Why Denver’s defense is so good at every level

Sam Monson breaks down the Broncos' shutdown defensive performance against the Packers on SNF.

| 12 months ago
(AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

(AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

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.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

  • http://leap.aacu.org/toolkit/ Caleb Ward

    This is fantastic. Keep these video analyses coming… I actually learn something from content like this. I’d love to see some video analysis of how the best QBs in the league go through progressions and play the eyes game. Thanks for the work!

  • Jaguars28

    Are they ’00 Ravens or ’02 Buccaneers good?

    • Four Touchdowns

      According to Football Outsiders, even the 2000 Ravens weren’t as good as people remember —

      “And in case you are asking, since this comes up a lot with our lists of the best defenses ever: Yes, we don’t even have the Ravens as the No. 1 defense of 2000, let alone all time. The Ravens were only seventh in pass defense that year even though their run defense was the best ever. They had the easiest schedule of opposing offenses in the league.”


      • David Stinnett

        Hmmm.., with 7th ranked pass defense I don’t see why one would wonder how to compare between 2000 Ravens and the 2013-2014 Seahawks

        • Lonestar47

          Yes that historic offense was shut down.

          But we in Denver saw a poor at best game plan, and a team poorly coached during that game.

          One thing that jumped out was the lack of preparation for the crowd noise that was being led by the billboard operators only when the Broncos offense was on the field.

          Perhaps an over zealous NFC employed operator? As we all know that most Super Bowl games the fandom is pretty balanced and most fans are there for the spectical not the teams on the field.

          • David Stinnett

            Wow, that’s one I haven’t heard, and it does not even begin to look like a plausible explanation for what happened. Wow

          • anon76returns

            Poor coaching and preparation were certainly part of what happened.
            Looking statistically at Seattle that year, they had a great defense, but not statistically “absolute best ever” D. What was perhaps best ever is how they rose up in big games. During the regular season they played by far their best game of the season against a very potent NO offense, and absolutely shut them down. Then they turned around and topped that by playing an even better game in the SB, against (statistically) the greatest offense the league has ever seen. That is what puts the Seahawks defense in “best ever” conversations, even more so than their “great but not greatest” statistics.
            By comparison, the Broncos that year were by most metrics the greatest offense of all times, but played terribly. A lot of that was the Seahawks, but part of that was coaching and preparation. The Broncos played worse against the Seahawks than the Texans/Colts/Rams/Cardinals/49ers/Panthers had done earlier in the season, yet the Broncos were a better team than the others. Coming into the biggest game of the year and playing that poorly tells me that a lot of the blame should go to coaches.
            As for the Billboard operator, well, that’s a theory I’d never heard either.

          • David Stinnett

            You seem to say that as if someone here had said that Seattle had the best D ever. I guess someone somewhere may have said that though, but I wasn’t thinking that. I don’t think making a comparison to the Ravens is doing that.

          • anon76returns

            I actually do think they belong in the conversation for best defense ever (or at least the last 35 years, which is all I’ve been paying attention). They’re right up there with the 2002 Bucs, 2000 Ravens (DVOA says Tennessee was better, but scoreboards said the Ravens were better and I agree), and 1985 Bears.
            But my point was that coaching & preparation were a big handicap for the Broncos in that SB, which I think got lost amongst the discussion of the billboard operator.

          • Jefferson

            I had never seen the Football Outsiders article linked above with 1991-2011 historical rankings. This year FO has the Broncos defense at -36% defensive DVOA so far, which would place them at #8 among defenses since 1991. Obviously we are only half way through but that is pretty impressive.

            Since others have raised the 2013 Seahawks, that defense would rank #6 among all defenses since 1991.

            The 2013 Seahawks would also tie for #5 rank in total team DVOA since 1991, which is not completely surprising given the underrated offense that year. What *is* surprising to me at least is that the 2012 Seahawks would rank #7 in team DVOA, and higher than the 2014 superbowl team! A record three years running with the top team DVOA — a string that looks likely to be broken this year.

          • Jefferson

            Oops, I crossed some tables… Broncos defense are actually on track this season for #2 ranked defense since 1991 according to FO. Wow!

            Offensive DVOA is shockingly ranked #30 this year but after last Sunday I suspect things are turning around fast.

          • lee taormina

            Does anyone smell a rat in terms of the GB performance? Perhaps they were told to lie down by the powers that be.

          • Frig man

            Your tin foil hat may be out of tune a bit, brother.

          • lee taormina

            Sister, genius.

          • David Stinnett

            That’s a good one, Frig

          • Thomas Bell

            Thank you — just a minor difference between 8 and 2. Who is #1?

          • Jefferson

            Even if FO’s ranking was updated the #1 defense since 1991 would still be the 1991 Eagles.

            Broncos have some tough offenses ahead so we will see how the stats hold up!

          • Stephen J Brady

            Saying Denver was better then the 49ers and Panther.. That’s a big assumption to make seeing how you guys didn’t play the Panthers that year. 49ers, Panthers, Seahawks were all similar teams that year and they knocked each other out of the playoffs. Denver is finally learning that defense wins championships and not offense. All three of those teams would have beaten you guys in my opinion. Also, why would the Broncos prepare for crowd noise on a neutral field? The Seahawks 12th man advantage was supposed to be a home-field advantage. To back my statement, Patriots losing to the Giants when they were the “best ever offense” is pretty similar.

    • Lonestar47

      You might add the Bears to that list also.

  • Tim Edell

    Great article!!

  • Shawneuser

    Actually, Richard Rodgers out of the slot was open on the out. He has at least a step and the defender is not looking towards A-Rodge to know if the ball is even being thrown. Certainly good defense when only 1 of 4 receivers is open, but oddly, A-Rodge appeared to be looking Rick Rodgers’ way and just didn’t deliver the ball. At the seven second mark, every receiver is covered, yes, the Broncos did very well once scramble mode started all game. However, you’ll notice on the screen shot that every defender has his back to Rodgers. That means they would be unaware of the pass being thrown until it reached the receiver. That is a difficult way to defend the pass. A covered receiver can still catch the ball when the defender doesn’t know its coming. A-Rodge needs to throw the ball here and let his receiver make a play.

    • Frank

      This is kind of nit-picking. Once a receiver breaks route, you really can’t watch the quarterback anymore, since you have to react to the receiver who can run anywhere. It’s the reason why Rodgers and Roethlisberger are so dangerous when they extend plays.

      Given the tightness of the coverage seen, you wouldn’t expect a ball to be thrown, especially with the front that Denver has. It really seems that they executed as they were supposed to and trusted the other units to do their job. It’s probably a big contributing factor into the strength of the defense…they’re so good at every level, that they can trust each other to do their part and just worry about their own assignments

  • Tim Lynch

    I feel like people are overreacting a bit to this one win. I’m a huge Broncos fan, but to say this D doesn’t have any weaknesses is false. It didn’t last week against the Packers, but having watched every minute of every Broncos game this year (2 or 3 times) I can confidently say that tight end coverages have been hit or miss depending on how well T.J. Ward is playing in pass coverage that day and the inside rushing lanes have been an area of weakness also with Jamaal Charles and Adrian Peterson both ripping off 35+ yard touchdown runs this year on them.

    However, I will say that in recent weeks that have been completely smothering on defense, so maybe they have worked those issues out. The Browns scored 23, but 7 of those points came of a Manning pick six. 😉

    • Jack Doff

      Wow, that’s delusional bro. Even the 85 Bears and 2000 Ravens gave up some yards whether it was pass or run. Look at their numbers compared to other defenses and they are far and away the best defense in the NFL. Time to temper your expectations because for them to be doing what their doing is this day and age is pretty amazing.

      • Tim Lynch

        I never said they were not the best defense in the NFL. I was saying that claiming this defense has no weaknesses is just false. Tight Ends have beat them up pretty good in games against teams with quality pass catching tight ends.

        Not sure how that is delusional, since the stats for tight ends against the Broncos this year backs me up. Instead rushing lanes were a problem early in the season, so I did mention that it appears they have gotten that part figured out – so again, not sure how that is “delusional”.

        As a lifelong Broncos fan, I’m giddy as hell about this defense. I’m just being intellectually honest here.

        • Jack Doff

          Look man I don’t care what you consider to be a “weakness” if the other team don’t score who cares? The strengths in the other areas make up for those “weaknesses” so a tight end can catch as many passes as he wants. Look at the big picture and don’t nit pick a defense that should be allowing around 13 points per game if it wasn’t for pick 6’s.

          • Tim Lynch

            Look man, I’m just pointing out the obvious weakness of this defense if you actually watch the tape. Those weaknesses did not show up at all against Green Bay, but they’ve been there at times during the season.

            Frankly, I am looking at the big picture. Maybe you should too.

          • anon76returns

            I don’t totally agree here, Tim. Adrian Peterson had 16 carries, and 15 of them went for a 2.2 yard average. His one big run came on 4th down and one, with the defense gambling to get a stop. Had that been 2nd and 1, I can virtually guarantee that Peterson wouldn’t have taken it to the house.
            Charles did gash the Broncos run defense, but his long TD run was actually of RT (IIRC), so not particularly a problem with interior run D. And again, outside of that one run the Chiefs had 98 yards on 24 designed runs. That’s not a great day at the office, but it’s not a bad day either. For it being the “worst” game of the season certainly shows that it’s not an absolute weakness. Weaker than the pass rush or coverage game, maybe. But not a weakness- 25 or so other teams would love to have that as their weakest game in run defense.
            TE follows a similar path. Ward isn’t great playing press coverage against big TEs. But Bruton generally is, as are both Trevathan and Marshall when they play out of base D. According to Football outsiders, the Broncos defense is 19th in the league vs. TEs. That’s again a relative weakness, but it just means they have had average defense vs. TEs, not weak defense. Eifert and Kelce both had good games against the Broncos, but not “great games”, and they were seeing quite a bit of action because Maclin/Tate/etc were being pretty well shut down. That’s not a weakness, that’s just less strong than the other units.

          • Tim Lynch

            I guess I didn’t define “weakness”. Being average anything with this defense is what I mean by “weakness”, because they are Top 5 everywhere else.

            Also, I would definitely define multiple big plays running up the middle as a weakness, even if overall the Broncos are 98% run stopping studs. Then again, these big plays up the middle have not occurred since that Vikings games, which makes me think maybe they figured out who was missing those gap responsibilities and its been corrected.

            Either way, this is the best defense I’ve ever seen from the Orange and Blue. I’m loving every minute of it.

          • anon76returns

            Sure, but just for clarification Charles long TD was not a run up the middle. IIRC, it was a zone run that Charles cut back to his right outside of the RT. Shane Ray was the back side pursuit on the play (unblocked, per play design), and rather than crashing down, he hesitated between Charles and Alex Smith’s play fake boot action. That hesitation allowed Charles the space he needed for the cut back. But in any case, when the blame on the play goes to your OLB, it’s not really a problem with interior run defense.

          • Brandonc

            It’s called Wolfe back from suspension

          • Brian Warttman

            I really think Derrick Wolfe is helping a lot with those gut runs

          • Brandon

            I’d just like yo point out as well that the chiefs starting tackles were a Donald Stephenson (third string tackle) and Reid(a player they literally picked up before game 1 on waivers) if Fisher(has yet to surrendered a sack) and Allen (graded In the mid eighties for runblocking) Charles would of most likely ran for more. Your defense is getting better as they go tho strengthening every week.

          • Elias Woolfolk

            I agree with you 100% on the tight end thing. There is this guy called gronk who is pretty good. Tj is a nightmare covering tight ends. I cringe when they put him one on one in the red zone against one because he’s just to small. Not to worried about run d because I think the offense will get going and we will have a lead so they will have to pass.

          • Tim Lynch

            I didn’t even talk about how most of the points the Broncos defense have given up this year came on drives where a penalty on a third down stop resulted in a drive-extending first down. I assume that is a trade off for the aggressive nature of this defense.

  • Jack Doff

    Let’s remember how Aaron Rodgers is not a guy who likes to throw the ball up to someone and give him a chance to make a play. Maybe he’s to worried about his QBR but he’ll do anything to not throwa pick. So if no one’s open he’ll just look to take off and run (think Russell Wilson.) The Broncos knew this and their rushers made it a point to keep him pinned in the pocket and force him to make throws he doesn’t want to.

    • Random Anonymous Coward

      You are describing Alex Smith not Rodgers. Rodgers will throw into tight coverage, he just won’t throw his receivers open.

  • Dan Hachenberger

    Shawneuser, Thats not open in the NFL. Whats this notion that DB’s never turn their back to the QB?

  • Autocephallic

    Fools Gold.

    Seriously though, can a coordinator win coach of the year?

    • oljw

      Fools gold?

  • Kason Edell

    make more articles like these!

  • Jeremy Jaeger

    Great article. I’m a Broncos fan, have watched every game this year. The thing that separates this defense is the commitment to being great. I’d imagine they weren’t the first team to recognize the scramble-drill portion of the Packers’ offense. But it’s one thing to recognize it and scheme for it, and another thing entirely to follow through on game-day. Everyone on this defense understands they are accountable to the rest of the unit, and no one wants to be the guy that lets down. My favorite thing in this game was watching the disciplined awareness of the pass rush; containing the edge, closing down running lanes as Rodgers moves around in the pocket (can see this in both the videos you posted). Yes, this D is very talented, but their success is a result of unit-wide buy-in. They don’t make dumb mistakes.

    • GmanS05

      “They don’t make dumb mistakes.”
      Except for penalties

      • Jeremy Jaeger

        True, that’s the one issue. At least most of those penalties, though, are the result of aggressive play, as opposed to just the brain-fart type. Collinsworth made an interesting comment after the roughing call on Bruton’s blitz that kept the drive alive (one of those automatic flags because he hit Rodgers in the “head/neck area”), namely that you see those flags thrown on db’s more often because they don’t get the same intensive coaching, as to the pass-rush, that the linemen and ‘backers get. On the upside, Broncos refused to give Rodgers any of those offsides calls he’s been able to draw all year; you could see him trying a couple times, no dice, sorry Aaron.

        • GmanS05

          Very true about the offsides calls. I believe Ware was offside once–but no free play–and that’s all

          • Jeremy Jaeger

            Yup. Have been watching Rodgers make other teams look silly with that crap all year long, too. Post-game Von said they wanted to take away the “foot plays, scramble plays”, and actually “make them play football.”

      • BurnabyJoeFan

        The penalties are a result of being aggressive. Sure you can break down and argue some were unnecessary… but if there is a tolerable amount of PI calls that allows your D to play aggressive and create turnovers. The good just has to out weigh the bad.

  • Thomas Bell

    Great analysis. How Rodgers escaped that entire game without throwing a single pick is a small miracle, as is how the GB offensive linemen were never flagged for holding.

    • Pats4Life

      How the Bronco secondary wasn’t called for blatant holding is the bigger miracle.

      Usually the refs try to keep prime time games competitive instead of letting the home team hold the opposing receivers.

  • Brandon

    There aggressiveness can be their down fall. A lot of people are talking about the corners not looking at the QB on some instance’s. Throw it.up and even if the receiver jumps early Denver is so aggressive that they’ll most likely create PI’s. I’m a Chiefs fan and trust me when I say this team has its flaws. If you want this team u have to be disciplined and some what conservative. Chiefs had Denver beat and they constantly called plays that put Denver right back in it. First drive on the two yard line and u call two swing passes behind the line of scrimmage? Thanks Reid when running it would of most likely got you in there. Heck even 3 QB sneaks would of got us in. Nope Jamaal is stripped and its Denvers ball. That two minute drill at the end of the half when u know u have the lead and Denver waisted their timeouts already. Run the clock out go into half time 14-7. No smith throws a pick and its tied up 14-14. If u want to beat Denver everyone has to be on top of their game. Special teams,Defense,Offense.

    • Jason Matthew Whipkey Jr.

      The aggressiveness is NOT their downfall. Its their strength. Hit them in the mouth and get them scared, make them worried, make your presence felt.You win in the NFL by getting into the QBs head. Just like they did to Smith. All 3 of their CBs are top 15 in passer rating allowed so they’re doing something right how they are. They mostly play man because why play zone with 2 of the best CBs in the league on your side. And when you play man you can bring the heat to make the QB do things he doesn’t want to do. The aggressiveness is who they are, its what makes them so great so far this season. You just sound like an ignorant fan who’s salty about your team loosing to them. That aggressiveness made Charles fumble the ball in the 4th. Sure you could just bring him down and go into OT. But why do that when you can punch the ball out? Thats not a downfall, thats the telltale sign of a great D

      • Brandon

        Trust and Believe I am 100 percent salty about that lose lol but that’s the past I’m on to the future. Reid insisted on putting pressure on his players to make plays when we had that game won all the way. His play calling was horrendous. I’m super salty as well that Manning targeted the same corner on the field on the very last drive when if Sean smith was on the field he would of been denied. I’m not ashamed of being salty tho, I’m only 22 and I must admit the last past 3 years I’ve loved the rivalry of the chiefs vs broncos more so then any other divisional foe. You guys have a great defense. I’m just saying being to aggressive cost them penalties. A lot of roughing the passer penalties that are unnecessary esc. Your right tho the only way to beat them is by running it hard. Make them play your game instead of the other way around. You guys are great team. Now lets see if.that continues when Manning retires. The way I say it the only way to beat Denver is to keep their D off the field. Defensive scoring and Special teams winning field position. You gotta acknowledged that our team out of everyone else you played actually beat themselves instead of the other way around. I mean we had over 100 yards rushing with a tackle we just picked up before game 1 on waivers on out third string tackle in Stephenson. Now we won’t have Charles tho but wasn’t he part of the reason we lost anyway oh well we will see. Reid does a grab job in trying to coach his team. Hes only lost 1 time in his entire career after a bye week and that one lost is of course against your Broncos in 2011.

      • Brandon

        Like I said! Penalties result in their over aggressive defense and it cost them the game. My point was proven. Thank you have a great day!

  • Brandon

    This is an astonishingly good defense. Their money was well spent on guys like Talib and Ware. But to say they are without weakness is a bit much. I hate the pats as much as the next guy, but that defense will get shredded by Gronk in the playoffs if peyton doesnt go all peyton and get them 1 and done.

    But by far, the biggest weakness the defense has is over aggressive. Its the same issue the seahawks had in 2013. They get too many stupid penalties and it allows mediocre teams to hang in there. And with the broncos offense have some troubles this year, that will force the defense back on the field with limited rest. If they can keep their defense off the field they will possibly be the best defense ever.

    With that in mind, we all know the broncos defense is allowing the least yards per game right, but how many yards per play do they allow?