ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The to-do list for the Denver Broncos‘ defense is rather long.
The quarterback it will face this Sunday has thrown for the most yards (1,727) in the NFL after five weeks and the third-most touchdowns (12) and is behind only Drew Brees in passer rating. The running back it will face is second in the league in rushing and leads all non-quarterbacks in scoring with nine touchdowns in five games. And it will face two wide receivers who are among the league’s top 10 in both receiving yards and touchdowns.
Oh, and that offense currently leads the NFL in yards gained and is third in scoring.
That’s the Los Angeles Rams, at whom the Broncos will take the next crack to slow down.
So, after some discussions with defensive coaches around the league and plenty of game video, here are some of the major items for the Broncos to handle if they are going to avoid a long day filled with Rams touchdown celebrations:
“It starts and ends with Gurley’’
Over and over again, that was the sentiment: Todd Gurley II makes it all go. The Rams’ zone-run scheme has its roots in the Mike Shanahan playbook that help put Terrell Davis is the Pro Football Hall of Fame and two Lombardi trophies in the lobby of the Broncos’ complex.
As one scout put it, “You can’t lighten the box on those early downs, no matter how much you might want to or Gurley will wear you out.” When Gurley has early success in the run game, he gets more and more of the linebackers’ attention. Those linebackers then don’t keep their eyes in the right places all the time, and Rams coach Sean McVay will then use motion to “mess with their eyes” and make plays away from where the linebackers and safeties are looking.
Over and over again, Rams receivers are out at the other side of the formation, away from Gurley, with left tackle Andrew Whitworth out in front for big plays. The advantage for the defense that wins early downs against the Rams if they are often able “to tag” what the Rams are doing in the run game to earn some predictability in what the Rams do in certain down and distance situations or by field position.
Don’t win the early downs and you lose that.
Early success with Gurley also kicks the Rams’ play-action game into gear. And most of the play-action plays give quarterback Jared Goff three options in the passing lanes: a deep crossing route, an intermediate crossing route of some sort and a checkdown, often away from where Gurley is moving.
And all too often for defenses, somebody on one of those receivers bites on the play-action. The game video consistently shows McVay’s desire to clear a safety out of the middle of field, by motion or formation, as often as possible before the snap — and the big plays often happen in the space left behind.
Show ‘vanilla’ for as long as possible
The Rams know exactly what Goff can and can’t do. So, when they keep the timing right, Goff consistently completes passes and puts defenses on their collective heels.
And McVay, by the formations and motion that the Rams use, is consistently able to get defenses to show Goff what they’re playing before the snap. The teams that have had some success, hold the basic, “vanilla” look as long as possible, even as the Rams move the pieces.
It means the defenders have to have pre-snap discipline for an entire game, especially the safeties, with no slip-ups, hints or assignment errors. The Broncos will have to show a vanilla look and quickly “evolve,” as some defensive coaches say, into what they’re going to play.
That’s certainly a tough task for the Broncos, especially since cornerback Chris Harris Jr. has said, “We ain’t tricking anybody right now.”
The Rams’ run game and many of the route combinations off their play-action game are designed with the hope of a defense moving horizontally. To combat that, the front seven has to attack up the field to disrupt the play’s beginnings.
But if those players don’t win — a lot — and get off the combo blocks, they are simply washed out of the play.
Get the double hitch
The Rams consistently stay on their clock. Their offense moves at the pace it wants to, in a rhythm designed for Goff to get the ball out.
A defense has to force Goff to take the “double hitch,” in which he pulls the ball down to work through progressions. Athletically, Goff isn’t nearly as good if forced off his spot or out of the rhythm; think of the kind of damage Patrick Mahomes did on the move against the Broncos when they chased him out of the pocket.
Getting Goff on the move, however, is easier said than done, since two of the four teams currently averaging at least 30 points per game — the Rams and the Kansas City Chiefs — also are two of the three teams that have surrendered the fewest sacks this season (six).
This is the tougher task, considering the Broncos rarely even inconvenienced New York Jets rookie Sam Darnold on Sunday. But the defense has to get people to Goff’s front porch over and over again, because if the Rams run on their time, the Broncos will not win.
As Denver linebacker Von Miller said: “We’ve got to go out there and work. … We have to do everything times 10. … It’s definitely going to take our best to have a chance in this game. [We are] at the crossroads, and I have to play better. We have to play better.”