Why Broncos own the NFL’s best pass defense

Mike Renner breaks down the success of Denver's D-line and secondary that led to a Super Bowl 50 championship.

| 11 months ago
(AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)

(AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)

Why Broncos own the NFL’s best pass defense

[Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment in Senior Analyst Mike Renner’sTeaching Tape” article series, which takes a look at the best positional units across the NFL.]

Defense wins championships. It’s a phrase so simplistic and outdated that it’s usage serves as a litmus test for the quality (or lack thereof) of one’s analysis. From Super Bowls XL to XLIX, the average winner ranked 8.7 overall in points per game (with only one team being below the league average), while they finished 11.2 overall in points per game against (with four teams below the league average). Simply put, an elite offense was more necessary to carry a team to a Super Bowl victory. Last year though, the Broncos’ defense won a championship, without much aid from the offense. They were a unit so dominant that offense didn’t matter, and that’s why they’re the next team to go under the microscope in the “Teaching Tape‘ series.

The Broncos’ pass defense starts from the top down. Wade Phillips didn’t create any baffling new scheme or throw in funky matchup-specific wrinkles into his coverages. Instead, he provided a mindset and philosophy that permeated throughout every level of his defense. If you could boil it down to a corporate mission statement, it would likely be: Let the players make plays.

I know what you’re thinking, “No kidding,” but it’s a concept that’s not ubiquitous in the NFL. Some defenses stress gap control, rush-lanes, and assignments to such a degree that elite guys can get hamstrung and leave potential big plays out on the field. This isn’t to say that each ideology doesn’t have its merit, but more so that it’s easy for a defensive coordinator to say they’ll be more of an “attacking defense” in an introductory press conference than to actually be one on Sundays.

It takes trust. Trust in players’ judgement. Trust in players’ skill. Trust in players’ preparation. It’s that type of trust that Phillips afforded his defense as much as any coordinator in the league in 2015. There are two main ways to be “aggressive” as a defensive coordinator: bring more than four rushers (a.k.a. blitz) or play man-coverage.

Team Man Rate
Kansas City Chiefs 48.1%
Buffalo Bills 46.2%
Denver Broncos 45.9%
New England Patriots 43.9%
Arizona Cardinals 43.3%


Team Blitz Rate
Arizona Cardinals 42.6%
Denver Broncos 40.0%
Tennessee Titans 39.6%
Oakland Raiders 37.2%
Green Bay 34.6%

As you can see from the above table, Denver (along with Arizona) really separated themselves from the pack in terms of aggressiveness. When they did blitz, opposing quarterbacks completed 50 percent of their passes and averaged 5.4 yards per attempt with 10 touchdowns, eight interceptions, and 23 sacks. That’s over 291 dropbacks over the course of the season.


Effective blitzing is all about timing and location. In the play above, the Broncos roll down a safety and overload the weakside of the formation right before the snap. The Vikings should have adjusted their protection as the slide was towards the strength of the formation, but they didn’t have time, and as such, didn’t have enough blockers to prevent the sack.

It’s a little easier to trust in a defense that has the playmakers Denver did along the line. Everyone knows about Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, but Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson (now with the Jaguars) were both top-12 graded interior players, while spot-rushers Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett had higher pass-rushing productivity marks than Julius Peppers. Even when they didn’t blitz last year, they still generated pressure on a ludicrous 46.0 percent of snaps. The average for the rest of the league? 32.6 percent. When you take out all passes thrown within two seconds of the snap and screens (realistically no chance to get a pressure), that number jumps to 57.7 percent for Denver and 43.0 percent for the rest of the league. That means on almost three out of every five normal dropback passes, the Broncos got pressure on the quarterback without a blitz.

The schematic aspect of the Broncos’ pass defense is likely the simplest one of the series so far. Man-coverage has been man-coverage for years. Denver’s favorite variation was cover-1 blitz (26.6 percent), meaning that the only defender playing a zone is the deep middle of the field safety, whereas in regular cover-1 (10.8 percent), there is also an underneath zone defender. The Broncos were also among the league leaders in cover-2 man (5.6 percent), which differs in that the man-defenders play in trail-technique.

Cover-1 blitzC1b


Cover-2 man2Man

Like the defensive line, it helps when your cornerbacks are freakishly talented and you can play matchups with them because of their size. Aqib Talib (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) would routinely follow any receiver with size, while Chris Harris Jr. (5-foot-10, 199 pounds) or Bradley Roby (5-foot-11, 192 pounds) would be on anyone with quickness. As I said before, this isn’t revolutionary stuff. The Patriots had many of the same quirks on their run to the Super Bowl the year before. The execution, though, is what sets them apart.

Take the play below. The walked-up corners on the outside and the depth of the linebackers and safeties post-snap suggest that the coverage is 2-man. The slot fade that Golden Tate runs is a great route against 2-man when the slot corner has inside leverage like that. On the outside, Roby reads the release of Lance Moore and immediately commits to sinking under the fade, recognizing the route concept. He easily could have been wrong and yielded an easy catch to Moore, but it’s yet another example of the freedom they’re allowed to play with.


No one is blind to the fact that it helps to have four of PFF’s Top 101 players of 2015 at your disposal on the defensive side of the ball. At the same time, though, there have been numerous talented defenses in the past 10 seasons, and none carried an offense as anemic as Denver’s to a championship. If you’re looking to follow the blueprint for their success, good luck. Defenses like the 2015 Broncos don’t come around every year.

| Senior Analyst

Mike is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has also been featured on The Washington Post, ESPN Insider, and 120 Sports.


    With Talib shooting himself in the foot (leg actually) and facing suspension and multiple gun charges, and Miller shooting himself in balls (His demands for mad money and for him to be paid regardless of suspensions for drug charges or criminal behavior), perhaps it is time for Denver to turn the page on low character players. I believe Talib is more Greg Hardy than Manziel, and Miller is more Manziel than Greg Hardy.

    • Aaron Beach

      Police report officially states Talib was a victim of aggravated assault, not arrested and had no mention of a gun. If he is to be suspended, it will be based on some independent investigation that disagrees with Dallas police report which I doubt the NFL will engage in.

    • T. Kothe

      Terrible, ignorant comment. You’re letting media narratives and perhaps your own bias blind you.

      As Aaron said, the police report indicates that they do not believe Talib shot himself. And that would be a very easy thing for them to determine.

      Similarly, Miller’s preferences for his contract aren’t outrageous for a player of his skill and production. He has never had drug charges and is no longer in the NFL’s substance abuse program, and the worst legal trouble he’s ever been in was in relation to not appearing in court after a traffic ticket back in 2013. Low character player? Please.

  • crosseyedlemon

    You did an excellent job with this teaching tape series Mike. What makes the accomplishments of the Bronco defense even more impressive is that they managed to be dominate despite a -4 turnover ratio.

  • TyroneShuz

    The 2013 Seahawks defense could’ve carried a pee wee flag football team’s offense to the championship.

    • crosseyedlemon

      That was a good defense but they got an assist from an offensive that was 4th in scoring efficiency. In 2008 the Steelers carried an offensive ranked 23rd in scoring efficiency to a championship….which is a bit more impressive.

      • TyroneShuz

        Completely shutting down what many (including Wes Welker) believed to be the best offense of all time to the tune of 8 points is pretty impressive.

        • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

          i would love to be able to watch the 2015 broncos and 2013 seahawks play a game. i’m a diehard broncs fan, but still think those hawks would prevail more often than not, russell wilson’s mobility being the x-factor. it’d be an (awesomely) ugly game, the first team to 9-10 points would likely win

        • Frank Fish

          It was impressive although seeing a Manning led offense crumble in big moments was not a new thing. Manning was that deer-in-headlights QB in big games going all the way back to UT.

        • TheTruth

          the seahawks d DIDN’T carry a pee wee football team, theyou carried a top 3 O. how dont people see that it was a #1, historical D, with a top 3 O vs the number 1 O with no pass blockers(starting LT was out, and our RT was a young cat

        • TheTruth

          they got 30 pts off turnovers two were because Manning arm was being hit and the it other julius JThomas let fly over his head, ramirez gave the hawks 2 pts and HUGE momentum to start the game. D Thomas shoulder was separated and still burnt sherman all day. it was a good performance but simply having Ryan clady playing who was a top 5 pass pro the last 4 years, wouldve change it, and ramirez was our 4th option at C from injuries, the line was horrendous that yearbut Peyton never played a good defense let alone a all time great.

    • Frank Fish

      Except they weren’t as good as the 2015 Broncos defense. The numbers don’t lie, unlike fans. 😉 The Seahawks defense was amazing that year, no doubt; but the Broncos defense last year was historically great.

  • Ron

    Let’s be honest,they weren’t even favoured at the start of the playoffs,they barely beat a Steelers team who was minus Antonio brown,who violated them like a prison bitch… Barely beat a hurt NE team..No,they aren’t the best,just watch how they fall hard this yr..

    • TheTruth

      he violated them while both safeties were our and their LG purposefulply broke our back up FS leg, and he had to play being the only safety they had, so ya they “violated them”

  • Ron

    Remember how the Seahawks destroyed them only a few yrs before…Lol

    • rodrigo

      The year they were a completely diferent team ?
      Like,you know,offense focused ?
      Kill yourself and spare everyone form your piece of shit “knowledge” about football

    • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

      minus von miller, chris harris jr, aqib talib, tj ward and d-ware, just to name a few

    • TheTruth

      Harris was the best CB that year and didn’t play in the SB, miller didn’t play, wolfe is top 3 in his position today and didn’t play the starting DT didn’t play, Rahim Moore didn’t play, and at FS we now have stewart who was top 10 in coverage this year, plus ward is much better than ihenacho, plus marshall and trevathan is better than 2013 trevathan and nate Irving and instead of harris roby and talib, all top 30, and Harris was top 5, they had a slow hurt old bailey and drc.