Poll Of The Week

Poll of the Week: Dissecting the Denver Broncos Defense

Lost in the shuffle of the media’s obsession with Peyton Manning is the fact that Manning himself isn’t the one winning games for the Denver Broncos. Gone are the days of Manning-led teams riding their quarterback’s arm to the playoffs. Those 40,50-touchdown seasons? A thing of the past, a feat left to quarterbacks who can deliver a deep ball without a grimace.

For a player who struggles to remove his own shoes after games, it’d be unrealistic to expect Manning to lead his Denver Broncos to yet another Super Bowl. The sun began to set on Manning’s game near the end of the 2014 season, and now, we’re witnessing a player’s unglamorous descent into the twilight of his 18-year career.

Fortunately for Peyton, the Broncos have a defense that’s doing all it can to hold off the imminent sunset. According to the Denver Post, Wade Phillips’s unit is leading or near the top of every major statistical category, and they’re the first team since the 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers to record at least 10 sacks and 10 takeaways through the first three games of the season:

  • Takeaways: 10 (2)
  • Sacks: 11 (3)
  • Yards allowed per game: 259 (1)
  • Passing yards allowed per game: 176.3 (1)
  • Rushing yards. allowed per game: 82.7 (7)
  • Pts. allowed: 49 (4-T)
  • TDs allowed: 6 (4-T)
  • Defensive TDs: 2 (1-T)
  • Opponents third-down pct.: 19 percent (1)

On the opposite side of ball, the Minnesota Vikings and Adrian Peterson will need to play their best game of the season to leave Denver with a victory this week. This Sunday’s game is Mike Zimmer’s first chance at a “statement” win, and gashing this Broncos defense would be a step in the right direction — a playoff direction — for the second-year head coach.

Trying to find a weakness — from the defensive line to the secondary — is nearly impossible when looking at the Broncos’ tape from Week 3. Wade Phillips has his defense playing at an extraordinarily high level in all aspects of the game, from creating turnovers to stopping teams on third down. Much like Mike Zimmer’s mantra of toughness and physicality, the Broncos are adopting their own label; bully.

“We’re going to challenge all throws. We’re not going to hide what we’re doing,” said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. on the Denver Broncos’ official website. “We’re going to play the bully. That’s our motto: ‘Be the bully.'”

Given the Vikings’ offensive struggles this season, especially in the passing game, the Broncos may bully Teddy Bridgewater and Co. around on Sunday afternoon. Below, a look at each positional group and what makes the Broncos such a dangerous team.

Pass Rush

DeMarcus Ware was supposed to be a savvy veteran signing, a player who’d contribute on third downs and give the Broncos a much needed spark in passing situations. The 33-year-old has done more than that in less than two years with Denver; he’s become their best pass rusher.

Ware already has 3.5 sacks this season and shows no signs of slowing down. The dip, bull rush, and bevy of pass rush moves are still a major part of his arsenal, and they were on full display against the Lions last week.

Image courtesy of Vikings.com
Image courtesy of NFL Game Pass

Here, Ware is “mush rushing” Stafford, holding outside contain without rushing too far upfield. Doing so would result in a free scramble by Stafford, and Ware’s main responsibility is to funnel Stafford into the pressure created by the rest of the defensive line. The Lions, who field one of the league’s worst defensive lines, do an admirable job in blocking Stafford’s play side, but lose the battle almost instantaneously to the left.

Fellow defensive lineman Malik Jackson rips through the double team, forcing Stafford to step up into the pocket. It’s Stafford’s only play in the situation, and while you’d expect him to release the ball, Denver’s secondary has shut down every receiving option. Seeing this, Ware plants his foot and takes the proper angle on Stafford, combining with Jackson for the easy sack.

As just one of many examples, this play demonstrates the beauty of Denver’s defense — elite pass rushers, stout defensive linemen, and a secondary that can cover any receiving corps. The elements work in tandem, creating mismatches at every level of the defense. Our number one receiver is blanketed? Throw to the flat, right? No, the linebacker’s taken away that option. And by the time the quarterback decides to tuck and run, the pressure is in his face, likely resulting in a sack. 

Pass Coverage

In scouting circles, Chris Harris Jr. is one of the league’s top-ranked cornerbacks, The Broncos’ shutdown corner was Pro Football Focus’s fourth-ranked player in 2014, and he’s continued his strong play to start 2015.Next to Harris, Aqib Talib is the Broncos’ most impactful defensive player — through three games, he’s hauled in two interceptions, returned one for a back-breaking touchdown against the Ravens, and defended five passes.

At safety, T.J. Ward is the secondary’s intimidator, a constant presence in the running game and across the middle in the intermediate passing game. Darian Stewart, Bradley Robey, and David Bruton Jr. round out one of the league’s most talented, aggressive defensive backfields.

Image courtesy of NFL Game Pass
Image courtesy of NFL Game Pass

Here, the secondary forces a coverage sack, which led to a Matthew Stafford fumble and turnover. At the top of the screen, Aqib Talb is playing Cover-3, backing out of the curl/flat zone to play the deep third of the field. Underneath, the linebackers are responsible for any crossing routes, taking away the Detroit Lions receiver coming across the formation.

At the bottom of the screen grab, Golden Tate is working upfield, and Chris Harris carries him into the  deep third, taking away the potential deep shot along the left sideline. Eric Ebron nearly comes open, but the safety at the top of the screen is in perfect position to take away the throw up the seam. The defense’s positioning, and understanding of the scheme, negates the matchups potentially created by the Lions’ offense.

Calvin Johnson becomes open as soon as he crosses the linebacker’s face, but the pressure by the defensive line forces Stafford to roll to his right and leave the pocket. He is sacked from behind by Shaquil Barrett and loses the ball, giving the momentum right back the Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense. Again, the defense works through a symbiotic relationship, feeding off one another to create problems for an offense. If the coverage is tight, the pass rush almost always hits home. If the pass rush is stuffed, the secondary and linebackers often stay in position and force the quarterback to throw the ball away.

Peyton Manning is still the star, but his eternal flame is burning quickly. The quarterback on the opposite sideline, a certain Teddy Bridgewater, may need his best game as a starter to pull of the victory in Denver. In what could be a statement game for Mike Zimmer’s team — and a “changing of the guard” for Teddy Bridgewater — the Vikings have a chance to prove they’re more than just a “sleeper” in the NFC. They have a chance to prove they can play with the very best  the NFL has to offer.

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Austin Belisle

Austin Belisle is the West Coast's biggest Vikings fan, a football diehard cheering on the purple and yellow from sunny California. After graduating from San Jose State University in 2014, he began working full-time in corporate marketing and blogging on various sports websites. Austin's passion for the Vikings led him to Vikings Territory, where he hopes to share his lifelong enthusiasm for the team with readers on a daily basis. You can follow him on Twitter @austincbelisle

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  1. Huge challenge for Teddy on the road. His play, while not bad, still remains one of the few unanswered questions about this team.

  2. Manning can still play the deep ball just fine as long as he isn’t under center like he was through all of the Ravens game and 85% of the time in the cheifs game. Everyone and their brother was bashinG him saying he couldn’t throw the ball more than 15 yards down the field! Yeah nobody but Aaron Rodgers can throw the ball down field when you have half of the opponent’s defense in your face! when they brought him out from under center and gave him time to pass he throws beautiful balls every time. so go ahead and keep thinking he can’t hit the deep Pass and I will be laughing and celebrating every time the opponents get burned this season

    1. Although Manning has always gotten the ball where it needs to be (haven’t seen this year’s tape), he has never thrown *pretty* balls, i.e. tight spirals. They are always, seems to me, wobbly.
      Moreover, is his release as quick as it used to be? I doubt that it could be.

  3. Much respect to the Broncos and Manning. They’re good….I’m hoping Zimmer finds a way to get Manning off his game. I believe it starts with stopping the run…He gets rid of the ball so damn fast, I don’t know the answer. Back out of blitzes and get those hands up! Get in the lanes! I’m sure he’s seen it all, but so has Zim. We shall see.
    On the other side, yep, it’s mostly about AD. Have to take some shots if they are there! Some well timed screen plays would be good. Rudy needs a big day. Keep Teddy mostly clean!

  4. two good defenses, two teams with QBs going opposite directions. to win, vikes will need TB to surprise to the upside, which is more likely

    vikes 13, donkeys 10

  5. The fighting Vikings will win the game! And it might be a little boring as to their method, the Broncos have mentioned the Vikings as being Bullies so I know they are concerned with that pass rush the article is talking smac about what they have, Ya that’s all good but what about what Minnesota has! The best run game! they have a tendency to shut the run game down and make the opponent one dimensional of course i have seen Peyton abandon the run game so I look for peyton to make about 40-50 attempts for maybe 50-60%completion! It will be a scoreless tight defensive game or it could be a shootout! The Vikings have not let their opponents score in the first quarter! I look for some 3 n outs on both sides but i think the Vikings will get turnovers and outscore the Broncos and we will win this game! skol! Baby!

  6. I think our success depends on establishing the run. KC actually did run on the Broncos. Charles was 21 for 125, but he killed KC with two fumbles. KC had 5 turnovers total and came thaaat close to winning. Detroit and the Ravens couldn’t run on the Bronco’s, but they are just really bad teams right now. If we can establish the run, we have a very real shot at winning. Manning can only throw deep when he can really step into it. He could do that against Detroit because their rush wasn’t good in the second half. Against us, Manning will have to make a lot of short passes. The key to defending those will be jamming at the line and disrupting their timing, and having LB’s who can cover. I think the Vikes D will be the best D the Bronco’s have faced this year. If Teddy plays well, the Vikes will have the best offense they have seen. It will be a fun game to watch. The national media expects us to lose, and the line is way more than it should be, IMHO.