Defense cannot rest again. Broncos face toughest test yet vs. Dolphins

Broncos D leads league in penalties through two games.
Zach Allen, Nick Gates, Tyree Walton
Posted at 9:27 PM, Sep 21, 2023

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — ENGLEWOOD – Of all the reasons for the Broncos winless start, the defensive collapse remains the most surprising.

Players talked confidently in training camp about having a top-10 unit, if not the league’s best secondary. Injuries, ineffectiveness, and inexcusable penalties have left the group reeling entering their toughest test yet – the Miami Dolphins.

The numbers suggest a mismatch. Miami ranks first in yards (462.5), yards per play (7.3), passing (355.0) and sacks allowed (one). The Broncos sit 16th in yards allowed (324.5), 19th in yards per play (5.4), 21st in passing (233.0) and 19th in sacks (four).

The small sample size is not undermining defensive coordinator Vance Joseph's confidence in his group.

"Coming here, my vision for was for us to be a dominant defense. And that hasn’t changed. I am telling you on tape the first two games you can see it happening," Joseph said. "The penalties, the misfits here and there, I will coach better. But we should be a very good defense. And that’s the expectation.”

The Dolphins score 30 points a week with coach Mike McDaniel regarded as the game’s resident offensive genius. So, how can the Broncos rebound at Miami, a tough place to play for a Denver team that went 1-8 on the road last year?

It starts with eliminating the penalties. The Broncos rank last in the league with 19 because of their league-worst 12 on their defense. And they have covered the gamut from interference to facemasks to multiple unnecessary roughness calls that have extended opponent’s drives.

“We have to clean it up and we have to get better. It goes back to fundamentals and technique,” linebacker Alex Singleton said. “(The slow start) is just kind of a wake-up call that every defense goes through.”

Joseph has mixed heavy blitzing with zone coverage. It hasn’t paid dividends. According to ESPN, the Broncos rank sixth in blitz rate, while allowing the sixth best QBR in those situations. They are not getting to the quarterback enough – four sacks – and when failing they have been vulnerable to big plays on screens.

It starts upfront. The Broncos need more from nose tackle D.J. Jones and defensive end Zach Allen. They represent the team’s biggest free-agent defensive signings the past two offseasons. Part of the reason Joseph is sending the heat is that the Broncos have not generated consistent pressure with a four-man front.

Against quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, whose team is making its home debut, sacks rarely happen. He gets rid of the ball as quick as anyone in the league, made easier by weapons Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. The game plan upfront could be as simple as following defensive lineman Matt Henningsen’s lead – get a push and raise hands for deflections and to create narrow passing lanes.

Through two games, Jones has two solo tackles and no quarterback hits and sacks. Allen boasts two solos, one tackle for a loss and three quarterback hits. That duo must be more productive.

Anything to get Tagovailoa off his spot and disrupt his timing will be welcomed. Waddle’s status remains uncertain because of a concussion, though he appears to be trending in the right direction, but Hill will be ready and frothing. The Broncos secondary is ailing with Justin Simmons’ unsure if he be able to go because of a hip/groin injury. The Broncos lost starting strong safety Caden Sterns for the season due to a knee injury and P.J. Locke (ankle) is not eligible to return off the injured reserve until Week 5.

That means All-Pro cornerback Pat Surtain II could find himself shadowing Hill. It’s not easy because the Dolphins put him in motion frequently to create better matchups.

“He’s extremely explosive. I would say there are two things that I never hear, but that I see on tape with him. He has great football IQ — not good. He’s savvy. He understands coverages and leverage. The second thing is he has outstanding stamina —next play, next play, next play. Those are two things that I notice aside from what we all see. I think he has really good football instincts. He can go for a number of plays,” Broncos coach Sean Payton said. “There’s a play in New England game. They put him in a tight split. They hide the split motion and snap the ball, and he blocks the defensive end on a crack. It was textbook. The guy he blocked probably was 250 pounds, 248 pounds. It would be like him blocking one of our outside linebackers. He’s strong.”

Surtain faced Hill in Kansas City two years ago. He understands the challenge and embraces it. The reality is that if the defense doesn’t rebound, the Broncos stand no chance against the Dolphins.

“This is not the position we want to be in the first couple of weeks. We have learned a lot from it, and we have to get better and focus on being attentive to the details,” Surtain said. “We have to key in on the issues we need to fix and make progress.”