All throughout last season, we wrote about how puzzled we were over Jack Del Rio’s use of his cornerbacks. We thought he needed to be more aggressive, because he had the personnel to do so. Based on Broncos cornerback Chris Harris’ recent comments, it seems like we will finally get to see this approach in Denver with Wade Phillips. If that’s the case, the Broncos might be able to get to where they want to be at the end of the season.
No player on the Broncos exemplified our puzzlement over Del Rio’s use of cornerbacks than Aqib Talib. Talib was signed by the Broncos last offseason largely because of his ability to shut down the opposing team’s best pass catcher week after week under Bill Belichick in 2013. He covered the likes of Demaryius Thomas, Jimmy Graham, and Steve Smith among many other different styles of receiver. He was able to have so much success by being physical, jamming at the line, and shadowing his man around the field. This is the type of corner that Talib is, and Belichick played to his strengths.
Del Rio didn’t use Talib in the same way. He opted to keep him predominantly on the left side of the defense. Most of the time he didn’t follow the opposing team’s best receiver. He played off, many times as part of a zone scheme, which forced him to read and react to route combinations as well as cover in space. He is just an average cornerback when he plays off, whether it’s man or zone, and using him this way went against the reason the Broncos signed him in the first place.
Perhaps this explains the move to bring in Wade Phillips after Del Rio departed for Oakland. This isn’t to say that Del Rio isn’t a good defensive mind. He’s had success turning defenses around throughout his coaching career. He did so as the Panthers defensive coordinator in 2002, as the Jaguars Head Coach during his first 5 years in Jacksonville, and then again as defensive coordinator in Denver in 2012. But the Broncos likely wanted someone who could implement a more aggressive style of defense that better utilizes the level of talent they have.
Denver has players who can get to the quarterback. But in today’s NFL, with quick throws a part of just about every passing game, it’s easier to neutralize a pass rush. More and more, pass rush pressure has to come from the secondary in the form of corners jamming receivers or re-routing them, disrupting the timing of the passing game, and forcing the quarterback to hold onto the ball longer. The way Del Rio used Talib and Harris, however, not only neutralized their effectiveness, but it also prevented Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, and the rest of the Broncos’ pass rushers from getting to the quarterback as frequently.
There has been plenty of change in Denver this offseason, but the Broncos still have the corners, three of them in fact, who have the ability to play more press-man. With questions surrounding how effective the Broncos offense will be with a new system, an old quarterback, and without a dynamic tight end, the Broncos can’t expect the offense to carry as much of the load. They need to be a more aggressive unit on defense and generate more big plays on their own. If they can do that, maybe this will be the year that they finally get over the hump.