Joe Woods and Vance Joseph made a key adjustment in run defense this year.
Now that we know both coordinators are staying with the Broncos for the 2018 season, I wanted to analyze different wrinkles that each coordinator brought to the table this year over the next several installments of this series.
Today, the focus is on defensive coordinator, Joe Woods. Denver’s run defense had taken a huge step back in 2016, and that was a key focus during the offseason. Not only did Denver need to upgrade personnel (which they did), but they also made some tweaks to their scheme which helped tremendously.
“I think it’s two parts. I think it’s personnel driven with signing [NT Domata] Peko and getting bigger. [DE Adam] Gotsis obviously stepping up and playing well. It’s also schematically driven—how we are fitting the run now, it’s different. Our linebackers are getting downhill faster. It’s taking the pressure off of the nose, the five and the three-technique. It’s both.”
- Vance Joseph
Say what you will about Vance Joseph’s struggles this year, but he and Joe Woods putting their heads together on this change was a huge difference maker for Denver’s run defense and really utilized Todd Davis’ strengths to allow him his best year as a Bronco.
“We got together in the offseason, the coaching staff, and went back and looked at the previous season. We looked at it from a scheme standpoint, a player standpoint and how we were coaching it, and we felt like we could be more aggressive, especially versus Double teams. We’re getting a lot of double teams and when the backers play downhill, it takes the double team off of the D-Linemen and frees them up. Right now, our inside linebackers are doing a great job of doing that. Our defensive line is doing a great job of penetrating and controlling their gaps. The first two games were really good against the run.”
- Joe Woods
I called this technique out a few times early on in the season during some of my breakdowns, but I want to take a deeper dive into it and show you exactly what Woods is talking about, and how it looks on tape.
The first time I noticed this was in Week 2 against the Dallas Cowboys.
The linebackers were coached this year to immediately fire into their gap when they saw a double team. This creates all kinds of issues for the offensive line. They either stay on the double team and risk the linebacker blowing the play up in the backfield, or they have to come off the double team quickly and leave the defensive lineman 1-on-1.
Essentially, it dictates the offensive actions instead of the other way around. In 2016, Denver was caught too many times with their defensive linemen (mainly Crick and Sylvester Williams) getting driven back on double teams, and by the time the linebackers filled, the offensive linemen were off the double team and blocking them.
Not anymore. See below how it forces the left tackle to come off the double team to react to Davis shooting the gap.
This frees up Gotsis to make the play.
Gotsis will get the credit for the tackle here, but this was made possible by Davis freeing him up by shooting the gap as soon as he saw the double team.
I noticed this again one week later against Buffalo.
Same technique. Identify the double team, and crash down. This time the offensive line didn’t make it over in time and Davis blew the play up in the backfield.
So it’s one thing to make an adjustment in the off-season that works for the first few weeks, but the real test is if it can still be effective throughout the season.
Fast forward to week 16 against Washington.
Exact same technique gets Todd Davis another tackle for loss.
In fact this wrinkle allowed Davis to rank 12th in the league in run stop % according to Pro Football Focus (stopping a run play for a loss or at the line of scrimmage).
This is the kind of coaching that you like to see. Adjust to what your players do well and learn from what went wrong the previous year. These are the kind of adjustments that make me glad we stuck with Vance Joseph and Joe Woods.
Conquering the Achilles Heel
Lastly, this technique also fixed one of our biggest weaknesses in 2016 run defense: counter runs.
All the way back in week 3 of 2016, we looked at this and saw how Denver was struggling to stop the counter run. Teams gouged the Broncos all year with that play, and the main reason why is that they effectively hung up the linemen on double teams and the linebackers didn’t flow quickly enough downhill.
So, while watching the tape from the Indianapolis game from a few weeks ago, I noticed something: the Colts ran a counter, and Denver absolutely shut it down using this technique. Let’s take a look.
Here’s a counter play the Bengals ran for a 50 yard gain on Denver in 2016.
Here is the one the Colts ran in week 15 of 2017. Nearly identical.
Watch it develop.
The red lines are my projection of what could have happened to stop the play. Watch Marshall and Davis (54 an 51) here though. Notice how stagnant they are as this develops.
Contrast that with this play.
Marshall and Davis are both already flowing based off of the double team. Davis to the outside, Marshall attacking inside.
Look at the massive difference at the hand-off. Above, the tackle is already coming off the double team because he sees Marshall flying into the gap, which is freeing up Gotsis.
Below, Wolfe is driven back by the double team, and Marshall is three yards back.
Consequently, both Davis and Marshall are now caught in the trash and can’t get to the play in time.
Meanwhile, in 2017, the penetration is immediate and kills this play before it even has a chance.
Here’s the two plays side by side.
While the season was obviously a disappointment, the improvement in run defense was a huge positive to take away.
Part of the credit goes to the upgrades Denver made in personnel and the stellar play of guys like Domata Peko, Adam Gotsis, Todd Davis, and Shaq Barrett, but credit should also go to Vance Joseph and Joe Woods for the schematic adjustments that put these players in the best position to succeed.