In preparation for the Super Bowl, Inside the Pylon’s editors have compiled everything we have on the Denver Broncos defense.
All four down linemen for the Broncos rush, as does linebacker Brandon Marshall (#54) and safety David Bruton (#30). What makes the blitz effective is the “game” that Denver runs up front. Rather than have the blitzers charge straight ahead into the obvious gaps, they sow confusion in the Baltimore front by circling defensive tackle Mitch Unrein (#96) around the left side while Bruton loops from the left side to the right. Bruton ends up one on one with running back Justin Forsett (#29), who recognizes the game late and can only dive at Bruton’s legs. The safety gets pressure in Flacco’s face, forcing a quick decision – and a terrible one.
Flacco zips the pass to Steve Smith (#89), Baltimore’s most reliable receiver, but the veteran is not remotely open, with Denver cornerback Aqib Talib (#21) tight to his hip. Worse, Smith is running an in-cut, and Talib has inside leverage, putting the cornerback in position to intercept the pass. A convoy of blockers and a nifty cutback later, the game has swung from a 13-9 Ravens lead to a 16-13 Broncos advantage.
Fire Zone Blitz
Trailing 23-20 with under a minute to go in the fourth quarter, Minnesota’s offense was in the midst of a potential game-tying drive, moving the ball down to their own 47-yard line. Facing 2nd and 10 after an incompletion, the Vikings use 11 personnel and set up out of the shotgun formation with running back Adrian Peterson offset right. The Broncos counter with their dime defense, dropping safety T.J. Ward into the box as a pass rush threat while the rest of secondary plays off-coverage, showing a Cover 4 look.
The Vikings, with only one timeout left, aim to pick up a good chunk of yardage on a pass play that can also give the receiver an opportunity to get out of bounds. The main read for Teddy Bridgewater on the play appears to be wide receiver Adam Thielen (#19) on a drag route:
With the Broncos protecting against the deep pass along the sidelines, the Vikings essentially run three clear-out routes down the field, potentially providing Thielen with plenty of running room after the catch over the short middle. A simple concept that should result in an easy read and completion for the QB.
Only the Denver defense unveils a pressure wrinkle not yet seen by Bridgewater up until this pivotal point in the game:
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In a flash, the Vikings fumble away a chance to win the game while the Broncos prove victorious once again on the strength of their defense. Now, here’s how Denver was able to get two unimpeded pass rushers into the backfield, leaving Bridgewater with almost no chance to do anything about it.
In this next play, the Broncos unleash a fire zone blitz with defensive end / outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (#94) dropping into coverage on one side and middle linebacker Marshall (#54) and Ward (#43) rushing the passer on the opposite end. Here’s a closer look at the five-man blitz scheme:
The defensive front presents three potential pass rushers to each side (from the offensive guards on out), but the Broncos target area is rookie right tackle T.J. Clemmings and the C gap on the right. The interior rushers, defensive tackles Sylvester Williams (#92) and Malik Jackson (#97), will slant left down the line of scrimmage one gap over from where they were aligned pre-snap
But defensive end / outside linebacker Von Miller (#58) has the most important task within this pressure scheme. Starting from a wide 9 alignment, Miller will slant across two gaps, aiming for the A gap between center Joe Berger (#61) and right guard Mike Harris (#79). Marshall, meanwhile, will cross the center and follow tightly behind this elongated slant by Miller, which aims to draw Clemmings out of his gap.
However, even if Clemmings is able to pick up Marshall on the twist – which he doesn’t – it still leaves the blitzing Ward unaccounted for off the edge:
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Once Bridgewater completes his drop, he appears to lock on Thielen across the short middle, especially with Marshall rushing the passer and vacating the underneath zone. The QB starts to bring his arm up to deliver the pass but then halts his throwing motion after noticing that Ware has replaced Marshall in coverage and is driving toward Thielen. Bridgewater brings the ball down and begins to reload – perhaps looking over the deep middle now. But it’s too late. Ward whacks the ball loose and Miller – continuing to do the dirty work on the play – scoops up the fumble.
Here’s an All-22 view of the coverage on the play:
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Without knowing the protection and offensive line calls, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what went wrong for the Vikings. On a six-man pass protection, Peterson likely would have been responsible for Ward (or Marshall) before releasing out of the backfield. The running back does appear to hesitate instead of immediately proceeding into his swing route. However, it’s also possible that Peterson is the built-in hot read on this play in case of a blitz. In either case, Bridgewater and Peterson weren’t on the same page.
But that’s what well-schemed zone pressure can do: confuse and confound. If even one link in the chain proves faulty, the whole thing can break down in a heartbeat. The Broncos talented defensive front teamed with Phillips and his bag of tricks – from line stunts to zone blitzes and pass rushers from all angles – has been a force to be reckoned so far this season.
In Week 12, the Patriots offensive line had a few mishaps versus the Broncos defensive line, like Derek Wolfe’s sack of Tom Brady, but also handled them well in the fourth quarter, when Denver used a fair number of stunts to try and generate pressure:
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Denver rushes three defensive linemen here, with Wolfe being double-teamed by right guard Josh Kline and right tackle Marcus Cannon. Wolfe explodes off the line of scrimmage and overpowers Kline, shoving him to the ground and getting to Brady quickly for the sack.
Chris Harris Jr.
With 6:03 left in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game, the New England Patriots faced 4th and 1 at the Denver 16-yard line. New England had a well-designed play called, but the awareness of cornerback Chris Harris Jr. led to a huge stop for the Denver defense. Without Harris’ ability to recognize the play and react away from his original responsibility, Julian Edelman gains the first down easily and likely would have scored.
Before the snap, Denver crowds the line of scrimmage and has several defenders over the center, anticipating a quarterback sneak. The Broncos call a heavy blitz scheme and play Cover 0 behind it. The Patriots run a play-action pass, with Edelman (#11) coming underneath the formation from the right to the left flat, Danny Amendola (#80) running a crossing route, and Keshawn Martin (#82) running a fade route. Edelman goes in motion before the snap to confirm man-to-man coverage from Talib (#21). The goal of the play is to clear out defensive backs to open up Edelman while causing traffic for Talib.
The Patriots have a great look pre-snap, since it will be difficult for Talib to follow Edelman’s underneath path all the way across the field. Post-snap, however, Harris Jr. (#25) sees Edelman coming back underneath the formation and reacts. He abandons his initial man-to-man responsibility on Amendola and steps up to make a great play on Edelman, stopping him short of the first-down marker. Harris’ awareness is also aided by Ware’s (#94) immediate pressure on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (#12), which forced an early throw.
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The Patriots could have designed this play slightly differently by sending Amendola up the seam, on a wheel route, or over the middle on a deep cross to turn Harris’ hips away from Edelman coming underneath. The Patriots also could have sent the play action wider to the right to give Brady an extra half second, likely forcing Harris to continue with Amendola.
However, the main takeaway from the play is Harris’ instincts and awareness took away a potential touchdown. Not many cornerbacks have the field vision to see an underneath receiver, redirect, and make a tackle all while being responsible for another receiver in man coverage.
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Inside The Pylon covers the NFL and college football, reviewing the film, breaking downmatchups, and looking at the issues, on and off the field.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.