Not to toot my own horn, but last week I was the only SB Nation NFL analyst to pick the Broncos over the Packers on Sunday Night Football. However, I was not expecting Denver to layeth the smacketh down in such a spectacular fashion. To watch Aaron Rodgers throw for fewer than 80 yards (!) and not a single touchdown in a game where was not injured was a shock to the system, even to those of us who already held the Broncos defense in very high regard. That the normally high-powered Packers offense was only able to manage a measly 10 points all night was downright disconcerting.
Sure, the Broncos are tops in the league in scoring defense after that win, allowing only 16 points per game on average, but this was the friggin' Packers we are talking about, with perennial MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers pulling the trigger. Something had to be amiss!
So, you know I couldn't wait to get my hands on the all-22 from that game, right? I just had to find out what new coverage wrinkle or scheme adjustment Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips had come up with to thoroughly throttle a Packers offense that came into Sunday night averaging a just shade over 27 points a game. Oh, and remember the Packers should have been good and rested as they were coming off a bye week, as well. I turned on the the film expecting to see something special the Broncos had done ... you won't believe what happened next.
Ok, yes, you actually could believe what happened next. And hey, even if you couldn't guess what happened next, I'm still going to tell you. (Really never understood the folks who say that kinda thing to try to drive to traffic to their post. "Someone did X thing and you will never guess what happened next." Well, you are right because I'm not clicking that link to find out. Just a pet peeve of mine, but you are already here reading this post so never mind).
Anyhoo, what I actually found from watching the film was this: Wade Phillips decided that his 11 or so was better than the Packers' 11 or so and just let his guys play all night. It was pure genius in its simplicity, really. And man, did it pay off. He does have a defense stocked full of talent at pretty much every position, but how many times have we seen coordinators on either side of the ball decide that its their Xs and Os and not their Jimmies and Joes that should dictate their success? Those guys almost always end up overdoing it in terms of game planning and over-scheming to the point where all the "chess moves" end up doing more harm than good.
I can tell you for a fact that it happens a LOT.
Phillips, to his credit, has never been the type to come up with a lot of exotic blitzes and coverages as his bread and butter. He runs a relatively simple system, so his guys can just line up and play fast. However, facing an offense like the Packers' and a quarterback with the rare skill set of Aaron Rodgers can tempt even the most conservative of defensive coordinators to go all "guru." They feel like they just have to do something new or Rodgers will carve them up like a turkey on Thanksgiving. And many of those defensive coordinators with lesser rosters are right because they simply don't have the talent on defense to match up with the Packers' weapons.
To repeat myself again, it's obvious now, if it wasn't before, that Denver simply doesn't have that problem.
No blitz, no problem
I'm not sure what I thought I would see when I turned on the tape, but from a schematic standpoint what the Broncos did was actually relatively boring.
Out of 52 gradable plays, Denver only blitzed someone who wasn't on the line of scrimmage 15 times. Most of those blitzes were garden variety linebackers blitzing the A gap or safety comes off the edge. While they were simple, they were also pretty effective. Out of those 15 plays where Denver blitzed there were five incompletions, one sack, four receptions for a grand total of 15 yards and five runs for a total of 30 yards, mostly due to one 17-yard scramble by Mr. Rodgers.
They also had two penalties that gave the Packers automatic first downs. Still, I would say the Broncos clearly won on the majority of those 15 plays.
The handful of blitzes that Phillips called were the dessert, just a li'l something to whet your sweet tooth. The main course, the porterhouse steak and potatoes, was the Broncos lining up in traditional 3-4 alignments almost half the game and playing some form of man to man coverage on 17 out of 33 gradable passing plays. The Broncos didn't run a down of man-to-man coverage the last seven plays of the game when the score was pretty much already out of reach at 29-10, so it was more like 17 out of 26 gradable passing plays or 65 percent of Rodgers' drop backs.
Simple, but effective.
That's the kind of stuff you can do with a 3-4 when you have badasses who can stop the run like Derek Wolfe, Sylvester Williams and Malik Jackson at the three inside spots on the defensive line, while also having dynamic pass rushers at outside linebacker like Demarcus Ware and Von Miller. With that much talent you don't really need to keep subbing players in and out trying to match up with what the opposing offense is doing or constantly mess around with the scheme. Just unleash hell and watch everything burn.
It's obvious that the extremely talented Broncos secondary -- which boasts the likes of top notch cover men Aqib Talib and Chris Harris at corner along with big time safeties in T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart -- also has some kind of fucking group Vulcan Mind Meld going on. You may on rare occasions see one of those dudes lose a one-on-one battle from a physical standpoint. But from a mental standpoint, they're almost always all on the same page as a secondary when it comes to who is supposed to cover who on any given play.
That's one thing that really stood out big time while watching the film. It wasn't that the Packers didn't try to scheme their guys open down field. Quite the contrary, actually. But for every time the Packers receivers and tight end would line up in some kind of tight bunch formation, the Broncos secondary always figured it out as they went on their routes. That's true even when the Packers tried to run occasional pick plays. It just didn't work.
Another thing that stood out is that their middle linebackers are pretty damn good all around. You can't play as much man as the Broncos do unless your linebackers can cover, and after watching the film there is no doubt that they can -- and at a high level.
Both Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan were handling business and they're also dogs against the run. Both guys are also pretty good at blitzing the quarterback even when they have to beat a blocker. There really isn't anything they can't do and do it well based on the Packers film. I will also say this: while Derek Wolfe did play one helluva game for the Broncos, which netted him the AFC Defensive Player of the Week award, I actually thought in some ways Brandon Marshall had the more influential game for them.
Yes, the nose tackle is in coverage
Speaking of man-to-man coverage, one of the reasons why the Broncos aren't afraid to use a 3-4 alignment even when an offense goes with passing personnel and a passing formation is because they let their nose tackle cover running backs man-to-man if they try to check up inside through the line.
It happened on the Packers' fourth play from scrimmage on offense and I had to rewind that shit several times to make sure I was seeing it right. But, yes, Sylvester Williams (No. 92) was, in fact, out there covering Packers running back James Starks man-to-man in the short middle of the field. Did a damn good job of it at that! It was second-and-10 and Rodgers had to look elsewhere as he rolled away from pressure and couldn't connect with his tight end Richard Rodgers down the field on a scramble drill play.
It happened again on the Packers' first drive of the first quarter with Williams covering Packers running back Eddie Lacy and I knew I wasn't going crazy. That play also resulted in an incomplete pass to a guy Williams wasn't covering, by the way.
How much talent does a defense have to have when the coordinator can feel confident playing man-to-man because your 6'2, 313-pound (listed weight ... no shade) 3-4 nose tackle can cover the other team's running back if he checks through the line of scrimmage?
If you are looking for any magic bullets to explain why the Broncos were able to shut down the Packers on offense you won't find them. They were as simple as simple could be and they still gave Green Bay fits all game.
Maybe the craziest thing is that the Broncos might have done better by doing even less. I am almost positive had the Broncos lined up more in a 3-4 alignment and played more man-to-man, especially those last seven plays, that their stats would have looked even more impressive at the end of that game.
The message is loud and clear: the Broncos' don't need to adjust to damn near any opponent because they are so good at what they do. So, no matter what a team is on offense, with the exception maybe of the Patriots, Denver's game plan is probably going to be more about making the opponent decide how to handle them rather than how are the Broncos defense is going to handle them. The reason why they can take that approach is because they are simply better.
Now that the Broncos offense looks like it's ready to start pulling its share of the weight, Week 12 against the Patriots is going to be a doozie!
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