Two yards were all the Patriots needed to cover to force overtime. The Patriots knew the Broncos were going to play man coverage. They also knew the Broncos were almost certainly going to blitz. Both come to fruition and the Pats called a near-perfect play to beat it. Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman ran a designed rub to free up James White out of the backfield for a quick man-coverage beater. But the coverage was unfazed and the pressure from the defensive line was nearly immediate. The pass was picked off and the rest is history.
This is what the Denver Broncos defense does. There is no weakness to exploit, no schematic flaw and no hope of keeping your quarterback upright the entire game.
It is all part of a plan two years in the making. When the highest scoring offense of all time failed to win a playoff game two seasons ago, John Elway made a concerted effort to change the makeup of his franchise. That offseason the checkbook was opened up to poach cornerback Aqib Talib from New England, safety T.J. Ward from Cleveland and defensive end DeMarcus Ware from Dallas. Their next two first-round picks were spent on cornerback Bradley Roby and Shane Ray. The mission was clear: don’t allow the defense to let down Peyton Manning.
The real breakthrough came this year with the introduction of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. The veteran coach has transformed one of the top defenses in the NFL into one of the top defenses of all-time and the second-highest graded defense in our nine years of analysis. And he did all of it with 10 out of the 11 starters returning from the 2014 Broncos.
Phillips’s secret? Giving his playmakers flexibility within his defense be aggressive and create impact plays. This means a ton of blitzes and even more man coverage. Denver has blitzed at the fifth-highest rate in the NFL and played man coverage at the third-highest rate.
There is a thin line though between aggressiveness and recklessness, with talent level a key delineating factor. If you send six guys on a blitz and they all get picked up cleanly, chances are someone’s getting burned on the back end. With the talent along Denver’s defensive line though, Phillips doesn’t have to worry about that. They pressured opposing quarterbacks on 45 percent of their dropbacks this season, the highest rate in the NFL. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware are both among the top five most-productive pass-rushers at their position on the edge, while Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe graded out in the top-10 at theirs.
A blitz though by its nature involves non-defensive linemen and Denver has quietly put together one of the league’s top linebacking corps with almost no investment of draft capital or cap space. Former sixth round pick Danny Trevathan, a former sixth round pick, and Brandon Marshall, a former training camp casualty of the Jaguars, both graded out positively against the run, pass and as a pass-rusher.
The secondary is equally solid. Chris Harris has been criminally underrated for years now. If it wasn’t for a disastrous game against Antonio Brown and the Steelers, Harris would have equaled stud Carolina Panthers CB Josh Norman’s coverage grade for the season. The only position group even resembling a weak link on this Broncos defense is their safeties — even that is a nitpick. Darian Stewart and T.J. Ward are coming off injuries and are only 10th and 27th in our safety grading respectively. Cam Newton had the second highest depth of target in the NFL this year so there is no doubt they will be tested, but when healthy there is little reason to be worried.
In over a week’s time we’ll see PFF’s highest graded defense take on PFF’s highest graded offense. Cam Newton hasn’t faced a challenge like this in his career to date. Wade Phillips will pour over film night and day until he develops the perfect way to shut down the league’s most dynamic quarterback. In the end though, odds are that he’ll stay simple. Because when you’re as talented as the Denver defense is, you don’t want to let scheme get in the way.
Mike Renner is a writer for Pro Football Focus and a contributor to The Washington Post’s NFL coverage.