The six-game suspension of All-Pro linebacker Von Miller will force the Denver Broncos to alter their approach on both sides of the ball. This development not only impacts the philosophies and schemes devised by John Fox and his coaching staff, but it also forces a handful of role players to step up.
Miller racked up 30 sacks and a whole bunch of disruptive plays in his first two NFL seasons; compensating for this loss is certainly an unenviable task. Given some time to break down the All-22 Coaches Film and reflect on potential adjustments, here's how I expect the Broncos' coaching staff to weather the storm over the season's first six weeks:
1) Expect the pass rush to hinge on Shaun Phillips and Wesley Woodyard.
The Broncos finished 2012 as the NFL's co-leader in sacks with 52, but the temporary loss of Miller and permanent loss Elvis Dumervil (thanks to that absurd fax fiasco) will make it tough for the team to continue pummeling opponents through the pass rush. To compensate for the loss of many sacks (Miller and Dumervil combined for 29.5 in 2012), Fox and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio likely will rely on their top remaining pass rushers, Phillips and Woodyard. Although it is unlikely either can fill the void created by Miller's absence, this veteran duo is highly capable of delivering a number of disruptive plays off the edges.
Phillips, a 10th-year pro with 69.5 career sacks, is a proven commodity with the savvy and guile to still wreak havoc off the edges. He totaled 9.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries a season ago, relying on a crafty rushing style that allows him to exploit mismatches against heavy-footed right tackles. He routinely anticipates the snap count to get a quick jump on the late-reacting offensive tackle, leading to potential strip-sack situations, as evidenced in the video clip to your right. Additionally, Phillips will use a quick slap-and-rip maneuver to slip past blockers on a speed rushes around the corner. While he no longer possesses the speed and explosiveness to always get home off the edge, Phillips' disruptive skills are enough to force hurried throws from quarterbacks in the pocket.
Woodyard, a sixth-year pro with 30 career starts, has blossomed into a difference maker for the Broncos. He recorded 117 total tackles, 5.5 sacks, three interceptions, six pass breakups and one fumble recovery in 2012. Those numbers are certainly impressive in their own right, but they pale in comparison to his overall impact and versatility as a linebacker. Woodyard is a rare three-down linebacker with the ability to create chaos as a rusher and also hold his own in coverage. He is quick enough to run with tight ends and receivers down the seam, but is most impressive shooting gaps on a variety of blitzes to make plays against the run and pass. Del Rio and Fox will certainly capitalize on Woodyard's spectacular skills as a rusher to fill the void created by Miller's absence. After reviewing the All-22 Coaches Film from 2012, I believe the Broncos can thrive by utilizing a series of exotic blitzes featuring the veteran linebacker. Of course, opponents will spend time preparing for more creative pressures, but Woodyard has a knack for getting to the passer that is unique for linebacker.
Here are a few examples of blitzes Del Rio will feature to keep the pressure up in Miller's absence:
WHIP A BLITZ
As diagramed in the screengrab below from the Broncos' Week 5 loss to the New England Patriots, Denver sends Woodyard on a Whip A blitz that shoots him through the A-gap (between the center and guard):
Woodyard's perfect execution on the play results in a 20-yard loss.
NICKEL KNIFE B BLITZ
In the following screengrab from the Broncos' Week 16 win over the Cleveland Browns, I diagram a Nickel Knife blitz that has Woodyard align on the edge before shooting through the B-gap (between the guard and tackle):
Woodyard's ability to explode through the crack underneath the defensive end's upfield rush produces another easy sack.
DELAYED MIKE C BLITZ
Miller sets up the stunt by attacking upfield before taking an inside rush, freeing Woodyard for a free run to the quarterback off the edge.
It's impossible to fully replace the disruptive talents of Miller, but Fox and Del Rio have a couple of chess pieces in Phillips and Woodyard that could soften the blow. And if Derek Wolfe (health permitting), Malik Jackson and rookie Sylvester Williams can help produce despite limited experience, the Broncos' defense should survive an extended absence from their top defender.
2) Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Rahim Moore must step up.
The Broncos finished last season ranked third in pass defense, despite scattershot play from the secondary. The unit surrendered nine receptions of 40-plus yards (tied for 11th-most in the NFL) and 25 touchdowns (which placed them around the middle of the pack). Those numbers must improve, and inherently, the Broncos must get inspired efforts from Rodgers-Cromartie and Moore.
In Rodgers-Cromartie, the Broncos have a former Pro Bowler with exceptional talent and athleticism. He was widely regarded as a potential shutdown corner prior to a disappointing two-year stint in Philadelphia that exposed some of his flaws in concentration and focus. Despite those concerns, Rodgers-Cromartie should be primed for a bounceback year in a scheme that plays to his strengths as an athletic playmaker. Instead of playing away from the line in off coverage, Rodgers-Cromartie will aggressively attack receivers using a variety of bump-and-run techniques. This will not only take advantage of his speed and athleticism, but it could allow him to snuff out the opponent's top receiver, given Champ Bailey's decline due to age and injury. If Rodgers-Cromartie can handle the responsibility of being the Broncos' No. 1 corner, this will allow Bailey to work against a lesser opponent, resulting in better play from the 12-time Pro Bowler.
For Moore, the onus falls on his shoulders to keep balls from flying over the top of the coverage. He struggled in this aspect a season ago -- as evidenced by his monumental gaffe at the end of regulation in the Broncos' divisional-round loss to the Baltimore Ravens -- which is why opposing quarterbacks frequently took shots down the field despite facing intense pressure from Miller and Co. This will only increase without a dominant edge player on the field. Therefore, Moore must maintain leverage on the deepest receiver and thwart any attempt to push the ball downfield. If he can keep the overwhelming majority of throws in front of him, the Broncos' defense can survive a prolonged absence of the team's top defender.
3) Look for John Fox to unleash Peyton Manning and the offense.
Manning has routinely directed some of the NFL's top offensive attacks, but the conservative ways of Fox seemingly stifled some of the veteran's aggressiveness as playmaker. The team didn't fully run the no-huddle until the fourth week of the regular season; this reluctance to completely entrust the offense to Manning kept the unit from striking fire until midseason. With no Miller, though, I would expect Fox to allow the veteran quarterback to have his way with the offense right off the bat in an effort to score more points and play the game from ahead.
Therefore, I expect the Broncos to utilize their no-huddle offense at breakneck pace. This will not only place Manning in his comfort zone, but it will give the offense significant advantages by restricting defensive substitutions, while also forcing defensive coordinators to use simplified fronts and coverages. More importantly, it reduces the likelihood of blitz pressure, which cleans up the reads for Manning and results in more big-play opportunities in the passing game.
Additionally, I anticipate Manning taking more deep shots, as opposed to extensively nickel-and-diming the ball down the field. Although more vertical throws could lead to more turnovers, the high-risk/high-reward approach could yield big dividends with the loaded receiving corps (Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker).
A more aggressive Manning should allow the defense to play with a lead early in games. As a result, the D will spend the majority of the game in pass-rush mode. (Del Rio can ramp up the pressure to get after the quarterback when the opposition is forced to play from behind in a one-dimensional, pass-happy approach.) Nobody likes facing a defense that is constantly on the attack.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.