Despite questions looming on offense, the Broncos came into this season with high expectations on defense. New head coach Vic Fangio, coming off a strong tenure as defensive coordinator of the Bears, was supposed to craft a defense that would have the Broncos back in Super Bowl form. With stalwart Von Miller and the up-and-coming Bradley Chubb, who combined for 26.5 sacks last season, fans and analysts alike predicted big things for the pass rush in 2019.
In fact, in SB Nation’s preseason predictions, I picked Chubb as my defensive player of the year because I expected so much out of that pairing in a Fangio-led defense. I then wrote about it again after Week 1, suggesting it wasn’t time to panic and that the Broncos would figure things out.
They haven’t. Now at 0-3, the Broncos have no sacks and no takeaways, which makes them the first team in at least 50 years to go three straight games without getting either, per ESPN’s Ed Werder.
But why is that? I watched every passing down Denver’s defense has played and saw some trends that could explain it.
There’s a surprising lack of blitzing in Fangio’s defense
Thus far, the Broncos have faced 83 passing snaps from opposing offenses. They, of course, have no sacks, but they’re barely even getting pressure. Chubb has three quarterback hits on the season — the ONLY quarterback hits the Broncos have. Miller has no hits and just a single quarterback pressure.
Are they rushing just three players too often? That was the first question, and it’s not at all the case. In charting the number of rushers, I had the Broncos sending only three players a total of 12 times. Perhaps more concerning is they have only rushed six players twice in three games this year.
Denver has spent the bulk of its passing downs rushing just four defenders, leaving ample room for Miller or Chubb (or sometimes both) to eat double-teams. Denver rushed five-plus players on just 22 of 83 passing downs — eight of those resulted in incompletions, though seven of those were in the Bears game, where Mitchell Trubisky had several errant throws despite good protection.
Speaking of good protection, Aaron Rodgers had plenty of it in Week 3, putting some more pressure on the Broncos to fix what’s wrong with their pass rush:
Packers QB Aaron Rodgers: "I have to say this is one of the cleanest games my jersey has ever looked. I took basically one shot."#Broncos— Ryan O'Halloran (@ryanohalloran) September 22, 2019
The Broncos are relying on their front four to get the job done, but it isn’t working. Why not? Each of their three opponents so far have done their own things to mitigate the standard rush.
What are opposing offenses doing against the Broncos’ pass rush?
With all three quarterbacks the Broncos have faced — Derek Carr, Trubisky, and Rodgers — one thing is evident: they’re all trying to get the ball out quickly. This tells me that teams are still respecting Miller and Chubb, but they’re effectively neutralizing them.
Here’s the kind of play I saw a lot over the course of three games: the Broncos rushing four and the opposing quarterback making a quick throw for a short gain.
Carr did this often, and only had four incomplete passes in Week 1. Four!
And when a team is able to move the ball this effortlessly, as the Raiders were doing, it becomes easier to fake out the defense with something more creative. On a third-and-1, the Raiders lined up for a run, but Carr clearly called an audible at the line (another theme we’ll talk about more later), and the Broncos were caught napping.
The Broncos sold out on the run, and Carr casually lobbed a huge pass downfield for an easy gain. Even with play action, he was able to get the ball out in no time.
The next week against the Bears, Trubisky didn’t have a great game, but from what I saw, he was just inaccurate on the day (16 of 27). Most of the incompletions he threw were without pressure in his face and with his receivers fairly open. The pass rush had little effect on matters.
But even Trubisky can beat you if you let off the gas.
On this play, the Broncos were in a very basic defense trying to prevent a big gain as the game was almost over. Mostly, they protected the sticks, but the four-man rush couldn’t get any pressure. Trubisky stepped through, found a wide open receiver on fourth down, and the Bears kicked a game-winning field goal. (To be fair, there were other factors at play here, like a ticky-tacky penalty on Chubb that set the Bears up.)
In Week 3, Rodgers and the Packers did many of the same things that Carr and the Raiders did: get the ball out quickly and handle the lack of blitzes with good offensive line play. Rodgers got more time than the other two opposing quarterbacks to throw, and he punished the Broncos for it.
Once again, the biggest plays came when the Broncos tried to play coverage. Here’s a third-and-long situation where Denver only rushed three. Rodgers looked casual in the pocket, as he often does, before firing off a pass to his comeback receiver for chunk of yards. You’ll notice Chubb got double-teamed, Miller got chipped, and then Miller got double-teamed.
What does all this mean? That Fangio’s defense is not getting the job done anywhere, and is perhaps even too predictable, which is itself very surprising.
Offenses know what to expect against the Denver defense
Another thing I noticed from opposing offenses — besides trying to get the ball out quickly and taking advantage of lacking play from Denver’s pass coverage — was the number of line calls. It’s hard to know for certain when a play was changed, but both Carr and Rodgers could be heard killing plays at the line after getting a look at what Denver was showing them defensively.
All of these teams know that Miller and Chubb are threats (and as an aside, Chubb is having a great season in run defense and in coverage). They also know that the Denver coverage units are vulnerable, and that’s why the Broncos have to stick with rushing four players the majority of the time.
Fangio and the Broncos entered this season banking on those four being enough to generate pressure, but thus far, they’ve been wrong.
Fangio knows there’s a problem, and he’s taken his share of responsibility for the lack of a pass rush. So what’s the solution?
At this point, I think the Broncos need to start blitzing more, because they haven’t done it enough to really establish that their secondary can’t hold up its end of the bargain. They haven’t created pressure at all, so it’s hard to really judge the backfield’s ability to contain offenses with an extra man rushing the quarterback.
Miller and Chubb alone are being shut down, and surely, players as good as they are will eventually get to the quarterback. But they won’t do it consistently until the Broncos make some changes with their defensive gameplanning as they continue to search for their first win.