Why Denver's defense is so good at every level
Sometimes a game goes completely differently than how you guessed it would. I thought the Denver defense was good—really good—but that Aaron Rodgers was good enough to get things done in spite of that. Rodgers ended Sunday with 77 passing yards—the lowest total of his NFL career—and the Green Bay offense had the very life choked out of them by a Broncos’ defense that isn’t just good, but might be one of the best the league has ever seen.
What makes this Broncos defense so good is that there are no evident weak links. There are players all over the front seven that can get pressure; the secondary isn’t just talented, but deep enough that they can take away not only your best receiver, but your entire receiving corps every play. And, oh, by the way, they have a couple of legit linebackers sandwiched between the two groups.
What we saw against the Packers was a total team performance from a defense that was able to attack the Green Bay offense from every level. The defensive front brought consistent pressure and kept Rodgers contained, and the secondary was able to blanket receivers across the board—and for longer than I can ever remember seeing from a defense.
Denver was always going to get pressure. As a team, they have 167 total pressures from their defense this season, over just seven games. That’s almost 24 per game. While pressure is enough to turn most quarterbacks into average performers (this season, the league-wide average passer rating drops from 98.2 when kept clean to just 72.0 when pressured), Aaron Rodgers is no ordinary quarterback.
Even including this Denver game, Rodgers has a passer rating of 101.6 when pressured—higher than the league average rating when kept completely clean in the pocket. That doesn’t even factor in the plays he makes with his legs to gain yardage, turning bad plays good. If you factor all of that in, he is actually grading better this season under pressure than when he has a clean pocket to work in.
Denver being able to pressure Rodgers wasn’t their concern; being able to prevent him from making plays, both when pressured and overall, was.
If you want to stop Rodgers, there are almost two phases of each passing play you need to be able to cover. First, you need to shut down the pass as it is drawn up on the chalk board, but then you need to lock down a second phase of coverage—the scramble drill, or the moment when Rodgers starts to move in the pocket and make things happen himself to extend the play.
In previous games, even when his depleted receiving corps has struggled to get open initially, this is when he has been able to buy them time to shake loose and uncover. Against Denver…it didn’t happen.
Take this play as a perfect example. This is how it is supposed to look if everything goes as planned.
2.5 seconds into the play, the pressure has arrived, and this is how it looks:
Every receiver has been locked down, and Rodgers has started to move. Three of the receivers have been absolutely bullied in their routes, the RB has only just made it through the line to release into a pattern, and nobody is even close to open. For most other quarterbacks, this is already a win for the defense; but against Rodgers, this is just where phase two of the play begins.
From this point, it becomes tougher for the defense, because they aren’t just reading routes and combinations from the offense, matching it up to the same things they see week in and week out. Now they’re stuck to a guy man-on-man, trying to mirror any move he makes, with the receiver just trying anything he can to shake loose and give his quarterback somewhere to go with the ball.
This season, when Rodgers has been forced to move off his spot, he has a passer rating of 124.8—there may be no better quarterback in the league at turning broken plays into something special. For Denver to do what they did on the back end is something exceptional.
This is the play after seven seconds from the snap, with Rodgers having danced around and bought extra time in and around the pocket. He still has absolutely nowhere to go with the ball, and ends up having to just heave it short of a receiver down field to avoid the sack.
Defensive backs complain about having to cover for four seconds, but here, the Broncos are in lock-step with every receiver after seven.
Take a look at the entire play run through from start to finish.
At almost eight seconds of time in the pocket, the Broncos are able to lock down Green Bay’s receivers and leave Rodgers with nowhere to go.
The same thing happened in this game time and time again. Denver’s front did it’s usual excellent job—something Green Bay will likely have been expecting—but the ability of the coverage to stick to their assignments long after something usually breaks down was what differentiated this performance from any other in recent memory.
Pass rush and coverage have a symbiotic relationship, often working hand in hand. Great coverage can create sacks where pressure wouldn’t have gotten home otherwise, and great pass rush can make coverage easier by limiting the amount of time you need to cover for.
Denver’s defense has a unit complete enough that their pass rush and coverage worked in perfect harmony in this game, not just making each others’ jobs easier, but snuffing out the Green Bay offense almost in its entirety.
Here’s another play with exactly the same outcome. Denver locks down the play as it was drawn up, and then doesn’t miss a beat when the pressure triggers the scramble drill. Again, Rodgers dances around and does an admirable job of extending the play, but ultimately, has nowhere to go with the ball and can only heave something desperate deep.
Green Bay’s receiving corps is not what it once was, and their answer so far this season has been to leave it to Rodgers to find the open guy or to buy enough time until somebody uncovers. Against most defenses, it’s a strategy that can work, but the Broncos were just too good to allow it to happen. Perhaps the Packers need to think about how to scheme their receivers open a little more with stacked alignments, bunches, pick plays and more complex release patterns, because right now, they aren’t winning enough one-on-one battles with defensive backs.
Aaron Rodgers, for his career, averages 258 yards per game, and more than two touchdowns per start. The Denver Broncos limited him to just 77 yards on 14 completions, and held him without a score. Six of those completions were behind the line of scrimmage.
Rodgers is a quarterback at the height of his powers, playing at a level that should scare any defense in the league. He is an All-Pro with immense talent and control of his offense, and he was completely dominated by a defense that attacked him from every level. This was one of the greatest defensive displays you are ever likely to see, precisely because of the opposition they took apart. This defense is a lot better than I gave it credit for coming into this game, and I thought the performance against the Packers was unreal. The Denver defense is playing in rarified air right now, and it’s incredible to watch.