ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Broncos passed a big early-season road test against the Giants Sunday and after a long look at the video from Sunday’s win, here are some thoughts on the Denver Broncos' defense and special teams:
Broncos coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio have always said there are times when a defense that calls itself a 4-3 will look an awful lot like a 3-4, that it's always a mix of things. And there were some snaps here and there Sunday when the Broncos’ 4-3 base defense looked a lot like a 3-4, especially early in the game when the Broncos lined up Shaun Phillips as a stand-up defensive end in their base look. Phillips started the game in place of Robert Ayers at right end. Phillips lined up that way on the Broncos' first four defensive snaps of the game. The Broncos will likely show it again at some point, but it certainly had mixed results early with Eli Manning hitting Victor Cruz for a 51-yard gain on the Giants’ first play from scrimmage. David Wilson and Brandon Jacobs each had 5-yard runs on the next two snaps as well. But Phillips’ ability to play standing up, as he did much of the time in his tenure in the Chargers’ 3-4 defense, as well as from down in a three-point stance, does give the Broncos some versatility.
Del Rio had plenty of success generating pressure with delayed additions to the rush with players shooting gaps after the Giants linemen had initially dispersed themselves along the line of scrimmage following the snap. Linebacker Wesley Woodyard, in particular, is adept at joining the rush after a short delay. One of Woodyard’s best pressures came on the play where Manning fired the ball to wide receiver Hakeem Nicks and Nicks dislocated a finger. It means to add a player from elsewhere in the formation without sacrificing coverage, Del Rio is often using a defensive back or linebacker as the fourth rusher on plays and dropping a defensive lineman, often Ayers, into coverage. Del Rio routinely says the best defenses get to opposing quarterbacks using just four rushers much of the time, it’s just that sometimes Del Rio makes it any four players of his choosing from anywhere in the formation.
The Broncos were the best in the league last season in defending third-down conversions -- opponents converted just 30.6 percent of the time on third-down plays -- and after two games the Broncos are among the league leaders. The Broncos have surrendered just nine conversions on 33 third-down plays -- 27.3 percent -- and the Giants didn’t have their first third-down conversion until there were just 20 seconds left in the first half. With their speed at linebacker and in the secondary, when offenses are in longer down-and-distance situations, the Broncos can go to their dime (six defensive backs) as well as a seven-defensive back look and rush players from anywhere in the formation, with players roaming at the snap. It’s hard for offenses to locate everyone and the Broncos have tackled well enough in it to keep teams from sneaking in draws in the run game against the lighter formation.
With an 81-yard punt return touchdown for a score, Trindon Holliday now has five touchdown returns in his 14 career games with the Broncos, a staggering total that includes two in last January’s playoff loss. Holliday, a former NCAA 100-meter champion and eight-time track All American at LSU, has three punt returns for scores and two kickoff returns for scores. And while the league’s history is filled with many with world-class speed who couldn’t carve out a role in the league, what has made the 5-foot-5 Holliday different is his ability to cut at full speed. He also runs with some patience in traffic and can then use his speed when he sees the opening. Or as Holliday puts it: “I’m a football player who ran track, not the other way around. I have always considered myself a football player who is fast.’’
Number of note: The Broncos rushed five players at Manning on just 19.6 percent of the defensive snaps in the game, yet had a sack and an interception when they did.