Opposition Research: Breaking Down The Broncos Defense

Last season, the Broncos' long dominant defense finally began to show some cracks and some signs that the end might be nearer than expected for what has been one of the best defensive stretches by any team in league history. To be clear, the defense was still quite strong last season (4th in total scoring defense, 18.6PPG), most of the key pieces are still there, and new head coach Vance Joseph is a defensive scheming mastermind. Joseph was able to get an incredible amount of production out of the Miami Dolphins last year considering the very limited talent he was working with while coordinating their defense.

All that being said there's still plenty of reason for opposing offenses to be optimistic, or at least more optimistic than usual, about their chances against the Broncos D this year. While the core of the "No Fly Zone", the Broncos legendary secondary of CB's Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr., and Bradley Roby and S Darian Stewart remains in tact, they aren't getting any younger (Talib turns 32 in February) and there are some question marks at other positions.

The biggest move the Broncos made on defense this year was the release of veteran safety T.J. Ward, an integral part of the Broncos' defense the past few seasons. Ward's release sent shockwaves through the locker room, with many Broncos players publicly voicing their disdain for the move. While Ward's play declined last year as he battled injuries, and the Broncos have a capable player in 2016 third rounder Justin Simmons ready to slide in to replace him, Ward's release is still a notable departure from the continuity the defense has prided itself on. They are also with a first-year defensive coordinator Joe Woods, after Wade Phillips was not retained, although Woods will keep Phillips' scheme mostly in-tact.

The Broncos run a one-gap 3-4 defense, which is a more aggressive and tight version of the two-gap or hybrid 3-4 defense that most 3-4 teams run. What this means is that the Broncos defense emphasizes tight coverage and an aggressive pass rush. To beat it you have to get the ball out of the quarterbacks hands quickly, and most passing success against the Broncos, when there's any at all, comes between the numbers.

On to the weaknesses. 2016 was crazy for the fact that the Broncos had one of the best overall defenses in the league, while having one of the worst run defenses. The Broncos for the second year in a row allowed the fewest passing yards per game, while allowing the fifth most rushing yards per game, getting gashed to the tune of 130 yards per game on the ground. They struggled particularly on runs between the tackles, getting beat up the gut time and time again.

The source of the Broncos' run defense woes and the biggest question mark heading into the 2017 season is the defensive line. DE Derek Wolfe is a stud when at full strength but his health will be something to watch after struggling with injuries all of last year. A big reason the run defense struggled last year was because the Broncos let star DT Malik Jackon walk to go to the Jaguars, where he signed a 6-year $90 Million deal. Jackson's presence as a run stuffer was sorely missed last season and it doesn't seem the Broncos have made much progress replacing him. The Broncos D-line will be especially thin as DE's Jared Crick and Zach Kerr have been ruled out for the game.

As such, it seems the way to attack the Broncos again will be on the ground. Melvin Gordon will likely have his plate full and Ken Whisenhunt's gameplan is sure to feature a heavy dose of runs between the tackles early on. The one area of pass coverage in which the Broncos sometimes struggle is covering tight ends, so expect to be hearing Hunter Henry and Antonio Gates' names called early and often. The Chargers will need to get the Tight Ends involved to have success on offense, as they did in the win over the Broncos last year. On the opening drive of that game, the only touchdown drive for the Chargers all game, Henry and Gates combined for 4 catches for 48 yards and a TD. Henry had 83 yards for the game.

There you have it. The keys to beating the Broncos still stellar if perhaps not quite as dominant defense will be pounding it up the middle with Gordon, and intermediate passes over the middle.


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