In the glaring light of the Denver Broncos' overtime loss to the Seattle Seahawks, defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio, is under scrutiny. Why? Because despite an excellent overall performance from his defensive unit at Century Link Field, the team fell short in overtime, allowing Russell Wilson and company to drive down the field for 80 yards and the sudden-death touchdown.
It wasn't just that the Seahawks scored a touchdown on their opening possession, to end the Broncos' miraculous comeback hopes. It was the way that they did it. Wilson absolutely gashed the Broncos on the ground. On 4 attempts, he rushed for 21 yards on that drive. 2 of those rushes converted key 3rd downs.
The Seahawks' strategy was simple. Run the outside receivers straight down the field, and keep the outside defenders' backs to the line of scrimmage, and open up the outlet, or a short crossing route underneath. With the Broncos defensive backs drawn deep to defend the vertical threat, Wilson had to make one read.
Was the outlet, or crossing route open? If not, take off and gash the Broncos on the ground. When Wilson began to chip away at the Broncos in this way, everyone watching the game, many of whom were likely shouting at their TV screen, were expecting Del Rio to put a spy on Wilson. A spy's job is to shadow whomever the target is. If it's a running back, the spy will hang back from the line of scrimmage and follow the player. Same if it's a quarterback. A spy doesn't rush the QB, or drop back, or turn his back to the play. He simply watches and waits, spring-loaded for action, should his man break containment.
If a team is going to use a spy, it makes sense to utilize one of your team's fastest players, which usually comes down to your weakside linebacker, or a safety, but not always. Del Rio did not call such a play. There were a couple of times I thought middle linebacker, Nate Irving, was assigned the task of spying Wilson, but then he'd drop back into coverage, only to have to spring forward in pursuit of Wilson. And fall short. That's not a spy.
In 3 weeks of regular season play, the Broncos have faced a mobile quarterback each time. Andrew Luck, Alex Smith, and Wilson, respectively. Luck carried the ball 5 times, for 19 yards and a touchdown. Smith also ran it 5 times, but was more successful with 42 yards on the ground. Wilson ended the day with 40 yards rushing, 21 coming on the game-clinching overtime drive.
These numbers display a pattern. And it is perceived as a willful refusal to game-plan effectively for these elusive signal callers. With the quality of personnel the Broncos have in the secondary and in the front seven, the Broncos are set up to play excellent man coverage. Or press-man. But too often, Del Rio is running his scheme in zone coverage. Aqib Talib is one of the best cover men in the NFL, as is Chris Harris, Jr. Bradley Roby, a rookie, has performed admirably thus far in his coverage responsibilities.
I understand that maybe it's not feasible to run press-man for a full 60 minutes. But the primary purview of a NFL coordinator is to play to his personnel's strengths. Del Rio has two of the best edge rushers in the game at his command in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. These studs can exert otherworldly pressure on the opposing quarterback. This plays into the hands of his secondary. The Broncos interior is excellent, as well. Derek Wolfe, Malik Jackson, and Terrance Knighton can collapse the pocket from the inside in their own right.
So why have the Broncos struggled to close teams out? In their first two games, against the Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs, it came down to the final possession. The Broncos defense had to hold both teams to a turnover on downs, in order to secure the victory. To their credit, they did just that. But against elite competition, like the Seahawks, it was only a matter of time before they'd be the ones to execute on the final possession. There is such a small margin of error when you face an opponent like Seattle.
And error the Broncos did. At the end of the day, one can argue that players have to execute. And that's true. To a point. The other half of that equation is that the coaches have to scheme to put their players in the best position possible to execute. Del Rio has not done that effectively.
He's under fire for it. And justifiably so. The Broncos were gassed on that final possession, but so were the Seahawks. Such a situation favors the side who is forced to react. The defense. Jack Del Rio and John Fox have a great opportunity with their bye being this week. They need to re-evaluate how they're deploying this defense and figure out how to play to their personnel's strengths.
They'd better figure it out because the Broncos' schedule doesn't get much easier going forward. They face the currently undefeated Arizona Cardinals in week 5. Then they also have the San Francisco 49ers, San Diego Chargers, and New England Patriots in 3 of the following 4 weeks. Such is the burden of a conference's #1 seed. Heavy is the head that wears the crown.