The Denver Broncos have an outstanding defense, historical even, given their performances over the past two seasons. In an era of football where passing the ball is king Denver’s put together a perfect machine to stop spread out NFL attacks. They have the pass rushers, they have the cornerbacks, and they’re deep in those coveted positions.
Unfortunately for Denver, meat and potatoes offenses that wanted to ground and pound while adding extra blockers on the line were very problematic a year ago. This became to a trend as more teams attacked the Broncos defense this way, all culminating in a losing final month to push them out the playoffs.
Part of it was simply playing in the colder months with teams fighting for their playoff lives. With the cold and weather factors, it’s natural to run the ball more, and with your season on the line, it’s also logical to take fewer risks. With that being said, though, a big part of teams approaching the Broncos with more run-oriented game plans was to stop Denver’s defensive strengths, and there’s no bigger strength on the defense than No. 58, Von Miller.
Teams were effective in slowing Miller down in that crucial final stretch as he was unable to get a sack in the final four games of the season. A noticeable lack of production from arguably the NFL’s best defender and pass rusher - not to mention the NFL's sack leader going into those final four games.
While studying film, you learn that—often times—more can be garnered from observing one player and how his opponents attack him then you do by simply studying a greater scheme as a whole. With that in mind, we went back to watch those last four games and to watch Von specifically.
Here’s what we found and what it all means for the Broncos going into next season as they try to make it back into the playoffs.
Author's Note: It’s worth mentioning that this isn’t a critique towards Miller. In studying this tape, even in these games in which he didn’t produce a sack, his talent was clear. He’s one of the most athletic players you’ll ever see on a football field, regardless of position - I think he’s easily the most athletic I’ve ever studied on tape - and ultra versatile as he can cover tons of ground. He’s also a factor in all facets of the game. He was a beast against the run, still found ways to create pressure, and even showed some nifty skills in coverage, particularly on some of the NFL’s best tight ends.
Week 14 at the Tennessee Titans
Tennessee attacked from the start with heavy sets in formations that always had an added tight end on Von’s side. They started by running in his direction on the first play with two blockers dedicated to him - a run that was quickly plugged up.
Tennesee chose to run the ball heavily, attempting 42 runs to 21 passes, thus greatly limiting the impact of Miller, the Broncos outside rushers, and their cornerbacks. The Titans threw everything Von’s way; they ran at him with extra blockers to try and tire him out, they ran away from him, and they pounded the ball up the middle.
In their first goal-line package, leading to their only touchdown, Tennessee ran away from Von’s side, running towards Shane Ray with DeMarcus Ware out.
The Titans, by running it with regularity on early downs, also managed to avoid third-and-long situations which were a huge advantage for them in limiting the impact of Miller and Company. This was the key for them in building their early lead.
Jumping out to an early 13-0 lead allowed the Titans to follow through on their game plan without having to ever change things to play into the Broncos hand. The fact that the deficit remained into the fourth quarter allowed Tennessee to implement lots of play action passes, situations in which Mariota found some daylight for useful scramble runs as well.
By the second half, the Broncos were able to stop the run, the Titans finally did begin to see third-and-longs, and struggled they mightily. But, they avoided turnovers or other costly errors. Von seemed to always have an extra blocker dedicated to him at all times when he was outside, and all the while the Titans tried to throw all sorts of things his way, read-options runs, play-action bootlegs, and flexing tight ends to his side on off-balance sets - forcing Von to play coverage on them. Tight ends were crucial for opposing teams in helping to slow down Miller’s impact as a pass rusher.
Von stood up to all of it, even without a sack, as he was incredibly impactful in this game and probably the MVP for the Broncos. He chased down Mariota on one scramble preventing a bigger gain, had at least two tackles for no gain or loss against the run, created pressure off the edge twice and then blew up another play by splitting two blockers with a nasty inside spin move. His impact was felt all over despite the Titans clearly making an effort to scheme towards him and Miller facing almost exclusive double blocks on either side of the line.
If the interior defensive line play had been consistently stout against the run and the offense could have scored within the first three quarters, this would have been a much different game. No matter what Miller and the ‘D’ did, the Titans were able to bend but not break.
Week 15 against the New England Patriots
The Patriots didn’t dedicate nearly as much of their game plan or personnel sets to stopping or limiting No. 58, but their plan was greatly altered to counter Denver’s defensive strengths.
In classic Patriots style, New England attacked Miller in a much less targeted way, preferring to run the ball consistently with heavy fronts and spread out receivers for quick passes out of the shotgun. They also dedicated tight end Martellus Bennett to blocking Von and Bennett’s size advantage showed (6-foot-6 275 pounds) as he battled with Miller and even managed to seal him on a big inside run.
While Miller had a big impact early on against the run, eventually the defense began to wear down with very little rest as the offense couldn’t stay on the field long enough, let alone score points.
It was also evident that the interior rush wore down completely in this game, giving Tom Brady a clean pocket to step into from the second quarter on. It’s worth noting Derek Wolfe was banged up in this game and missed long stretches.
Not only did the interior d-line struggle but Von didn’t play his best in this one. He didn’t dominate against the run like he could have as the game wore on and he missed some chances to create pressure when lined up one-on-one against right tackle Marcus Cannon, who, to his credit, played well.
The Patriots also ran the ball to death in the second half once they realized the Broncos offense was no threat and ran it up the middle a lot. Eventually, New England ran it 39 times and passed it 32.
As absurd as it sounds, with all of that said, the defense had a pretty dominant performance, allowing only 16 points from the Patriots who basically just tried to eat up the clock in the second half as opposed to scoring more points.
Week 16 at the Kansas City Chiefs
Another creative coaching staff had their own way of dealing with Miller. While the Titans chose to throw added blockers his way - among other things - and the Patriots tried to avoid him, the Chiefs began the game by attacking Miller with their two best playmakers, and it worked.
Shortly afterward, Hill would run to the weak side (the left side where Miller happened to be on this play) with added blockers all dedicated to stopping 58 from winning the corner and Hill again won the battle with his speed taking the run all the way to the house for a 70-yard touchdown.
The Chiefs also flexed tight end Travis Kelce out on Von, trying to get him in space with quick hitters and screens
Eventually, Alex Smith, who—much like Brady—took very little time in the pocket and got rid of the ball in a hurry, hit Kelce on another quick screen, this time for a devastating 80-yard touchdown. The Broncos defense has tons of talent, but if you isolate certain elements, they can be exploited.
The Chiefs attacked with lots of pre-snap misdirections and quick screens, using their undersized speedster Hill in motion, on reverses, or outside tosses. This gave Denver issues as they couldn’t just line up and play their game.
Again, the Chiefs used extra blockers on Miller’s side and attacked him by running to his side and trying to tire him out that way.
Week 17 against the Oakland Raiders
This was a very odd game with both team's playoff faiths decided, Gary Kubiak’s retirement looming and the Raiders playing without their starting quarterback.
The first factor that really changed this game was Denver’s ability to jump out to an early lead, something they struggled to do in the other three games. With the Broncos keyed in on the run and less concerned with the pass, everything fell into place in this one. Sure, Miller still didn’t have a sack, but he created plenty of pressure as the game progressed, affecting a lot of plays. Shaquil Barrett and Ray also got a good amount of playing time in this one.
The Raiders, however, were the first team to really exploit Denver’s defensive weaknesses back in Week 9, a game we covered in detail.
In their first meeting, Oakland, despite having a prolific passing attack, decided to go run heavy and often used a sixth offensive lineman on, you guessed it, Von Miller’s side, winning the game in a similar fashion to what Tennesee did Week-14.
What this all means
Von’s impact in these games was still felt, but his lack of sacks and pass rushing opportunities were evident. The 2016 Broncos were far from perfect, and once teams began to attack the team's weaknesses, Denver's defensive strength became lessened.
Stopping heavy fronts like the Broncos faced doesn't take a complex game plan. You just need to line up and win the battle in the trenches - something they were able to do consistently two years ago during their run to the Super Bowl. If Denver, with more depth and a few young players ready to break out, can play better up front on defense, both the interior pass rush and run defense should be improved.
Playing time and rest are also a concern with Miller who is crucial to this defense. Picking spots, knowing when to rest Von and when to keep him out will be key. There’s always a slight drop off in the run defense and ability to create pressure when he’s being rested. It’s noticeable on tape, and without DeMarcus Ware, it'll be crucial to keep Miller fresh and effective.
Limiting Von's impact is key for opponents, keeping him protected and productive is essential for the Broncos. How Vance Joseph and his new staff deal with this will be crucial in returning Denver's defense to prominence and back into the playoffs.
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