Through their first 10 games of the season, the Broncos defense was good, but not spectacular, which was a let down considering the level of talent acquired in the offseason. One large reason for this was their passive approach. The Broncos seemed to rely on a four-man rush every down. Soft coverage was the norm. Blitzes and disguises were seldom used. That all seemed to change after Denver’s Week 11 loss to the Rams.
Since then, Jack Del Rio has taken a more aggressive approach. At the surface level, this didn’t seem to work against the Dolphins in Week 12. The Broncos allowed 36 points, after all. However, the approach made life more difficult for Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill. He just played extremely well and made some difficult throws in the first half. Additionally, the Dolphins ran the ball well, driving Denver’s interior line off the ball. In the 2nd half, that changed. The Broncos stopped the run and generated a crucial turnover in the 4th quarter, an interception forced by a contested pass into tight man coverage.
The Broncos carried the momentum into last week’s game against Kansas City. Not only did they play more man coverage, but they also disguised their defensive looks. Cornerback Chris Harris followed Dwayne Bowe for most of the game, sometimes playing man, sometimes dropping into zone (we’ve been calling for Jack Del Rio to do this with Talib against each team’s number-1 receiver – maybe he will when he returns from his hamstring injury).
The Broncos also didn’t just rely on Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware to get to the quarterback. They used more blitzes and managed to break down the Chiefs’ protection schemes. On the play below, a 3rd-and-8 for the Chiefs, Alex Smith pointed at linebacker #54 Brandon Marshall, identifying him as the mike linebacker. This meant the 5 offensive linemen were responsible for 4 designated defensive linemen and Marshall.
With safety #43 T.J. Ward near the line of scrimmage, KC decided to have running back Jamaal Charles block him if he blitzed. This was likely because the probability of Ward blitzing was higher than the probability of safety Quinton Carter blitzing from the other side because Ward was on the line of scrimmage and is used to blitz often (including the previous 3rd down which resulted in a sack). This meant there was no one to block Carter. He was Alex Smith’s man. If he came, Smith would need to get rid of the ball quickly.
At the snap, Von Miller rushed outside to take the tackle with him. Derek Wolfe slanted across the right guard’s face, taking him inside. This created a huge lane for Carter to blitz through.
The Broncos disguised their coverage to either force a turnover or prevent Smith from being able to get rid of the ball early. From the sideline angle, you can see that at the snap, the Broncos appeared to be playing with a single-high safety, meaning 1-on-1 matchups across the board. Alex Smith thought he’d be able to get the ball to tight end Travis Kelce on a crossing route against safety Quinton Carter, a favorable matchup for the Chiefs. But as we just showed, Carter was actually blitzing.
The single-high safety quickly sprinted towards the sideline as a cover 2 safety after the snap. That meant all other defenders dropping into coverage on that side of the field were actually planning on sitting underneath their receivers, ready to defend any quick passes and playing to the safety help over the top. Brandon Marshall, who we showed was initially accounted for in the protection, dropped out to undercut tight end Travis Kelce’s crossing route. This eliminated the quick throw that Alex Smith thought he had in the middle of the field.
Smith was forced to hold on to the ball, allowing time for the blitzing defender to get to him, and the result was another Broncos sack.
This is the style of play the Broncos must utilize down the stretch to have any shot at a Super Bowl title. They need to make life difficult for opposing offenses. They need to force sacks, turnovers, and more negative plays. If they can do this, they’ll have a legitimate opportunity to beat any team.