How DL Mike Purcell Allowed Denver Broncos To Play To Their Strengths Defensively
The Denver Broncos ended up with four new starters on defense in Week 5. Malik Reed, of course, got his first start because of an injury to Bradley Chubb. The other three, though, were in large part because of the disaster that happened the week before against Jacksonville.
The Broncos watched the Jaguars run the ball to the tune of 269 yards. Every level of the defense made mistakes that cost the Broncos what looked like was going to be their first victory of the season after they led 17-3. Adam Gotsis ended up being a bit of a fall guy for the situation.
Gotsis wasn’t the only problem, or even the biggest one, but it does look like the changes the Broncos made might stick for a while. Benching Gotsis allowed the Broncos to move Shelby Harris to his more natural position at defensive end.
The Broncos also added some more size/power to the linebacker corps by giving Alexander Johnson his first start of the season. Johnson was the talk of the game for a couple of his big plays that helped secure victory against the Chargers.
The final move that is not getting talked about enough is the player Vic Fangio moved to the nose tackle spot that Harris had vacated. Mike Purcell was in for 29% of the snaps this past weekend. That doesn’t sound like much, but he made sure to make those snaps count in both the run and pass game.
Purcell's ability to hold up in the middle allowed a lot of other players to have the games they did. He was a big reason why the Broncos went from one of their worst defensive performances against the run in the team’s history to one of the best of this season.
Join me as I break down five plays that help showcase why Mike Purcell should continue to see more playing time as the season progresses manning the middle of the Broncos' D-line.
Play 1: 10:21 | First Quarter
I want to point out a couple of things before jumping into this play. The first is that technically Mike Purcell did not start this game. He was not in on the very first snap. The Broncos did view him as the top nose tackle for the game, though, so in my mind that would be a starting spot. The second to keep in mind is that while the Chargers do have one of the worst offensive lines in football, Purcell had maybe the toughest matchup of any Broncos' defensive lineman. He was going up against Mike Pouncey, who is a Pro Bowl center.
On that note, Purcell is lined up on the second play of the game on the left shoulder of the center Pouncey. The Broncos have struggled a lot this year when teams run between the center and guard spot on the left side (A gap). This is why Gotsis ended up being a bit of a scapegoat as that gap has been a big part of his responsibility. The Chargers ran at this spot a lot throughout the game and found out that these changes on defense made a huge difference.
At the snap of the ball, Purcell finds himself head-to-head with Pouncey with the left guard trying to combo block to open up a seal for the running back. Again, teams have been running this simple concept at the Broncos all season with quite a bit of success. In this case, Purcell does a great job of anchoring himself against a very good run-blocking center and doesn’t allow the combo block to push him back and out of position.
Purcell does a great job of recognizing the run play is coming back to the left and positions himself to be able to shed the block and make the play. The fact that he did not give up any ground also helps with the pulling tight end that is supposed to get to the second level and block Alexander Johnson. Instead, Johnson is able to crash down on the run play and help clean up the tackle.
Play 2: 8:18 | First Quarter
Once again, the Chargers decide to attack right behind the left guard. This time around, instead of a tight end pulling across the formation, L.A. decides to use their fullback to try and meet Alexander Johnson in the hole. The Chargers also do not use a combo block, and instead, Pouncey gets to the second level to cut off Todd Davis. This leaves Purcell one-on-one with LG Dan Feeney. The idea for the Chargers is for Feeney to push out Purcell, for the FB to attack Johnson, opening up a nice hole to run up the middle for Melvin Gordon.
Johnson ended up getting credit for this tackle, but the reality is, Purcell trips up Gordon before he can ever make it through the hole. Purcell shows incredible awareness of where the ball-carrier is and when to throw the blocker to the side and make the play. There are a lot of players that either overrun a play because they have no clue where the ball-carrier is or struggle to disengage and make the play. Throughout this game, Purcell showed great timing and ability in shedding a would-be blocker. He is not just there just to occupy space.
Play 3: 4:53 | First Quarter
Mike Purcell will mostly be used throughout the rest of the season in situations that the Broncos suspect will be a run play. He is not their best pass rush option. DeMarcus Walker, Derek Wolfe, Shelby Harris, and Dre’Mont Jones are all better options when it comes to getting after the quarterback.
That doesn’t mean that Purcell offers nothing in the pass game but he is not going to get a lot of sacks in his career. What he can do, though, is exactly what this play shows.
Purcell is once again matched up with the Chargers’ best offensive lineman in Mike Pouncey. Teams are always going to lean towards leaving Purcell one-on-one when it comes to passing downs. The Broncos need him to win some of those reps. Here is an example of why he can still make an impact. The end result of this play is a penalty on Von Miller for holding.
That doesn’t negate the individual effort of Purcell, though, as he wins the leverage battle and shows why the Broncos find him a better option at the nose tackle. The raw power shown on this play, driving Pouncey right back into the face of Philip Rivers is what the Broncos need to see from Purcell.
Previously this season, the Broncos have struggled to get any kind of push up the middle, leaving a nice pocket for quarterbacks to step into and avoid players like Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. This year, the Broncos are showing a little more on the interior and thankfully, Purcell has shown enough to be a part of that conversation.
Play 4: 13:37 | Second Quarter
One of the most underrated things the Broncos did in this game is win on short yardage situations on defense. So far this season, opponents have been able to run in short-yardage situations with quite a bit of success. This play demonstrates just how important Purcell can be in helping stop a few of these plays throughout each game.
The Chargers once again run to the left with Purcell being the target of another combo block. There is an extra offensive lineman lined up tasked with blocking Todd Davis on this play. The Chargers also pull one of their receivers across the formation to take on either Kareem Jackson or Isaac Yiadom.
Essentially the Chargers have made the decision to leave one of those two unblocked and trust in their running back to make a man miss. Jackson shows why the Broncos brought him in this offseason by making a clean tackle on this play.
For Purcell’s part he does a great job of once again anchoring. Added onto that, he doesn’t get pushed down the line of scrimmage by the left tackle. His ability to hold his ground keeps the hole from ever opening up.
On top of that, he is then able to shed his blocker and help clean up the tackle, making sure Melvin Gordon is going nowhere. His ability as more than a space-eater is something that should be a huge asset for the upcoming opponent in the Titans and especially Derrick Henry.
Play 5: 3:01 | Third Quarter
Situation: 2nd-&-Goal (2-yard line)
It is easy to remember the play right after this one. Alexander Johnson got his first career interception in the end zone. Most who remember this play will point to the great work of DeMarcus Walker, who made the tackle to keep this from being a touchdown. Walker certainly deserves plenty of recognition and is proving he might be the most improved player on the entire roster.
Purcell is probably not going to get recognized a whole lot for his work here. The design of the play was supposed to be right at Purcell. He once again has a combo block coming at him with the right guard and center. The idea is to push him straight back and walk the ball into the end zone. The other thought is, if the push isn’t quite there, cut it back a bit but that was thankfully halted by Walker winning his one-on-one match up.
Purcell completely obliterates the two blockers. He fires off low winning the leverage battle and drives both of them back about two yards from the line of scrimmage. This type of win from the snap of the ball has been something the Broncos have desperately been needing in the run game. Too often Shelby Harris was getting blown off the ball two or three yards back, leaving this as an easy walk-in touchdown.
Shelby Harris was being played out of position in the first four games of this season. The hope at the beginning of the year was to get the best three defensive linemen on the field at the same time.
Unfortunately, the role of nose tackle requires a bit more girth than what Harris could bring to the table. Purcell injects 20-30 extra pounds into the equation. Beyond just his extra weight, though, he has shown a great understanding of leverage and awareness. His ability to know when to shed a blocker and make the play himself should help keep teams from running it straight down the teeth of the defense.
I would also expect that when he is on the field, Purcell will quickly become one of the best friends to linebackers Todd Davis and Alexander Johnson. A nose tackle holding his ground and occupying two blocks is what allows linebackers like them to have games like they just had.
I would not be shocked if Purcell sees a much larger workload against the Titans as they will be leaning on the run game and hoping for Derrick Henry to have another break-out game. If the Broncos are able to contain Henry, my guess is Purcell will be a big reason why.