Film Room
Analysis beyond the numbers

Film Room: Denver Defense

Film Room: Denver Defense
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Cian Fahey

Wade Phillips' value could be seen last Sunday.

Phillips took over as the Denver Broncos' defensive coordinator before the start of this season. He succeeded Jack Del Rio, who had departed to become the head coach of the Oakland Raiders. Del Rio had done a solid job with the Broncos' defense. He understood how to put his players in best position to succeed and called plays that suited his available personnel. His Broncos ranked in the top five of DVOA, third against the run and fifth against the pass. Phillips inherited the stars that had established that standard, and elevated the unit as a whole to another level. During Phillips' first season, the Broncos finished as the top ranked defense by DVOA and the top ranked pass defense by a huge margin.

The difference between Del Rio and Phillips came in Phillips' ability to adjust to specific opponents. Without Phillips, the Broncos would not have been able to smother the New England Patriots' offense in the AFC Championship Game.

In that game, Tom Brady threw the ball 56 times for 310 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. On the few occasions the Patriots attempted to run the ball, they couldn't find any space. In fact, Brady himself had the longest run of the game with a rare 11-yard scramble. The Patriots ultimately scored 18 points, with one of those touchdowns coming on a short field after a turnover. In the fourth quarter, the Broncos stopped the Patriots' offense on fourth down twice before making the game-deciding stop on a two-point conversion attempt. The Broncos' offense couldn't score to secure the lead, making each of those plays decisive. Even when the Patriots scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter, they did so by taking advantage of the Broncos' injuries at both safety positions.

The critical moments of the game were mostly decided by the players involved, but the overall performance of the unit was set up by Phillips' play calling. Phillips understood how to keep the Patriots off balance. He disguised his pass rushes while not being so aggressive that he exposed his defensive backs in space. Phillips understood that the Patriots didn't want to run and that they didn't have the offensive linemen to counter the Broncos' individual pass rushers.

Stylistically, the Broncos defense was a perfect matchup for the Patriots offense. In the Super Bowl, that won't be the case. Not only are the Panthers a tougher matchup for the best defense in the NFL, they run a polar opposite offense in terms of style. There aren't two offenses in the NFL who are less alike than the Patriots and Panthers.

Where the Patriots center their offense around a quick, short passing game, the Panthers primarily want to run through or around you. The Panthers possess the most diverse and dangerous rushing attack in the NFL because of Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton. Stewart has been one of the best backs in the NFL this year, while no other quarterback can offer a dimension as a ball carrier like Newton. When the Panthers look to throw the ball, they often use max protections and encourage Newton to hold onto the ball so they can throw downfield. He holds the ball so his receivers have time to come open, whereas the Patriots relied on their receivers to get open quickly so Brady could get rid of the ball.

Phillips has two weeks to figure out how to stop an offense that steamrolled its two most recent opponents.

Playing a heavy dose of Cover-2 against the Panthers would only entice them to run the ball. Instead, it makes more sense for the Broncos to drop T.J. Ward into the box and show more Cover-3 looks. The Panthers stretch defenses horizontally with counter and option runs. It's easier to contain those runs when you have an eighth defender in the box. Defenses have attempted to contain the Panthers' running game by doing this all season, but player execution has let them down. Phillips doesn't have a dominant nose tackle on which he can rely, so he needs to emphasize gap integrity and stop the Panthers with leverage from his defensive line and penetration from his linebackers.

Earlier this season, Dick LeBeau's Tennessee Titans defense did a good job against the Panthers' running game. The Panthers still managed to be productive on the day, but that was more about the caliber of player available to the Titans rather than LeBeau's approach.

The Panthers will pull different players across their formations to attack different points of the defense. It's clear that their most dangerous puller is right guard Trai Turner, who is having an outstanding season. He is a big body who can move and comfortably play in space. In the above play, he is going to act as Jonathan Stewart's lead blocker as he pulls away from the line of scrimmage at the snap. While Turner is departing his initial positioning, the Panthers leave the center one-on-one with the nose tackle and double both defensive ends in the Titans' 3-4 front. This leaves the outside linebackers completely unblocked for the moment.

It's impossible to know what the Panthers are going to do at this early stage in the play because Newton has so many options in this alignment. Both outside linebackers can only advance downfield with caution, while the interior linebackers wait to read the action in front of them.

Both outside linebackers put themselves in position to contain the play. Both can set the edge while the inside linebackers look to read Turner and Stewart's actions between the tackles. With Michael Griffin (33) in the box as an extra defender, the Titans' inside linebackers don't need to be overly concerned with covering a cutback. Griffin is coming from a deeper alignment, but he is close enough to meet the running back at the line of scrimmage if he redirects. Turner is going to block Brian Orakpo (98) on the edge. Stewart is expecting to run behind him, so this makes Orakpo irrelevant. Wesley Woodyard (59) who is coincidentally a former Broncos player, plays this run perfectly. He recognizes the double-team and sees Turner pulling his way. He knows he has another inside linebacker to his left and a safety outside of him, so he can attack the gap that develops in front of him.

In using a double-team to clamp down on the right defensive end, the Panthers were putting a lot of pressure on the tight end who lined up in the backfield. He is now responsible for Woodyard, but he has a lot of ground to cover to execute a successful block. He is reliant on Woodyard being hesitant because of the action around him.

The Panthers had tried to double-team Jurrell Casey (99), the Titans' best defender. Importantly, Casey doesn't get washed away by the double-team. He holds his position and is then free to work towards the running back when one of the two blockers advances downfield to pick up the other inside linebacker. At the same time, Woodyard is meeting the pulling tight end behind the line of scrimmage. The two defenders combine to shut down all of the space in front of Stewart and force him to stop his feet behind the line of scrimmage. Stewart can still create yards from this position because he is a hugely talented runner, but this is exactly where the defense wants to trap the ballcarrier.

It's not enough to get to this point in the play against the Panthers. Because they have so many options in their running game and can run from so many different looks with so many different ballcarriers, you also have to get to this point while accounting for other options. The safety and left outside linebacker have contained the cutback lane and are in position to play Newton if he had held onto the ball.

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Unless the Broncos can escape into an unexpected lead, Phillips' defense will be under pressure to play disciplined, physical run defense all game. He will have to commit bodies to the run even though the Panthers can beat you throwing the ball just as effectively.

Newton is likely going to win the MVP award, and not just because of how he runs the ball. He has developed into a superstar quarterback who excels throwing the ball and breaking down defenses mentally. He is patient in the pocket with the ability to make subtle or decisive movements to negate pressure. It will be tougher for the Broncos to pressure Newton than it was to pressure Brady, not because Newton has a better offensive line, but because of how the Panthers scheme their protections and how Newton naturally takes away the Broncos' ability to be aggressive off the edges. Whenever the Broncos rush Newton, they need to maintain gap integrity like they would on a running play because of how dangerous a scrambler Newton is.

Many defenses have relied on zone coverages behind blitzes so their defenders can keep their eyes on Newton when the play breaks down. This strategy has not worked so well over the course of the season because Newton is extremely patient and he has fast receivers who can take advantage of the free releases and space they are afforded on these types of plays. To best contain the Panthers' receivers, you need to press them at the line of scrimmage aggressively. This is dangerous, because it means cornerbacks must take their eyes away from the quarterback as well as potential running plays. Phillips is a smart defensive coordinator, though. He will understand that nothing comes without risk against this offense and he will have seen what the Panthers have done to zone coverages over recent games.

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Against the Patriots, it's best to play two deep safeties with man coverage underneath. You can make the quarterback either hold the ball or force it into tight windows while unleashing your pass rushers. Against the Panthers, you ideally want to give more help to the pass rush without creating an imbalance in your coverage. This should lead the Broncos to a five-man rush with man coverage and one deep safety behind it. In the above GIF, an example of this type of play call can be seen from the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. The Cardinals couldn't rely on this type of play because they didn't have the cornerbacks to run with the Panthers' receivers outside.

As inconsistent as the Panthers receivers can be, Ted Ginn, Corey Brown, and Devin Funchess can each consistently get open on vertical routes. Unlike the Cardinals or even the Seattle Seahawks, the Broncos have two boundary cornerbacks who can run with the Panthers' receivers. Both Bradley Roby and Aqib Talib should be able to play effective press coverage against whomever the Panthers send outside.

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When relying on man coverage against the Panthers, it's imperative that your pass rush is disciplined to keep Newton in the pocket. It's inevitable that the quarterback's athleticism will have an impact on the game, but the key is to limit that impact. The above GIF is a different angle of the same play from Sunday. The Cardinals are aggressive in pursuit of the quarterback, and they use stunts to attack the protection, yet they still contain Newton. This is where the design of the rush is important, as well as the numbers sent. Newton doesn't have anywhere to go because the pressure is consistent from every angle.

The Broncos showed last week that they can penetrate the pocket from any gap, but they have to be more consistent and disciplined in their rush if they are to do to Newton what they did to Brady.

Regardless of how the Super Bowl goes, Wade Phillips has already reiterated his quality as a defensive coordinator. It's that quality that made it so surprising that he was unemployed in 2014. Phillips had previously inherited one of the worst defenses in the NFL, that of the 2010 Houston Texans, and turned it into a unit that ranked sixth, fourth, and 18th in DVOA over his three seasons with the franchise. Even though the unit dropped off in his third season, it didn't make much sense that Phillips wasn't working somewhere. Phillips himself took a moment to remind everyone of his year out after beating the Patriots this week:

It's a moment he quite clearly deserved.


16 comments, Last at 29 Jan 2016, 4:55pm

1 Re: Film Room: Denver Defense

Hey, Cian, you want to edit.....

"Stylistically, the Broncos offense was a perfect matchup for the Patriots offense."

....and thanks for the breakdown.

2 Re: Film Room: Denver Defense

There are guys on both sides of this game that I would really enjoy seeing accomplishing ultimate success in 11 days, which is kind of a fun way to watch it. One of the guys on the Denver side is Wade Phillips. I think he is worthy of HOF consideration, no matter how very unlikely it will happen to a coach who never had great success in the number 1 spot, and who, as good as he was as a coordinator, never was with a team in that role when it won a championship. He's been great, however, and it woud be great too see him on the staff of a team that won a game in February.

3 Re: Film Room: Denver Defense

As to the game, the Panthers offense is so much more fun to watch, to me, than what the Patriots do, that it gives me extra reason to root for them. Then again, I love seeing a number 1 defense, paired with a limited offense, manage to pull it off. Can't both teams win?

4 Re: Film Room: Denver Defense

Wade Phillips is fortunate the Pats didn't go for the field goal on 4th down. As good as Denver's D is, they still almost blew it, and they gave up 300 yards in the air.
Didn't Dallas fire Wade Phillips? Or was it Buffalo?

6 Re: Film Room: Denver Defense

Fortunate? I imagine that if the Patriots had managed to bring it within 7 with a FG, that the Broncos offense would have been trying to move the ball instead of eat clock in their final 2 possessions. Would they have been successful? I don't know, but you can't say that the rest of the game would have played out the same if Denver (and NE) had fundamentally different objectives to play for than the ones from the actual game.

As for Wade, he was the Broncos DC when Reeves was fired, became the HC, then was fired himself. Next he went to the Bills, was their DC, then took over the HC when the prior HC was fired, then was fired himself. Then Wade again became the DC for Reeves in Atlanta, took over as interim when Reeves was fired, then was fired himself. Next Wade went to San Diego, did well enough to get a HC offer from Dallas, from where he was eventually fired. He then returned to the more usual cycle of his career by being hired by Kubiak as DC in Houston, taking over as HC when Kubiak was fired, and then getting fired himself. I'd be tempted to say Kubiak won't be fired any time soon by Elway, and that even if he was Elway would be unlikely to promote Wade, but it'd be almost foolish to bet against it happening again at this point.

9 Re: Film Room: Denver Defense

Flutie was a better quarterback than Rob Johnson ever was. But he wasn't tall enough for Wade or Ralph. I don't know which of them to believe.

I was always a huge Flutie fan and haven't forgiven the Bills for how they screwed him over.

10 Re: Film Room: Denver Defense

If you include sacks, he had 60 attempts to nearly get 300 yards for 4.9 yards per attempt.

That he barely cracked 300 yards on the 56 non-sack plays would be a terrific performance against any offense let alone one as good as the Patriots.

11 Re: Film Room: Denver Defense

I blame Kubiak more for that. He was content from the 2nd quarter on to sit on a one-score lead and try to bleed the clock and play not to lose. By the end of the game, the Bronco defense had been out there, giving a superhuman effort, for a ridiculous amount of time (in that altitude).

12 Re: Film Room: Denver Defense

292 yards on 56 attempts. The Pats had 73 plays in total and gained just 336 yards. That is 4.6 yards per play which is superb against a team averaging 5.6 ypp on the season. It was only the 2nd time all season NE was held under 5.0 ypp, the other being the week 17 calamity at Miami.

There is absolutely no way that Denver's performance in the AFCG was anything other than phenomenal.

14 Re: Film Room: Denver Defense

What does 300 yards in the air mean anymore? Practically nothing. Brady threw the ball 56 times, which is the second most he's ever thrown the ball in a game. (He threw 65 times in 2012 against SF. Crazy.) Sure, he threw for over 300 yards, but he had one of the worst throwing days he's had in his postseason career.

Net pass yards were 292 btw.

As anon76returns points out, Denver's offense may have been somewhat more aggressive had the FG been kicked. As it was Kubiak almost played it too safe there. He's lucky if you ask me.

16 Re: Film Room: Denver Defense

The Broncos gave up 300 yards in the air on 56 attempts!!!!

Any team that passes 56 times has to be very upset if they don't get at least 400 yards.

People harp too much on the FG possibilities. There is no reason to think that a successful FG by the Pats with 5+ minutes left would have led to exactly the same final five minutes of the game. This is rule #1 of Time Travel: if you change one event, you have to understand that every subsequent event could change, too. Who's to say that the Broncos wouldn't have tried harder to get first downs with only a 5-point lead than they did with an 8-point lead?

Both the Bills and the Cowboys fired Wade as HC. It's pretty clear now, though, that while he's a middling HC, he's an excellent defensive coordinator.

7 Re: Film Room: Denver Defense

Good recap, Cian.

But I imagine that rather than compare what the Broncos did to NE, the more relevant comparison would be how they played Aaron Rodgers and his receivers earlier in the season. That was another case of having to contain the QB during the rush while also having to carry receivers deep and prevent them from getting open, with the chief differences being that GB receivers didn't have the speed of the Panthers WRs, and that GB didn't have much of a running threat outside of Rodgers.

13 Re: Film Room: Denver Defense

Wouldn't KC be a better comparison? Offense centered around a varied running game which includes the QB by design. Wideouts limited in skill with the TE being a major factor. Carolina is better in pretty much every area (other than #1 WR but Olsen trumps that), but that seems an interesting comparison.

KC averaged 5.4 yards per play, 4.6 yards per rush and 6.7 yards per pass. Against Denver, KC went for 5.3 yards per play, 4.1 yards per rush and 6.6 yards per pass in their two games versus Denver. KC threw 2 INTs and was sacked 7 times in 63 drop backs, higher and on par for their season averages, respectively.

Looking at that, it seems KC was able to produce against Denver about on average as it did against most teams. The sample size is tiny so no major conclusions, but interesting to me nonetheless.

15 Re: Film Room: Denver Defense

KC does have some similarities, and I'd say Olsen vs. Kelce might be closer than you give credit. But I think of Cam as a guy who wants to throw deep, while of course Smith is the least likely to throw deep of any QB in the league. Also, both Charles and Smith run the ball very well, but rely more on speed and shiftiness, whereas I think of Cam and Stewart as pretty straight-ahead power runners.
The KC games were interesting as well for the circumstances- the first game had the Arrowhead crowd trying to set all sorts of noise records, and the second one had Manning playing in spite of the fact that he should never have been given a uniform that game. KC's offensive drive stats looked terrible in the game, but they got a lot of points because they had something like half of their possessions starting in Denver territory. Tough to rely too much on that sample.

The GB game isn't a perfect parallel either- Lacy is a better (IMO) model for Stewart's style of running, but Lacy was so ineffective this season that the comparison is almost useless. And Rodgers, when he does run, is much more in the Alex Smith mode than Cam Newton, and of course the Broncos had the crowd advantage in the GB game, while I expect the Santa Clara crowd to be largely neutral.