Broncos Head Coach Vic Fangio simply did not have the cornerbacks he needed to be able to execute his scheme effectively in 2020.
Fangio likes to operate predominantly out of 2-deep safety looks. He loves to play variations of quarters coverage in particular. While this is technically a zone coverage, there are man-to-man principles built in. This results in defensive backs left to cover 1-on-1 downfield often. So whether the Broncos play man or zone, Fangio needs cornerbacks who can be left on an island to fend for themselves to execute his schemes effectively.
With the exception of Bryce Callahan, Denver’s cornerbacks struggled in 2020. Rookie Michael Ojemudia, who played the most snaps of any Broncos cornerback, often found himself on the wrong end of big plays through the air.
Here he was against Julio Jones in Week 10. Note the quarters coverage, leaving him alone to try and handle Jones.
On passes targeting Ojemudia in 2020, quarterbacks played to a 103.2 QB Rating, according to Pro Football Reference. Cornerbacks A.J. Bouye (108.4), Essang Bassey (98.5), and De’Vante Bausby (105.4) didn’t fare much better.
The result was a secondary that allowed the 4th most completions of 20+ yards in the NFL. This was despite having a pass rush that was a top-10 unit in getting to the quarterback, which means opposing offenses didn’t exactly have a ton of time to allow routes to develop downfield. At the end of the day, Denver’s cornerbacks just weren’t very good.
This offseason, Denver didn’t mess around. They addressed their secondary in a serious way. They signed free agent cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby. Then they used the 9th overall pick to select Patrick Surtain II, arguably the best cornerback in this year’s draft.
Fuller, in particular, understands how to play effectively in Fangio’s system. He was especially good in Fangio’s quarters coverage looks the last time they were together in Chicago in 2018, reading route combinations and reacting quickly.
Watch how he read through his receiver to the quarterback to make the below interception.
The below play against Odell Beckham, Jr. showed a great understanding of how to execute in quarters.
First, notice that the formation was a 2×2. The Bears were playing quarter-quarter-half (quarters coverage at the top of the screen). In quarters against a 2×2 formation, the cornerback is responsible for the vertical release of the #1 receiver (Fuller vs. Beckham here), and the safety is responsible for the vertical release of the #2 inside receiver.
If there is no vertical release from the #2 receiver, as was the case on this play, the safety will look to provide help on the outside receiver.
If the cornerback on the outside can read the route combination and understand that he will receive help inside from his safety, he can avoid biting on any moves inside from his receiver and focus on taking away any out-breaking routes.
You can see that’s what Fuller did on this play. In fact, he broke to the outside before Beckham did.
It takes experience and familiarity with the coverage to make a play like Fuller did here. That will be a welcomed site for Fangio in 2021.
Patrick Surtain II joins the Broncos with the ability to play tight man coverage:
In college, Surtain showed the ability to win in man coverage in multiple ways. He could do so by being physical at the line of scrimmage or by mirroring his receiver’s route.
The combination of Fuller, Surtain II, Darby, and Callahan gives Denver the flexibility to play effectively in zone and man coverage. They also have two of the better coverage safeties in the game in Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson. This secondary is stacked.
Coverage and the pass rush work hand in hand. The improved secondary will make the pass rush better and vice versa. But the return of Von Miller (as well as Denver’s top-3 sack leaders from 2020) should also help improve what was already a top-10 pass-rushing unit. Miller’s presence and the return of nose tackle Mike Purcell should also help improve a run defense that struggled after its D-line was decimated by injuries early last season.
The Broncos have the defensive personnel and approach to compete with any team in the NFL. They should be good enough to carry the Broncos into playoff contention. It’s the other side of the ball that is the major question. Denver has a lot of talent on offense, but they’re still too raw and inconsistent. Their ability (or inability) to improve will determine if Denver will be a true contender or not. If they can get their act together, though, they have the defense to make some noise in the AFC.