The Denver Broncos have an elite defense, but the New York Jets can beat it by exposing its few holes
One of the best NFL traditions in 2022 thus far: Those glorious moments when we come together as a nation to complain about an ugly Denver Broncos game.
Denver has already played four nationally-televised games this season, and in those four games, the average scoring total was 27.5 – or 13.8 points per team. Neither the Broncos nor their opponents hit the 20-point mark in any of those four games. These games have featured twice as many turnovers (12) as touchdowns (6).
Obviously, much of the chagrin regarding the Broncos’ lack of primetime appeal is due to their ghastly offense. Led by a rapidly-declining Russell Wilson, Denver is ranked 32nd with 15.2 points per game.
But it takes two to tango. Broncos games have been so ugly because the Denver defense is making the opposing offense look just as bad as the Denver offense.
The Broncos’ defense is playing an elite level. Denver ranks fourth-best in scoring defense (16.5 points allowed per game) and second-best in defensive DVOA.
Many New York Jets fans are viewing this week’s trip to Denver as an easily winnable game because of the Broncos’ grotesque offense, but they are overlooking how much of a challenge this Denver defense will be for New York’s offense.
The Jets just had a really tough time moving the football (season-low 278 yards) against a Green Bay Packers defense that is not playing nearly as well as Denver’s. Green Bay is 15th in points allowed and 24th in defensive DVOA. Denver is a completely different test. If the Jets offense plays as well as it did last week, the Broncos will punish them for it much more than the Packers did.
Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur needs to scheme up the perfect plan if New York’s offense is going to have a shot at putting together a victory-caliber performance this week.
Denver’s defense is thriving right now, but it does have a few particular holes that the Jets can exploit. These holes need to be the centerpiece of LaFleur’s gameplan.
If I were LaFleur, here are a few keys I would emphasize in this week’s gameplan, each centered around exposing one of the Broncos’ rare defensive flaws.
Focus on running the ball out of 11 personnel rather than 12 personnel
In their win over Green Bay, the Jets drastically increased their usage of 12 personnel (1 RB/2 TE/2 WR), using it on a season-high 34% of the offensive plays after peaking at 21% over their first five games. New York focused on two-tight end packages to establish a physical, run-first mentality, which is what they’ve always wanted to do since signing C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin in free agency.
The approached worked well, helping the Jets rush for a season-high 179 yards.
I’m glad the Jets found a new approach that worked for them last week. But I want them to switch things up for Denver.
The Broncos are much better at stopping the pass (1st in pass defense DVOA) than stopping the run (18th in rush defense DVOA), so I do want the Jets to maintain their ground-and-pound mentality this week. However, I want them to do it in a different way.
Denver is tremendous at stopping the run against 12 personnel. It’s against 11 personnel (1 RB/1 TE/3 WR) where the Broncos have major issues in the run game.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Broncos are allowing only 2.7 yards per carry against 12 personnel this season, which ranks third-best in the NFL. Against 11 personnel, the Broncos are allowing 5.8 yards per carry, which ranks fourth-worst.
If you’re worried that YPC is not providing enough context, these rankings hold up when looking at EPA (Expected Points Added) per carry. Denver allows the second-fewest EPA/carry against 12 personnel (-0.44) and the sixth-most EPA/carry against 11 personnel (+0.12).
The Jets must lean into this. Yes, 12 personnel worked fairly well for them last week, but different opponents require different gameplans. This Broncos team calls for the Jets to decrease their 12 personnel usage and build their offense around 11 personnel concepts.
Interestingly enough, the Jets are actually much better at rushing out of 11 personnel than out of 12 personnel. New York ranks 22nd in YPC out of 12 personnel (3.6) and 11th in YPC out of 11 personnel (5.4). The Jets are 26th in EPA/carry out of 12 personnel (-0.19) and sixth in EPA/carry out of 11 personnel (+0.12).
Despite the increased usage of 12 personnel, the Jets actually had their best rushing success against the Packers when they had 11 personnel on the field, rushing for 78 yards on eight carries (9.8 YPC). In particular, they were dominant when running to the outside with 11 personnel, as seen on these two plays:
Wide receiver Corey Davis is the key to the Jets’ success in these scenarios. Davis is such a good blocker that he essentially serves as a second tight on these outside run plays. That gives the Jets a huge advantage. The defense puts lighter personnel on the field (likely subbing a LB for a CB) in response to the offense removing a TE for a WR, but with Davis leading the way on the outside, the Jets don’t lose much blocking talent (if any).
New York loves aligning Davis in tight splits and having him pin the edge defender inside, opening up the outside lane. You can see him do it in each of the above plays.
When the Broncos gave up a season-high 26 points to the Raiders’ offense in Week 4, Las Vegas crushed Denver with run plays out of 11 personnel. The Raiders gained 98 yards on 14 rush attempts out of 11 personnel (7.0 YPC).
See here as the Raiders beat the Broncos in a similar fashion to how the Jets beat the Packers in the plays above: by having a WR pin the edge defender. The pre-snap jet motion is also a nice touch that the Raiders use here, which the Jets also like to utilize.
If I’m Mike LaFleur, I’m taking a huge chunk of Uzomah’s snaps and splitting them amongst Garrett Wilson and Elijah Moore. These two wide receivers have been the victims of New York’s increased 12 personnel usage, while Uzomah has been the main beneficiary.
Corey Davis continues to be a mainstay (never going below 74% of the snaps this year), but Wilson (44%) and Moore (58%) stooped to season lows last week while Uzomah (78%) soared to a season-high. There will be games when this approach makes sense, such as last week, but the Broncos game is not one of them.
The Jets used 11 personnel only 38% of the time last week. In Denver, they need to be closer to where they were over the first four games of the year, when they used it 74% of the time.
Play to Denver’s weaknesses. The Broncos are much worse at defending the run than defending the pass, and they are much worse at defending the run against lighter personnel than against heavier personnel. Build around that.
Hunt down the outside linebackers in coverage
As a 3-4 defense, the Broncos’ edge defenders are outside linebackers with more experience dropping into coverage (in comparison to a 4-3 defense like the Jets’ unit, which employs burlier defensive ends who rarely drop). So, the Broncos often get creative and drop their edge defenders into coverage.
Zach Wilson needs to be ready to attack Denver’s outside linebackers whenever they drop out. The Broncos’ outside linebackers are not nearly effective enough in coverage to warrant being dropped as often as they are.
Denver’s edge defenders have combined for 104 coverage snaps this season, an average of 17.3 per game. On those plays, they have allowed 11 completions on 12 targets for 140 yards – a brutal average of 11.7 yards per target.
Star pass rusher Bradley Chubb is the main culprit, yielding 87 yards on four targets. See here as Chubb (No. 55, lined up over TE on the offense’s left side) drops into coverage, ditches his zone to pursue the QB, and gives up the easiest 38-yard touchdown in NFL history.
Even if you take that play out, Chubb still allowed 49 yards on his other three targets, an average of 16.3 yards per target. He’s ripe for the picking.
Denver has a stellar group of defensive backs, so the Jets have to hunt down favorable matchups elsewhere. The outside linebacker unit might be their best bet.
LaFleur must dial up concepts that put the outside linebackers in conflict. Wilson must emphasize throwing in the outside linebackers’ direction whenever he sees them drop.
Make the Broncos tackle
Despite their overall defensive success, the Broncos are tied for the NFL lead with 41 missed tackles, per Pro Football Reference. They’re an aggressive group that flies around and makes a ton of plays, but they pay for it with a hefty sum of whiffs.
The Jets need to create opportunities for their best playmakers to exploit the Broncos’ tackling woes.
New York could hardly be better equipped to expose an opposing defense’s poor tackling. The Jets’ roster is stockpiled with tackle-breaking maestros.
Garrett Wilson ranks third-best out of 90 qualified wide receivers with 0.333 missed tackles forced per reception (8 on 24). Elijah Moore ranks sixth-best with a mark of 0.313 (5 on 16).
Out of the backfield, Breece Hall ranks third-best out of 28 qualified running backs with 0.421 missed tackles forced per reception (8 on 19). Michael Carter is 17th with a mark of 0.222 (4 on 18) but he was elite in 2021 with a mark of 0.417 (15 on 36).
Dial up screens for these guys. It gives them a chance to do what they do best and it forces the Broncos to rely on one of the few things they struggle with.
Denver is extremely talented in coverage. If the Jets just keep dropping back and asking their receivers to win against Denver’s defensive backs, we are going to hear plenty of “IN-COM-PLETE” chants from the Broncos crowd (if they don’t leave early like they did against Indy).
New York needs to shift the focus of the passing game away from Denver’s coverage and toward Denver’s tackling. If they can do that successfully, the passing-game advantage will shift in their favor.