You Got Served: Digesting the Broncos

Happy Tuesday, friends.  I’ve gotten some requests to do a Digesting piece on the Broncos, and I decided that I’d do one today.  I’m in the process of writing a very lengthy paper for my marketing class that’s due on Wednesday, so I need something a bit shorter than usual (not so much, as it turned out) for the site today.  I figure that I can go short medium-to-long, and still make some people happy.  Ready… BEGIN!!

I’ve obviously watched every snap that the Broncos have taken this year, at least three times.  Where I can get a good sense of an opponent by watching a game or two, I would hope that I have a great sense of the Broncos.  Here goes.

Broncos Defense

a.  The Broncos play a very interesting 4-3, in which the key player is Sam LB Von Miller.  He sometimes plays as a stand-up DE, sometimes as a Sam five yards off the line, and sometimes as a DE with his hand on the ground.  A 4-3 Sam is traditionally the least important defender, but for the Broncos, Miller is the most important.  The coverage is mostly man-to-man, and when the Broncos go nickel, they tend to remove a defensive lineman and add a CB, with Miller moving to DE.

b.  As you see in participation data below, 20 different Broncos defenders have played at least 100 snaps this season.  There are a few reasons for that, including some early-season injuries and the fact that the Broncos tried Cassius Vaughn and Jonathan Wilhite as the third CB before striking gold with Chris Harris in the role.  Really, though, the Broncos rotate the defensive line pretty extensively, and they use nickel LB Wesley Woodyard extensively too.

Pos # Name Snaps % of Total
DL 92 Elvis Dumervil 611 70%
DL 91 Robert Ayers 576 66%
DL 98 Ryan McBean 440 51%
DL 77 Brodrick Bunkley 375 43%
DL 79 Marcus Thomas 369 43%
DL 90 Jason Hunter 298 34%
DL 95 Derrick Harvey 92 11%
DL 99 Kevin Vickerson 206 24%
DL 96 Mitch Unrein 75 9%
LB 58 Von Miller 701 81%
LB 55 D.J. Williams 663 76%
LB 51 Joe Mays 532 61%
LB 52 Wesley Woodyard 518 60%
LB 57 Mario Haggan 146 17%
LB 56 Nate Irving 5 1%
DB 21 Andre' Goodman 845 97%
DB 20 Brian Dawkins 765 88%
DB 24 Champ Bailey 645 74%
DB 28 Quinton Carter 537 62%
DB 26 Rahim Moore 374 43%
DB 25 Chris Harris 284 33%
DB 41 Cassius Vaughn 237 27%
DB 29 Jonathan Wilhite 184 21%
DB 30 David Bruton 58 7%
DB 34 Kyle McCarthy 12 1%
    Average DL 3.50  
    Average LB 2.96  
    Average DB 4.54  
    Total Defensive Snaps 868  

b.  The Broncos defensive line group is solid all around.  The starting DEs are Elvis Dumervil and Robert Ayers.  Dumervil, who led the NFL in sacks in 2009 and missed all of the 2010 season, is a top-notch pass rusher who has improved against the run this season.  Ayers is an accomplished run defender who has improved a bit as a pass rusher this season, but still has a good deal of room for improvement.  Miller plays a lot of DE in passing situations, and Jason Hunter is the primary backup, with Derrick Harvey inactive more often than not.  Hunter is a high-effort player who contributes as both a pass rusher and run-stopper, and Harvey is more of a run-stopper than anything.

c.  The starting DTs are Brodrick Bunkley and Marcus Thomas.  Bunkley was acquired for peanuts in a trade from the Eagles (who really miss him), and has been one of the best run-stoppers in the NFL this season.  Re-signing Bunkley should be the Broncos' first offseason priority.  Thomas is one of the best athletes in the NFL at the DT position, and he’s had his best and most consistent season in 2011.  Re-signing him should be high on the Broncos' list of priorities, as well.  This is a quality starting pair of DTs, various hand-wringing notwithstanding.  Ryan McBean has had a very solid season as the primary backup, and TJ’s boy Mitch Unrein has had some good moments in playing a few snaps here and there.  Structurally, the Broncos have Ty Warren and Kevin Vickerson on IR, and both are under contract next season.

d.  The LB group features the outstanding Von Miller, who has been one of the most impactful defensive players in the NFL as a rookie.  He had a brief hiccup early in the season with being exploited in run defense and coverage, but he got it worked out and has been rock-solid in both areas.  He’s been a beast as a pass rusher and blitzer all season, and I think he’s going to be the best OLB since Lawrence Taylor, if he isn’t already.

The other LBs have good moments and bad moments, but it’s an area that could definitely be upgraded.  WLB D.J. Williams is extremely talented, but for most of his career he’s only done enough to be passable.  He’s had the best production of his career this year, but he had a terrible game in Minnesota, and I’m hoping it wasn’t the start of a backslide to his former levels of focus and effort. 

MLB Joe Mays has awesome striking power in the running game, but he could really wrap up better, and his lateral quickness isn’t quite good enough in the passing game.  Mays is the kind of guy you want on your team, but not really the one you want starting at MLB.  Primary backup Wesley Woodyard is a solid player, especially against the pass, but he’s had some key lapses at times this season. 

Mario Haggan backs up Miller, which is a rough deal, but he’s done an excellent job when he’s been on the field.  Rookie MLB Nate Webster Irving (I'm not comparing the two, but I initially mistyped) hasn’t shown much in five snaps, and classmate Mike Mohamed hasn’t been active yet for a game.

e.  As you see here, the Broncos mix up the way they hit the QB.  Sometimes, they like to rush four men, and that’s really fearsome with Dumervil and Miller coming, and seven men in coverage.

Pos # Name Rush Coverage % Rush % Coverage
DL 92 Elvis Dumervil 369 3 99.2% 0.8%
DL 91 Robert Ayers 309 0 100.0% 0.0%
DL 98 Ryan McBean 275 12 95.8% 4.2%
DL 77 Brodrick Bunkley 152 3 98.1% 1.9%
DL 79 Marcus Thomas 180 1 99.4% 0.6%
DL 90 Jason Hunter 146 1 99.3% 0.7%
DL 95 Derrick Harvey 67 1 98.5% 1.5%
DL 99 Kevin Vickerson 102 1 99.0% 1.0%
DL 96 Mitch Unrein 40 0 100.0% 0.0%
LB 58 Von Miller 320 95 77.1% 22.9%
LB 55 D.J. Williams 97 291 25.0% 75.0%
LB 51 Joe Mays 67 190 26.1% 73.9%
LB 52 Wesley Woodyard 60 278 17.8% 82.2%
LB 57 Mario Haggan 18 48 27.3% 72.7%
LB 56 Nate Irving 1 3 25.0% 75.0%
DB 21 Andre' Goodman 4 487 0.8% 99.2%
DB 20 Brian Dawkins 51 404 11.2% 88.8%
DB 24 Champ Bailey 8 350 2.2% 97.8%
DB 28 Quinton Carter 12 299 3.9% 96.1%
DB 26 Rahim Moore 2 211 0.9% 99.1%
DB 25 Chris Harris 12 182 6.2% 93.8%
DB 41 Cassius Vaughn 0 155 0.0% 100.0%
DB 29 Jonathan Wilhite 12 137 8.1% 91.9%
DB 30 David Bruton 6 28 17.6% 82.4%
DB 34 Kyle McCarthy 0 8 0.0% 100.0%
    Average DL 3.28 0.04 98.7% 1.3%
    Average LB 1.13 1.81 38.4% 61.6%
    Average DB 0.21 4.52 4.5% 95.5%
    Total 4.62 6.38    
    Pass Plays 500      

On third-and-long especially, the Broncos like to show blitz, bring it sometimes, and drop out sometimes.  Even though the Broncos can often hit the QB with four men, the blitz packages give the offense something to think about from a protection standpoint, and they often trick an offense into max-protecting against three or four rushers, leaving three receivers to try to get open against seven or eight coverage players.

f.  In the secondary, the Broncos are led by the old guys, and have to be pleased with the progress of some young guys.  The starting CBs Champ Bailey and Andre’ Goodman have been very solid.  Champ has been Champ all season, and Goodman had an excellent month of November before struggling some on Sunday.  Chris Harris, as mentioned, has been excellent as the third CB.  He’s a keeper as a slot specialist going forward, even if his height doesn’t lend it itself that well to being a starter outside.  (Harris is listed at 5-10, but he looks closer to 5-8 when he stands next to a guy like Percy Harvin, who’s 5-11.)  Jonathan Wilhite showed some ability as a blitzer but not much as a cover guy, and Cassius Vaughn has had a pretty disappointing second season in coverage.

g.  At Safety, Brian Dawkins has had a pretty excellent season for a guy who’s played that position longer than anybody else in history.  He still plays with a lot of energy and effort, and he’s stayed very healthy this season.  The Broncos drafted two rookies this season: Rahim Moore in the second round and Quinton Carter in the fourth, and one or the other has started every game this season.  Lately, Moore seems to be buried on the bench without much explanation, and that bears watching; his play was uneven early in the season, but he showed some excellent range, and the ability to get to the football.  I wonder if the concussion that he suffered on the first play of the Oakland game isn’t still giving him some trouble, because he hasn’t played a defensive snap since then, and lately has been inactive.

Carter is having an up-and-down season and was hurt on Sunday against Minnesota.  I’m sure the Broncos would rather not ever use David Bruton or Kyle McCarthy at Safety, and we saw very bad play from both on Sunday after Carter got hurt.  Bruton is an excellent special teams guy and should have a long career because of that, but he’s not a legit Safety.  McCarthy is really fringey, and almost certainly won’t be around once the Broncos have another talent acquisition cycle.

Broncos Special Teams

a.  You can’t get a great sense for a team’s tendencies in the kicking game from only watching one game, and that’s why I generally don’t comment on them in the Digesting articles.  I’m going to briefly touch on the Broncos' performance today.  In short, it’s been outstanding, and it’s a key reason that the team has been winning.

b.  The Kicker Matt Prater is one of the best kickoff guys in the NFL, and he’s reliable on long field goals as well.  He’s uncharacteristically missed a few mid-range ones this season, but he’s been back to his old self lately.

c.  The Punter, Britton Colquitt, has been outstanding this year, really as good as any Punter in the NFL.  He’s got a big leg, but he also seems to have a good sense of timing with his coverage team; he rarely outkicks his coverage, which a guy like Shane Lechler can frequently do.

d.  The Broncos have handled their return game by committee, featuring Quan Cosby, Cassius Vaughn, Eric Decker, Matt Willis, Lance Ball, and Eddie Royal at times this season. Cosby has been consistently very solid, and Decker and Royal each scored touchdowns on Lechler punts during the two Raiders games.

e.  Notable coverage players have included Dante Rosario (a team-leading nine tackles), Woodyard, Bruton, Harris, Ball, Carter, and Willis.  The coverage units have been very solid for the Broncos this season, after being medium-to-bad for most of the last 25 years.  This can be credited to some efforts by both the McDaniels regime and the current regime to significantly improve the athleticism of the bottom of the roster.

Broncos Offense

a.  Schematically, the Broncos offense is really interesting.  At its core, this is an Erhardt-Perkins offense that wants to knock defenses off the ball, run with physicality, and then exploit aggressive LBs with play-action.  In terms of the concepts, nomenclature, and philosophy, nothing has changed since Josh McDaniels was hired in 2009.

With the insertion of Tim Tebow as starting QB this season, Offensive Coordinator Mike McCoy has added some running game elements that Tebow was successful with in college.  The use of the zone read and dive option series have been very beneficial to the Broncos this season, but it’s not like the offense has been completely overhauled, like is often said by TV idiots. 

Simply, the Broncos added some run plays, and instead of running only five or six different plays like a traditional Erhardt-Perkins team does, the Broncos probably use 15 or so.  So when you see somebody say that the Broncos are simplifying things for the QB, that’s completely wrong, and in fact, is the opposite of what’s happening.  (Not that a pompous pretend-intellectual douchebag like Gregg Easterbrook knows what he’s talking about.)

b.  I’m going to keep hammering this point, but the running series that gives Tebow an option to run the ball himself are here to stay, because they work.  I listened to Falcons coach Mike Smith on Sirius Tuesday morning, and he noted that the Panthers are doing a lot of the same stuff with Cam Newton, and that it’s working very well.  Defensive coaches hate dealing with option football, and have a longtime propaganda campaign against its feasibility in the NFL, which aims to prevent having to see it. But with the right QB, it is more than sustainable as a practice within a larger running game.  No NFL team can be 1995 Nebraska, but an NFL team can definitely be 2008 Florida, where the option stuff is part of a much larger whole.

c.  As for the passing game, nothing has changed.  The Broncos are doing it less often than they did under Kyle Orton, but the concepts are the same, the protections are the same, and the progressions are the same.  The Broncos will likely tweak the passing scheme some in the offseason to set Tebow up for some concepts that he throws well and to better integrate play action off of the more exotic run series, but it will still be the same old Erhardt-Perkins framework, and that’s what suits Tebow the best, anyway.

d.  As you can see from the participation data, the Broncos use a lot of different players and personnel groupings.  They’re able to make teams who want to play small (like the Jets) play big, and teams who want to play big (like the Chargers and Raiders) play small. 

Pos # Name Snaps % of Total
WR 87 Eric Decker 712 89%
WR 19 Eddie Royal 382 48%
WR 88 Demaryius Thomas 291 37%
WR 12 Matt Willis 286 36%
WR 84 Brandon Lloyd 210 26%
TE 86 Daniel Fells 691 87%
TE 85 Virgil Green 152 19%
TE 81 Dante Rosario 99 12%
TE 75 Chris Clark 103 13%
TE 80 Julius Thomas 48 6%
TE 71 Russ Hochstein 2 0%
RB 23 Willis McGahee 354 44%
RB 35 Lance Ball 239 30%
RB 46 Spencer Larsen 212 27%
RB 27 Knowshon Moreno 177 22%
RB 37 Jeremiah Johnson 24 5%
    Average WR 2.36  
    Average TE 1.37  
    Average RB 1.26  
    Offensive Snaps 797  


TJ pointed out a stupid article from some ESPN dude named Dean Oliver who said the Broncos like to play 3-wide formations with no intention of passing.  Every team does that sometimes, because CBs are mostly non-tacklers, and you’d like to have more of them on the field when you want to run.  If teams want to go 4-4 against the Broncos’ 3-wide sets and stack the box, Tebow is going eventually start audibling to the pass, and hurting them for that.  Oliver was a stat dude for the Denver Nuggets, so it’s a little bit possible that he may not know anything at all about football.

e.  At QB, Tebow is definitely a work in progress, but the key thing to realize is that there has been demonstrable progress every week since he took over for Orton.  Tebow can really fire the football with velocity when he wants to, but he really needs to get his lower-body into it to do so, unlike a Jay Cutler.  Tebow’s accuracy and anticipation have both been looking better of late, and those things can definitely be improved, through improved footwork, and the acquisition of a veteran feel for how the concepts work, and what the defense is going to try to do about them.  Brian Billick wrote about this on Monday, and it’s worth checking out.

Tebow’s obviously outstanding as a runner, particularly as he gets close to the goal line.  Interestingly, the Broncos haven’t been in close very much during their winning streak, (most scores have come on long plays), so he hasn’t been able to show his short-yardage/goal-line skills that much.  He’s one of the best you’ll ever see at picking through traffic and then running with explosion and power once he finds a crease.

Tebow has a lot of work to do, if he wants to be an elite NFL player, and I’m confident that he’ll do it.  I have always believed, and continue to believe that he’s a franchise player in the NFL, and that he’ll win multiple Super Bowls.  The bandwagon is suddenly getting more crowded, and it’s cool to be the dude who was there since 2007, sitting in the corner and smirking in that TB way.

f.  At RB, the Broncos have gotten an excellent season from the low-mileage Willis McGahee, and he has been a major key to the season as he took over for Knowshon Moreno.  McGahee is big, and he runs with impressive quickness and body lean.  I still think Moreno is a useful player for the future, if not a featured back.  The other guys, Lance Ball and Jeremiah Johnson are very upgradeable.  This team could use some home run speed at the RB position in the form of a dangerous part-time guy to use in certain packages.

g.  The WRs have been pretty up-and-down.  Eric Decker is an ideal #2 receiver who has been covered like a #1 for most of the season.  As such, he’s struggled to get open at times.  Decker is at his best in the slot, where his impressive combination of size and quickness can make him a difficult matchup.  Demaryius Thomas should be the #1 receiver, and we can only hope that his breakout game against Minnesota portends for big things to come.  A guy as big, strong, and fast as Thomas is should be able to make a lot of plays downfield, and he’s showed a lot at times as an open-field runner.

Eddie Royal used to be one of my favorite Broncos, but he’s seemed to regress as a player a little bit every season.  This year, he’s run his routes too short at times and had some bad drops in key moments.  I still love him as a return guy, but his performance as a WR hasn’t been too good.  Matt Willis is a solid fourth WR.  I’d like to see Royal (a free agent) replaced with some serious over-the-top speed, which will help back the safeties up, opening the short passing game and the running game.

h.  The TE position has been a big disappointment to me this season.  Daniel Fells has made a few catches, but he’s really struggled as a blocker, which has surprised me.  Rosario has been a good receiver for the Broncos, and Virgil Green has been a good blocker when he’s played.  After hearing great reports on him in training camp, I was excited to see Julius Thomas, and he’s delivered just about nothing.  This group has combined for 24 catches, 311 yards, and two TDs.

i.  The offensive line has been really up-and-down this season.  It struggled to get the running game blocked early, but has done much better lately, obviously.  As for protection, it’s been pretty bad for most of the season, even as Tebow has been sacked much less lately. Just to give you an idea, this is how PFF has rated the Broncos group cumulatively for the season:

Pos Player Snaps Overall Grade Pass Block Run Block Penalties
LT Ryan Clady 791 -15.2 2.6 -12.6 -5.2
LG Zane Beadles 793 -14.8 -9.6 -5.8 -0.4
C J.D. Walton 793 -21.2 -2.5 -18.1 -0.6
RG Chris Kuper 793 -8.3 3.4 -12.3 0.6
RT Orlando Franklin 774 -11.7 -5.8 -5.6 -0.3

Since NFL teams and players take PFF’s grades seriously, I think we should also consider the possibility that this young offensive line isn’t good enough.  I believe that Ryan Clady is a cornerstone at LT, and that Orlando Franklin can be a Pro Bowl-caliber LG, but probably will never be good enough in protection as a RT.  Chris Kuper is a solid starter at RG, and I think that J.D. Walton and Zane Beadles are marginal starters unless they really improve their strength this offseason.  Both guys were really hurt by the lockout, and their lack of ability to participate in their first offseason NFL strength program.

j.  The Broncos supplement their suspect protection pretty frequently, averaging 5.69 blockers, which is definitely on the high end for the teams I’ve studied.  They’re likely to keep a TE in, but they sometimes use a RB.  Moreno was easily their best protector at the RB position and has been missed in that role at times.

Pos # Name Pattern Protection Snaps % of Total
WR 87 Eric Decker 355 0 355 91%
WR 19 Eddie Royal 205 0 205 53%
WR 88 Demaryius Thomas 132 0 132 34%
WR 12 Matt Willis 172 0 172 44%
WR 84 Brandon Lloyd 139 0 139 36%
TE 86 Daniel Fells 227 96 323 83%
TE 85 Virgil Green 24 29 53 14%
TE 81 Dante Rosario 46 16 62 16%
TE 75 Chris Clark 0 26 26 7%
TE 80 Julius Thomas 29 7 36 9%
RB 23 Willis McGahee 114 21 135 35%
RB 35 Lance Ball 86 37 123 32%
RB 46 Spencer Larsen 45 14 59 15%
RB 27 Knowshon Moreno 95 25 120 31%
RB 37 Jeremiah Johnson 11 0 11 2%
    Average WR 2.57 - 2.57  
    Average TE 0.84 0.45 1.28  
    Average RB 0.90 0.25 1.15  
    Total 4.31 0.69 5.00  
    Pass Plays     390  

Beating the Broncos Defense

a.  You’d better be able to protect both edges, or you’re in trouble.  Most teams are in trouble, and it’s only going to get worse as Miller improves and the defensive talent is upgraded around him.  From the jump, the Broncos are difficult to gameplan for because of their pass rushers.  This is a problem that is only solvable through quality personnel, and the cleverest scheme in the world can’t do much to help you.  This advantage portends well for long-term defensive excellence by the Broncos, and it was worth going 4-12 to get it, even if nobody was intentionally tanking.

b.  Running the ball to the edges is a smart thing to do, especially to Miller’s side.  He sometimes gets upfield too quickly, and too far, and it’s possible to run underneath him if you go quickly.  Dumervil has improved at reading the run and staying home, but he can still get blocked outside sometimes and buried.

c.  In general, I think teams need to be committed to the run vs. the Broncos, to work toward manageable down-and-distance situations.  The Broncos are merely average against the run and can be pushed around at times.

d.  The screen game works pretty well against the Broncos because of the aggressiveness of the pass rush and the amount that they green-dog their LBs.  It always surprises me that teams don’t do more screening against them.

e.  In the secondary, with the Broncos playing so much man-to-man, offenses need to be creating favorable matchups.  I like speed and height against Goodman, strength and height against Harris, and any good TE against Dawkins, Williams, or Woodyard.  The RB swing game has historically been a problem against San Diego too, but the Broncos did a great job against it 10 days ago.  Bailey should be left alone, as much as possible.

Stopping the Broncos Offense

a.  Again, this is structurally difficult, and getting harder all the time.  You should review these two articles I wrote about the zone read (You Got Served: Now Digest the Jets, and You Got Served: The Zone Read) , and you’ll clearly understand the challenge that defenses face in the numbers game when Tebow is a threat to run.  The answer they try is dropping the safeties into the box to help against the run.  The problem is that as Tebow improves as a passer, he’s going to torch insufficient coverage.

It certainly helped that Tebow played with future NFL skill guys like Percy Harvin, Louis Murphy, Riley Cooper, Aaron Hernandez, Jeff Demps, and Chris Rainey at Florida, but even beyond that, the issue that defenses had was in balancing their need to stop the run with their need to be sound against the pass.  It was, and is, a mathematical nightmare.

The Broncos aren’t nearly as talented in the skill positions relative to the NFL that the 2008 Florida team was relative to the SEC, but the problem is still a problem.  Trust me, some offseason improvement from Tebow and the receivers, and a talent infusion at RT and some speed at WR and RB and are going to quickly make this a good offense.

b.  For now, the teams are going to want to work hard to stop the run with as few players as possible.  That probably means eight in the box, but the eighth guy should be passive, in case there’s a play action pass.  As easy as it is to talk about assignment football, if you have a guy on the backside doing nothing, one of the other seven had better beat one of the seven blockers, because otherwise, you’re giving up yardage.

c.  I think teams that play a lot of zone will tend to be more successful against the Broncos than those which play a lot of man.  With zone, the intermediate guys have their eyes on Tebow, so if he runs, they can react to it quickly.  With man, a lot of defenders have their backs to him, and that can get really ugly, as the Raiders and Chargers have seen at times.  The Chargers mush-rushed Tebow 10 days ago and elected to just give him a lot of time to throw, and that didn’t really work too well at times.

d.  On the other hand, the Broncos WRs struggle to beat man coverage a lot of the time, so that’s a dilemma.  They do a lot better job finding holes in zones.

e.  After the Detroit game, I would have recommended blitzing Tebow, and that tends to be a good idea against most young QBs, but Tim’s been showing a better sense of how to handle the blitz lately.  I loved the audible to the go route that Thomas almost caught for a TD Sunday.  I also loved the 20-yard TD run against the Jets.

f.  I think if I were a Defensive Coordinator, I’d be zone-blitzing Tebow a lot, and otherwise four-man rushing with different zones behind it.  Confusion is still the best friend of a defense against a young QB, and I really like the benefits of playing zone in stopping Tebow from running for big yards.  Until further notice, the best thing to do is make the kid make throws.

That's all the time I have for today, friends.  I hope that this was value-adding for you, and I'm interested in reading your thoughts in the comments.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

Follow me on Twitter  While you’re at it, Like our Facebook page

Ted's AnalysisYou Got Served