The Denver Broncos defense is annually one of the best in the league because they have talent at every level. Derek Wolfe is one of most disruptive defensive linemen in the league, Von Miller is regarded as the premier edge defender in the NFL, and Brandon Marshall is a solid off-the-ball linebacker. The secondary is the best in the NFL with Aqib Talib and Chris Harris both All Pro cornerbacks, and former first round cornerback Bradley Roby adding necessary depth.
And yet they can be beaten. I spoke with Tim Lynch of MileHighReport.com to get the inside scoop on the Denver Broncos defense and looked at the film to see if there were any weaknesses in their coverage for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots offense to take advantage of.
First, I asked Lynch about the rest of the Broncos defensive front that will be tasked to stop the New England rushing attack.
“Domata Peko received my midseason MVP award,” Lynch wrote. “He has really anchored the interior of that defensive line, while the play from second-year pro Adam Gotsis has been equally impressive. Together, they have made up one of the most fearsome front-sevens in the NFL. Well, until last week anyway. After shutting down this list of elite running backs: Melvin Gordon (twice), Ezekiel Elliot, LeSean McCoy, Marshawn Lynch, and Kareem Hunt, the Broncos front-seven got run roughshod for the first time this season against the Eagles. Was last week an aberration? I sure hope so.”
The Patriots leaned on Dion Lewis to have a productive run game last season and they’re likely to again look towards Lewis and Rex Burkhead to wear down the Broncos pass rush and give Brady additional time in the pocket to sell the play action and take shots down the field.
But it won’t be an easy task for Brady because the Broncos secondary is still one of the best in the league, even if they’re not at playing at as high of a level as in previous season.
“We're talking slowing down from otherworldly to just elite,” Lynch said about the change in the Broncos secondary performance. “For the last three seasons, the No Fly Zone was so dominant that few teams could find any kind of success throwing the ball through the course of a full game. They finished first in the NFL in yards and yards per pass in each of the last two seasons and it wasn't even close. In 2017, they have fallen all the way to 4th in total yards and 7th in yards per pass. That's how much they've slowed down this year.”
I looked at how various receivers had success against the Broncos defense this year and the options are far and few between, but there are some very common threads. Only five players have topped 70 receiving yards against the Broncos this year, and they are Chiefs TE Travis Kelce (133 yards), Cowboys TE Jason Witten (97 yards), Eagles WR Alshon Jeffery (84 yards), Giants TE Evan Engram (82 yards), and Chargers TE Hunter Henry (73 yards).
Notice a trend?
The Broncos are extremely vulnerable to tight ends picking up major chunks of yardage in the middle of the field and the Patriots are definitely a team capable of taking advantage of this opportunity. Opposing offenses ran the play action to draw the Broncos aggressive linebackers towards the line of scrimmage and also ran wide receivers deep down the field to draw the attention of the safeties, leaving the tight ends wide open running up the seams. This happened time and time again and it’s part of the Patriots bread-and-butter offense with Rob Gronkowski.
I also looked at how wide receivers found a way to produce against the Broncos secondary and it involves a lot of lateral movement and crossing the field. Denver does a great job of taking away the big play, but crossing patterns and out routes seem to be the best bet to shake the sticky coverage. Look for Danny Amendola to run some out routes from the slot and for Brandin Cooks to receive a few low crosser opportunities to generate yards after the catch.
Specifically with the Philadelphia Eagles and Jeffery, I noticed that the play action helped draw the cornerbacks away from the receivers, and that Jeffery made a few routine catches on out routes at an intermediate level. I also saw that out-and-up routes really gave the Broncos defense trouble from the slot position.
New England should really study what the Eagles did to put 51 points up on the Broncos, even if it wasn’t entirely due to the Philadelphia offense moving the ball down the field.
“The Broncos beat themselves at every opportunity on offense early on and then the defense just folded,” Lynch wrote about the Eagles game. “The frustration on the defensive side of the ball has been building for weeks and I think they just quit trying hard. Against a team as good as the Eagles, that's a recipe for a lot of points and that's what happened.
“In 2016, the Broncos had the playoffs on the line in three straight games and the Broncos defense did its job in the first two while the offense choked. By the time Christmas Eve came around against the Chiefs, the offense began to underperform again and the defense folded just like they did last week. The good news - for Broncos fans anyway - is that the following week after the defense folded they completely shut down their opponent and the Broncos won the game. That was 2016, though...”
So perhaps if the Patriots defense can stifle the Broncos offense, that is actually the biggest key to taking the Denver defense out of the game. Make them quit the game out of frustration, and then Tom Brady will take care of the rest.