Wednesday, January 1, 2014
Broncos Rewind: Defense and special teams
By Jeff Legwold
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos checked an awful lot of things off the to-do list in Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Oakland Raiders.
They set some records, including the league’s single-season scoring mark at 606 points, put their 13th 30-point game of the year in the 34-14 victory and rested some starters along the way as they had largely earned the AFC’s top seed with a 31-0 halftime lead.
And after a long look at the video from Sunday’s win, here are some thoughts on the team’s defense and special teams:
• Jack Del Rio has made a habit of playing plenty of personnel groupings in his time as the Broncos' defensive coordinator. He says it helps players maximize whatever they can bring to the defense as well as keeps them engaged with the lure of at least some playing time always in front of them. But he has also consistently found roles for players the Broncos signed after they had been cast aside by others. Even on short notice.
The latest is former first-round pick Michael Huff. Huff has struggled at times in his career to live up to his lofty draft status -- seventh overall in 2006 by the Raiders -- and was released earlier this season by the Baltimore Ravens, who weren’t exactly loaded on the defensive depth chart at that time. The Broncos signed Huff on Nov. 19 and played him for two special teams snaps on Dec. 1.
Over the last two games, Del Rio has found a place for him in the defense. Huff has played in the nickel (five defensive backs), dime (six defensive backs) and when the Broncos go to their seven defensive-back look. Del Rio has played Huff deep at safety and played him as a weak-side linebacker. He’s also played Huff along the line of scrimmage in rush situations -- Huff ran down Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor on one of those snaps Sunday. Huff played 15 snaps in the Broncos’ win over Houston and then followed that with 25 snaps on Sunday against the Raiders. The Broncos were moving some people out of the game in the second half with a 31-0 halftime lead, but it does show Del Rio has found a niche for the veteran safety. And with Duke Ihenacho expected to be under the guidelines of the league’s concussion protocol for “a while’,’ as John Fox put it, Huff figures to be in the rotation plenty in the postseason as well.
• Raiders coach Dennis Allen was on John Fox’s staff with the Broncos when the Broncos launched the read-option on the NFL world as a predominant offensive set in 2011 with Tim Tebow at quarterback. So, you would think Allen would have known. But since the Broncos have consistently defended others’ attempts to run the offense, especially when it comes to limiting the rushing yards out of the quarterback position. Fox has routinely played something that looks far closer to a 3-4 look on defense with three down linemen and five-man fronts to hold the edges. The Broncos did so again Sunday and with the benefit of a big lead as well to mute the Raiders’ attempts to run the ball. Pryor finished with 49 yards rushing in the game and the Raiders ran for 64 yards overall. In the Sept. 24 meeting Pryor rushed for 36 of the Raiders’ 49 yards. Against the Redskins, the Broncos held Robert Griffin III to seven yards rushing on his five carries.
• Necessity has dictated the Broncos' desire for defensive end Robert Ayers to have a big part in the team's postseason plans after Von Miller. Ayers led all Broncos players with 44 snaps in Sunday’s win and it was the first time all season Ayers has led the defense in playing time. During Miller’s six-game suspension to open the season, the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent, played 70 snaps in the opener, 59 in Week 2 against the Giants and 42 against the Eagles in Week 4. The Broncos need Ayers to regain his early momentum when he had 4.5 sacks in the first five games. He had one after Miller returned to the lineup with Miller and Shaun Phillips getting the majority of the work in the rush positions. Beyond the lure of chasing a Super Bowl trip, the open market awaits Ayers at season’s end, a big postseason push would certainly help his cause.
• In what was a rare turn of events for what has been a difficult season at times, the Broncos defense did not play a snap on its own side of the 50-yard line in the first half of Sunday’s win. The Raiders never advanced the ball past their own 48-yard line in their six first-half possessions. The Raiders didn’t have a drive longer than 28 yards until the fourth quarter. They scored of two of their three possessions in the fourth quarter against some Broncos reserves.
• The Broncos special teams continue to find themselves a little wobbly on the doorstep to the postseason. Since the Week 7 loss in Indianapolis Trindon Holliday has muffed the ball on six returns, losing one of those. Over that span the Broncos have also surrendered a 108-yard kickoff return for a score to the Chiefs, from running back Knile Davis, a 95-yard kickoff return to the Titans' Leon Washington and a 51-yard punt return to the Texans' Keshawn Martin. And now add the first blocked punt of Britton Colquitt's career to the list, on his 317th punt. Raiders' running back Jamize Olawale came untouched through the heart of the Broncos' formation for the first-quarter block. The Broncos defense held and the Raiders missed the field goal attempt that followed, but it was a quality design by the Raiders with an overload off the ball and it will be a surprise if an upcoming playoff opponent doesn’t try something similar.
It also continues a troubling trend for the Broncos, who have been consistently solid on those units in recent seasons. While they can't add signifciant help to the roster and injuries have taken their toll on the depth chart, they still have to find the assignment discipline they showed so often early on this season.