Defense wins championships.
That mantra is frequently uttered in meeting rooms around the NFL, but in the past, the Denver Broncos have leaned on a high-powered offense to fuel their title runs. However, the arrival of coordinator Wade Phillips has coincided with the emergence of the Orange Crush, 2.0, with the Broncos ranked first in yards allowed and second in points allowed per game. Gary Kubiak's troops are looking like a blue-collar squad capable of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on the strength of a defense creating splash plays at an alarming rate.
Given some time to dig into the All-22 Coaches Film, I've come up with three reasons to think Denver's D will continue suffocating foes in 2015:
1) Wade Phillips' attack-style scheme is built around his pass rushers.
The pass-happy nature of the NFL has forced defensive coordinators to design schemes to disrupt the timing and rhythm of the passing game. Phillips has spent the bulk of his coaching career crafting tactics that enable pass rushers to enjoy free runs to the quarterback. Under his direction, the likes of Bruce Smith in Buffalo, Reggie White in Philadelphia, Shawne Merriman in San Diego, DeMarcus Ware in Dallas and J.J. Watt and Mario Williams in Houston have terrorized opponents off the edges and made life miserable for quarterbacks in the pocket.
A staunch proponent of the 3-4, Phillips builds his defense around the talents of his edge players (outside linebackers) or the "five-technique" (3-4 DE) in his scheme. He believes in an aggressive "one-gap" system that encourages players to urgently run through their gaps on the way to the quarterback instead of patiently "reading and reacting" as two-gap players. This allows athletic players to fully utilize their speed, quickness and burst to blow through gaps at the point of attack.
On passing downs, Phillips will use a variety of defensive fronts and personnel packages to put his best rushers in prime position to get after the quarterback. From traditional four-man fronts to unique "Okie" looks, Phillips isn't afraid to vary his defensive alignments or personnel groupings to create opportunities for his best pass rushers to hunt quarterbacks from every angle.
In Denver, Phillips not only inherited a pair of dominant pass rushers in Ware and Von Miller, but he added a young disruptor in Shane Ray on draft day to complete an edge-rush rotation that clearly ranks as the best in the NFL. In Jack Del Rio's conservative 4-3 scheme last season, Miller and Ware combined for the second-most sacks by a pass-rushing tandem with 24 (Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil led the NFL with 29). This season, Phillips has unleashed them off the edges as the designated rushers on a defense that is on pace to challenge the Chicago Bears' all-time NFL sack record of 72 set in 1984.
Miller is an absolute wrecking ball off the edge, exhibiting explosive speed, quickness and agility on rush attempts. He has the quickest first step of any rusher in the NFL, but he also displays the balance, body control and strength to win with finesse or power off the edge. Miller's "dip-and-rip" maneuver is nearly indefensible when he anticipates the snap and blows past offensive tackles on speed rushes. Moreover, the electric speed rush sets the table for Miller to attack blockers with power maneuvers (bull rush and butt-and-jerk moves) to keep offensive tackles on their heels.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I noticed Phillips aligns Miller as a strong-side linebacker in his scheme. Given the right-handed tendencies of most NFL teams (because most quarterbacks are right-handed, teams frequently align the offensive formation to the right to make throws easier for the quarterback), the deployment typically puts Miller on the right tackle, who is typically the inferior pass protector of the two offensive tackles.
In the play depicted below, taken from Denver's win over the Raiders in Week 5, Miller takes advantage of Raiders tackle Austin Howard's shoddy footwork and agility to register a strip-sack against quarterback Derek Carr. Miller is aligned on the left as a standup pass rusher in the Broncos' dime package. He explodes off the ball at the snap on a speed rush, then quickly avoids Howard's cut-block to squirt the C-gap on the way to the quarterback. Without another blocker assigned to Miller, the perennial Pro Bowler is able to knock the ball loose and deliver a timely turnover for the Broncos(TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Ware is the perfect complement to Miller on the back side as an electric weak-side linebacker. Despite nearing the twilight of his career, the 11th-year veteran still possesses outstanding first-step quickness and flashes the agility to win with a variety of finesse maneuvers off the edge. Considering his strong hand-to-hand combat skills, Ware has been a destructive force for Phillips in Denver. Under Phillips' direction in Dallas from 2007 to 2010, Ware amassed 60.5 sacks as the designated pass rusher. In Denver this season, the veteran has been a complementary rusher -- but still, he's been spectacular.
Phillips has increasingly used Ware as a movable chess piece along the defensive front on passing downs to take advantage of inferior blockers or create confusion at the point of attack. From aligning Ware at his traditional edge-rusher position to placing him in the A-gaps as a stand-up linebacker, Phillips is using the veteran to wreak havoc on opponents with aggressive blitzes.
In the play depicted below, taken from the Broncos' win over the Detroit Lionsin Week 3, Ware is positioned in a traditional spot on the edges, but Phillips has dialed up a double-A-gap blitz look during the pre-snap phase. With a pair of rushers in the A-gaps, the Lions are forced to alter their pass protection to solidify the inside rush lanes. However, the Broncos back out of the blitz look out of the snap, creating confusion for the Lions' offensive line. This results in Ware coming off the edge unblocked to register a sack on Matthew Stafford(TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Ray has been a wild-card rusher for the Broncos as a rotational player. He has started to find his groove as a playmaker the past few games, registering a sack in back-to-back contests. Studying Ray's game at Missouri, I was impressed with his relentless energy and non-stop motor. He wears down opponents with fanatical effort and flashes a quick arm-over to win on inside maneuvers. For the Broncos, Ray has been a nice addition as a complementary playmaker in their sub-package/base defense. With Ware expected to miss the next two weeks while nursing a back injury, Ray could add a spark to the unit with his energy and ferocity off the edge.
One of the rarely discussed parts of the Broncos' pass rush has been the clever utilization of second-level defenders on bltizes. Phillips has aggressively attacked quarterbacks with five- and six-man pressures featuring linebackers or safeties rushing from unique alignments. This has resulted in 11 different players registering at least one sack for the unit.
After studying All-22 Coaches Film to determine which second-level players could have a bigger pass-rushing role down the line, I've come to believe T.J. Ward is the guy to watch. The Pro Bowl safety is a big hitter with a natural feel for finding creases on blitz pressures. Ward's combination of timing, athleticism and ferocity could make him a destructive force when coming off the edges on safety blitzes from the slot or the box area.
In Denver's win over the Vikingsin Week 4, Phillips used a handful of safety blitzes to disrupt Minnesota's pass protection. On the game-clinching forced fumble by Ward, depicted below, the Broncos use a safety crash blitz, with the veteran attacking off the edge. Phillips complements the safety pressure by sending the outside linebacker inside through the B-gap, with the inside linebacker looping around through the C-gap. The Vikings' offensive line is unable to sort out the twist, and Ward comes free for a strip-sack on Teddy Bridgewater to seal the victory (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
With a plethora of pass-rushing options at his disposal, Phillips is dialing up the pressure at a rapid rate and suffocating opponents with a defense that creates chaos at every turn.
2) A star-studded secondary is suffocating WR1s on the perimeter.
For all of the accolades and attention the Broncos' pass rush receives for dominating opponents at the line of scrimmage, the defense's success has been largely driven by the stifling coverage of its secondary. Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby comprise one of the most talented collection of cornerbacks in the NFL. Each player brings a unique skill set to the table that allows the Broncos to neutralize premier pass catchers on the perimeter. Most importantly, they provide Phillips with the flexibility to match up with any WR1.
Talib is the Broncos' designated CB1, with a dynamic set of skills that allows him to neutralize big, athletic receivers. The eighth-year pro is a long, rangy playmaker with the ability to utilize press or "off" technique. Talib's athleticism and technique versatility has always made him one of the elite cover corners in the NFL, but he has become a more diligent student of the game, which is reflected in his stellar play. Talib's interception against Kansas City in Denver's Week 2 win -- shown in the video clip to the right -- is the result of the veteran jumping a hitch route after keying the three-step on Alex Smith's drop. The combination of preparation and instincts leads to a critical pick for the Broncos. Moreover, it showcases Talib's abilities as a ball-hawking playmaker on the perimeter.
Harris could rival Talib as the Broncos' CB1, but there is no disputing his spot as the top nickel corner in the game. He is an instinctive playmaker with outstanding awareness, savvy and diagnostic skills. Harris has a great understanding of concepts and uses his wits to outsmart receivers at the breakpoint to contest pass attempts at short and intermediate range.
Harris' pick-six in the Broncos' Week 5 win over Oakland -- depicted below -- was the result of terrific anticipation and awareness. He is aligned in the slot against rookie receiver Seth Roberts. The Broncos have a blitz called, which tells Harris that the ball should come out quickly from Carr. When Roberts runs across the field on a shallow crosser, Harris takes an angle to cut off the young receiver on the other side of the field. He also keeps his eyes affixed to Carr. When the ball is thrown off-target, Harris steals it and, with plenty of room to run, notches six points for the Broncos(TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Roby doesn't receive headlines like his compatriots, but the second-year pro is thriving as the CB3. He has gotten his hands on a number of balls (three passes defensed, one interception and a fumble recovery), showing a propensity for being in the right place at the right time. In coverage, Roby remains a work in progress, but his athleticism, length and ball skills make him an ideal fit as a CB3. He challenges receivers at the line of scrimmage and doesn't blink when quarterbacks target receivers in his area. With Talib and Harris blanketing receivers with tremendous success, Roby's ability to hold up against a barrage of throws is a critical part of the Broncos' defensive equation.
Phillips takes advantage of his cornerbacks' unique skills by routinely placing them in Cover 0-type tactics with six- and seven-man pressures. The blitz-heavy schemes force the ball to come out quickly, allowing the Broncos' cover corners to squat on routes and make plays on the ball. With the combination of pressure and coverage limiting big-play opportunities, the Broncos haven't allowed a 100-yard receiver in eight games, the longest active streak in the NFL.
Given the importance of slowing down WR1s in today's NFL, the Broncos' trio gives Phillips the ability to suffocate the most explosive offenses in the league.
3) The underrated ILBs are tackling machines between the hashes.
Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall are rarely cited as key contributors to the Broncos' defensive dominance, but the dynamic duo controls the middle of the field as "run and chase" playmakers on the second level. Marshall is an instinctive defender with a knack for hunting down running backs between the tackles. He flies to the ball with reckless abandon, exhibiting outstanding range and burst on "sideline-to-sideline" pursuits. Marshall's ability to patrol the middle allows Phillips to mix in base and sub-package groupings without concern. Most importantly, Marshall's presence in the middle allows Phillips to use a variety of inside-linebacker blitzes to keep the heat on the quarterback.
Trevathan lacks ideal physical dimensions, but he brings the kind of effort, energy and burst coaches covet in "hash-to-hash" playmakers. He plays in a scheme designed to allow him to run and chase unobstructed to the ball. Trevathan slithers through cracks at the point of attack to routinely nail runners in the hole. The fourth-year pro is a "knock-back" player with the explosive strength and power to stop runners in their tracks. On a defense that forces runners to stutter-step and pitter-pat with its collective speed and quickness, Trevathan's presence as an attack defender has helped the Broncos hold opponents to just 85.2 rushing yards per game and just 3.7 rushing yards per attempt.
With the Broncos' defense fueling a championship run, Marshall and Trevathan could finally receive recognition for their efforts as blue-collar members of a stellar defense.