Most of the media coverage this week has been on the Bronco's offense against the Seahawks defense. That's the headline event. The marquee matchup. The big ticket. Can Peyton Manning do the impossible and shut Richard Sherman's Mouth? Expert analysis of the Matchup in the Meadowlands at 8:30, 9, 9:30 and 10!
The Seahawks offense against the Broncos Defense? More like the Jersey Bore amirite? Ain't nobody on ESPN got time for that. But if the tale of Denver's Team of Destiny and Superbowl XLwhatever is going to have a sadder ending than a Kenneth Arthur sex story, the Seahawks offense is going to have to have to score some touchdowns. 10-0 off the back of a pick six and a field goal just isn't going to happen.
Let's take a look at Jack Del Rio's stop unit, and figure out how they operate.
Denver is a 4-3 team. More specifically, they default to the 4-3 over with all three linebackers playing a few steps behind the D-line.
During the middle part of this season and for most of last year, the Broncos used the 4-3 Under as their base, putting SAM LB Vonn Miller on the line of scrimmage and allowing him to play a hybrid LB/DE role. You won't be seeing any of that on Sunday. Miller's on Injured Reserve, and his backup Nate Irving gives you nothing in the pass rush department.
You'll still see the occasional under front, but for completely different strategical purposes. Generally, Denver calls it in response to 2 TE sets, putting Irving on the line and outside of the TEs. This leaves him farther outside than a conventional Over, and gives him a better angle when setting the edge against the rush.
Denver doesn't have a "go-to" coverage. Cover 2 man is what they do the best job with, and call the most frequently, but they can't play it virtually every down like Seattle does with the Cover-3 because they're not THAT good at it. Instead they'll alternate between 3, 2, and 1 deep looks and occasionally call a full-zone coverage instead of man-zone hybrids. (I don't think I once saw them call full-man in all my film watching).
Jack Del Rio likes to call a very active game along the D line. He has quite a bit of athletic talent amongst his front-6, which he capitalizes on by frequently calling for stunts, twists, loops, and other exotic looking pass-rush schemes. As you would expect, this means the depth players see quite a few snaps, and Denver has two specialist 3rd and a mile type pass-rushers on the roster.
Since Miller went down, JDR hasn't blitzed with any regularity. Presumably this is because Denver doesn't have any non DL players who excel at pressuring the quarterback.
One scheme related puzzle I'll be interested to watch is Denver attempting to solve Seattle's 6 OL look with Alvin Bailey. It's a difficult puzzle to solve, because the Seahawks can still take deep-shots from the look in the passing game, but if you stay in your base, Bailey is a whole lot of extra beef at the point of attack and makes power running much easier.
Shaun Phillips DRE 90
Phillips is the most talented pass rusher on the Broncos defense. He's also strong against the run, and pretty much never comes off the field.
Phillips plays almost exclusively on the offensive left, meaning he'll be matched up against Russel Okung. Not to take anything away from Phillips, but Okung's a pro-bowl LT, and you don't earn that honor unless you can consistently shut down talented pass rushers. The biggest factor in this matchup is going to be the status of Okung's injured toe. If it's not bothering him, Phillips should be a non factor. But if Okung is hobbled, Phillips is good enough to exploit it.
Phillips will occasionally switch to the defensive left, mostly when the Broncos go with a 3 down lineman 6 DB look. Here's a GIF of Phillips making a fantastic play in run-support and dropping Ray Rice for a loss.
Malik Jackson DE/DT 97:
Jackson is a future stud in the making. He's not a household name because he's only in his second year, and was a 5th round pick in 2012! But it's not hyperbole when I say that in a year or two, he could be the best defensive player on a roster that features Von Miller! He's that good.
In the base set, Jackson plays DRE. He doesn't get many sacks from this position (one of the biggest things he needs to work on actually) but he lives in the backfield and generates an awful lot of pressures and hurries. Living in the backfield also makes him very good against the run. I don't have the stats in front of me, but I'll bet my most recent Field Gulls paycheck that Jackson leads his team in TFL.
IF that's all Jackson was, he'd be a valuable if unspectacular player. But he's so much more than that. When the Broncos play an Under front, he slides in and plays 5 tech (Red Bryant's slot on the 'hawks). On the Nickel D line, he kicks further inside and plays 3 tech, opening up the DE position for another pass rusher. In the 3 DL dime package, he plays Nose Tackle.
Jackson literally plays 5 different positions along Denver's 4 man D line, and he plays all of them well! Keep an eye out for #97 on Sunday. He's a player to watch!
Sylvester Williams 3tech 92:
Before we traded the pick for Percy Harvin, Sly Williams is a player I was hoping the Seahawks might have landed at the end of last year's 1st round.
An injury to Kevin Vickerson forced Williams to try and make the leap from situational pass rushing interior lineman to full time 3-tech. His rookie season has been correspondingly inconsistent, as Denver's scheme is very different from UNC and it took multiple games worth of starting experience for him to adjust.
Williams has steadily improved with more playing time, but he's still the weakest link on Denver's D line right now. I'd like to see if James Carpenter can blow him back with raw strength, opening up gaping holes for us in the running game.
Terrance Knighton NT 94:
Unlike most nose tackles, Pot Roast is a penetrator rather than a space eater. His best move is his stab and swim (see gif below) however he features a bull rush often enough to keep O linemen honest.
If you asked me this time last year, I'd have told you that Knighton was a very athletic NT with plenty of upside, but very little on-field production. He's come along quite nicely this year, and had the first dominant game of his career against the Patriots in the AFCCG. Knighton almost single handedly shut down their power running game, and his pressure on Brady up the middle was a large part of why clueless "analysts" were left observing that Brady didn't look like his usual self.
Max Unger is having a down year, and it will be interesting to see if the former All-Pro can handle the up and comer. I think he probably can, although I wouldn't be shocked to see the Seahawks double-team #94 whenever the opportunity arises.
Gee, why didn't Bradly look good that game again?
Robert Ayers DE 91:
Ayers is a 3rd down pass-rushing specialist. The guys on MHR will probably tell you he's good against the run, but that's a lie. It's true that teams don't have much success running when he's on the field, but that goes hand in hand with mostly seeing the field on 3rd and long!
Ayers has been very inconsistent over the course of his pro career. He relies heavily on his bull rush to apply pressure, and really doesn't have a secondary option if it's not working. It's the Justin Smith plan, only with a rush that's not nearly at Smith's talent level.
Jeremy Mincey DE 57:
Mincey is a rotational pass-rusher who cannot play the run. Like Ayers he only has a bull rush, but has managed to stick around the league for 6 years by having a relentless motor. Mincey will probably see a few snaps when the guys ahead of him get tired and need a breather. But he's not going to have a major impact on the game unless the 'hawks really screw the pooch somehow.
Danny Trevathan WLB 59:
With Vonn Miller starting the year on suspension and ending it on IR, the Broncos needed someone to step up and take over the linebacking corps. Trevathan not only obliged, he arguably took over the entire defense!
Trev's game tape really reminds me of a former Seahawk who's jersey I'm currently wearing. Both players are "too slow", "too small", "not strong enough" and absolutely fantastic linebackers. Like Lofa Tatupu, Trev is almost always in the right place to make a play in the running game, and he rarely misses tackles.
In addition to being the best run defender on the team, Trevathan is also the Bronco's best coverage backer. He doesn't have the speed to play man, but he's good in zone, and his ball-skills are nearly at cornerback levels.
Wesley Woodyard MLB 52:
Woodyard had an amazing 2012 season with 117 tackles (73 solo) and an absurd 5.5 sacks. Fortunately for the Seahawks, the 2012 version has (mostly) regressed to his career mean.
Woodyard is a classical read and react attacking linebacker. The bad news is this means he often sells out to stop the run and will aggressively blow through the hole to make a TFL in the backfield. The good news is this means he often sells out to stop the run, and will get burned badly by play action. Quick-hitters into his coverage zones have the potential to go for an awful lot of yards given that the Denver defensive backs don't tackle very well.
Nate Irving SLB 56:
Irving is a career special teams player, forced into the starting lineup due to injury. I don't have a whole lot of game tape on him (there isn't much) but from what I've seen, he's a decent run-thumper with an impressive ability to prevent O lineman from engaging before making the tackle. Think a far less talented version of Brian Cushing.
Irving hasn't shown me much in the passing game, where he inaccurately diagnoses route concepts and routinely plays too shallow in his zone. If Denver wants to spy Wilson full time, Irving is the player I would use, since taking him out of pass-coverage doesn't hurt the overall defense that much!
Side note: Irving and Russel Wilson were college teammates at NC State.
Champ Bailey CB 24:
If you haven't heard of Champ Bailey before, you're well outside my target audience. Go home.
There's two things I'd like to note about Champ. Number one is that he tends to play with outside leverage rather than inside, particularly in the red zone. The is the opposite of how most CBs play, preferring to take away the center of the field and trying to use the sideline as an extra defender. He's basically daring you to beat him with a quick-slant on every snap. He's so good at breaking on the ball and making the play that it's a risky dare to accept.
The other thing I'd like to mention is that he was typically the slot corner in 3 CB sets against New England. 1 game isn't much of a sample size, but it's all we have to work with, since the Broncos phenomenal slot CB Chris Harris Jr. was injured in the divisional round. More on this when I talk about Tony Carter in a second.
Dominique Rodgers Cromartie CB 45:
After watching the LOB the last few years, DRC's tape feels like I'm watching a game of two hand touch. In his favor is that DRC is tall (6'2") and very athletic. We've seen plenty of QB's struggle trying to get balls over the heads of tall corners. 'cough' chokernick from candlestick 'cough'. So you should already know how this works.
Cromartie's pretty good in coverage, but his reputation for being a wuss in run support is well earned. (see gif below where he attempts to lay the boom on a quarterback). He's also not great at dealing with ultra-physical WRs, so I'd love to see him matched up against Golden Tate. Overall the Broncos top CB is very good, but not really a "lockdown" Byron Maxwell or Patrick Peterson type.
I could watch this all day long. Those "business decisions" Danny wrote about yesterday aren't just for WRs!
Tony Carter, NB 32:
Carter became the defacto 3rd corner after Chris Harris got hurt. The other options being Marquice Cole (not very good), Quentin Jammer (very good several years ago), and rookie Kayvon Webster (an excellent prospect, but plays like a rookie).
I mentioned earlier that in the Nickel set, Carter plays outside while Champ mans the slot. I suspect this is largely because the 175lb Tony Carter is a terrible tackler. As in, DRC levels of bad. He's much more willing to try and will enthusiastically go after WRs, but giving up 20 pounds to an undersized guy like Golden Tate is not a good sign. This is why Bailey plays the slot and Carter plays outside in the Nickel. Having an interior defender who cannot tackle is a major liability.
I like Carter in abstract. He's exactly what you want out of a 3rd CB when you need someone to match up against Randall Cobb or Tavon Austin. But against a physical guy like Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, Carter is far less attractive. Good player, but the 'hawks represent a terrible matchup for a guy with his skill-set.
Duke Ihenacho SS 33
I specifically asked about Ihenacho in the "Ask a Broncos Fan part II" fanpost. (read it. It's good stuff). I'll go ahead an let Broncos fan Boothman11 speak for me here. "Both [Denver's] safeties are terrible and our best one [Rahim Moore], while bad, is on IR in any case"
Duke's not terrible in run support. He tackles well, he reads ok, and he's patient enough to not fly into the wrong gap and get caught out of position. But he's AWFUL in pass coverage. He's been burned multiple times in every game I watched, and I'm really surprised that the Donkeys haven't given a clearly declining Michael Huff a shot at the stating job. He can't possibly be any worse. Can he?
I didn't make the gif. Don't blame me for that "elite" BS.
That's Rahim Moore... the BEST Denver safety, costing them a trip to the superbowl last year.
Mike Adams FS 29
The nicest thing I am going to say about Mike Adams is that he's miles better than Ihenacho in pass coverage. He's a pretty reliable tackler, and generally does a good job of reading route combinations.
As an FS, Adams has two major weaknesses. He doesn't change directions very smoothly, meaning that he's easy to beat with a single move at the top of the route tree. He also does a very poor job of playing the ball in the air. Even when the coverage is tight, he gives up completions. The back-end of Denver's pass defense has been horrible ever since Adams arrived in town (well before that too actually) and he's a large part of why.
In a lot of ways, Denver's D strikes me as Carolina lite. There's talent in the front seven, and they do a much better job of stuffing the run than I was expecting. The pass rush is more about generating hurries than sacks, and it comes from all across the board rather than one superstar player.
I thought the Broncos secondary would be excellent based on name recognition. DRC, Champ Bailey, Quentin Jammer, etc. The tape certainly doesn't support this viewpoint, and I strongly suspect that Bevel plans to attack the defensive backs both in the running and the passing game.
The most important matchup this Sunday is going to be Pot Roast against our interior O line. If Knighton has another day like he had in New England, we're in trouble. You cannot run or pass effectively when there's a defender flying up the A gap every snap blowing up your runs and pressuring your QB.
If Unger does a good job against Knighton (and that is a big if), I really cannot see the rest of the Bronco's defense holding us beneath 27 points. It's just too easy to attack safeties who suck in coverage and corners who cannot tackle well.
In fact, if I have time later in the week, I'll try and write a strategy article highlighting how this can be done. No promises, but I'm hopeful. In the mean time, enjoy this gif of Manti T'eo's girlfriend making a special teams tackle of Eric Decker.
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