Denver's Defense Key to Another Playoff Run

Friday September 4th, 2015

Throughout most of his career, as long as Peyton Manning gets decent play from his defense, the future Hall of Fame quarterback will do enough on offense to put his club in Super Bowl contention. But that equation might be recalibrating. Factored in this year are downgrades along Denver’s offensive line, the loss of matchup nightmare tight end Julius Thomas, the full-fledged disappearance of what was a diminishing Wes Welker, the looming kinks that come with marrying Denver’s existing playbook to new head coach Gary Kubiak’s, plus the overanalyzed but not irrelevant drop in Manning’s arm strength. With all of this, the success of Manning’s team, for the first time in his career, hinges primarily on his defense.

Fortunately, the Broncos defense is talented enough to carry a club deep into January. It returns nine starters from a group that last season ranked third in yards allowed. No wonder Manning, who offsets most of that diminished arm strength by being the best anticipation passer in the game, chose to return for an 18th season. (Don’t be surprised if he returns for a 19th in 2016.)

Playmakers abound on defense, which is now under the coordination of Wade Phillips. The nearly 40-year NFL coaching veteran will install a lot of one-gap concepts out of a tilted 3-4, making this front seven, for all intents and purposes, a 5-2. Phillips has had recent success with this approach in Dallas and Houston. This year, he’ll be afforded the freedom of aggression up front thanks to trust he can place in his man coverage on the back end.

Phillips has some of the most valuable freight a coach can have in today’s NFL: three corners capable of locking down receivers in man-to-man and capable of still making plays on the ball. The leader in this regard is Aqib Talib, who plays a lot of his man coverage with outside technique (as opposed to inside technique, which aims to push receivers to the sideline). Lankiness and a sense for ball-timing allows the 6-1 veteran to play this way.

Opposite Talib, Chris Harris will start in the base 3-4 and likely slide to the slot in nickel, with 2014 first-rounder Bradley Roby manning the outside. Last year the Broncos, in an effort to ease the demands on a knee Harris had surgically repaired in February, kept the former undrafted corner strictly on the perimeter for the first several weeks. Two pleasant surprises arose from this. One was that Harris, originally considered by some to be strictly an inside defender, proved sensational outside, showing an understanding of individual route concepts and the ability to jump in-breaking patterns. Two was that Roby as a rookie immediately proved to be one of the best slot defenders in the game. His and Harris’s flexibility mean the Broncos can now match corners on specific wide receivers, which they did with greater frequency down the stretch in 2014.

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When Phillips coordinated the Texans defense, he played a lot of dime packages, putting six defensive backs and just one linebacker on the field in an effort to create more collective speed. This also leant more flexibility because there were now, theoretically, six natural pass defenders to use against five eligible receivers. That expands potential for coverage disguises and blitzes. (And when you blitz a defensive back, you’re blitzing someone with more speed than offensive linemen and running backs are accustomed to picking up.)

The Broncos under John Fox and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio had a lot of success in dime, particularly in 2014. Assuming an adequate replacement is found for center fielder Rahim Moore (he’s now a Texan; journeyman acquisition Darian Stewart is the favorite to step in), the 2015 Broncos are in even better position to thrive here. Backup safety David Bruton plays well in the midfield range, where he can be a rover or pick up tight ends. T.J. Ward has the physicality to drop down into the box and operate alongside the lone remaining linebacker, which will probably be the athletic and ascending fourth-year pro Brandon Marshall. And Ward, too, has held up well when matched one-on-one against tight ends.

But as you know, a back seven, no matter how talented, is often only as good as the four pass rushers in front of it. It’s here where the Broncos can be—and must be—not just great, but special. Phillips has been reunited with DeMarcus Ware, whom he was with in Dallas from 2007-10. Back then, Phillips kept Ware on the weak side of the formation, allowing him to draw more one-on-one matchups against pass-blockers. Given Von Miller’s proficiency at traversing through a formation’s strong side (Miller has spent much of his career battling tight ends and offensive tackles as a base strongside linebacker), expect Ware to again be deployed in this fashion.

DeMarcus Ware (Joe Amon/Getty Images)

At 33, Ware is coming off a season in which he started strongly but quieted down the stretch. Hence the first-round selection of Shane Ray, a potentially dynamic pass rusher from Missouri who probably would have been picked much earlier than 23rd overall if not for a marijuana citation just days before the draft. Broncos GM John Elway was not concerned about Ray’s past drug use, and why should he be? Besides the fact that marijuana legal in Colorado, you can also look at Von Miller, who has gotten himself caught up in similar activities before. Miller is coming off a 14-sack season and might be the most diverse pass rushing threat in the game, thanks to an explosive first step mixed with a block-shedding ability that allows him to redirect, or even outright blitz, inside. It’s the NFL; talent is king. (It should be noted, Miller has passed every NFL drug test over the past two years and, per the terms of the updated CBA, is now out of the league’s substance abuse program.)

It will be interesting to see how often Ray, Ware and Miller are all on the field together. Miller’s viability as a standup amoeba rusher presents an array of options—almost all of which involve at least one, and often two, of these dynamos drawing a one-on-one matchup against a heavier-footed pass protector.

With it likely to be a very potent dime package in Denver, and with opponents’ wanting to keep Manning, arguably football’s most commanding field general, on the sidelines, there’s a strong likelihood that teams will try fervently to run the ball on this defense, keeping it in its more vanilla 5-2. In that case, 2013 first-rounder Sylvester Williams becomes perhaps the group’s most important player. Williams is tasked with filling the very big (literal and figurative) void of departed nose tackle Terrance Knighton, who’s now in Washington. Williams has the raw ability, but he has not stood out over his first two seasons and has had trouble at times holding ground and working off run-blocks. That’s a problem if you’re a B-gap defensive tackle and a more significant one if you’re playing the A gap, where he’ll now be.

Immediately behind Williams, at inside linebacker, Marshall moves well, especially in space, but he’ll have to be kept clean from blockers. So will 240-pound Danny Trevathan, coming off an injury-riddled 2014 campaign. The depth behind these two is tenuous at best, which was problematic at times last year. These interior issues could bleed into the third level, as well. Recall that free safety is the one position of question in the secondary.

The Broncos are ripe with defensive playmakers. But for them to be positioned to actually make plays, the lesser-known guys will have to hold down the gut of this defense.

Broncos Nickel Package

C.J. Anderson (Steve Nehf/Getty Images)

1. Once the regular season starts and the games count, expect Denver’s scheme to be 80 percent Manning’s, 20 percent Kubiak’s. Manning simply doesn’t have the mobility to consistently execute Kubiak’s stretch handoffs and moving-pocket concepts. Remember, these used to be hallmarks of Manning’s game in Indianapolis; there’s a reason he stopped playing this way. Manning was rarely under center last season; Kubiak’s quarterback in Baltimore, Joe Flacco, was under center on 63 percent of his pass attempts—the widest margin in the league by 17 percentage points, according to Football Outsiders. Don’t expect to see anywhere close to those marks with Manning.

2. Where Kubiak’s stamp will be most evident is in the ground game, which the Broncos committed to deeper down the stretch last season and hope to commit to even more in 2015. They have the tailbacks for this. C.J. Anderson runs with a low center of gravity and can change directions in confined spaces; Ronnie Hillman brings a sudden quickness that Anderson can’t quite offer; and Montee Ball, 24, is too young to be discarded after a pair of disappointing seasons to start his career.

3. At the beginning of the offseason, offensive line looked like a major weakness in the wake of left tackle Ryan Clady’s season-ending knee injury. But second-round rookie Ty Sambrailo won the job, kicking Ryan Harris over to right tackle (where he’s a better fit) and Chris Clark to the curb (where he’s also a better fit). The recent signing of Evan Mathis also upgraded a left guard position that essentially had been left vacant after Orlando Franklin’s departure in free agency. Franklin fit the power-oriented man-blocking that Denver featured last year. But the more mobile Mathis is a better fit for the new zone system.

4. The signing of tight end Owen Daniels suggests Kubiak plans to run at least some of his play-action passing concepts. Daniels, a polished intermediate route runner, particularly when it comes to east-and-west movement, has always been good in this scheme. But he doesn’t present the matchup problems that Julius Thomas did. When—or if—Daniels splits out as a lone receiver, defenses will not even blink. And it’s doubtful things will be much different if it's Virgil Green in this role. Just losing Thomas’s pre-snap element alone really harms Denver’s passing game.

5. Because of the limitations up front and now through the air, expect Demaryius Thomas to catch around 115 balls this season. Sounds prolific, but his career average of 15.1 yards a catch may drop by two or three yards.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.  

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