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Film Room: Is The Denver Broncos Defense Still Elite?

A question has been floated around Broncos Country this week; is the Denver defense still elite? In today's film room, Publisher Chad Jensen examines, with some observations from Denver's Week 12 performance.

For the last two years, the Denver Broncos have relied on their defense to save the day. Late in games, by sheer force of will, the Broncos defense has delivered win after win, in spite of their impotent offense. 

They take 13 plays off from being unstoppable and now people question whether they're still an elite unit. 

That's okay. I understand it. The NFL is a "what have you done for me lately?" league. It's a production-based business. 

http://www.scout.com/story/1731476-scout-s-cyber-monday-sale-is-on?s=101 In Week 12, the Broncos held the Kansas City Chiefs to 273 yards of total offense over five periods of play. They allowed just 83 yards on the ground, and 190 through the air. 

They sacked Alex Smith six times, led by Von Miller's three, and held the Chiefs to just 5-of-17 on third down. The Chiefs offense — not withstanding the nine points scored by the defense and special teams — were kept off the board until almost the end of the third quarter. 

On paper, these numbers look like a big, gigantic, whopping win for the Broncos defense. But it wasn't enough. 

And it wasn't enough, despite the fact that the Broncos offense had arguably it's most prolific day of the season, contributing 464 total yards and 27 points. You combine that level of offensive production with the Broncos defensive stat-lines and that's a recipe for success. 

Only, the Broncos didn't win. Why didn't they? 

Because of lapses on special teams, which led to a combined 11-point swing. Take those points off the board and the Broncos win this game handily. 

But you can't take them off the board. Kansas City executed in the third phase, while the Broncos did not. Denver has won 28 games in a row, when winning the turnover battle. 

They didn't win the turnover battle on Sunday night. Jordan Norwood's muffed punt counted as Denver's single, solitary turnover of the night, but the offense also allowed a safety. I look at a safety as a turnover, even though technically it's not. 

http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1732691-denver-broncos-in-focus-c... Still, with three minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Broncos had the deck completely stacked their way. They owned an 8-point lead, which would mean that the Chiefs would not only have to march 75 yards in three minutes, but they'd also have to convert the two-point try — just to tie. 

The death knell for Denver was how they played defense on that final drive. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is usually money as a play-caller in the clutch. But against Kansas City, in the final drive of regulation, Phillips called some plays that simply didn't make any sense. 

It wasn't exactly a prevent defense. Phillips, called a variety of zone and man coverage concepts. The running theme, however, was a two-deep safety shell, with the outside corners play off-coverage. And by "off", I'm talking a 10 to 12-yard cushion. 

Instead of continuing to dial up his defense the same way that he had all game long to great success, Phillips let Smith dink and dunk down the field. The Chiefs were helped along the way by two Denver penalties, one of which resulted in an automatic first down (illegal contact, T.J. Ward). That's 10 yards relinquished for nothing. 

Let's take a look at four plays that highlight how the Broncos let the Chiefs back into the game. 

Third-&-10: 2:26

The Broncos already have the Chiefs at third-&-long. Unfortunately, there seems to have been a communication error. The Chiefs spread it out, while the Broncos are completely content to show that they're playing zone, with a two-deep shell. 

CB Bradley Roby is playing close to the line of scrimmage and he impedes TE Travis Kelce at the snap, but Roby's responsibility is clearly the flat, so he passes Kelce off. ILB Brandon Marshall was likely the guy who should have stayed with Kelce, but he was slow to react and S Justin Simmons is also late getting there over the top. 

Easy conversion on third-&-long. Notice the cushion CB Aqib Talib is allowing at the bottom of the screen. 

Third-&-10: 25 Seconds

Later on in the drive, the Chiefs are in the redzone, but it's third-&-long. This time, Phillips calls man coverage with a cover two shell. Smith is trying to hit the his slot receiver on an inside post along the seam. 

The Chiefs O-line buys Smith a clean pocket and he delivers an off-target throw that slips right through the hands of CB Chris Harris, Jr. Talk about a missed opportunity. It would have been a tough catch, certainly, but that's a play Harris makes more often than not. 

It bought Kansas City new life. It was a good call defensively. Phillips allowed his corners to man-up and play to their strengths. A four-man rush puts seven guys in coverage, but playing their assignments close. Had Phillips called a similar defense on the next play, I'm confident the game would have ended with the Broncos winning. 

Fourth-&-10: 19 Seconds

This play was the back-breaker and so frustrating to watch. The Broncos are clearly playing quarters coverage with no awareness for the boundary, at least on Roby's part at the top of the screen. 

This is a play in which Alex Smith made the difference. He held the safeties — and Roby — with his eyes, looking right, before turning left and firing to WR Tyreek Hill for the out-route. Smith read the quarters coverage and knew where he would be going with the ball pre-snap. Roby got caught watching the QB. 

There's absolutely no excuse for Roby's lack of awareness of the boundary. A bad play call and even worse execution. But you've got to tip your hat to Smith for making a great play in the clutch. 

First-&-Goal: 15 Seconds

Once again, Phillips mans up his coverage, but he's going to bring pressure this time. He sells out on a zero blitz, leaving no zone help over the middle. The corners would have to win their matchups and break up the pass. 

Unfortunately, the Chiefs run a great play design, with a sort of rub route on the left side. The slot receiver runs just enough interference to possibly delay Roby's break on the route and WR Hill is able to cross Roby's face. 

The pressure is late getting to Smith and it's an easy pitch-and-catch from that point. Hill hauls in the pass for the touchdown.

I like that Phillips brought the pressure, but it was a day late and a dollar short. This mentality, and that of the third-&-10 two plays before, is what the Broncos defense is built upon — not a Jack Del Rio prevent special. 

The Broncos are built to attack. Bring the pressure and rely on the savvy of their corners to win their matchups. Phillips lost sight of this on Kansas City's final drive of regulation. And it cost Denver their 8-point lead, and ultimately, the game. 

Conclusion

Nothing has changed for the Broncos. They've bent time and time again in the weeks leading up to Week 12's loss. But this time, they finally broke. It was bound to happen eventually. 

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They were batting .1000 for the longest time. But eventually their luck ran out. 

Is the Broncos defense still elite? You bet your bottom dollar. 

No team in the NFL can match the talent Denver has on defense, nor their depth. While it's true that the Broncos depth defensively has taken a slight step back since last year, due to free agent departures, they're still better positioned to keep guys fresh — without losing production — than any other team in the NFL. 

This game epitomized a comedy of errors that culminated in an unfortunate end result. Look at it as an outlier, not a sign that Denver has lost something defensively. They're still ranked No. 4 in total yards, No. 1 in sacks, No. 3 in takeaways, No. 9 in points per game, and No. 2 in yards per play.

Really, the only meaningful statistical category in which the Broncos aren't ranked top-10 is in run defense (27th). But they've shored up that side of things over the last two games and that will begin to reflect statistically if they can continue to do so down the stretch.

Honestly, as frustrating as it was to watch the Broncos lose that game, there was more good that came out of it than bad. The defense still played very well and Trevor Siemian and the offense took a giant leap forward.

If they can clean up their special teams play, the Broncos present a combination of threats that few teams will be able to stop down the stretch.

 

Chad Jensen is the Publisher of Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @ChadNJensen.

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