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The defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos have one of the most feared defenses in the entire NFL. With high caliber players at all three levels of the defense, their game plan for the last year and a half has been to rely on their defense to win games, and it has certainly worked. In 2016, they are one of the top teams rushing the passer, leading the league in sacks through 10 weeks. While having elite pass rushers like Von Miller and Demarcus Ware certainly helps, the Broncos have been successful because of their ability to overwhelm opposing offensive lines in individual matchups and then swarm to the quarterback as a group. When one player pressures the quarterback there are almost always 2 or 3 more defenders waiting to clean the play up. Credit should go to the defenders themselves, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, and head coach Gary Kubiak for having a culture that instills a team first attitude and relentless effort in chasing down the QB as a group.
In general, the Broncos rely on individuals to get home on their own rushing the passer rather than manufacturing pressure with stunts and blitzes. However, their ability to execute well on stunts upfront has added a very impressive wrinkle to their pass rush, creating panic and chaos in the backfield. The one stunt they have used most commonly to get pressure on the quarterback this season has been a double end / tackle (E/T) exchange. An E/T exchange is when the defensive end crashes inside, allowing the defensive tackle to loop around the the outside. A double E/T exchange is simply this stunt happening on both sides of the defensive line at once, as seen below. (Image from 2003 New England Patriots playbook).
The best part about using this stunt for the Broncos is the options it creates for them. Traditionally, the point of using an E/T exchange (and the double E/T exchange) is to free the DT as a pass rusher looping outside of the offensive tackle. However, when you have edge players like the Broncos have in Miller, Ware, and Shane Ray it makes it conceivable that they could beat offensive linemen while they crash inside, thereby creating four possible pass rushing threats from the double E/T exchange.
For an example of how the Broncos use the double E/T exchange to create pass rushing opportunities for multiple rushers we can look at their Week 6 game against the San Diego Chargers. With 6:46 remaining in the 4th quarter and facing a 3rd and 10, the Chargers are showing pass with 11 personnel on the field and QB Philip Rivers (#17) and RB Melvin Gordon (#28) in the shotgun.
Defensive ends (or outside linebackers as they are officially listed) Von Miller (#58) and Shane Ray (#56) both crash inside, hoping to draw both the offensive guards and tackles on their sides of the formations. Defensive tackles Derek Wolfe (#95) and Jared Crick (#93) engage the interior OL for a moment before looping outside of the OTs to rush Rivers from the edge.
Wolfe and Crick then disengage and loop around, hoping to catch the OTs following the edge players inside, allowing the DTs to get into the defensive backfield before the OTs can recover. However, Ray is able to take advantage of his speed and power by pressing Rivers as the crashing DE, even while LT King Dunlap (#77) tries to maintain the pocket. The main pressure was supposed to come from Crick on that side of the field, but Ray has gotten pressure before that could even develop.
Because Dunlap is occupied with Ray, Crick is free to take over the edge rushing role on the defensive right of the formation. Likewise, Wolfe has been able to work free up the field on the left side after Miller crashed into the RG. Rivers is able to take a few steps back to avoid Ray at first, but is then met by Crick, Wolfe, and Ray as they all converge to swarm on Rivers, a great example of the Broncos’ scheme and team rushing.
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Collapsing Interior Pockets
Another way the Broncos have racked up sacks in 2016 has been from collapsing the pocket from the interior defensive line. When a team can get pressure early in the down from the interior, it prevents the quarterback from having any space to move up into while reading the field. Then the edge defenders can clean the play up from the outside as the quarterback is helpless and trapped in the pocket.
An example of the Broncos interior DL collapsing the pocket can be seen from the fourth quarter of their Week 1 game against the Carolina Panthers. With 2:15 remaining in the game and facing a critical 3rd and 15 while down a point, the Panthers are in an obvious passing situation, allowing Denver to let loose rushing QB Cam Newton.
The two key rushers here are Von Miller, aligned as the defensive left outside linebacker, and right 3-technique DT Sylvester Williams (#92). Miller runs the arc around RT Mike Remmers (#74), while Williams uses a spin move against LG Andrew Norwell (#68).
At the snap, Williams is able to beat Norwell with his spin move while Miller gets up the field around Remmers. Because Crick, the left 5-technique, used a spin move to the inside, Panthers center Ryan Kalil (#67) is unable to assist Norwell with Williams. As a result, Williams is occupying the middle of the pocket, preventing Newton (#1) from climbing the pocket.
With the middle of the pocket collapsing on him, Newton tries to slide sideways but is sacked by Miller as he corners back to the QB.
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Closing from the Edge
The third way the Broncos pressure the QB is by relying on their biggest defensive strength: Their edge rushers. With two All-Pros in Miller and Ware along with a budding star in Shane Ray, the Broncos can simply rush four while dropping seven into coverage with the knowledge that one or both of the OLBs will win off the edge. Often times, both edge players get to the quarterback quickly which prevents him from escaping the pocket, as we can see in one of many possible examples below.
In their Week 3 game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Broncos get pressure (and a sack) by relying on both of their edge rushers to get home quickly and at the same time, preventing QB Andy Dalton from escaping. With 1:14 left in the game, and facing a 2nd and 10 at the Denver 11 while trailing by 12 the Bengals have a chance to make a late game heroic comeback. Denver has OLBs Ray and Miller in 2 point stances ready to rush Dalton (#14) from the defensive right and left, respectively.
Both players win their individual matchups, sandwiching Dalton for a sack before he can begin to find an open receiver. By my (very) unofficial timing, Dalton had just 2.24 seconds from the ball being snapped before Miller made first contact with him. Both Ray and Miller closing with such speed ensured that Dalton could not escape and that Denver would hold on for the win.
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Denver has had quite a bit of success so far in 2016, relying somewhat on their simple passing game but more so on their defense. With a pass rush that is centered on a combination of individual talent and high effort pursuit, it is unsurprising that Denver is among the league leaders in sacks.
Follow Ryan on Twitter @DBRyan_Dukarm. Check out the rest of his work, including covering the UCLA Bruins’ use of Spot Concept, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ end around rush, and Buffalo’s double track block scheme and deep passing game.
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All film courtesy of the NFL GamePass.