In the latest exhibit of the week-to-week nature of the NFL, the Denver Broncos were scorched by the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday by a surprising 51-23 score (gamebook).
The Broncos entered the game with the number one ranked defense (in yardage allowed). That they ranked sixth against the pass was important enough against the Eagle passing game. Even more impressive, this defensive unit ranked second in the NFL against the run (allowing 72.9 yards per game). They were also surrendering just 3.0 yards per attempt (also second in the league), and had yet to give up a rushing touchdown.
The week before they mostly silenced an excellent Kansas City offense with man coverage and a stifling run defense that took away chief weapon Kareem Hunt. With Philadelphia’s best receiving threat (Zach Ertz) on the bench, the prospects of the Broncos shutting down Philadelphia seemed at least plausible.
For, maybe, 15 minutes.
By the Way, Philadelphia Can Run the Ball
Already ahead 17-3 after the first quarter, Philadelphia kept scoring, finishing, finally with 7 touchdowns and 4 field goals. It is no longer surprising when Carson Wentz – even without his best receiver – chews up an opposing defense. Wentz finished his afternoon with 4 touchdown passes and a 118.7 passer rating. What very much surprised me about this game was the Eagle running attack. Against a team that had surrendered more than 80 rushing yards just once in their first seven games this year, the Eagles finished the game with 197 rush yards on 37 attempts (5.3 yards per attempt). The team that had yet to allow a rushing touchdown served up 3 on Sunday.
All of a sudden, this offensive line merits some re-evaluation. Right tackle Lane Johnson – a pass blocking hero in the Monday night game against Washington, stepped up again in that role. This time he gave Von Miller all he could handle. Guards Brandon Brooks and Stefen Wisniewski spent the afternoon pushing Denver ends Derek Wolfe, Shelby Harris and Adam Gotsis five or more yards into the defensive backfield. Center Jason Kelce showed surprising power against 300-pound nose tackles Domata Peko and Zach Kerr.
Some of the offensive line’s best moments belonged to fill-in tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai. On most of the Eagle’s biggest runs of the game, Vaitai was at the point of attack with the critical block.
The Eagles didn’t really get serious with their running game until there were two minutes left in the first half. They were already ahead 24-9 at that point. The Eagles were on their own 40. Their first 10 running plays of the game had earned a modest 23 yards. But then a plan emerged.
Finding Flaws in the Denver Defensive Scheme
The heavy lifting on the Bronco run defense has fallen all year to fast flow linebackers Brandon Marshall and Zaire Anderson – along with several secondary players who almost always play in linebacker positions. Mostly these are Darian Stewart and Will Parks. The defensive line’s only responsibility in the Denver scheme is to penetrate. For the season, so far, they have been very proficient at disrupting runs in the backfield, leaving the linebackers and others to clean up.
What their linemen don’t do often – or well – is occupy blockers.
Now, with two minutes left in the half, the Broncos are expecting pass. They open with six in the box. They have pass-rush specialists Miller lined up at left end, and Shane Ray at right end. Vaitai pushed Ray off to the sideline, while Wisniewski and Kelce pinned Harris to the inside. With Harris unable to get off of Kelce’s block, Wisniewski popped through to the second level.
In what would be a recurring theme all afternoon, Brandon Marshall would be contending against linemen getting nearly free releases into the second level. Wisniewski easily pushed Marshall out of the way, and new Eagle Jay Ajayi motored through the gap for 14 yards. The Eagle staff must have liked how that worked out, because they ran almost the same play again. Once again, Vaitai removed Ray. Wisniewski handled Shelby Harris by himself this time, as Kelce pulled around the end. Brandon Brooks streaked untouched toward Marshall pushing him out of the way. With most of the Bronco defense on the ground, Ajayi scooted untouched around the left end and sped 46 yards for his first Philadelphia touchdown.
Second Half All About the Run
Whether this was the plan all along or a sudden revelation, we won’t know. But throughout the entire second half, Philadelphia attacked this weakness in Denver’s run scheme. Wentz threw the ball only 6 times after the intermission, while the Eagles ran 24 running plays for 108 yards. As the Broncos always seem to be in pass rush mode, all the Eagles needed to do was stop the penetration. If the line could do that, they would have mostly unfettered access to the linebackers.
With 11:54 left in the third quarter, the Eagles faced a second-and-4 at the Denver 22. The Eagles stacked three receivers to the right (tight ends Trey Burton and Brent Celek, and receiver Mack Hollins). The Broncos responded with their 3-4, with Shaquil Barrett playing in Miller’s usual left linebacker position and safety Darian Stewart flanked to the left of Marshall like a linebacker.
Burton turned Barrett to the outside. Hollins stung Stewart (who was coming on a blitz). Celek pulled and got a trap block on Shelby Harris, who was penetrating through the middle. Just into the game after an injury to Lane Johnson, Isaac Seumalo (who was more than a little impressive in his limited opportunities) stopped Kerr’s attempt to penetrate from the left end position. Wisniewski also handled Gotsis in a one-on-one situation. So on this particular play, both Brooks and Kelce went untouched into linebackers Marshall and Anderson, respectively. By the time the pile enclosed around running back LeGarrette Blount, Blount had picked up another 10 yards.
Five plays later, another Eagle running back Corey Clement took a pitch from Wentz on an option play at the goal line to score the touchdown that pushed the Eagle lead to 38-9.
A Blue-Print Against the Bronco Defense?
Remembering that this was a run defense that had held Dallas to 40 rushing yards, Buffalo to 75, and Kansas City to 79, it bears asking how repeatable this success could be. Could other teams do this to the Broncos? I think yes, providing a couple of things.
First and foremost, the offensive line would have to keep the Denver front seven out of the backfield. Philadelphia made it look easy, but they will present a challenge for most offensive lines. Also, the potency of the Eagle passing game kept Denver from making stopping the run a priority. Even after this debacle, Denver is still number 5 against the run. I would have to see a few more teams do this to Denver before I would expect some kind of change in scheme.
Too Many Running Backs?
In regard to the Eagles, the addition of Ajayi might make too many running backs. On Sunday the 34 carries by running backs were distributed thusly: Clement had 12, 9 for Blount, 8 for Ajayi, and 5 for Wendell Smallwood. Classically, a team settles on a primary running back. Usually 8-12 rushes isn’t enough for a runner to get into the rhythm of the game. Probably, now, that will be Ajayi. The Eagles have a bye this week, and may emerge on the other end with Jay being the 25-carry back. But I know they like the other three guys a lot, too. Plus, you figure Carson will still be throwing the ball a lot.
Finding enough footballs to keep everyone happy and sharp could prove to be a challenge. Such are the challenges of an 8-1 team.