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The Denver Broncos pass defense in 2017 remained one of the better units in the NFL.
Look at the conventional statistics, and you’ll find they allowed the fourth fewest passing yards in the league. Dig deeper, and it’s clear they weren’t as good as that stat might suggest, as they conceded 6.9 yards per air attempt (14th best in the league), had only 10 interceptions (24th in the NFL), allowed 59.9-percent completions (11th in the NFL) and only had 33 sacks, which was 22nd best by any defense.
While the run defense was excellent and showed improvements over 2016, the pass ‘D’ regressed from the elite standard we’d come accustomed to in the previous two seasons. With the loss of Aqib Talib, even more of a drop off might be expected, unless, the Broncos get creative, especially when in nickel or dime situations.
While Talib is a big loss, Denver’s made several additions the past couple seasons to the defensive back seven. In all, Denver’s drafted two cornerbacks in the third round, added hybrid linebacker-safety Su’a Cravens, brought in undrafted free agent Jamal Carter, and signed veteran corner Tramaine Brock.
All those new additions should allow Vance Joseph and Joe Woods the ability to put their stamp on the defense, particularly while in sub packages.
That’s why we went back to the tape, to figure out what some of the different solutions could be for Denver in nickel or dime next season, allowing them to get the pass defense back to elite levels, and in turn, get the Broncos to be AFC West contenders once again.
Forget Talib; it’s time to play three safeties
One way in which the Broncos defense can look different in sub is using a healthy amount three-safety looks.
Three-safety packages are fairly common in the NFL and have been popularized by Todd Bowles—on the of the best defensive minds in the league in his own right—who used several safeties with the Arizona Cardinals as their DC and is trying to do the same now with the New York Jets. With Arizona especially, Bowles’ formations somewhat revolutionized the NFL, as he’d use Deone Buccannon as a hybrid linebacker and Tyrann Mathieu as a slot cover man.
The Broncos have their Buccannon alternatives—which we’ll talk about in the section below—however, it’s Justin Simmons might just be the Mathieu replacement Denver needs to throw three safeties out at once.
While Simmons’ ability as a sure-tackler is the thing that he’s most known for, his athletic ability is probably his most special trait. Simmons’ game against the Dolphins was a true eye opener a season ago as he was able to play flawless coverage in the slot, even producing a pick-six.
Simmons has the speed, instincts, and physicality to cover receivers stride for stride up the seam or on crossers. He has obvious talent in coverage that most modern safeties don’t have, especially for a guy who can play both deep or up close to the line.
Simmons’ ability to cover the slot like a cornerback really opens up options for three-safety packages, where Darian Stewart can cover deep, and the options at strong safety are plenty. Will Parks filled in great for Simmons in the final two weeks of 2017 and could do so again in situations where Simmons is flexed out to cover inside.
With the safety depth on this defense and some uncertainty surrounding the third cornerback, this would make a lot of sense.
A craving for more versatility on the second level
When analyzing Vance Joseph’s defensive trends as the Miami Dolphins DC in 2016, he utilized a lot of 4-2-5 formations, much more than he’d even play of out base, and frankly, we didn’t see enough of this a year ago in Denver. While in Miami, like Bowles, Joseph mixed it up, playing three safety sets while also featuring a safety in the box as a de facto linebacker at times.
With that safety playing close to the line like a linebacker, Joseph had the advantage of basically playing in sub while also being able to play like he would in base, with that hybrid player allowing the formation to easily change from one to the other.
It’s no coincidence then that the Broncos were so keen on bringing in a player like Cravens, who fits that role perfectly. Cravens might not be a natural fit in base, but in a hybrid formation or in sub-package, he’s guaranteed to be an absolute game wrecker with swiss-army-knife level versatility. Cravens’ ability as a blitzer and tackler make him a menace when playing up close to the line, and he has plenty of cover skills that should allow him to significantly upgrade the Broncos defense in coverage against tight ends or running backs—an issue the past several years now.
Another player in the mold of the in-the-box intimidator with hybrid linebacker-safety talents is Jamal Carter, who’s often a forgotten man, but was added to this team for good reason last year, in some ways even forcing T.J. Ward out the door.
Cravens and Carter could even play together in some instances and could be added to Simmons and Parks in certain sub-package—Parks has also shown the ability to play up close to the line.
It should come as no surprise that Brandon Marshall has lost some weight this offseason, which should allow him to play in more formations like these, where he’ll be asked to do more in coverage as well.
At the linebacker level, the Broncos should have a lot more versatility next season with the young hybrid players they have, particularly if they’re to adopt more of the concepts that Joseph used in his aggressive scheme with the Dolphins.
Mixing and matching in the slot
There are lots of scheme options for the Broncos in sub and plenty of variations of how they can use all their young safeties to create the best matchups for them on key downs.
However, a big part of this will come down to how the cornerbacks are used, as well. While the Broncos did add three corners via the draft and free agency in the past two offseasons, all three—Brendan Langley, Isaac Yiadom, and Brock—are ideally suited to play as outside press cornerbacks, not in the slot.
This isn’t anything new for the Broncos, who used to have Talib and Chris Harris Jr. cover outside in base looks and then shift Harris to cover in the slot in three-cornerback formations. In 2018, Talib will be replaced by Brandley Roby, who showed some real flashes last season. Harris can still be moved inside, while the winner of the third-cornerback competition can fill in for him in coverage outside.
Roby could also be shifted inside, where he’s shown some nice skills as a slot cornerback, too.
Between Roby and Harris, you can play the matchups and put them on whoever they’re suited best to cover, with Harris taking the smaller shifty slot receivers and Roby taking the size-speed wideouts.
Langley has all the upside to be special in such a role, too, he just needs to work on his instincts and technique.
The best option
Given all the film I’ve watched on the coaches preferred schematic tendencies and scouting reports I’ve written on all these new additions, this is who I’d throw out in a 4-2-5: obviously Harris and Roby are automatically in there, then I’d have Cravens close to the box, and Simmons covering the slot with Stewart playing deep. Though, if Stewart doesn’t get back to his form prior to a down 2017 campaign, I might consider Simmons deep with Harris in the slot and Brock covering outside. Throw in Parks in dime situations, and you have a pretty decent group.
The bigger challenge will be mixing and matching all these personnel groupings and maintaining the aggressive mindset Joseph has had in the past. It’ll also be key to scheme the front seven creatively so that the pass rush can get back to being elite.
Accomplish those two things and the Broncos defense will be very tough to beat next season.