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Know Thine Eagles Enemy: Broncos Run Defense

All is not what is seems on Denver’s ferocious defense

Oakland Raiders v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Sorry for the dramatic sub-headline.

You’re going to hear the stat dropped a few times—likely more—on Sunday: the two best run defenses in the NFL. Philadelphia leads the league in rushing yards allowed, with 70.4/game; Denver comes in hot on their heels with 72.9/game. (Minnesota is third with 81.4.)

But stats are liars. Yeah, Philly’s allowing the least yardage—but they’re also seeing fewer rushing attempts than any other team in the NFL (18.4). Denver is 27th, at 24.0. Certainly, these numbers inform one another: Teams don’t run the ball on the team that’s good at stopping the run, which leads to less attempts, which leads to less yards gained, etc...

If we go to yards/rushing attempt, however, Cleveland—Cleveland—leads the league, with only 2.9 yards surrendered per carry. While this shouldn’t shock—Cleveland has a very good front seven—it’s still surprising to see Cleveland leading anything. Denver comes in 2nd, at 3.0, while Philly is T-6th at 3.8.

Is Denver’s run defense better, then? Well...stats are still liars.

Denver was on an insane tear early in the year. Remember, they started 3-1, and have since gone 0-3. Across those first 4 games they allowed rushing totals of 64, 40, 75, and 24—good for an average of 50.75 yards/game. Over the last 3? 148, 80, and 79. That’s an average of 102.3 yards/game.

In that first stretch, they faced Melvin Gordon, Zeke, Shady, and Marshawn Lynch. The second? Kareem Hunt, Gordon again, and some dude named Orleans Darkwa. Suffice it to say, the Denver run defense has taken a step back as of late. In today’s film review, we try to figure out why—and how Philadelphia can best capitalize.

How not to run the ball on Denver

Of course, the first step is to figure out what not to do. The Denver front seven is stout—with its weaknesses, certainly, but stout nonetheless. There are a few guys to avoid.

It starts with EDGE Von Miller—predictably so, as Von is one of the 10, 15 best players in the game right now. While he makes his hay as a pass-rusher, Von’s been around for long enough—and has the athletic skill set—to play tough against the run.

This is basic outside zone—but it’s important for us to break down. Von (#58), from his typical left end position, attacks the TE (egads!) tasked with blocking him off the snap, striking the inside of the chest and maximizing his length. Notice how Von keeps his outside (left) shoulder clean, knowing that the entire play is flowing that direction. If he’s to make a tackle, it will likely be on that side.

The rest of the defensive line also does its job, clogging the lanes of the flow. Keep a close eye on NT #94 Domata Peko, who chucks the center like it ain’t no thang and helps force the RB to the outside, where Von awaits. Even though Von doesn’t make the tackle, this play is officially strung out. The RB has traveled so far horizontally that there’s nowhere for him to go but out of bounds. Minimal gain.

Because Von—and the rest of the Denver edge defenders—are such upfield players, you can run it on them—but we’ll get to that later. When it comes to simple looks like outside zone, I wouldn’t recommend trying to wash Von Miller with a tight end.

But we should talk more about Domata Peko, because he is one mean dude.

Gordon should have followed his blockers on this trap play here, but he thinks he can hit that daylight that develops weak side. Problem is, Domata Peko is waiting for him in that gap, with the upper body strength and lateral quickness to stack, shuck, and close the hole.

Los Angeles was wise to try to run an interior trap. By doing so, they can down-block against the 1-tech (Peko) and immediately gain natural leverage, sealing him out of the hole. You see the Giants work that to their advantage on this long run by Darkwa.

Classic inside trap here. The Giants are “trapping” the 3-tech, Derek Wolfe. Peko, playing the 1-tech, gets down-blocked by C #69. Peko doesn’t really get moved—one does not simply move Domata Peko—but it’s incredible difficult to get across that block and influence the play.

Let’s break down the anatomy of the trap. Watch as the LG and LT both step to Wolfe, as if to double-team him. As he’s conditioned to do, Wolfe starts driving forward, in an effort to split the presumed double-team. But suddenly, both linemen peel off to the second level, while the pulling RG smashes into Wolfe. The RB runs right behind that block, as LB #51 Todd Davis attacks with incorrect leverage, and S #26 Darian Stewart—who is playing linebacker here—diagnoses improperly. Boom: 57 yards.

Mentally log this inside trap look for our next section—how to run the ball on Denver. The inside trap helps you work against dangerous, upfield interior defenders like Peko and Wolfe. But, because the trap is a play of deception, you must be able to set it up with actual double-teams and classic power plays. If you don’t, good defenders will start to sniff it out.

Derek Wolfe wrong-arms the living daylights out of that trap block, which clogs the lane and forces the runner into the waiting arms of Domata Peko, and the big man eats. Yum.

Derek Wolfe remains a “Let’s not run the ball near that guy” player for Denver.

How to run the ball on Denver

Inside traps can work? Dilly dilly. Let’s see if outside traps are as successful.

Outside traps serve the same function as inside traps—baiting, then smashing an unsuspecting, upfield defender. But, as the name would imply, you use outside traps to ensnare defensive ends, rather than interior defenders. Von Miller, who loves to explode upfield, is an option—here, the Los Angeles Chargers trap his counterpart, #48 Shaquil Barrett.

I learned this as a GUT block, or G block. GUT stands for Guard Under Tackle, as the OT blocks down on the DT, and the OG works underneath him to kick-out the edge defender (Barrett).

The Broncos will often run 5-man fronts, which pushes their edge defenders to 9-tech alignments, outside of the TE. Were the EDGE that far outside, it would be far more difficult to trap him—he’d have more time to react, given that he’s further way pre-snap.

But here, Los Angeles catches Denver in a 4-man front, in which the EDGE plays on the TE (7-tech). He’s easy pickings for the pulling guard, as the RB weaves through traffic and the back side executes their zone blocking assignments.

Notice how the TE (#86) holds the attention of the LB (#26, again a safety playing linebacker). This is another nuance of the Broncos’ defense of which Philadelphia will likely look to take advantage.

The Broncos prefer to play with five defensive backs on the field—and, as a heavy man coverage team, those defensive backs that are responsible for covering tight ends are forced to play as linebackers when the TE is tight into the formation. #26 here cannot simply shoot the gap, as he’s responsible for the TE in man coverage—were this play-action, he would be leaving his man wide open.

Defensive backs are, shockingly, worse at playing linebacker than linebackers are. Attacking these DBs in the running game forces them to take on bigger bodies and physical responsibilities to which they are not used, and for which they are not suited.

Another excellent example of attacking DBs in the run game. Notice: another outside zone run, but this time avoiding Von Miller, and attacking Shaquil Barrett. That’s two times now, the offense has had success running to Barrett’s side.

Next to Shaq Barrett, also responsible for setting the edge against this outside zone: Safety Justin Simmons (#31). Squared up against one of the better blocking TEs in the game (#85 Rhett Ellison), Simmons is in trouble. He gets escorted straight out da club. Look at that alley. Sheesh.

Be sure to also watch Barrett struggle. A smallish OLB (250 lbs), Barrett gets folded by that initial double team. As he tries to recover, he fails to get his hands inside the chestplate, or generate separation with length (as Von did above). As such, when the RB comes to hit the hole, Barrett’s swallowed up by the OT and can only lunge at air. It’s not a terrible play, but his physical limitations limit his edge-setting capabilities.

Final note: watch that #51 again, Todd Davis. Davis is a great athlete, but he doesn’t have the best understanding of gap integrity. Davis must know that, when a climbing OL comes to block him, he has to keep his outside shoulder clean (as Von did above). If the RB has truly taken that cutback lane, Davis’ll rarely (coughnever) make that tackle by working across the lineman’s face. Again, Davis has picked the wrong side of the lineman to attack, and effectually removed himself from the play.

If I could diagnose three main themes in offense’s success running the football against Denver, it would be these: trapping their down linemen, attacking DBs playing LB, and working whatever EDGE isn’t Von Miller (usually Shaq Barrett, but Shane Ray is coming back from injury) on outside run concepts.

And trust me—teams have caught on. Here’s Los Angeles running that same NYG outside zone look (notice Shaq Barrett and DB at the line of scrimmage) one week later:

And here’s Kansas City running outside trap (G-block) a week after Los Angeles did it (with power blocking on the back side instead of zone blocking):

There’s a DB playing LB there as well.

So, Philly should:

Do all the things listed, then hire me to watch film for them.

But, instead of that, Philly will likely pound the ball with LeGarrette Blount up the interior to start. Even if it’s ineffective, it’s important to run more traditional power concepts, with double teams and lead-blocking guards, to set up the traps.

When they do run trap plays, expect less GUT and more ChUG (Center Under Guard). C Jason Kelce on NT Domata Peko (one mean dude) isn’t a good matchup for Philadelphia. They’d far prefer to keep RG Brandon Brooks on Peko, and have Kelce work into space. Using Pin-Pull Sweep concepts will also help Philly here (worked pretty well for Los Angeles).

If Ajayi is available (it sounds like he will be), expect Philadelphia to run him on outside zone a ton. It’s an easy install for a new player, and he’s undoubtedly their best runner in those schemes. Zone blocking, with a TE to the play side as seen above, will both help Halapoulivaati Vaitai, and expose those DBs-playing-LB to play-action later.

I expect Philadelphia to hang 100 yards on this team. Denver has only allowed one 100-yard game, of course, but Philly has broken that mark in each of their last six contests. If they can’t hit triple digits again on Sunday, they’ll struggle to run the offense as whole, and things will get dicey mighty quick.

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