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2017 Opponent Scouting Report: Week 15, Broncos Defense, Proof Defense Doesn’t Win Championships

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NFL: New England Patriots at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Overview

On December 14, 2017, the Indianapolis Colts will host the Denver Broncos. In this Week 15 matchup, I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of what we are up against.

Thursday Night games aren’t fun for the players, coaches or anyone involved with actually making a football game happen on a 4-day turnaround. With that said I do enjoy getting to watch the Colts in prime time and even though this game won’t remotely resemble the last time these two horse-themed teams played, I will enjoy the bright lights and Al Michaels silky smooth calls. Ultimately this is a week 15 prime time game featuring two teams so far out of playoff contention that most player’s wives won't even be watching. With that said there are some questions to be answered and interesting things to watch for.

Let’s figure out what we can expect in Week 15.


Defensive Scheme

What if I told you that the team that sported leagues best defense would finish the season with a losing record? You probably wouldn’t think that was possible, after all, defense wins championships. When we look at the 2017 Denver Broncos they seem to be an amazing contradiction to this age-old idea. Defense may win championships but only if your offense is good enough to get you to the playoffs.

In Vance Joseph’s first season as head coach of these Broncos, his defense ranks 2nd in pass defense giving up 191.1 yards per game and they are tied for 3rd overall in team rush defense giving up just 89.5 yards per. Combined they have the number 1 overall defense giving up just 280.5 yards per game. Truly impressive numbers for a team with 4 wins through 14 weeks.

Despite their limited success as a team, this unit has been good and while they have elite talent at every level of their defense Vance Joseph and his scheme should get plenty of credit for their accomplishments on this side of the ball. I found this piece from Andre Simone of BSN Denver that took a closer look at the principals and concepts that have led Joesph to success as a coordinator, regardless of his personnel’s strength in either a 4-3 or 3-4 base:

Joseph’s NFL coaching tree has strong roots and is influenced from two of the league’s best defensive minds, Mike Nolan and Wade Phillips, two coaches who have had infinite success in the NFL—not to mention some extremely successful stints in Denver. Nolan and Phillips both run a 3-4 defense, Joseph’s preferred scheme as well. Which should allow for a smooth transition for the Broncos ‘D’.

We’ve seen Wade Phillips and Wade Phillips influenced teams already this year in week 1 we saw the Phillips led Rams and in week 9 when we took on the Texans, there shouldn’t be much that differs up front from those two teams. Pressure should rule the day.

Will he be aggressive?

In studying the tape its clear that Joseph’s a creative play caller who likes to take the action to teams much like his mentors Phillips and Nolan.

When facing the Steelers Week 6, Joseph started the game off in nickel, something he did against Seattle as well, with five defensive backs and two linebackers. His defense featured one-high safety with the other safety coming downhill as an extra defender against the Steelers run attack in a cover-3 look. As soon as the Dolphins defensive play caller had a chance on 3rd-and-long, he featured an exotic blitz with three down linemen and three linebackers, two of which were stacked up in the same A-gap. An aggressive look that confused Pittsburgh as pressure quickly got through.

Throughout the game, Joseph showed creative looks up front that confused the Steelers, either stacking the line with six or more defenders or overloading a certain gap to overwhelm or confuse a single blocker and force the offensive line to adjust. These are the kinds of plays that should get Broncos fans excited about what Joseph can do with this talented defense in creating an aggressive swarming unit.

In Denver, Vance will have the NFL’s best slot cornerback in Chris Harris Jr., a big advantage when playing any sort of nickel defense—in addition to having a “backup” cornerback like Bradley Roby who can play at a high level on the outside. More encouraging for Broncos fans who are worried about going back to the vanilla defenses from the John Fox and Jack DelRio era, Joseph loves to mix up formations and set up opposing quarterbacks.

Miami bluffs a linebacker blitz up the middle instead dropping the second level defenders in coverage, confusing the line in the process and getting pressure quickly as coverage is tight downfield.

So his blitz packages can be used to confuse a signal caller and Joseph likes to bring the heat. What about his coverage?

Why do his secondaries produce so many turnovers?

This isn’t an easy question to answer but it starts with what we just told you about Joseph’s aggressive play style. He also likes to play lots of tight man coverage, often pressing up on the line allowing receivers little cushion and forcing offenses to earn every completion—Miami was 13th in the NFL allowing 62.3-percent of pass completions. Vance most often will play in a nickel defense in a cover-3 look with one single high safety and a strong safety up on the line, often blitzing the safety or slot corner if not bluffing to do so.

Joseph likes to play aggressive man coverage over the middle on crossing routes which can be a blessing and a curse as sometimes receivers will get loose with little help over the top. But his defenses were really good when coverage was tight underneath, an encouraging sing for the Broncos and their talented personnel.

A great example of the importance of the high safety in this scheme, who makes a great play for the pick.

The former coordinator doesn’t just mix it up with his blitz looks as he’ll do the same with his coverages. He threw everything at the Steelers Week 6, starting off in nickel then playing base, alternating cover-2 to cover-3 and even throwing in some cover-1 looks. Once the Dolphins took a healthy lead and Big Ben was banged up, Joseph played more zone coverage and cover-4, cover-5 looks which lead to an interception and their could have easily been a couple more that were dropped.

Bengals dime coverage with all but three players on the line. Bengals corner makes great play undercutting the route and playing with great underneath leverage knowing safety help is over the top.

Denver’s new head coach really forces offenses to be on their toes and be prepared for anything. He also doesn’t let his foot off the gas or let up with the variety of coverages and blitzes he’ll throw your way as he kept the pressure on late in both games we studied.

It may have been true in the past that Joseph-led defenses intercepted a lot of passes but they’ve only grabbed 8 this season. Despite being ranked so highly as a unit, this number is very low.

Another interesting wrinkle to Joseph’s defense—this is especially true of the tape from the Dolphins early part of the season, before the injuries started building up—is that even though he often used nickel formations he made up for it by having a strong safety in the box and often up on the line almost like a strong side linebacker. The Dolphins No. 24, Isa Abdul-Quddus, was crucial in this spot playing fast and downhill while also being able to play some high-safety in cover-2—he ended the season on IR, another big injury to the Miami ‘D’. T.J. Ward certainly would fit the bill to be used this way and Will Parks has the skills to play up on the line in a similar position while having flashed some servicable ability in coverage.

Though the Broncos moved on from T.J. Ward in the offseason I did notice this from time to time with this Broncos team, a nickel front and a safety low.

The article goes on to talk about Joseph's struggle against the run when he was with the Miami Dolphins, what the author didn’t know is how much more talented the Broncos front seven was than the Dolphins defensive front. Bottom line; this defense is, statistically, the best unit we will play all year and while Vance Joseph deserves credit, the talent they have on this side of the ball is incredible.


Defensive Line

Derek Wolfe has been a valuable member of this Broncos team unfortunately for the team Wolfe was placed on IR on December 5th. Filling in for Wolfe is Colts legend Zach Kerr. By all accounts, Kerr has played well, just as he did in Indy.

Domata Peko, the long time Cincinnati Bengals standout knows head coach Vance Joseph from their time together in the Queen City. He hasn’t disappointed in his first year in Denver, though he has sat out the past two games with a knee injury he is expected to play Thursday night.

When I look at pictures of Adam Gotsis I get this weird uneasy feeling that I usually only feel when I’m around people who are legitimately crazy and you’re just not sure what they’re capable of. Adam Gotsis looks like a crazy, scary dude and in his second year out of Georgia Tech he’s played well but can find himself out of position at times. With that said, this, big, insane looking guy is really good at football.

  • Power:

Watch New York Jets left guard James Carpenter get ridden down the line and eventually beat him and stop Elijah McGuire in his tracks.

  • Believe it or not, I understand why he went unblocked:

On a defensive line featuring Peko, Wolfe, Gotsis and Kerr, it’s really easy to forget about DE Shelby Harris.

  • Zone run:

The zone run works, in part, by stretching a defense out wide in hopes that a defender will abandon or otherwise simply lose track of the game they’re responsible for. The Broncos just don’t do that here. Everyone maintains responsibility and the play is stopped for a short game. This is why they give up 89.5 rushing yards per game.

  • Seriously, he’s just not that important, right:

No mysteries here.

  • Lesson learned: we have to actually block Shelby Harris:

I’ve joked about guys going unblocked but it’s due to the talent around these unblocked players. The Broncos have a bunch of guys you gameplan for and as a result opposing teams are going to focus on those players and neglect guys like Harris. The bad news about this defense is it doesn’t get better for the Colts when I talk about the linebackers.


Linebackers

Todd Davis and Brandon Marshall don’t get much love from services like Pro Football Focus but the bottom line is they both start for the leagues best defense and aren’t exactly a widely exploited weakness.

Then you get to the guys on the edge. Shaquil Barrett has played well and gotten himself 4 sacks on the year. Third-year pro Shane Ray was placed on IR earlier in the season and has been activated. He hasn’t played as well as he did last season, but it hasn’t been a normal year for the talented former first rounder.

Finally, we’ll talk about Von Miller. Miller has 10 sacks on the year and when I watch him play I’m not sure he wouldn’t be an above average safety if he dedicated himself to learning the position. He is such a freak of an athlete and honestly if we don’t give Anthony Castonzo help against possibly the best edge defender in the league I fear for Jacoby Brissett. I don’t think anyone can block him for an entire game one on one but given the 2017 Colts track record, I’m afraid we might make Castonzo try.

  • The delayed blitz:

Brandon Marshall comes late and forces this fumble. He waits for the running back to give help wide, creating a hole, and then racing downhill to make the play.

  • Nowhere to go:

This edge was pretty well set, the back actually had to run backward to get outside. That’s a win for the defense 99 times out of 100 and this was no different. There were no cutback lanes here, no creases, nothing. Great pursuit and eventually a stop for a loss.

  • That closing speed:

Sure, you would like to see him make that tackle but he was trying to bring down Marshawn Lynch so I’ll cut him some slack. He read this well and allowed his teammates to make the stop for a loss on the play.

  • Barrett beats Donald Penn:

Donald Penn is pretty good. He’s not Joe Thomas, the league’s first offensive linemen, but Shaquill Barrett uses his hands and a good bend around the edge to win and get the strip sack. This is the kind of play that gets Robert Mathis excited.

Crazy opinion of the day: this is the worst unit on the Broncos defense and they employ Von Miller. This defense is really good.


Defensive Backs

Some fans believe that the Broncos have been playing Darian Stewart out of position. He has excelled in his time in Denver as a free safety and has led some people to declare Stewart the best Broncos safety since Steve Atwater. That’s really high praise for a franchise that has employed both T.J. Ward and John Lynch in that time. I don’t know that I agree with that assessment but some people have floated the idea. This year he’s been moved to strong safety and has struggled with the switch but would likely start over Matthias Farley in Indy.

Justin Simmons is in his second season out of Boston College and by most accounts is on the verge of stardom. With that said it’s not exactly the most difficult thing to play free safety when you have elite cornerback play in front of you. Something Simmons absolutely has.

Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib are the best football players to come out of the University of Kansas since Gayle Sayers and they both play cornerback for the Denver Broncos. Harris Jr. is far less controversial than Talib but he’s every bit as good.

Like I said Aqib Talib isn’t exactly known as a choir boy and he has a penchant for stealing gold chains regardless of how you feel about him as a person, it’s tough to deny he’s a really good football player. Talib is a bigger corner and might struggle against a smaller, quicker receiver like TY Hilton. And that last sentence might be a hopeful stretch to make.

  • Great offensive play design:

These routes were designed to beat man coverage (complete with a pick) and resulted in a nice gain for the Miami Dolphins. The Colts are going to have to plan in similar concepts to consistently get guys open on Thursday.

  • Good players put themselves in good positions:

Here we see Chris Harris Jr. with good position. Jay Cutler throws a 50/50 ball hoping his receiver would go up and make a play. Had this ball been thrown better he may have had a chance, but ultimately Harris Jr. was all over this one and I can’t see a scenario he doesn’t bat this one down.

  • Just a good play:

Here the cornerback does a good job running in-phase with the wide receiver on a crossing route. He waits for Cutler to throw the ball and makes a break on the ball. He got a had on the pass, tipped it and caught the tipped ball. Nice play.

  • Tough to know exactly what happened on this one:

Obviously, they wanted to reroute the wide receiver on that side but by doing so they leave a hole that the running back willingly fills and exploits for 6 points. Tough to know the play call here and predict who is truly at fault on this one.

  • This is a catch and fumble:

Despite giving up the catch and the Bengals ultimately recovering the ball, plays like this will eventually result in a big play for the defense and Talib consistently puts himself in a position to make plays.

This is a great unit on a great defense. If the Colts want to move the ball they won’t do so testing these DB’s deep downfield.


Final Thoughts

I became aware earlier in the week that Frank Gore needs 80 yards a game over the last three weeks to go over 1,000 yards on the season. It’s absolutely insane to me that at 34 years old Gore even has a chance to hit that number. With that said, I hate that we play this Broncos defense as one of those last three games.

Even if Frank doesn’t get more than 80 this week, there’s no shame in that against this team. I don’t expect us to score a lot of points in this one and I firmly believe it will come down to special teams, which we will look at tomorrow.