The Denver Broncos won Super Bowl 50 with arguably the best defense to ever play the game. The 2015 Broncos were stout all across the defense. With the historic unit ranking first in pass defense (both total yards and yards per attempt) and third in total rushing yards surrendered (but first in yards per attempt), there was not a single weakness.
While last season’s defense was still one of the best in the league, the Broncos run defense took a monumental step backwards, finishing 28th in yards allowed on the season at 2,085 yards and a middling 18th for yards per attempt at 4.3. It would be easy to point the finger at both the defensive line and the linebackers for the team's’ inability to stop the run, but it is hard to place blame on starting defensive end Derek Wolfe.
http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1784455-limited-offer-get-3-month... This past season, Wolfe finished with 55 total tackles, 5.5 sacks, 4 pass deflections, and 12 quarterback hurries in 14 total games. Wolfe finished with a pass rush productivity grade of 8.3 according to Pro Football Focus, good for the ninth best score of all 3-4 defensive ends last season and proving he is one of the better players at his position at putting pressure on the opposing team’s quarterback.
Wolfe does provide value as a pass rusher, but his biggest impact for the team is as a run-stuffer. PFF graded Wolfe’s run stop percentage at 9.6% last season, which placed him as the second highest graded among all 3-4 defensive ends. Wolfe brings talent and tenacity to the defensive line and while he does not always wrack up the stats from game to game, his impact is far reaching and undervalued by the casual fan.
A film analysis of the Broncos week seven matchup against the Houston Texans shows that when watching the D-line play, Wolfe is a menace to opposing teams. This was his second-highest graded game by PFF in 2016.
Play 1: Q1: 15:00
On the very first play of the game, Wolfe was already showing his prowess as a run-stuffer and a commander of the line of scrimmage. On this play, the Texans are lined up in heavy 12-personnel with an extra offensive lineman lined up next to the right tackle.
Wolfe is lined up directly over right tackle Derek Newton at four technique. When the ball is snapped, Wolfe fires off with low pad level and places his hands inside the tackle’s chest, controlling him as he slides across the B gap. The trenches are a game of leverage, and with Wolfe firing low and controlling the tackle’s chest plate, he has won this battle. Wolfe also is disciplined and aware with his eyes on this play.
After pressing the tackle and filling the B gap, Wolfe keeps his eyes in the backfield to follow the ball. Once he has analyzed that the play is indeed a hand-off, Wolfe disengages and shows strong lateral agility to move across the line of scrimmage and make a play on the ball-carrier. While he did not receive statistical credit on this play, Wolfe did everything right and made an impact on the ball carrier.
Play 2: Q1: 13:54
One 3rd-&-5 on the very same series, Wolfe shows off some of his pass rushing prowess, creating pressure in the face of Brock Osweiler. On this play, Houston is lined up in shotgun with trips to the left, but DeAndre Hopkins is motioned to the right. Wolfe is lined up on the inside shoulder of the right tackle, hovering over the B gap between the tackle and the right guard, i.e. 4i technique.
Wolfe doesn’t create pressure initially when he engages with the right guard, but keeps his eyes in the backfield on the quarterback. With Von Miller crashing inside, Wolfe rag dolls the guard off of him to create a clean lane towards Osweiler. With impending pain bearing down upon him, Osweiler releases the ball before Wolfe reaches him.
Wolfe, realizing he won’t be able to reach the quarterback, gets his hands up to disrupt the passing lane as best he can. The end result, a three-and-out to start the game for the Broncos defense.
Play 3: Q1: 1:14
On this play, Wolfe is lined up on the outside shoulder of the right guard over the B gap as a 3-technique. The Texans have two tight ends on the left side of the line and run the ball to the weak side. The Texans offensive line, in unison, moves to the right and Wolfe reads the flow of the offense and moves semi-laterally with them, engaging with the outside shoulder of the right guard attacking the B gap.
Wolfe uses his arms and knee bend to gain and maintain leverage while also keeping an adequate distance from the blocker so he doesn’t engulf him. Wolfe also consistently keeps enough discipline in his rush sets to keep his eyes in the backfield and follow the flow of the ball. Here, RB Lamar Miller could kick the ball outside on his run, but due to Miller setting the edge and Wolfe getting to the outside shoulder of his blocker, Miller turns it up field.
When it looks like the RB may have a hole up the A gap, with the guard turning Wolfe outside the lane, Wolfe plants his outside foot and rotates his hips while ripping under the inside arm of the guard. This creates the force and separation needed to disengage from the block and fill up the gap in a hurry. Wolfe meets Miller in the gap and swallows him up for a minimal gain.
Play 4: Q1: 0:30
This play was one of Wolfe’s best pass rush sets in the game. While he does not get home and fully hit Osweiler, and he will not receive credit for a sack or a hurry, Wolfe creates pressure with burst, leverage, strength, and balance. Wolfe is once again lined up over the outside shoulder of the right guard in 3-technique. Upon the snap, Wolfe fires laterally across the body of the guard and attacks the right side A gap.
Wolfe fires off low and keeps his chest plate from being exposed to the lunging right guard. The center, mentally occupied with a potential blitzer at the second level, fails to help the right guard pick up the bull-dozing Wolfe before he is creating chaos in the backfield. Wolfe dips his shoulders and gets low, squeezing through the gap with incredible balance for a 300-pound lineman. Due to this pressure across the face of the guard, Wolfe opens up a gigantic hole in the B gap, leaving a clear lane for the delayed blitz of safety T.J. Ward.
With Ward free and coming in fast, Osweiler is forced to deliver a low percentage throw down the field while taking a shot. Once again, Wolfe will not receiver statistical credit for this play, but he made a world of difference in making this incompletion happen.
Play 5: Q3: 7:33
Wolfe will never confuse anyone for J.J. Watt or Aaron Donald, two of the best interior defensive plays over the last decade, as a pass rusher. He just simply doesn’t have the length or elite explosion that those two players possess. Still, Wolfe is one of the better interior pass rushers in the league despite not having all-decade level athleticism.
On this play, Wolfe is once again lined up over the B gap on the right side shaded moreso over the guard as a 3-technique. While Wolfe does offer an initial strong jolt at the snap, standing the guard up, he doesn’t create pressure on the quarterback right away.
First he shades to the outside shoulder and ‘peeks’ at the quarterback to access where Osweiler is moving. After he sees it is play-action, he ducks his head and shifts his body to the inside shoulder of the guard, again with his head ‘peeking’ out to watch the quarterback and judge where he will be moving. As soon as Osweiler looks to escape the pocket to the right, Wolfe uses the guard’s inside momentum against him and easily disengages and starts pursuing the escaping quarterback.
Wolfe is fast for his size, but still takes a wide angle to the quarterback to prevent Osweiler from getting around him and ripping off a solid gain. Once the angle is established, Wolfe closes quickly and lays a licking on Osweiler as he once again gets off a low percentage throw while on the run and from an awkward platform. The ball sails safely out of bounds as Osweiler greets the turf.
Play 6: Q4: 4:43
On this final and game-sealing play, Wolfe is again lined up over the B gap. It is fourth down and the Texans need a first down if they stand a chance to chip back into the game. Wolfe moves laterally to the B gap while engaged with the right guard. He stays disciplined in his gap as to not create an escape lane for the quarterback while Jared Crick and Von Miller close in on Osweiler.
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It is obvious from the quick drop by the quarterback that the play will be a quick throw and Wolfe stands no chance in getting to the quarterback. Showing awareness and veteran savvy, Wolfe instead keeps his eyes on the quarterback once again and puts up his hands in the passing lane.
He deflects the ball safely away to the chant of “IN-COM-PLETE” from the Mile High Faithful and the Broncos retain the ball with a turnover on downs.
While Wolfe did not notch a single sack in these plays, he was the catalyst in making good things happen for the Broncos defense (and bad things for Osweiler and the Texans offense). While interior defensive linemen rarely receive the glory that edge rushers, linebackers, corners, and even safeties receive, they are an integral part in controlling the line of scrimmage, stopping the run, and creating interior pressure on the quarterback.
Wolfe was a wrecking ball when healthy this past season, but the Broncos run defense was still putrid as previously discussed. If healthy, Wolfe will likely continue to harass offensive linemen and quarterbacks every time he steps on the field, but if Denver is going to return back into their 2015 defense, they are going to need help on the defensive line not just from Wolfe.
Luckily, as long as Wolfe is there, the Broncos will have a strong and tenacious anchor on the defensive line.
Nick Kendell is an Analyst for Mile High Huddle. Follow him on Twitter @NickKendellMHH.