The Falcons eviscerated the previously undefeated Broncos by force feeding their running backs the ball through the air. This isn’t a new problem in Denver.
Every time Tevin Coleman motioned out wide, alarm bells rang throughout the defense. The beatdown was so decisive that it caused plays like this, where Aqib Talib felt the need to help out on the running back despite leaving his man wide open.
There is a natural mismatch in space between third down running backs and linebackers in the NFL. The RB’s are just faster, quicker, and more agile. When you get the big guys out in space, it really becomes obvious.
If you had to boil all of the Broncos problems stopping running backs into one play, this one from last year’s AFC championship would suffice:
The Patriots bunched their receivers in towards the line and split their running back, James White, all alone to the very top of the screen. There are several plays from the AFC championship where Josh McDaniels stuck White on an island against Josh Bush, Brandon Marshall, and Danny Trevathan and just force fed his speedy back.
The results were mixed, but considering Brady was basically in a zombie movie, fending off hordes of Broncos all day, the entire offense was mixed. This strategy was their most effective other than “throw hail marys to the greatest tight end of all time.”
One of these such attacks came on the below play, where Brady isolated White on the bottom of the screen against Trevathan.
Malik Jackson’s pressure forced an early throw, and Stewart picked the duck out of the air. Even though the pass rush forced a pick, White still beat Trevathan. Stewart provided safety help, but a makeable window was open for a great quarterback.
Of all the plays from the AFC Championship that would give me nightmares if I were a Pats fan, this would rank towards the top.
White didn’t burn Trevathan by any means, but he was open and Brady just missed him.
Two plays later, Chris Harris stopped Julian Edelman short on the first of four 4th downs and a two-point conversion that would leave scars across the psyches of New England and the Rocky Mountains for generations. Had Brady nailed that pass, we may be living in a very different world, and this column would have been written much sooner.
Other than giving up 180 yards and a TD on 10 attempted passes towards the RB’s against Atlanta (oof), this has not been a big issue yet for the Broncos. Tampa Bay was thin at running back, and their offense is geared towards throwing it downfield to their dual 6’5” behemoths.
Indianapolis simply doesn’t have anyone in their backfield who you would describe as fast. This Andrew Luck miracle is a fitting example of how difficult it is to get the running backs receiving yards in that offense.
The Bengals have a prototypical running back to attack linebackers and safeties on an island in Gio Bernard, but they didn’t turn to that strategy much until late in the game when the Broncos sagged back into a zone.
They tried one play early in the game, but the Broncos matched Cincy’s jitterbug with their Vonster and Dalton had to tuck and run.
Doing whatever Bill Belichick is doing is usually a sound football strategy. Even though he still force feeds Gronk, and Brady maintains his shared brain with Edelman, he leans on his running backs as much as anyone against the Broncos.
Not every team can attack Denver like this, but many can, as the Falcons exposed on Sunday. This attack is fairly simple, either
Isolate a running back in space against a LB or Safety and run a streak, drag, or quick post.
Stack the side opposite the RB with WR’s and run the RB out of the backfield underneath one or two routes above it.
The latter is like stealing, there’s a lot of plays against the Broncos defense that look like this.
Wade Phillips and the defense need to find a way to counter this counterattack because it’s not just a standard football mismatch, but also a result of their coverage scheme. The Broncos play a matchup zone concept where defenders essentially play man coverage within defined zones.
This inevitably leaves holes behind their uber talented secondary as they turn and chase their man around the field. Dumping it off to the running back is the most efficient way to beat the pass rush and avoid those hawks.
The Chargers, Texans, Saints, Chiefs, Titans, and Patriots all have at least one back who can exploit this weakness, and they comprise 82% of the Broncos’ remaining schedule. Throwing to running backs neutralizes their two greatest strengths. This problem won’t go away until they make it go away.