Subscribe to our newsletter

Don’t Underestimate Denver’s Defense

Broncos Defense
Gabriel Christus/Denver Broncos
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on email
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Reading Time: 11 minutes

Bit embarrassed that I didn’t work out the Ravens’ game plan successfully last week. How did I not realize that they would: leave points on the field with a missed field goal and dropped catches; give up a fourth quarter lead to one of the worst teams in the league; and all that only to kick an NFL-record 66-yard field goal to win the game as time expired?

How did I not see that coming?

Let’s see if I do better this week…

Offensive Keys

Be unpredictable, break tendencies, but execute

Greg Roman has faced three of the better Defensive Coordinators in the league in Weeks 1-3, in Gus Bradley, Steve Spagnuolo and Aaron Glenn. Glenn is a first-year coordinator but had an excellent game plan last week to shut down the Ravens’ option running game and Roman countered him well, with often execution letting him down.

I was going to write that this week he faces a familiar foe, in Vic Fangio, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. He’s a familiar colleague, having served with Roman the same staffs in Baltimore, Stanford and as fellow coordinators in Jim Harbaugh’s stint at the 49ers. But he is not, in fact, a familiar foe, with Roman and Fangio never having faced each other since.

And even though he’s faced good competition so far this year in Bradley, Spagnuolo and Glenn, Fangio will surely be Roman’s greatest test yet. A defensive coordinator who knows Roman, his scheme and play-calling tendencies well, but more than that, someone who is arguably the premier defensive mind in the league.

Fangio is beginning to spawn a major coaching tree of disciples, beholden to his defensive philosophy, one which has done more to curb the rampant excesses of modern offensive football than almost any other.

While Fangio has as idiosyncratic a scheme as any of the preeminent defensive coordinators in the league, what makes him great is how he adapts his scheme subtly to suit the players at his disposal, and how beautifully simple the scheme is, allowing players to play complex defense without needing to understand an overly complex scheme.

This season in Denver will likely be his zenith as Head Coach of the Broncos when it comes to personnel for his defense. Make no mistake, despite this being a Broncos team that has beaten up on lesser competition to sit 3-0 on the season, they are no joke. The defense is legitimately suffocating, even for high-powered offenses, and it hasn’t come a moment too soon for Fangio, who is clearly on the hot seat this season.

He also knows Roman. And we know that Roman uses a good portion of his 49ers playbook including familiar passing concepts and run plays that Fangio will have seen day in and day out at practice many moons ago. That’s why I’m arguing that Roman must mix up his play-calling and his play design this week.

The Broncos will be ultra-prepared for this game and ready for anything the Ravens throw at them. If the Ravens installed anything over the summer that was new, or if Roman learned anything new from Paul Johnson’s visit a couple of years ago, this is the game to use it in, as the Ravens will need to surprise Fangio and his defense at as regular a clip as they can.

What I would say though, is that the Broncos defensive shell leaves them prepared for most offensive variations so the Ravens must execute at a higher level on offense than they did last week. Drops and miscues will be all the more costly against a Broncos defense that will be more likely to stop the Ravens more consistently than a Lions defense that seemingly was always open to attack from the deep passing game. And speaking of the Ravens deep passing game…

[Editor’s Note: You can listen to James’ Battle Plans as he discusses them with RSR’s Dev Panchwagh and Tony Lombardi by pressing play below]

Complete passes deep and outside

The Broncos defense is predicated on stopping that at which the Ravens are best. The Ravens realized three years ago, through their focus on analytics, that throws over the middle of the field were more likely to be completed than throws outside. This wasn’t exactly undisturbed ground when the Ravens ventured out onto it, starting in earnest during Lamar’s MVP season. If it wasn’t entirely new then, it certainly isn’t now, and Fangio was one of the first to adjust.

Denver’s defense clogs the middle and stops opponents throwing to the portions of the field where they are most likely to get a completion. It forces foes to throw outside on them. Last season they didn’t have the horses to compete out there, but it’s a very different derby this year, with Denver having invested serious resources at the corner position to counter this weakness. Patrick Surtain has looked good through three weeks and Kyle Fuller is a familiar piece for this defense. Ronald Darby, who is out for this game, also came in and the Broncos left little wiggle room for attacking them week-to-week this season.

The strength of this defense lies up the middle. By shoring up the outside, Fangio further strengthened the hallmark of his defense: his coverage scheme.

For a description of how difficult it is to attack this scheme we have to turn to baseball. The success of the 2020 Tampa Bay Rays  was built on a dominant bullpen – its pitchers virtually all came in with a different arm angle. In contrast, the success of a dominant starting pitcher can be built off a series of pitches, all of which look the same from the batter’s perspective until very late in the pitch. NFL defenses that are built with lots of different looks can be hard for players to learn and often, as a result, can be inconsistent. A true dominant defense needs to replicate the approach of a starting pitcher that throws all his pitches out of the same arm slot and with the same initial path out of his hand, making it easier for players to learn and difficult to decipher.

This is what Fangio does. It’s also what Brandon Staley, Fangio’s greatest play-caller creation does. The Broncos and the Rams, last season, were the only teams to start from a pre-snap, two-high safety look, with the middle of the field open (MOFO), over 80% of the time. This look, pre-snap, then turns into a multitude of different coverages, so it’s nearly impossible to decode pre-snap, as well as immediately post-snap.

So we’ll start here, with things I think the Ravens cannot do – they cannot run play-action, Fangio’s defense is a play action killer for exactly this reason – what you see when you snap your head around after the play fake is very different from what you saw when you stood under center (or in Pistol or Shotgun in the Ravens’ likely case).

This rotation by the Safeties post-snap – and Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson are arguably the best safety tandem in the league – makes it difficult to attack the middle of the field with digs and crossers, including the popular Y cross concept, with all be taken away routinely.

Everyone in coverage in this scheme has help and they are taught how to leverage that help to effectively cover the offense’s main weapons. The coverage will also often roll into split-field coverages, and so the Ravens cannot run any 3×1 formations and are likely better suited running their symmetrical formations and passing concepts, leaning on Lamar’s improved processing to identify the coverage and attack the weak spots.

But the real way to attack this defense will be deep and outside the numbers. The Ravens receivers will need to read the coverage accurately, and will need to win downfield to start opening up other areas of the field. Despite the Ravens’ improved average ADOT (average depth of target) this year, the Broncos will still disrespect their ability to beat them outside and deep. Lamar will need to target the honey hole when he reads zone coverage. And if the Broncos scheme is proving too difficult to read, this wouldn’t be an indictment on Jackson, as this defense will do that to every quarterback in the league,

I would expect to see the Ravens begin to give Lamar more half-field reads to take away some of the power of the split-field coverages Denver runs.

Pass protection, how to run the ball, and RPOs (again)

The Ravens Offensive Line has looked serviceable these past two weeks, and is nearly three weeks removed from their Maxx Crosby nightmares following the first game. This is a different challenge to what they’ve seen so far through the season though. Patrick Mekari’s mettle will be tested in earnest by Von Miller who isn’t quite the same pass-rusher he was – but isn’t far from it.

And more than that, they will face more elaborate and more dangerous games and stunts than they’ve seen. This defensive line plays lots of interior games as well as often stunting more than two players. One of the main areas for improvement with the Ravens Offensive Line through three weeks, has been their passing off of pressure and stunts; they’ve been vulnerable to this type of rush and will need to quickly find their feet against a team that does it frequently and at a high level.

In the run game they face an even greater challenge. The depth of the Broncos safeties dares teams to run the ball. They will come out in an odd front with three down linemen and their edge players standing up against heavier offensive personnel, but when in base, they will stick with a four-man front and a six-man box overall.

It’s this kind of numbers game that the Ravens usually relish, powering over teams who dare them to run with such a light box. But it’s those pesky safeties that come into play again here. It’s what makes their coverage schemes so hard to break down, because the safeties can just as easily play the run and have elite ability to click and close on the ball.

The Ravens must be able to run the ball against these formations to have success against the Broncos. I wouldn’t bother spreading this team out to run the ball, as they’re able to defend the run even in nickel personnel because of the trigger and tackling ability of all their defensive backs. The Ravens are at their best when there is traffic in the running game, with multiple pulling linemen, either used to run behind or as decoys. This should be a large feature of the game plan: get the offensive linemen on the move and to the second level but with limited zone blocking as the Broncos stack-track-fall back technique means they are outstanding at defending the zone run, particularly on the interior.

The other option for the Ravens, as it was last week, is the RPO. I’ve already mentioned that play action isn’t a good idea against this defense because you don’t want your QB turning his back, but you can force the defense to stay honest against the run, while also keeping the QB’s eyes downfield with the RPO. The Broncos will be ready for that though, so the Ravens must execute the RPOs they run at a high level, including and especially Lamar’s decision-making when he decides to pull the ball out and throw.

Brandon Williams pre-game against the Patriots.
Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore Ravens

Defensive Keys

Stop the run

Before writing this piece, I think I may have been prejudiced against Pat Shurmur. And honestly, I’m not sure how it passed me by that he’s in his 9th season as an NFL coordinator and his 13th season calling plays. It shows on the game film too as his experience and savvy show up week in, week out. This is not a blow-you-away type offense, but it absolutely doesn’t need to be. It needs to be better than it was last year, but Teddy Bridgewater has already brought that to this team.

The other thing that we see from Denver is the beginnings of an effective downhill running game. This is a crucial cog to the Shurmur offense because he needs the running game to work to setup the creative ways he schemes open receivers and creates easy throws for the quarterback. You can regularly see him use play action, but he’s also creative with boots and nakeds built off power run fakes with pulling guards and lots of misdirection.

For this kind of thing to work, the running game has to be effective so that linebackers and defensive linemen are kept honest. When the Broncos selected Javonte Williams out of North Carolina in this past draft, to pair with Melvin Gordon, they created a formidable backfield, and Williams is starting to grow into his role with the team already.

They are multiple in the run game and run plenty of gap and zone concepts to get Williams and Gordon running lanes. It isn’t a high-powered unstoppable running game though; Gordon’s skills are waning, while Williams is still feeling his way into an NFL backfield. The Ravens are an elite run-stuffing unit by any measure and in many ways, with the depleted offensive line, this might be the best time to play a Broncos offense that might not yet be at the height of its powers, so early in the season. I do think Javonte Williams will get going in earnest at some point in his rookie year, and this offense will be all the harder to stop when he does.

The Ravens being their usual brutally stingy selves against the run is reliant on two uncertainties though. First, the return of their defensive line intact and at full strength with little practice time, including Brandon Williams, Derek Wolfe and Justin Madubuike. The Ravens need Williams’ prowess facing down double teams when the Broncos run inside zone, they need Madubuike’s penetration and general havoc-wreaking play against the gap concepts, and they need Wolfe back (unlikely) to allow others to be successful. Getting Justin Houston and Jaylon Ferguson back to add back some steel on the edge that was missing at times from the win against the Lions will also be crucial.

The other contingency for stopping the Broncos run game is an improvement in Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison’s inside linebacker play. This offense isn’t the best team to face for a get-right game given all the misdirection and play action, but they need to remain disciplined, read their keys and make plays. The Ravens need them to step up to have an ultimately successful season and this is a key litmus test if they get their full defensive line back to play behind.

Fire zone blitz

First, if you’re not listening to Dennard Melton and Michael Crawford’s excellent podcasts on the Ravens defense, The FireZone Show, you should be. And while I could write a glowing review of their work under this heading, I’m actually not talking about Dennard and Mike’s show.

Shurmur’s offense is a sort of old-school West Coast with plenty of overlapping routes and quick cuts. Shurmur is also good at game-planning for specific defenses and will always have plays dialed up to beat even the most dangerous defenses in the NFL, like the Ravens. In fact, with Shurmur, the more non-descript or vanilla your defense is, the easier it is to go up against him, as he has less to attack. The Ravens don’t have that luxury.

Having said that, I think this might be a defense that Shurmur struggles to get his team going against. Getting the ball out quickly is something this offense is used to, and Bridgewater is running the offense as only a pro like himself can, with sheer competence, making his reads, delivering the ball on time. Getting this offense out of its rhythm is crucial and Wink can do that with a staple of the Ravens defense: the fire zone blitz.

The fire zone blitz, as many Ravens fans will know, typically involves a five-man rush with the other defenders dropping into coverage. Of the other defenders dropping into zone coverage, a normally down defensive lineman will be included.

If the Ravens can scheme up quick pressure, from unexpected angles, and with unexpected drops, they can hurt the Broncos, mainly because of the personnel that they are lacking for this game. Bridgewater is an experienced quarterback who will have seen even some of Wink’s more exotic blitz packages before. He won’t be surprised, but I don’t believe he has the players to beat it this week.

The first problem for Bridgewater is his banged up offensive line. They need to identify who’s coming as well as communicate, working together to pass off defenders, whether it be a delayed blitz from a LB or Odafe Oweh on a stunt. This could be a difficulty. But more than that, his two wide receivers who give him the ability to pick apart a blitz like this are missing.

Denver’s most explosive receiver, in KJ Hamler, and their most effective receiver off press as well as in and out of his breaks, in Jerry Jeudy, are both missing due to injury. Their ability to get open quickly and in short areas could have hurt the Ravens if they went too heavy with their blitz packages. Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam will create their own challenges for the Ravens defense, but Baltimore can counter with the length they have in the defensive backfield. And if they’re stopping the run as already mentioned, taking away play action, running their diverse blitz packages, then the Broncos might find themselves, in the enduring words of Terry Tate, in for a long day, a loooonnnngggg day.

Matchup to watch

Von Miller vs Patrick Mekari

You are only as good as the weakest link on your offensive line. I’m not sure that Patrick Mekari is the weakest link on this line and his level of play over his two weeks of starting at right tackle has been at least adequate, if not solid. He gets a big test this week though, with one of the preeminent pass-rushers in the league in Von Miller. Miller isn’t the same guy as he was when he entered the league, but he has adapted his game and is still a weapon off the edge. Mekari will need to hold up, at times without help (the Ravens will need to give him some help) for the passing game to succeed this week. The Broncos coverage schemes (already mentioned) are even more deadly when combined with an effective four-man rush, usually spearheaded by Miller. Mekari has to neutralize him as much as possible.

Ravens Town Tavern

A Rivalry Like No Other

The Ravens v. Steelers Rivalry If I could use one word to describe #RavensFlock these days it would be tepid. Despite the Ravens being the …

Read More →
Get Back
Ravens Town Tavern

Get Back

The Beatles, for my money are by far the best band of all-time. They were pioneers, breaking down doors in America and paving the way …

Read More →
Patrick Queen tackles Alexander Mattison
Injury Report

Ravens @ Steelers – Wednesday

Ravens Did Not Participate: CB Anthony Averett (shoulder/ankle); TE Nick Boyle (knee); C Bradley Bozeman (shin laceration); WR Devin Duvernay (thigh); OLB Justin Houston (NIR-rest); …

Read More →
Roethlisberger Hendrickson
Rock Spring Financial's In The Hood

Bengals Deal Steelers Another Blow

It’s not much, but after a wild week of inter-divisional play in the AFC North, it feels as if we may finally be starting to …

Read More →
Lamar Jackson's critics
Street Talk

Ravens Rant: This Team is Unlucky and Unwavering!

The Ravens won another game. It was ugly, it was hard-fought, and it was frustrating, but ultimately, the efforts by this team resulted in the …

Read More →
Steelers Week
Out To Lunch

It’s Steelers Week: Let’s Go!

Wednesday is here! Wednesday is here! Time for some good ole fashion Twitter gossip and feel-good posts from the Twitter-verse. Before we start, let’s appreciate …

Read More →
Don’t Miss Anything at RSR. Subscribe Here!
Latest posts
Join our newsletter and get 20% discount
Promotion nulla vitae elit libero a pharetra augue