The script wasn’t supposed to read like this. When the Broncos hired a defensive-minded head coach, it was with the idea that he’d be able to maximize the strength of the team. Vic Fangio was supposed to get the most out of Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, Chris Harris Jr. and others.
Three games into the season, that’s not happening. Not by a mile.
For the first time in at least 50 years, an NFL team has started the season without recording a sack or forcing a turnover in the first three weeks. It’s stunning that it’s the Broncos.
Miller and Chubb have barely touched the opposing quarterback. Harris and his defensive back teammates haven’t intercepted a pass. Derek Wolfe and the rest of a much-ballyhooed defense have yet to force a fumble.
And they haven’t come close.
On Sunday, Aaron Rodgers was rarely under duress. He wasn’t throwing the ball quickly, either. Denver’s pass rush just couldn’t get near him.
And the rest of the Broncos defense didn’t threaten to make a play, either. It’s why the team sits at 0-3. In key situations, the defense is failing.
Denver allowed Green Bay to march down the field on their opening drive and score a touchdown. For the second time in three games, the Broncos defense put the team in a hole before most people had settled into their seats.
This was an issue last year, as well. And given that Denver’s offense hasn’t scored more than 16 points in their last seven games, being down 7-0 early in games seems borderline insurmountable.
When the Broncos turned the ball over twice in Packers territory, Fangio’s group couldn’t mitigate the damage. Forcing field goals in those situations would be a “win” for the defense. It’s what good defenses are able to do. Instead, Denver gave up a pair of back-breaking touchdowns.
And in the fourth quarter, in a one-score game, Miller, Chubb and Company couldn’t get the ball back to give Joe Flacco and the offense a chance. Instead, they surrendered a nearly eight-minute drive and a field goal that ultimately ended the Broncos chances.
That’s the second time in three weeks that Denver couldn’t get a stop when they needed one. Down eight to the Raiders in the opener, the Broncos couldn’t force Oakland to punt; they couldn’t get Joe Flacco and Company one final chance to tie the game.
So far this season, Denver’s defense has been a failure on every front.
Yes, their offense hasn’t been prolific. And granted, their special teams remain an adventure. But those units weren’t supposed to carry the team; that’s not where the Broncos have invested on top-flight players.
Which begs the question: Who’s at fault?
Miller looks disinterested. He’s standing around, watching the play and then jogging to the sidelines.
But he’s not being used correctly. Fangio keeps dropping one of the NFL’s best pass rushers into coverage, something everyone criticized Joseph and Woods for doing in the past two seasons.
It’s part of a maddeningly conservative approach through three games. Fangio has been playing it very safe early in the season.
And while this approach has kept all three games close, with no individual players posting big numbers against the Broncos, it hasn’t resulted in wins. Instead, it’s a “death by papercut” approach.
Denver’s defense isn’t making anything happen. It’s because they aren’t forcing the issue.
On fourth-and-15, with the game on the line last week, the Broncos rushed four and allowed Mitchell Trubisky enough time to convert for a first down and get the Bears into field-goal range.
On third-and-15 against the Packers, Fangio employed a defense where DeMarcus Walker was the lone lineman on the field, while Miller and Chubb rushed from the outside. None of the three got anywhere near Rodgers, who found Marquez Valdes-Scantling for a first down.
As a result of this style of play, Harris and the rest of the Broncos talented defensive backfield are having to cover receivers for way too long. It doesn’t matter how talented Denver’s cornerbacks and safeties are, it’s impossible to blanket receivers for five or six seconds.
Last week, Fangio was asked about his team’s lack of pass rush. He primarily blamed it on the players.
“I will say is I was disappointed in our rush in the last drive,” the head coach said last week, pinning Trubisky’s game-saving play on Miller, Chubb and Wolfe’s inability to get near Chicago’s quarterback.
But three games into the season, accomplished NFL veterans aren’t producing as they have in the past because they aren’t being used correctly. That’s on Fangio.
Denver’s season isn’t lost. Not yet. They have winnable games ahead and can right the ship.
But it’s not happening unless Fangio gets creative. Where are the dynamic blitzes and formations? Where are the confusing looks we heard so much about during OTAs and training camp?
It’s time to break that stuff out. It’s time to turn the defense loose and let them go make plays. Otherwise, the Broncos season will continue down a bad path.
It’s understandable that Denver’s coaching staff is trying to keep the game low scoring; their offense isn’t built to win a track meet. But trying to avoid mistakes and big plays is a bad approach.
Conservative football isn’t working. It’s keeping the Broncos just close enough to lose games they could win.
And it’s causing frustration. Emmanuel Sanders left the field during the Broncos final drive against the Packers, threw his helmet to the ground as he approached the sidelines and pouted while his teammates made a last-ditch effort to get back in the game. It was the first outward sign that the veterans in Denver’s locker room aren’t buying into the new system.
As a result, Fangio faces his first crisis as a head coach. Can he manage the situation?
If so, the season can be saved. If not, it’s going to unravel in dramatic fashion.
And he can only do it by letting the most-talented players on his roster do what they do best. It’s time to turn the defense loose. The Broncos have nothing else to lose.
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