By Dan Durkin–
(CBS) The Denver Broncos’ stifling defense is an amalgam of scheme and talent. They boast speedy playmakers at every level, led by an elite pass rush and a troika of cover cornerbacks capable of playing sticky man coverage.READ MORE: Ed's Driveway: Jeep Grand Wagoneer
Through nine games, the Broncos (7-2) rank first in the league in total defense (277 yards per game), passing defense (182 yards per game) and sacks (32). They’re third in scoring defense (18.7) and opposing passer rating (74.6) ahead of Sunday’s game against the Bears (4-5) at Soldier Field.
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has directed his fair share of stingy and greedy defenses over his 38-year NFL coaching career, but this group may be his best yet. Phillips has led defensive turnarounds in several different cities. Assuming the Broncos don’t suffer a second-half collapse, Denver will be the seventh team he’s helped make the playoffs in his first year on the job.
Phillips has always run an aggressive, attacking, high-pressure scheme predicated by dominant pass rushers — with players like Reggie White, Karl Mecklenburg, Bruce Smith, Bryce Paup, Cornelius Bennett and Shawne Merriman over the years. He now has Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware (currently dealing with a back injury) and rookie Shane Ray.
In Denver, Phillips inherited something unique that has helped take his scheme to new heights — three true lockdown cornerbacks: Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby. With three players who can be trusted to hold up in man coverage without safety help, the math changes up front.
The Broncos have the front-line personnel to get home with just four. But knowing he doesn’t need extra safety help in the secondary, Phillips mixes and matches personnel with his front seven and safely deploys a variety of second- and third-level pressure packages from his hybrid 3-4 front. This season, 12 different Bronco defenders have registered a sack.
Offenses have a few options when trying to counter the Broncos’ pressure packages — they can use seven- and eight-man (max) protections, or they can target a “hot” receiver. Teams have tried both with minimal success this season, and the second option has been particularly problematic due to the skills of Talib.
Talib is the best in the league at playing off coverage, reading a quarterback’s eyes and using his quickness to break on the ball and jump a route. He’s done it several times this season to defend a pass, intercepting three, of which he’s taken two to the house for pick-sixes.
Let’s step inside the film room to take a look at an example from the Broncos-Browns game.READ MORE: Chicago Police Warning Residents Of Recent Carjackings In Grand Crossing
The Browns come out in 12 personnel from a three-by-two empty set with Josh McCown in the shotgun. The Broncos counter with their base personnel in a 3-4 look, showing five rushers at the line of scrimmage with two-deep zone shell behind it.
Talib (circled in yellow) is nearly 10 yards off the ball at the snap in inside technique, already focused on McCown’s eyes.
The Browns run a curl-seam concept on both sides to try and lift the safeties and allow the curl receivers to settle into the underneath voids of the defense. McCown saw the five-man pressure and the cushion Talib was giving and made up his mind where he was going prior to the snap. He was going to quickly work the ball to Travis Benjamin on the outside curl.
However, the Broncos don’t rush five. They rush four, dropping nose tackle Sylvester Williams into the short middle-hook zone.
McCown thought he had five blockers to deal with five rushers, so he chose to throw hot. But the Broncos baited him into making that throw. Talib sat flat-footed at the snap, read McCown’s eyes the whole way and jumped the curl, picking it off and going 63 yards the other way for a touchdown.
This is a great example of the Broncos’ self-scouting. To that point in the season, they’d shown and brought five- and six-man pressures from this same look. They bluffed this time and were still able to generate a positive result.
The Bears have faced some strong defenses this season, but none as complex and talented as the Broncos’. As it does every week, everything will start up front with the Bears getting proper protection from their offensive line. Knowing the Broncos like to play mind games and create pre-snap confusion with their fronts, the Bears must communicate and be assignment sound.
Look for Chicago offensive coordinator Adam Gase to dial up some mesh and rub concepts to try and pick Denver defenders. When the pocket holds up on deeper drops, the Broncos have been vulnerable to double moves and deep curls and dig routes.
The in-game chess match between Gase and Phillips will be well worth the price of admission.MORE NEWS: Chicago Weather: Chilly Start To A Sunny Week
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @djdurkin.