have went too far with it, and that it was a little more dickish in tone than I may have meant it to be. I don't retract the comments I made, but I decided that the first step toward detente may be to remove the adversarial stuff. The subtantive football stuff below deserves to stand on its own.
Taking Stock of the Broncos Defense
The 2013 Denver Broncos defense has been very frustrating to watch. We don’t have a company line here, and we never have, but it’s fair to say that the collective IAOFM opinion of Jack Del Rio and his work tends to fluctuate on what he does, from snap to snap, quarter to quarter, and game to game. That is, we're definitely not some fanboy JDR lovers, as has been suggested by Mr. Doll.
Let me give you my assessment of the defensive personnel, before all the injuries hit, as a starting point for my theory on how and why things have gone awry from what seemed to be the initial defensive plan.
As with any defense, you have to start up front, and this Broncos group started the season as one of the best three-man groups in the NFL. When you can start Kevin Vickerson, Terrance Knighton, and Derek Wolfe, you’re going to have a lot of situations where the three-man line can hold the point of attack against five offensive linemen.
There are a couple of major implications to that, both to the enormous benefit of the entire defense. For one thing, you can play with smaller/faster inside linebackers - like Danny Trevathan and Wesley Woodyard - when you’re not worried about them having to take on the initial blocks of offensive linemen very often. That’s how the 49ers play with Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, and if I were constructing a defense, that’s the kind of model I’d be trying to emulate.
The fast guys are free to read their keys and run to the football, especially if you have two good edge guys to play the run (like Von Miller, Shaun Phillips, and Robert Ayers).
Another thing that comes from a three-man line grouping that wins is the ability to play two deep safeties most of the time. The best defenses are consistently the ones that are able to give their pass defense deep help with two safeties. As soon as you are forced to play the eighth man in the box, and you’re consequently forced to employ Cover 1 and Cover 3 out of necessity, you’re extremely vulnerable to the passing game, especially play action.
At the beginning of the year, the Broncos looked like they would be able to win up front with three men, set the edge against the run game, and have Trevathan and Woodyard run to the ball. For the first half of the season, that was how it played out. The Broncos were one of the best teams in the NFL against the run, and they usually played seven in the box.
As for the secondary personnel, the corners the Broncos have are very much man-to-man guys. Champ Bailey has historically been good at zone too, but he’s about the only one. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is a press guy, and Kayvon Webster was wasted at South Florida playing a lot of zone.
Chris Harris has outstanding man coverage technique, and Tony Carter had a nice 2012 season playing mostly man. On top of that, there was Quentin Jammer, who’s been primarily a man corner in his career, and Omar Bolden, who has mostly played special teams.
The safeties were an interesting set of specialty guys. Rahim Moore is a centerfielder type, while Mike Adams is more of a man coverage safety. David Bruton is an ace special teamer, and the surprise of camp was Duke Ihenacho, who is more of a box safety than anything.
There was a cause for some small concern with the departure of Elvis Dumervil, but the Broncos did a good job replacing him on the cheap with the signing of Shaun Phillips. As for other sources of pass rush, Robert Ayers showed some good flashes in 2012, and Wolfe showed good interior rush ability himself, with six sacks as a rookie.
2013 first-rounder Sylvester Williams also looked to have some projectability in the pass rush.
That collection of parts should have come together to yield a defense that was characterized by the following unit-wide traits:
- Stout against the run with seven men
- Good enough rushing the passer with four men, and effective on timely and well-conceived blitzes
- Proficient in man coverage, and sound against the deep ball with two deep safeties
I fully believe that was the plan, mainly because that’s how the 2012 defense played, and the acquisition of Knighton portended for even greater stoutness against the run.
Alas, injuries (and another absence from a certain suspension) were an extenuating factor from the very start.
The absence of Mr. Miller caused the Broncos to use Wolfe as an outside rusher a great deal over the first six games of the season, and that doesn’t play to his strength. He’s best moving inside and playing with power. When the Broncos rush was good in 2012, it featured the two guys playing next to each other: Miller outside and Wolfe inside. The early 2013 version with Wolfe outside and Vickerson (or Mitch Unrein) inside wasn’t nearly as good.
Wolfe was also playing 10-15 pounds lighter than he did in 2012, due to a neck injury in the preseason and a bout of food poisoning. I think the reduced weight hurt his consistency in the run game, and caused him to play fewer snaps than he did as a rookie. That’s no small thing when it’s your best all-around defensive lineman.
Bailey missed the first five games, and that led to a next-man-up situation that didn’t work that great. Carter got the first shot, and struggled, and then it went to Webster. He did well for a while, but he’s had a harder time as he’s been targeted more later in the season. Jammer started playing some snaps too, and he was up and down. He’s a proud veteran, and he knows what he’s doing, but his physical skills have diminished.
Woodyard, who has been a rock for this defense in his career, has been banged up throughout the season, and he’s been kind of inconsistent when he’s played. We’ll come back to him later.
You get the general idea, right? Guys got hurt, other guys stepped in for them, and for the most part, it worked out okay. The defense was nowhere near as good as it had been in 2012, but it was good enough when combined with this elite offense that the Broncos have.
Well, I don’t know if it’s good enough anymore. I’d call that quite borderline, actually. The losses that the Broncos absolutely couldn’t afford happened when both Vickerson and Wolfe went out in Week 12 against the Patriots.
You may think I’m overstating things, but I’m not. The whole schematic concept of the Broncos defense was built upon the idea that three defensive linemen could compete with five offensive linemen up front, and that two more guys could set the edge. That leaves two linebackers free to run to the ball, and four secondary players free to primarily concern themselves with pass defense.
I’ve said so a number of times in the past, but again, while it’s counterintuitive, being good at run defense is still the most important thing. If you can stop the run, you can keep your safeties deep, and if you can keep your safeties deep, you’ll have a better chance against the passing game. Also, if you stop the run, you keep the offense in more difficult down-and-distance situations, and that also increases the likelihood of a punt.
Before the New England game, that was the Broncos’ MO. Since Vickerson and Wolfe went down, they’ve been much more susceptible to the inside run game. I directly attribute the San Diego loss to the Broncos’ inability to handle the Chargers’ running game. Even as the offense struggled, the defense allowed a whole bunch of clock to be run off, to minimize the chance that Peyton Manning would have enough time to get it going later in the game.
As replacements like Malik Jackson and Mitch Unrein have mostly not been able to measure up to the run game prowess of Wolfe and Vickerson, the whole defense has had to adjust, to its detriment. When he’s been playing, Ihenacho has been spending more time up in the box. Trevathan has had to key more intently on the run, and I believe that’s left him a bit disadvantaged in coverage.
The more favorable down and distance that offenses have been getting has been negating the pass rush opportunities for Miller, Phillips, and Ayers. When it’s constantly 3rd-and-3, you’re just not that likely to get sacks or force many incompletions.
More annoyingly, the lack of soundness in the run game - and to some extent, the constant upheaval in the secondary - have been causing the Broncos to play far more zone coverage than they should be. It’s not that zone is bad, in and of itself; it’s that the Broncos aren’t really well equipped to play it, from a personnel standpoint.
If Topher wants to know what we think of Del Rio’s coordinating, we usually get irritated with all the sucker-ass zone coverage that he’s been calling.
One thing that I think the loss of Wolfe and Vickerson has done (and this is just my own theory) is reduce the effectiveness of Wesley Woodyard by forcing him to take on more blocks than he should be. We’ve had a few mailbag questions about why Paris Lenon is playing so much lately, and I think that it’s because he’s better at taking on blocks. Woodyard is excellent at what he does, but when you can’t play the run-and-hit style that he does best, his effectiveness is negated.
Woodyard is only a Mike LB in very specific circumstances, and the Broncos now have different circumstances from those.
One good development of the injuries up front is that Sylvester Williams has started to really show out in stretches. He’s still not consistent enough down-to-down, like most rookie DTs, but when he uses his hands well and keeps his balance, he’s a handful. I expect that once he has his first offseason program under his belt, he’s going to become a very good starter.
I’m also encouraged with Kayvon Webster. He’s been targeted a lot in the second half of the season, sure, but a lot of the passes that have been completed on him have been simply great throws. If the Broncos are entering the playoffs with Bailey (a big if), Rodgers-Cromartie, and Harris at full speed, then Webster is the fourth corner, and he’s gained a lot of valuable experience as a rookie.
I do think that the Broncos sorely miss Rahim Moore, despite the usually good play of Adams in his place. Moore has the kind of range that can cover up a lot of sins. Sure, he takes a bad angle here and there, but he made more plays than he gave up this season. We should be hoping he can return for the AFC Championship game.
As for Topher’s claim that we’re some great lovers of Omar Bolden, that’s beyond bizarre. I like him a lot as a special teams guy, but I’ve never seen much from him as a secondary player.
The news that Wolfe returned to practice on Wednesday was welcome, but I wonder if his weight loss (reported at 30 pounds) will prevent him from having his normal impact in the run game. I hope he doesn’t play against the Raiders, and returns for the Divisional Playoff game, if he’s ready.
I’m also less worried about the loss of Miller than most people seem to be. I think that Nate Irving is a good football player, who almost always proves it when he gets on the field. He’s not the impact pass rusher that Miller is, but remember, the Broncos went 6-0 without Miller this year. If Irving can do his job, and particularly, if he can help in the run game, the Broncos should be fine at Sam LB.
Here’s the bottom line on the Broncos defense, as I see it. The original plan was good, and the personnel that the front office put in place was good, but there have been too many key injuries, and now the unit threatens to prevent a Super Bowl victory.
There is a plausible scenario where Wolfe returns near full strength, Sylvester Williams is more consistent and does a solid job replacing Vickerson, Bailey steps up his game to Champ Bailey levels, Woodyard is able to take back over at the Mike, and run and hit, and Moore returns and brings his range with him. (That’s a lot of ifs, right? Some combination of some of those occurrences would be welcome, of course.)
There’s an equally plausible scenario (or maybe more plausible) where those things don’t happen, and a good team grinds up the Broncos with the run game like the Chargers did, and that leads to coverage gaffes due to overcompensation in the box. That’s the kind of game that the Broncos can lose to a Cincinnati or New England, or certainly to a Seattle or Carolina or San Francisco.
It’s really good being the number-one seed, and likely having home field advantage, but due to the threat of questionable run defense leading to questionable pass defense, I’m not as optimistic as I was last season, even as the 2013 Broncos offense is probably the best in the history of the NFL.
There’s your serving, friends. It’s been chilly at times in Arizona lately, so let me put this thing away before I catch a draft.