Film Room: Denver's Defense

Film Room: Denver's Defense
Film Room: Denver's Defense
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Cian Fahey

The Kansas City Chiefs can't say they didn't have a chance.

Even with Alex Smith throwing the ball 50 times and averaging 4.9 yards per attempt, the Chiefs lost to the New England Patriots by just seven points last week. The game was close until the very end, when Tom Brady completed a pass to Julian Edelman for a game-sealing first down. That play came with 01:08 left in the fourth quarter. It wasn't a straightforward play; Brady threw the ball straight to Tamba Hali, who couldn't make the interception. Hali was playing with a club on his injured hand, which caused him to tip the ball into the path of Edelman at the first-down marker. It was the fifth obvious interception opportunity of the game for the Chiefs, none of which they could catch.

The first came when a pass bounced off of Edelman in the flat. The second came on an ill-advised jump ball from Brady. The third saw Marcus Peters jump Brandon LaFell's route underneath, while the fourth again went to Peters when he defended a fade in the end zone.

Expecting the Chiefs to take advantage of all of those opportunities is unrealistic, but they needed to catch at least one of those passes to have a chance of beating the Patriots. When the Denver Broncos last played the Patriots, in Week 12, they didn't intercept Brady. The quarterback threw for 280 yards and three touchdowns on 42 attempts though. He was forced into that performance because the Broncos were able to shut down LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden in the running game. Despite Brady's display, the Patriots couldn't win that game. They lost in overtime on a 48-yard touchdown run from C.J. Anderson. Both the Patriots and Broncos are significantly different teams since that game, but it's clear that Brady will have to carry the offense if the Patriots are to return to the Super Bowl.

Against the Chiefs last week, Steven Jackson led the Patriots in rushing. He ran the ball just six times for 16 yards. Jackson can barely move at this stage of his career. He is a major downgrade from LeGarrette Blount, who managed just 27 yards on nine carries against the Broncos in the regular season. The Broncos ranked first in defensive DVOA this year, first against the pass and fourth against the run. While they didn't play to expectations against a depleted Steelers offense last week, they should be extremely confident of their ability to force the Patriots into a one-dimensional offense and get pressure on Brady.

Brady can get rid of the ball quickly enough to mask his offensive line's struggles, so the decisive aspect of this game should be how the Broncos are able to cover his receivers. When they weren't failing to take advantage of those interception opportunities last week, the Chiefs were struggling to find a balance between aggressive and passive coverage. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton didn't appear to understand how to best approach the Patriots passing game. Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Philips should call a much smarter game than Sutton did.

In their previous meeting, Philips was consistent with his play calls. He primarily rushed four defenders after the quarterback and played man coverage with two deep safeties. On 30 of Brady's dropbacks, Philips rushed four defenders after Brady. The quarterback accumulated 204 yards on those dropbacks, but 18 of those plays gained 5 yards or fewer. Brady was consistently forced to perform under pressure in the pocket while throwing into tight windows downfield. He was able to connect with running back Brandon Bolden for a 63-yard touchdown on one of those dropbacks.

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The Patriots' offensive line couldn't contain the Broncos pass rush in one-on-one situations. This was one of their best snaps of the game that day. It wasn't a coincidence that Philips asked his linemen to stunt around each other, delaying the rush in the hopes of confusing the offensive line. Philips shouldn't have to use stunts this weekend. Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Malik Jackson, Shaquil Barrett, and Shane Ray should be able to consistently win one-on-one matchups. Even with the stunts, Ray was a matter of inches away from getting to Brady before he released the ball. The coverage forced Brady to hold onto the ball until Bolden had a chance to get outside and deep enough for the long pass down the sideline.

Even once Brady had hit him in stride, the running back still had to break a tackle to find his way to the end zone.

Even though the Patriots passing game put up relatively big numbers against the Broncos defense that day, they were forced to find that production under difficult circumstances. The Patriots were reliant on Brady creating big plays by throwing with anticipation to soft spots in coverage much earlier than he would typically want to. Since that game, the Patriots pass protection appears to have slackened off further, which should only encourage Philips to use even more three- and four-man rushes than he did last time around. He only used one three-man rush in the last game, and that play resulted in a sack.

The Patriots were missing Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman in this game; Rob Gronkowski also left the game with a knee issue. Despite their health issues, the Patriots stayed with their aggressive passing game and spread formations. In the above image, the Patriots face a third-and-5 with Brady alone in the shotgun. The Broncos respond with their defenders in press alignment across the board and both safeties deep. It's important to note that Gronkowski is aligned to the left of the offense, the narrower side of the field.

Darian Stewart is the safety to Gronkowski's side of the field. Stewart should understand three things before the ball is snapped. Firstly, the Patriots run an offense that relies on quick throws, and the Broncos' pass rush would pressure Brady if he attempted to hold the ball. Secondly, Gronkowski is lined up against Bradley Roby. Roby is a cornerback, but this is a mismatch for him in a one-on-one situation, especially so if Gronkowski works infield. Thirdly, the slot cornerback to Stewart's side of the field is Chris Harris, Harris is one of the Broncos' starters, a player they trust in coverage more than anyone else.

When the ball is snapped, Stewart has his eyes on Brady. As Brady begins his throwing motion, Stewart commits to moving forward. He is already in stride when the ball leaves Brady's hand. Stewart knows that he's leaving Harris alone with the slot receiver, but because they lined up on the narrower side of the field Harris has the sideline to help him.

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Brady's pass isn't a good one. He forces Gronkowski to slow down and reach up for the ball, exposing him to the incoming hit from Stewart. Stewart is able to easily cut the tight end down short of the first-down marker because of his aggressiveness. Had Stewart hesitated, Gronkowski would have had an easy first down. More significantly, had the Broncos been more aggressive with their coverage, Gronkowski would have been running to wide-open space because the Broncos wouldn't have had a safety in position to play the quick throw.

These types of routes scare defenses into playing off coverage. The Patriots do use pick plays, but more often than not they use natural route combinations to set up those pick plays so they aren't called by officials. They are completely legal plays, but very difficult for defenses to stop. Philips understands that you can't be so passive against the Patriots despite their ability to pick off defenders who are in press coverage. Based on what the Broncos did in their last meeting, Philips instead teaches his safeties to be aggressive on shorter throws from a Cover-2 alignment so they can contain these types of plays without giving up easy yardage underneath.

If you can consistently contain those types of plays, you can force the Patriots to become impatient. That is what happened on this play.

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Late in the third quarter, the Broncos had forced the Patriots offense into a third-and-8. The Broncos disguised their pass rush by sending a linebacker from the second level through the middle of the offensive line. Behind that five-man rush, the Broncos played Cover-1 with their deep safety aligned to the wide side of the field. On that side of the field, Aqib Talib was expected to cover Scott Chandler but was out of position at the snap. Chandler ran a sideline route to which Brady immediately looked, but Talib was able to use his athleticism to recover and stay on top of the route. Talib remained calm before flipping his hips to turn around and locate the ball.

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Much like the Chiefs last week, Talib couldn't take advantage of the gift that Brady had given him. He watched the ball bounce off of his arms as he extended beneath it.

As is always the case when Peyton Manning and Tom Brady face off, the quarterbacks are the biggest names on the field. Brady and Manning will both obviously have huge impacts on the outcome of this game, but it should be a low-scoring affair with both defenses getting the better of their counterparts. The Patriots have the front seven pieces to exploit the Broncos' limited offensive linemen, while the Broncos receivers struggled to catch the ball consistently against the Pittsburgh Steelers last week.

The Broncos are undoubtedly a better defense than the Chiefs. Philips' unit has been the best defense in the NFL over the course of the season as a whole. They will pose a much greater threat to Brady than the Chiefs did last week.


34 comments, Last at 21 Jan 2016, 2:30pm

1 Re: Film Room: Denver's Defense

"The Broncos are undoubtedly a better defense than the Chiefs. Philips' unit has been the best defense in the NFL over the course of the season as a whole."

I must be mis-reading the DVOA table. It looks to me as if KC is number one in defensive DVOA for the season, and Denver is 4th...

2 Re: Film Room: Denver's Defense

The Week 19 DVOA page has Denver listed as -15.4% weighted Def DVOA (#4), but the Stats Team Def table has Denver at -22%, (#1). Maybe the difference is that the former includes playoff performance and opponent adjustments, but the latter is regular season only?

Clearly Cian used the latter data for this write-up.

6 Re: Film Room: Denver's Defense

As mentioned, Denver is still #1 for the year, KC is #1 weighted. Also, when Justin Houston plays just 8 snaps and Hali is also slightly gimpy, the Chiefs are probably undoubtedly worse than a relatively healthy Denver defense, especially up front.

4 Re: Film Room: Denver's Defense

It's not worth even a passing mention that neither Edelman or Amendola were active for the earlier game? You don't think that had at least as much to do with the issues raised than anything Denver did?

Beyond the fact that Edelman has averaged 9 catches for 95 yards and a TD in three games against the Broncos, his presence has a noticeable impact on OL performance and how teams cover Gronk.

It also seems relevant to point out that an offense missing their best WR, top two RBs and with an injured QB was able to move the ball fairly easily against the Denver D just this past week.

This is a great site and appreciate Cian's efforts, but I feel like this analysis overlooks key aspects of the match up.

7 Re: Film Room: Denver's Defense

Ahhh.... thanks. I read the entire thing twice and somehow skipped past that both times.

Clearly I was incorrect, but I still feel like the article downplays their absence too much. Denver will need to play substantially better than they did in November (or last week) if they have any hopes of keeping NE under 30 points.

8 Re: Film Room: Denver's Defense

I agree. The NE team they are facing Sunday will much different than the one they faced earlier this year.

Against the Steelers they seemed to deviate from their usual defensive strategy in the first half because they got burned by AB in their matchup earlier in the season. They seemed to go back to normal more in the second half and had a bit more success.

It should be an interesting game though. Covering both Edelman and Gronk is a nightmare for any team. The effects of altitude in the second half will probably be necessary for DEN to win as it will affect the NE defense and OLine more.

13 Re: Film Room: Denver's Defense

Nor were Ward and a DL whose name escapes me, after the first quarter or so.

Does that count as paying attention?

And yet, having Edelman and Amendola back still outweighs Denver's returnees by a significant margin. Recognizing this fact doesn't entail a lack of objectivity.

19 Re: Film Room: Denver's Defense

If you want to read that as:

"And yet, having Edelman and Amendola back still outweighs Denver's returnees by a significant margin. Recognizing this doesn't entail a lack of objectivity."

be my guest. Doesn't change anything about the post.

22 Re: Film Room: Denver's Defense

You have to admit, it's kind of funny that you betrayed, at the very least, an arguable lack of objectivity with a statement that was immediately followed by "doesn't entail a lack of objectivity." Both the New England offense and the Denver defense will be in better shape then they were for the last meeting. Which will make more of a difference is pretty hard to say.

I would argue that Ware was every bit the impact player on defense that Amendola was on offense when healthy this season. Ware making the Pro Bowl is a joke, but Ware's first half of the season was certainly Pro Bowl quality. Whether he is far enough back from his back issues to be that player again is questionable, but he's definitely the most healthy he's been since the injury. It's also a very big deal that TJ Ward and Sylvester Williams barely saw the field in that game and are healthy now.

My feeling is that the much less glamorous matchup between the mediocre Denver offense and the mediocre New England defense has a lot more variance built into it, and is therefore more likely to be decisive.

24 Re: Film Room: Denver's Defense

Considering I don't think the post betrayed any objectivity, no, it isn't all that funny. :)

Ware is an excellent player, but he isn't nearly as important to Denver as Edelman is to the Patriots. Some of this is because Denver's depth at DE/LB is better than NE's is at WR, some of this is because Edelman is critical to countering NE's biggest offensive weakness, its OL. The fact that Edelman's primary back-up (and a guy who creates match up problems himself if teams focus too much on the top two) was out only compounded this problem.

This is why two players who caught one total pass against the Chiefs, Scott Chandler and Brandon Bolden, were the second and third in both catches and yards. The Patriots basically sent their middling WRs out as sacrificial lambs and threw 187 go and wheel routes using TEs and RBs against Denver's LBs. Their formations may have remained the same, but the approach was completely different.

All that said, I agree with your last statement. Denver's O vs. NE's D might have more to say about who wins than the other match up. I'm not sure how I feel about "mediocre" as a descriptor for NE's defense, but it certainly isn't as good as Denver's.

29 Re: Film Room: Denver's Defense

I think you're generally right that the Denver substitutes for Ware are closer to matching Ware's role than the NE substitutes are at matching Edelman, although it's close. (Von Miller sees a lot more double teams when Ware is not performing.) That said, I think the odd featured receivers in the midseason game weren't *entirely* because of the missing players on the Patriots. There was also, I think, a concerted effort to emphasize those wheel routes and other means of getting passes to players covered by linebackers, so that they weren't throwing to players covered by Harris and Talib.

If Harris is following Edelman around the field, that might not change too much this time around. Harris is unusual for an elite corner in that he does play the slot receiver quite often.

Of course, the Pats are throwing to Gronk no matter who is covering him, unless he's doubled constantly (which Wade Phillips doesn't like to do, but probably should).

32 Re: Film Room: Denver's Defense

"There was also, I think, a concerted effort to emphasize those wheel routes and other means of getting passes to players covered by linebackers, so that they weren't throwing to players covered by Harris and Talib."

I completely agree, with the caveat that poor receivers were a big part of why NE didn't like that match up.

"If Harris is following Edelman around the field, that might not change too much this time around. Harris is unusual for an elite corner in that he does play the slot receiver quite often."

Since elevating to the starting unit in 2003, Edelman has averaged 9 catches for 95 yards and a TD against Denver, numbers he put up despite being covered by Harris much of the time. Trust me that Brady is not going to avoid Julian no matter who lines up against him.

9 Re: Film Room: Denver's Defense

"Both the Patriots and Broncos are significantly different teams since that game, but it's clear that Brady will have to carry the offense if the Patriots are to return to the Super Bowl."

One of the first things I said after turning to the upcoming game was they were significantly different teams.

Listing out the differences like a transaction sheet would be pretty pointless since the majority reading the article will already know this stuff and it's generally just boring to read about who is and isn't available for two or three paragraphs. Let's also not forget that the Broncos lost T.J. Ward and Sylvester Williams during the game.

I appreciate your efforts but you're overstating Edelman's impact on how Philips should approach the game.

10 Re: Film Room: Denver's Defense

"I appreciate your efforts but you're overstating Edelman's impact on how Philips should approach the game."

No, he's really not. Edelman is the single most important factor in the Patriots offense - hes more important than Gronk (because of the offensive line issues).

He's the thing that allows Brady to get rid of the ball quickly, and alleviates the offensive line issues.

18 Re: Film Room: Denver's Defense

Take Gronk off the field, and handling Edelman becomes much, much, easier to defend. There are no circumstances were Gronk becomes much, much, easier to defend. The reality of Gronk creates the opportunity for McDaniels/Brady to manipulate formations in a fashion that makes Edelman very hard to handle. Gronk's hard to handle regardless of formation, or teammates, really.

20 Re: Film Room: Denver's Defense

Intuitively, I agree. That said it's interesting that, since Edelman emerged in 2013, the Patriots have handled Gronk's absence better than Julian's. Anecdotal, of course, but I suspect DVOA would agree.

Small sample size, of course, so take from that what you wish.

21 Re: Film Room: Denver's Defense

I doubt that there is one defensive coordinator in the league who would, if given the choice of facing the Patriots without Gronk, or without Edelman, who would chhose without Edelman. Now, it is possible that they are all wrong, but that isn't the way to bet.

16 Re: Film Room: Denver's Defense

Well, I appreciate your appreciation!

BTW, I must apologize for missing the line about "not playing to expectation" last week. So both of my initial objections proved to be reader error. :)

Where I would disagree with you is what "expectations" were. Denver played about as well as I expected against Pitt. I've watched them numerous times this year and, while the run D is outstanding, the pass D is largely based on pressure. I've yet to see a game where the coverage was simply impenetrable, like I have with other great pass defenses. As long as Ben was mostly upright, I thought it was pretty much a given that he'd hit 275-300 yards (edit: efficiently, of course, not just racking up meaningless totals), and I feel similarly this week.

The way you worded your response makes me unsure about your assessment of Edelman's value, but I would be thrilled if Denver approached the game in the same way.

25 Re: Film Room: Denver's Defense

You're right, I should have mentioned that one. It was one of the most impressive defensive efforts of any team all year.

Of course, Green Bay's offensive struggles continued and Denver never came close to matching it so I think we can safely say it isn't what should be "expected." If they can recreate it, though, I'd say they beat NE by 10+.

26 Re: Film Room: Denver's Defense

Denver's defense hasn't been as good lately as it was when they played the Patriots during the regular season. Of course, the Patriots haven't been as good either. It seems neither team is really playing at their peak level, so based on that alone, it's difficult to make predictions about this game. In particular, I think Peyton Manning is a real wild-card. The stats say he's washed-up, the eye-test says he's washed-up, his playoff record is mediocre, and he performs much worse in cold weather. On the other hand, his offensive line is pretty bad, his receivers haven't helped him out, the running backs have been terribly inconsistent, and the offensive coaching in general has been highly suspect, so if any of the other elements of the offense decide to have a good day, Peyton might also have a good day. I mean, if the receivers against Pittsburgh decide to only drop 3 passes instead of 6-9, then Manning has a pretty good game, right? I expect Brady to have a Brady game, more or less, which means the Patriots will probably score 24 points. Can Manning coax more than 24 points out of the Denver offense with all of its warts? Vegas has NE -3 with 44 O/U, which means NE 23.5-20.5. That seems like a reasonable line, but I wouldn't put any money on it.

27 Re: Film Room: Denver's Defense

To me, if the Denver team that played Green Bay shows up, they win. If any other iteration of the 2015 Broncos show up, they lose.

They have to play at their best, but given how good their defense is, and being at home - a place that Brady has often struggled - I think they have a reasonable chance of playing their best.


1.) WRs can't drop passes
2.) It would be nice if Peyton hits one of his deep shots - he came reasonably close 1-2 times against Pittsburgh
3.) The Broncos front has to have a Giants in SB XLII or Baltimore in '09 Wild Card (or even Denver in '05 Divisional) type performance

31 Re: Film Room: Denver's Defense

Michael Schofield is just terrible. I'm guessing he's the worst starter of the 88 we will see this weekend. If Clady hadn't gotten hurt I doubt he would see the field very much at all, but it's still an indictment against Elway (and/or the coaches I guess) that they couldn't get better production at RT.

30 Re: Film Room: Denver's Defense

It seems very weird to me to assert that the Broncos lose unless they match their best game of the season. Their DVOA from that game was 104.9% - a team that played that way all the time would be the greatest team of all time by a huge margin. If they play that well, they are a huge favorite to win. They could play quite a bit worse than that and still be a comfortable favorite to win.

Just to put it in perspective, the Broncos single-game DVOA was higher than the current Pats weighted DVOA in eight of their sixteen regular season games. (Their win over the Pats is not one of them - it's #9). I do rate the Pats as the favorite here, and a Pats blowout certainly seems more likely than a Broncos blowout, but the idea that the Broncos need their absolute best game to win here doesn't really pass muster. This is a good Patriots team, for sure, but they are not *that* good.

33 Re: Film Room: Denver's Defense

Fair point, though my thinking was more that they really haven't been too inspiring in any other win with Manning at QB (and really no other win with Osweiler at QB). Obviously, if they play THAT good, they win 100% of the time, but I don't know if they repeat their performance in any of their other games do they win more than 50% of the time.