The small signs were there, but the Denver Broncos' defense still looked good in 2017. That is, until the Week 9 shellacking from the Philadelphia Eagles, who put up 51 points on the Broncos' vaunted unit.
Even worse, the Orange Crush 2.0 allowed 31 points in the first half and even got scored upon in garbage time by the Eagles' second unit. That’s a week after the Kansas City Chiefs scored 29, and should’ve had more if not for a stupid Tyreek Hill interception that limited the damage.
Against two similar offenses in back-to-back weeks, with their backs against the wall, the defense fell short, plain and simple. Regardless of what the offense and special teams did or didn’t do.
The bottom line is after two straight seasons of all-time great type play, the defense has looked good, but not great and in the last two weeks, they’ve looked average. That’s not taking away from two great offenses playing at home, but the Broncos' defense is known for coming into elite offense's houses and shutting them down. So far, that hasn’t been the case.
When you allow 30 in one game after holding opponents to low scores all season the necessary fixes are minimal, after giving up 51, you better believe the problems are multiple.
The safeties have been miscast
A lot of the defensive issues before this week started and ended with the safeties, who at times don’t seem to be in their best positions to succeed, and still seem to be missing T.J. Ward’s decisive play in the secondary.
It’s also worth noting that Vance Joseph and Joe Woods are thought of as two of the best young defensive minds in the game, especially in scheming things on the back end. Yet, there have been some things that are puzzling.
First is that Darian Stewart, who in the past played as a deep safety—at his best reading and making plays downhill—has been asked to cover more one-on-one, and that hasn’t worked out. A prime example being Travis Kelce’s touchdown in coverage on Stewart with no safety help to the outside.
Partially because he's being used more this way, and partially because he's looked a bit slower on tape this season, Stewart hasn’t been nearly as impactful against the run or helping in coverage as that last line of defense. That lack of impact he used to bring to the ‘D’ has been missing, and it's starting to show.
On the other end, you have Justin Simmons, who—given his youth and athleticism—seems more suited to cover tight ends like Kelce, a big part of the problem for the Broncos. That hasn’t been the case, as Simmons is playing closer to the line like Ward used to but isn’t playing nearly as well. He also hasn’t been as instinctual in his coverage underneath, leading to gains on crossing routes.
The lack of impact from both Simmons and Stewart is becoming noticeable and it almost feels as if reversing their roles would help. Stewart could play closer to the line where his impact against the run could return. In coverage, the vet would be more reliable with his superior instincts in underneath coverage. Simmons instead is rangy and has the ball skills. Let him roam deep instead of Stewart and let him take on the talented mismatch receiving tight ends to see how he can fair in single coverage. Where Simmons has struggled is in helping against the run, where he’s a reliable tackler, but has taken bad angles missing plays from time to time. Like this one:
On top of that, we’re seeing Will Parks play in lots of sub-package snaps, where he’s had plenty of flashy plays, especially when asked to attack downhill, where he’s gathering pressures and making plays against the run. But Parks isn’t the type of in-the-box destroyer that Ward was, and it’s had a trickle-down effect on the whole secondary. Now, when in sub, as you have three safeties and none of them are playing all that well.
Joseph and Woods need to show they’re the bright minds we thought they were and figure it out quickly too before this snowballs out of control.
The pass rush has gone missing
Sacks can be a flawed stat, as putting pressure on the quarterback is most important if you’re hitting him consistently and forcing turnovers. Problem is, the Broncos are down across the board in all those categories after producing 94 sacks the last two years, both top-three seasons in the league. This year they only have 19, which is 16th in the NFL. They’ve produced two fumbles, which is dead last, and have five interceptions, which is 21st.
All that isn’t good, and it’s showing on the tape. Teams have been able to adopt conservative game plans to eliminate some of the Broncos' bite. It’s also true that the problems have existed for a while dating back to last year when the interior rush was lacking. Now, after a nice showing the first three games, they’ve regressed.
It’s also worth noting that after losing Malik Jackson and DeMarcus Ware the past two offseasons, we’re still waiting on the replacements to produce to their level. Especially Shane Ray’s been a disappointment since coming back, and draft picks like second-rounder DeMarcus Walker, who was supposed to help at least as a pass rushing specialist, has been completely absent. Shelby Harris, Domata Peko, and even Adam Gotsis have played well, but it just hasn’t been enough. It’s also worth noting that Derek Wolfe hasn’t been as dominant as he was two years ago, and without Ware, the rotation at outside linebacker isn't nearly as dynamic. With all that it’s easy to avoid Von Miller and attack other guys who aren’t exactly Jackson or Ware.
The run defense isn’t perfect
The Broncos' run defense was super in the first four games, and they also managed to stifle the Chiefs' Kareem Hunt two weeks ago in a losing effort. But old issues are rising back up.
The defense is on the field too often sometimes, but the issue is also with tackling where the second-level players where whiffing left and right last Sunday. If they weren’t missing tackles, they were getting blocked out of plays downfield as the Eagles ran amuck on the defense. You'll see lots of bad angles and undisciplined play if you go back and watch the Philly run game, which is just atypical of this group.
That’s maybe the most disconcerting part of all of this. That’s not the Broncos. Above all else, this defense has been great because they tackle in space like few others. That’s why offenses eventually would make mistakes because they could never break a big play and were forced to battle it out under heavy pressure.
That’s not what we saw against Philadelphia, where the effort at times was lacking, and players just played undisciplined football. The issues are starting to creep up, and there’s no denying that the absence of Wade Phillips is beginning to be felt in Denver. It’s time for Woods and Joseph to show what they’re made of to turn things around in a hurry for what remains a very talented unit. The ability for the 'D' to bounce back will largely determine the success of this season and the longevity for the two coaches. The pressure is on.